“Told you,” he heard Criss sing. “When you pull on the metal, a different type of chemical is shot through your body. One that causes pain rather than lethargy. And don’t think you can leave and remove the things with bolt cutters or something. I was here when a guy got hold of a pair, and when he snipped, the needles in the cuffs motorized, chopping off his hands.”
Eventually the black and white faded and Solo could see clearly again. He slowly eased to a sitting position. He looked at his wrists and discovered he’d done more harm to himself. The cuffs were still there, still firmly in place, but blood now trickled from underneath the metal.
“Next time, listen to Auntie Criss. She’s very smart. And beautiful. And talented.”
“There are tubes running through the metal,” she said, “and if you look closely, you’ll find a little hole in each cuff. That’s where the drugs are administered. We’re put to sleep every few days so that the tubes can be refilled.”
His frustration and anger intensified, bubbling up, another white-hot fire wanting to spill from him; somehow he managed to hold himself in check. Now wasn’t the time for another temper tantrum. Especially when that temper tantrum would do no good.
In the distance, he could hear clomping feet, chattering voices, and the roar of car engines.
“And so it begins,” Criss said with a sigh.
A deep breath in, and he caught the scent of coffee in the air.
He found coffee too bitter to enjoy, yet still his mouth watered for a taste of it, and still his stomach twisted hungrily. Yesterday evening’s grain had tasted like dirt, and yet, if he were given another bowl of the stuff—or another piece of chocolate—he would have eaten every morsel. He had to keep his strength up. Obviously.
“How does this work?” he found himself growling.
Criss slid into a pool of light and stretched out her legs. Green eyes glittered with resolve, pearlescent skin shone, and finger-combed black hair tumbled over both of her shoulders, shielding what lurked beneath that transparent fabric. “In a few hours, the circus will open and there will be a steady stream of people walking through this area for the rest of the day. Some will simply look at you.” Her voice hardened as she added, “Some will command you to lift your clothing or to turn around and bend over. Jecis will station two armed guards here, and no one will be allowed to touch you, but if you fail to do as you’re told . . .”
Yeah, he remembered: a bullet to the brain. His skin darkened, and his teeth and claws elongated. The fire burned ever hotter, singeing everything in its path.
“Don’t give him pointers,” the Bree Lian called. “Let him learn firsthand like the rest of us.”
Solo already had a beef with him. That just sealed the deal.
“Let him take the burden for a while,” the Mec added.
Yeah, Solo had a beef with him, too.
Several others murmured their agreement. Meaning, they all wanted Solo to occupy Jecis’s mind, so that they could act out without fear. Nice. But fine, whatever. He understood survival.
He also never forgot a slight.
Criss waved away their commands, saying, “Little Miss Mouse won’t feed us until after the circus, and then only if we’ve behaved.” She air-quoted the last word, the motion stiff with barely leashed rage.
That rage would soon tear free, he was sure, and it would make her reckless, willing to do anything to die. Not just throw rocks, but more. A whole lot more. And Little Miss Mouse—Vika, beautiful Vika, with the wounded eyes and the bruised face and the siren’s body and the angel’s kiss—would bear the brunt of it.
He’d been so careful not to think about her last night. Now . . . there was no stopping the mental tug-of-war that followed.
She’s mine. I want her.
Are you stupid? She’s not yours. She belongs to Jecis—you don’t want her.
I deserve her. After everything I’ve suffered here, she will be my reward.
She’s not a prize.
He was as bad as X and Dr. E.
“Uh-oh. I recognize that look,” Criss said with a moan.
He forced the muscles in his face to relax, revealing nothing more. “What look?”
A derisive snort. “Please. Vika’s the big guy’s daughter, you know, and nothing but trouble.”
See? Vika is a bad apple from a poisoned tree.
“Besides, I thought you were interested in our sweet little Pussycat,” Criss said with a tilt of her chin.
His gaze darted to Kitten, who still sprawled on the floor of her cage.
“Vika does what Daddy says, when he says, and even if you were handsome . . . uh . . . well, anyway, she wouldn’t help you,” Criss said. “I don’t mean to be cruel, just honest.”
“Enough with the honesty,” the Targon called. “Let’s go for amusement! I’d love to see you try to charm our little Vika, Mr. Fugly.”
All but Kitten and Criss snickered.
As if on cue, Dr. E arrived on the scene, settling atop Solo’s shoulder like a bird on a perch. He was paler than usual, a little wobbly on his feet. Why? “They dare tease you? Well, it’s time to teach them better, don’t you think? If you tell Jecis you’re willing to do a little cage fighting free of charge, you can rip these creatures into a thousand pieces without earning a punishment. It’s win/win.”
“They are as frustrated and angry as he is,” X said, appearing on his right shoulder. He was tanner than usual, for once steady on his feet. “They are lashing out at their circumstances, not Solo.”
“Enough!” he growled, suddenly sick of the captives, of X, of Dr. E, and all of his many recent failures. He wanted out. He needed out. Drugged or not, there had to be a way.
Each of the otherworlders peered over at him with differing shades of emotion. Some with terror, some with glee. But no one castigated him, and Dr. E—laughing and suddenly alive with color—and X—sighing with regret and suddenly pallid—once again vanished.
Solo wrapped his fingers around the bars and shook, shook, shook. Of course, they held steady, causing frustration to rise and eat at what little remained of his control.
“Uh, I wouldn’t do that, either,” Criss said. “You’ll regret it.”
He didn’t stop. Couldn’t. I’m strong enough for anything, even this. Another shake. But again, the bars held steady. Anger blazed into rage, and the frustration formed jagged edges that sliced through him, making him bleed.