She rarely disobeyed this man. His punishments were too severe. “I . . . I . . .”
Jecis stomped to her, grabbed her arms in a painful vise grip, and shook her. “I buy you the best clothes, the best food, and gift you with the greatest treasures, and yet you dare defy me?”
One Day roared with long-suppressed rage, and slowly stalked around them. But he didn’t attack. He couldn’t. Jecis used Vika as a shield, always ensuring she blocked the way. The rest of the animals banged against the bars of their cages.
“Atsiprašau,” Vika managed to choke out.
Jecis glared down at her through eyes the color of violetiniai, the same as hers. She only prayed her own were not laced with such cold, hard cruelty. “I have told you only to speak English. Or do you speak the mother tongue hoping someone will realize you are foreign and try to take you away from me?”
“I—I am sorry,” she translated with a tremor.
“Not yet, but you will be.” He released her—only to backhand her.
She tumbled to the ground. Blood filled her mouth, a copper tang coating her tongue, and pain exploded through her head.
One Day jumped toward her father, but, sick as the lion was, he was sluggish, and Jecis easily dodged the creature, grabbing Vika and jerking her upright.
The lion crouched, ready to initiate another attack, clearly desperate to rip his enemy in half.
“I love you more than life itself, Vika, but that love will not save you from my wrath.”
When has it ever? she wanted to scream. Wisely, she remained quiet.
Another roar tore through the air.
“You think to threaten me, eh, lion? To hurt me?” Jecis withdrew a gun from the waist of his pants and stretched out his arm. “The man who paid for your care, all these many years?”
“No!” Vika shrieked, trying to tug that arm down but making no progress. “Please, no. Do not do this. Please,” she repeated, nearing hysteria.
“Before, I would have been merciful, would have done this without causing any pain. Now . . .”
One Day couldn’t contain his aggression any longer and leapt. Jecis squeezed the trigger.
Despite the sudden ringing in Vika’s ears and the bright white stars winking through her vision, she heard One Day’s agonized mewl and watched as he collapsed on the ground. Big dark eyes, now filled with anguish and regret, found her. His body twitched, and he yelped with agony.
A cry of denial burst from her.
“I will deal with you in a moment,” her father snapped, shoving her away now that the threat was gone. “First . . .”
She scrambled to One Day to stroke his trembling body. Oh, my darling. Oh, no. Her shock and horror ate up her strength as she looked up and watched Jecis turn, aim. Boom.
One after another, her beautiful animals were gunned down, their cries ending abruptly. Her chin quivered, finally dislodging the tears welled in her eyes. Droplets spilled onto her cheeks, raining down, burning and stinging the cut her father’s ring had left behind.
She wanted to look away from her friends. She couldn’t bear to witness their suffering, but she refused to allow herself the luxury of retreating mentally. These precious beings had lived terrible lives here at the circus, and she could not let them die alone.
When the last of them stilled and quieted, only One Day hanging on—oh, One Day, I’m so sorry—her father yanked her to her feet and slapped the gun in her hand.
“One bullet left,” he said, grabbing her wrist to ensure she never pointed the weapon at him. “You will finish him.”
Bile burned a path up her throat. “No. Please, no.”
“Do it,” Jecis growled, getting in her face, putting them nose to nose. “Do it, or things will be much worse for you.”
“I—I don’t care. I won’t. I can’t.”
His eyes narrowed. “Do it, or I’ll skin him while he’s still alive.” Spittle rained upon her face.
Your lion is in pain. This is for the best. Was that true, she wondered, or was she simply trying to comfort herself? Either way . . .
Shaking, she stretched out her arm, the gun heavy in her palm. Though Jecis still held her, he offered no support.
Crimson leaked from One Day’s mouth.
Her finger wound around the trigger, and her vision hazed.
Her beloved released a long breath, as if he knew what she planned. As if he waited for the inevitable end.
“I’m so sorry,” she croaked. “Forgive me.”
The lion stilled and quieted like all the others. Sobs racked her body, and her arm fell to her side.
“Good girl.” Jecis claimed the gun and stuffed it back in his pants. He rolled up his shirtsleeves, cracked his knuckles. “Now, my heart, it’s your turn. Clearly, you have not learned the proper respect for me. But you will, I promise you, and we’ll never again have a problem like this.”
The Song of Songs, which is Solomon’s.
—SONG OF SOLOMON 1:1
SIX YEARS LATER
MICHAEL BLACK LEANED BACK in his chair, his hands forming a steeple over his mouth. He studied the three agents he’d recruited for Operation Dumpster Dive. Each was an otherworlder who had been raised here on earth. Each had lost his biological family soon after birth, and because of Michael, each had been quickly adopted by a human family under the condition Michael have complete access any time he so desired.
He’d begun their training at the age of five, though he’d only taught them little things at first. Target practice had eventually morphed into hunting living, breathing game. Camping had morphed into surviving a week in the jungle, alone, without any kind of weapon. Creating strategies for winning video games had developed into creating strategies to save one another from whatever disastrous situation Michael had staged.
Now the boys were adults, the best of the best—and about to face the biggest threat of their careers.
“Are we just gonna sit here in silence?” said John No Last Name. He’d refused to accept the surname of his adoptive parents, and by the time Michael had realized why and gotten him out, the boy had wanted nothing to do with the Black name either.
“Obviously not,” Michael replied easily. “We’re talking now, aren’t we?”
John gave him the finger. He was a Rakan and from his curling locks to his glittering skin, he looked as though he’d been chiseled from a brick of solid gold. Michael was pretty sure there was no man more beautiful.