Beauty in Arcanium has always been in the eyes of strange beholders…
After her husband-to-be destroys half her face because she refuses to marry him, faerie princess Sera flees to Arcanium for sanctuary.
Fae royalty are defined by their usefulness and beauty. In Arcanium, Sera has some usefulness, frivolous though a silk aerialist is. But with the sex demons’ magic rousing all the desires she was never permitted to indulge in before marriage, she is all too aware that her disfigurement repels any hope for relief.
Except a certain legless Torso can’t take his eyes off of Sera, and the Horned God of Arcanium still bows before her.
Arcanium protects her, as it protects all the circus cast, but it has been breached before, and her desperate betrothed continues to pursue her within it. He and her family’s fae army are willing to do anything, even take Arcanium again, to get Sera back.
Reader advisory: This book contains scenes of public sex, domestic violence, arranged marriage, gay and ménage sexual interactions, references to past torture, PTSD and consensual coercion.
General Release Date: 2nd March 2021
When Sera emerged from the woods, the cacophony from the circus assaulted her. So did the light. Squinting didn’t help, but still she stepped out into the sun, half afraid that she’d start smoking.
An iron fence lined the circus’s borders. Arcanium was now secure enough in its own offerings that it no longer had to attach itself to another event or park. Rumors continued to flit about that Bell had lost his nerve, that the empathic, empathetic, pathetic self-styled leader of Arcanium had finally tasted humble pie—humility that edged awfully close to mortality. But the gradual return of Arcanium to its former glory suggested that if Bell had been spooked by the demonic theft, he had since regained confidence.
Sera could scale the fence, but there were too many people who might see her doing it, and climbing it physically in a more innocuous way would hurt her hands.
She followed the fence to the entrance, an iconic, elaborate iron gate more theater than security. A place like Arcanium didn’t need iron for security.
She hesitated to enter. Too many people were coming and going, and they all stared at her, but she forced herself to press forward. She didn’t have time to waste fearing the stares or letting them bother her. She could suffer self-consciousness and question her decision later, when she was safe.
If necessary, Sera could have fooled the ticket-takers into letting her in free of charge, but the golems took one look at her and assumed she was just another member of Arcanium. That the soulless automatons of Arcanium used their limited deductive skills to conclude she was an oddity ached in her chest, but she passed the ticket booths with the fool’s gold coins in her purse untouched.
As she strode through Arcanium, some of the adults she maneuvered around turned to admonish her as they would any child in a brightly-colored, multilayered chiffon skirt and faerie wings. The sight of her face drew their sharp words up short, and her determination ensured that she didn’t have to see their shock for too long. Like the ticket-takers, once people got a good look, they assumed she belonged there.
She knew exactly where she wanted to go but not exactly where it was, because Bell changed the arrangement of the circus at every location, more to suit his ever-changing whims than to disorient. Her gait was resolute, her footsteps quick. The uneven ground couldn’t unsettle someone accustomed to soil, stone and bark rather than slats of wood or concrete. A few of the glances intended for her face or her dress dipped down to her heels—sturdy heels, yes, but her people liked to give themselves a little height for special occasions, like weddings or going out among the ungainly people who had taken over the wild places and made them barren for their less steady feet to walk. It took more than a stray stone or clump of grass to slip her to the ground.
Urgency finally rose in her chest when she’d searched the entire circus with no trace of the tent she was looking for. She’d found many tents, from those in Oddity Row to the big top, but not the tent she was trying to find. Fear—bright, unkind and rare as lightning splitting a tree—quickened her heart and her step.
If she had been there for sightseeing, oh, the sights she might have seen. She might have even enjoyed herself. Arcanium wasn’t the average carnival or circus, although those had sometimes been pleasant, too, on the occasions her kind hadn’t been forcefully kept out. Magic made for far more convincing illusions, and none of the Arcanium oddities were disappointments, enhanced and enchanted and real as they were. But Sera couldn’t dwell on them, even when they noticed her and tried to stop her—perhaps simply to talk or make sure she was all right. She avoided their attempts, brushed by them without a word. She couldn’t afford to stop looking.
After the third circuit through Arcanium, tears like seawater slipping down her cheek, she understood. She couldn’t find the fortune teller tent because he didn’t want it to be found. Bell had let her into Arcanium, but he had no intention of letting her stay, no intention of giving her a chance to stand in front of him to make her case. He’d let her in so she could see what she was not allowed to have, to torment her with her last bit of failed hope.
Sera swiped at her eye and ducked behind a midway booth, leaning back against the wood. The structure was flimsy, intended for transport and easy assemblage, but, like most temporary structures, it would stand most stress short of a tornado, even without magic. It shifted a little when she leaned against it, but she had no concern that it would topple, any more than the tents would fly away in a powerful breeze. The flimsiness here was as much an illusion as the cheap material.
