Lost, she had forgotten about her miserable life.
Lost, she had found strength.
Would she lose herself again?
Fine. She had to know. Vika glanced up.
Do not withhold good from those to whom it is due, when it is in your power to act.
VIKA MET THE NEWCOMER’S gaze—and her entire body reacted, every cell she possessed coming alive, buzzing, heating. But she didn’t lose herself. Not even close. He was far more than angry. He radiated white-hot fury, his skin actually darkening to a deep, rich red. His eyelids were narrowed into dangerous slits, his cheekbones protruded, and his nostrils flared with his every inhalation.
His teeth had even grown, she realized with intensifying horror. They were so long they stretched over his bottom lip. And his ears had changed, now pointing at the ends. And his nails . . . oh, sweet mercy . . . they were claws.
Surely he was capable of slashing the bars of his cage. And when he did, he would stomp over to her. He would raise those heavy fists and destroy her. The pain would be too much. He would hit her face, and he would finally blind her. No!
Panic threatened to overwhelm her as she dropped her rag. Breath caught in her throat and crystallized, leaving a hard, jagged lump that choked her. Black winked through her line of sight as she scrambled to the back corner of the Targon’s cage.
Gonna hurt, gonna hurt, gonna hurt so bad.
Except . . .
Pain was never forthcoming.
She blinked, unsure how much time had passed. The newcomer . . . had not moved an inch, she realized. He hadn’t tried to get to her. And even if he had, she thought, courage at last making an appearance, he was cuffed and drugged, as helpless as a newborn babe. There was nothing he could do to harm her.
Bit by bit, the rest of her panic receded. Gulping, she looked him over. His skin had returned to its original bronze color. His teeth had shrunk and his claws had vanished. His eyes still blazed with a furious fire, but they were also wounded.
The same wound her reflection often showcased.
What had she done to offend him? She hadn’t locked him up; she had fed him delicious cookies. Cookies he had ignored, she realized. The little round treats rested on the floor of his cage. But she already knew the answer, didn’t she? She had flinched when she’d looked at him, scrambling away to create distance between them, as if he were disgusting, tainted.
Such a reaction would have offended anyone. But even still, a warrior such as he should have pounded his chest with pride. Her father loved the terrified reactions his power elicited, for they stroked his ego. But, okay, not all men were like her father. Or Matas. Or the other men at the circus. Or a good portion of the men who visited the circus. She knew that. She’d seen fathers with their children, smiling and protective. She’d seen husbands with their wives, adoring and loving. Real love, not the kind Jecis was selling.
I can’t leave the poor guy like that. His entire world had just collapsed, and a new one—a darker one—had taken shape around him. On this first day of his new, terrible life, she could grant him a kindness. Couldn’t she?
Determined, Vika scooted out of the Targon’s cage, engaged the lock with her thumbprint, and padded across the clearing toward the newcomer.
A pebble thudded against her arm. Frowning, she looked to the left and caught a glimpse of the female in the cage next to the newcomer’s. The Cortaz grinned smugly—and launched another pebble. This one hit Vika in the chest.
Vika didn’t bother asking Crissabelle if she wanted to die. Vika could guess the answer. Yes. Sorry, darling, but I’m not going to oblige you. “The fact that you remember I collect rocks is probably the sweetest thing ever,” she forced herself to say with a breeziness she didn’t feel. “Is it our anniversary?”
The otherworlder’s grin took on a darker edge. Despite the dirt smudging her cheeks, she was breathtaking. She was tall and slender, all long limbs and willowy elegance. Her skin was as flawless as the most expensive pearl and her hair a fall of black velvet.
“When my brothers come and get me, and they will, you’ll be burned alive while I watch and laugh.”
A pebble hit Vika from behind. She spun around to glare at the culprit, only to take a bigger rock to the chest. The Mec—Rainbow—was cackling and pointing at her, as if there was something wrong with her. He loved doing that.
The first few times he’d done it, Vika had run away to check herself in a mirror. A stain on her face? Ripped clothing? Something in her teeth? But not one time had she found anything out of place, and she’d realized he only wished to torture her.
“You found a few for my collection, too? That’s so thoughtful. But guys, I didn’t get you anything.”
The cackling stopped, and he hissed at her. His skin began to glow bright red, a sign of his growing fury.
At first, he and Crissabelle had tried to build a rapport with her. Criss had told her how nice she was, and Rainbow had told her that he hated the way her father talked to her, that he could help, if only she’d free him. After a while, Vika’s continued refusal had ruined all hint of goodwill.
Their transgressions had started out small, and they had hurtled insults, nothing more. When they realized Vika would not tell Jecis, they had graduated to straw, then food, and now rocks. They assumed that, in this, Vika would take, take, take, and never give back.
They were so—right, she thought with a sigh.
Head held high, she closed the rest of the distance with the newcomer. He was in the same spot, in the same position, but his gaze had narrowed on the Mec and the Cortaz. Like the Mec’s, his skin had once again taken on a cast of red.
“Hello,” Vika said.
Those baby blues swung to her, and she shivered.
She drew in a deep breath, hoping to suck in a little more courage and stop the sudden tingling in her veins. She failed at both. The tingling even increased. Hints of peat smoke, pine, and mint filled her nose, making her think of midnight bonfires in an enchanted forest. It was such a rare fragrance that she closed her eyes and inhaled again, and again, until she was light-headed.
There weren’t many forests left in the world. Most belonged to the government and trespassers were never allowed. In fact, she’d only ever seen them from a great distance because, while the circus traveled from city to city, state to state, and sometimes other countries, all year round, they were only ever allowed to stay in clearings where forests used to be.
Ultimately the glare of the sun and the man’s sizzling gaze reminded her that she was outside in view of anyone walking by, it was midday, and she had a lot to do. Failure to complete a single task would invite punishment, and punishment would put her out of commission for several days.