FOURTEEN-YEAR-OLD VIKTORIJA LUKAS RACED between the circus tents, her throat and lungs burning as she gasped for breath. Though it was well past two in the morning, many of the performers were outside talking, drinking, and laughing raucously around blazing fire pits, celebrating their last night in a prosperous town.
The closer Vika drew to her destination, the more the scent of animal permeated her every inhalation. It was a scent she’d come to adore. A scent her father wanted to forever take away from her.
He planned to sell her babies—in pieces.
Righty, the gorilla with a penchant for stealing necklaces and bracelets. Angie, the horse too shy to look anyone but Vika in the eye. Gabbie, the prancing camel. Gus, the zebra who often hid behind objects too small to cover him. Dobi, the overly excited tiger she had caught peeing in all kinds of inappropriate places. Barney, the food-poaching llama, who was, needless to say, obese. Sammie, the obsessive-compulsive ostrich now missing several patches of feathers. Mini, the sweetly sensitive elephant who cried at the slightest raise in Vika’s voice. Zoey, the sugar-addicted bear.
And then there was One Day, the brave lion Vika loved above all others.
“Those mangy creatures cost too much money to keep,” her father had grumbled only this morning. To him, that was a good enough reason to kill them, but she’d cried and begged, willing to say anything to save them, and so the litany had continued. “They take up too much space. They’re too old, too feeble, and they no longer cause people to gape with awe and wonder. They fill people with pity and disgust.”
Her father hadn’t cared that each animal was beautiful to Vika, faults and all. He hadn’t cared that One Day and the others were her only friends, the only solace she’d found since her mother’s death and the loss of her childhood playmates two years ago. Jecis Lukas owned Cirque de Monstres, and he cared only about profit.
And profit now demanded he make room for a new menagerie—one that would showcase people. Otherworlders, to be exact, males and females from different planets, whose families had come to earth almost a hundred years ago to enjoy protected, peaceful lives.
Sadly, there had been nothing protected or peaceful about their earthly “welcome.” Worldwide war had broken out, nearly destroying this planet. And even though a truce had been reached eventually, allowing otherworlders to live alongside humans, the innumerable races were still an oddity. Some were strange colors, some abnormally shaped. Some had powers beyond imagining. Humans would pay to view and scoff at them, especially in the dark, seedy recesses of a place like this.
“Anything goes if the price is right,” Jecis liked to say.
What had happened to the man he used to be? The one who had carried her on his shoulders and tickled her feet? Wait. She already knew the answer. Greed had killed him.
Killed—like her babies would be if she failed to free them.
By the time Vika reached the cages, her blood flowed white-hot in her veins. A fine sheen of perspiration glossed over her skin, and tremors rocked down her spine, vibrating into her arms and legs.
So happy to see her, each of the animals erupted into beautiful song.
“Shhh. Be quiet, my darlings.” She reached out to unlock One Day’s door but dropped the ring of keys. Frantically she patted at the dirt. As dark as the metal was, and as little light as there was in the area, she couldn’t see—there!
Thank the Lord! She straightened and carefully inserted the key. Click.
“Vika!” Her father’s shout cut through the distance.
No! No, no, no. He’d noticed her absence.
One Day roared in protest, firing up the rest of the animals. In seconds, the tone of their cries changed from joyous to frenzied.
“Pleeease, be quiet,” she whispered fiercely.
Of course, the soundtrack continued to play.
Not a single creature liked Jecis. They feared and despised him, and with good reason. He treated them poorly, was always spitting on them, yelling at them, and poking at them with electric rods.
Vika had protested the abuse—once. It was a mistake she’d never made again.
Hinges squeaked as she opened the cage door, and her gaze fused with the dark, feverish eyes of her best friend. His mane of golden hair was tangled, twigs and dirt clumped in several of the strands. Despite the fact that she always gave him portions of her own meals, he was so thin she could see every indention of his ribs. There was an oozing sore on his left paw, still festering despite the salve she’d applied every morning, afternoon and evening for the past few weeks.
“Finally, the day I told you about has arrived,” she said in pristine English. As an emigrant from New Lithuania, she’d had to steadily whittle away at her accent to fit the new identity her father had bought for her, to save her from being deported. Jecis had been her tutor, and his reward-and-punishment system had ensured quick success.
One Day mewled, peeked out, and tried to nudge her hand.
“Go, baby. Go.”
Another nudge from him.
“Go on, now. Jecis wants to hurt you, but I will not let him.”
One Day lumbered to the ground, but rather than sprinting to freedom, he rubbed against her leg, causing her to stumble forward and drop the keys a second time. He wanted to be brushed, she knew. He loved when she cleaned and groomed him, his purrs of approval so rich and deep they always settled over her like warm honey.
Tears burned the backs of her eyes, clouding her vision. “You will run now. Please.”
How many times had she promised her precious lion freedom? One day we will escape together. One day I will grow tall and you will grow strong, and we will protect each other. Yes, one day. She’d said the words so many times they’d finally become a name.
He deserved a chance to run and play and do whatever else he desired.
“Vika!” Her father’s voice boomed closer . . . so close his booted footsteps echoed in the background.
She shoved One Day toward the line of trees in the distance. She wouldn’t be able to save the others, she realized with a flood of sorrow, but she could save her precious lion. She had to save him. “I said go!”
He resisted, again rubbing at her leg.
A shocked gasp sounded a few feet away. “You did it,” her father said. “You actually did it. You betrayed me. Me! After everything I’ve done for you.”
He had arrived.
Her heart thundered in her chest as her gaze found him in the darkness. He was tall, with wide shoulders and a barrel chest. Not necessarily bad things—until a temper as hot as the inner core of the earth got the better of him. Fear she’d managed to ignore now consumed her. Suddenly her feet felt as heavy as thousand-pound boulders, and she couldn’t force herself to move.