She closed her eye to surround herself in far more comforting darkness. “I’m here in peace.”
The purr of his voice arose in the darkness she had given herself. “You do not bring peace with you.”
She opened her eye, expecting him in front of her. But there was only her. “I need your help.”
Contempt surrounded her like incense smoke. “And why should I help you?”
“I didn’t hurt your circus.”
“You watched and did nothing. I’m not accepting new recruits, darling. Go back home.”
“I can’t go back there. Please…” Just saying the word was like swallowing needles. “Help me.”
Silence followed her plea. But the contempt, too, dissipated, and she still sensed his presence around her, inside her. Had he been a demon, such presence would have been unbearably intrusive. But jinn, though hot as fever, were not the danger that those who called themselves demons could be.
When he said nothing more, Sera took a deep breath and rounded the booth again to search, desperately, for the fortune-teller tent once more.
This time, it was next to the entrance of the big top. It hadn’t been there before—or rather, Bell had kept it from her and only her, based on the number of people standing in line outside the closed tent flap.
It went against her training—and her principles, even for those who showed her people less consideration—but she couldn’t afford to wait. She superseded the line, billowing the closed flap open. Any protests from the people waiting died as soon as they saw her more clearly.
When the people to whom Bell was giving a reading took in the sight of her—with her opalescent dress, faerie wings, pink braids and half her face smashed into nothing—the couple stepped out. Maybe they thought, based on her grim half-expression, that she had come to tell Bell some kind of terrible news—a fire in the big top tent, an injured member of the cast, a fight among guests or perhaps that someone in his family was hurt or dying or dead.
Sera spared them a moment’s gratitude. Then she gave the whole of her attention to the man slouched in the parlor chair. He didn’t try to stop the couple from leaving nor did he demand that she leave, intended for paying customers only.
He said nothing, stroking his lip as he took in the sight of her. His posture remained deliberately casual—his legs spread, chest bare, spine curved—as though he couldn’t destroy her in less than a second if she tried anything against him.
Unlike the guests and his cast, she didn’t startle him—no recoil, no automatic disgust, no double-take. He considered her as any arrogant ass might consider a woman for his bed, although if he thought he’d have her in his in return for any favor, he would learn better quickly.
“I seek sanctuary,” she said.
“Does this look like a sanctuary to you?”
“Yes.” Sera crossed her arms, her face heating with his regard, with the prodding of his magic. It was nothing like the magic she was used to among her own. That was kindling sparks in comparison with the forest blaze of him, though he appeared as innocuous as any delicate human being, his human disguise more seamless than any other she had seen. He would be confused for human by even the keenest demon or god if he held his magic secret, rather than the way he made it known to her.
Sera lowered her eyes. It would be a mistake to believe that she could stand against him if he intended to make her kneel. But she didn’t kneel. Not yet. “If I wish myself in, what would you do to me?”
Bell didn’t move and blinked only once, more like a feline in derision than a sign of weakness or weakening. “I told you I’m not accepting recruits. As much of a headache as the humans have been, I am not taking in a stray faerie, especially not a member of the royal family—not when that same royal family availed itself of Locke’s Arcanium all too often. I know every single instance one of your brothers or cousins—and even your father—reveled in the downfall of my circus. In fact, I have one of your brothers here with me now.”
The lid to a chest next to the display sideboard swung open. Bell conjured a cluster of spirit quartz onto the parlor table. It gleamed against the dark velvet, shone different rainbow colors from different angles as she slowly approached the prison of her brother Falconell. He had been given up for dead, like all of the demons, monsters and immortals from the night Bell had taken back Arcanium. Sera reached for the crystal but Bell clicked his tongue, gathering the spirit quartz in both hands to rest on his lap.
“He’s mine now. He isn’t suffering. He isn’t anything. But when I release him from this prison, it will not be to save him. It will be to make my people stronger, not to give your people closure. All of you should know better than to step foot in Arcanium.”
“That’s why I came. They’d never think to look here first.” The fear that had cracked her chest had since warmed and melted away, leaving mere wariness in its wake. He had given her a chance to find his tent, to argue her case, and he hadn’t spirited her away into her own spirit quartz prison. That was something. “Look at me.”
Bell straightened, shifting his entire demeanor. Just like that, he became a coiled predator, his golden eyes gleaming, although she doubted the humans in his employ had ever seen them like this. They might have interpreted his change in posture as attention and concern, but Sera knew better. He had been at his most dangerous when most casual, but that didn’t mean showing her his claws meant she was safe—only that he respected her enough to cast off the mask and present his cards in anticipation of her own.
“I see you.” He held out a hand like a king to his subject.
After a beat, she allowed him to pull her in, close enough for him to take her chin and lift it.