Larger Font   Reset Font Size   Smaller Font  

Carnival of Lies

Melissa Marr


  Begin Reading

  Excerpt from Carnival of Secrets

  Back Ads

  About the Author

  Books by Melissa Marr


  About the Publisher


  AYA BROUGHT HER KNEE up as hard as she could while simultaneously pulling Belias’ body downward. It was a solid hit to his chest. As he started to fall farther forward, she brought her elbow down on the back of his neck.

  He grunted at impact and bent double, but didn’t go to the ground. “Good,” he said. “Harder though, especially if it’s not me you’re fighting.”

  He grabbed her calf and jerked her legs out from under her.

  “And don’t let words distract you,” he half teased as she hit the floor of the fight room they’d reserved for the morning.

  She stayed on the floor, staring up, holding Belias’ gaze. He was smiling, happy, and relaxed when it was just the two of them. In The City, he had a role to fill, a duty he took far more seriously than most daimons of their age, but Belias’ father had died when he was young, so he’d always had a somberness to him. It was one of the things she’d decided she liked when she was told he’d be her spouse: he seemed more like a man than most daimons of their caste.

  As she rolled to her side and came to her feet, she asked, “Have you ever thought about Marchosias’ Competition?”

  He frowned. “No.”

  “Enrollment is coming up soon.” She paced away from him to grab a rag to wipe the sweat from her face. The bin of scraps was at the edge of the fight area so they had conveniently located material. Typically, the cloths were used to staunch blood or bind wounds, but she had no need for that with Belias. Other than bruises and sore muscles, she was, once again, uninjured. Sometimes Belias was willing to train with weapons, but the older they became, the less often he was willing to fight all-out with her.

  “Ruling-caste daimons are talking about entering. Sol is, and I think Nicco too,” she said.

  Belias followed her. “Why would I need to do that? The prize is something we already have.”

  He curled one hand around her hip, gently pulling her toward him. She wasn’t surprised. They ended most of their fights with sex, but right now, she wanted to talk. She’d been thinking about the competition more and more, but it was a difficult subject to broach. It would be far easier to let the subject drop, more satisfying too. It didn’t take much for her body to scream yes to his advances. She liked to think it had been easier to say no before their first night together, but she knew that was a lie. If he’d have pressured her, truly used his charms, she’d have been in his bed—or any other nearby flat surface—the first time he kissed her. As it was, it had been a matter of days between his decision to be intimate and her acquiescence. There was no reason to deny him: they’d been betrothed since her birth. He was hers, the daimon selected for her, the one who would have control over most of her choices until one of them died.

  She turned toward him, enjoying the way his hand slid across her body as she moved. Sometimes she thought that their intimacies weren’t so different from their fights. In both, he was more experienced, and she was determined to impress him enough that he forgot everyone before her. She wanted him to be unable to even consider looking at anyone else—even though she knew that most daimons took mistresses or made use of the red-masked pleasure vendors in the carnival. All of the men—and more than a few women—in their caste did so. Some weren’t discreet about it, flaunting their bedmates with no regard for the feelings of their betrothed or even for their wives. Belias, however, wasn’t crass. He’d always been discreet in his encounters, even before she was old enough to know what he did with those women.

  “So you aren’t going to enter the competition and show off your prowess?” she prompted.

  “If you want to watch me fight, you can watch me when I train.” He frowned a little. “If you want to watch other fighters, I can buy front-row seats to as many fights as you want. I’m not interested in killing for something I already have. The competition isn’t for me.”

  “What if it was something for me?” She nuzzled his throat, dragging her teeth over the skin after a few kisses. She was lucky; everyone said so. Belias’ family was one of the highest ranked, and he was both fit and fierce. She bit gently, and his arms came around her.

  “We can watch as many matches as you want. I can even give you a betting allowance if you want,” Belias offered. “We’ll be wed by then, but you know I won’t deny you spending money any more than your father did when you were a child.” He paused and glanced down at her flat stomach. “You might even have our first child growing inside you.”

  Aya repressed a shudder. The thought of carrying a child filled her with a terror she couldn’t speak. The weight of that fear reaffirmed her belief that this was the right path. She didn’t address his comments. Instead, she steeled herself and said, “The prize in Marchosias’ Competition isn’t something I have, Bel.”

  He laughed. “The prize is joining the ruling caste, little bird. You’re ruling caste already, and you’ll be the wife of one of Marchosias’ generals. Of course, you already have that,” he murmured. His fingers trailed down her spine, tracing her body as if he didn’t already know every bone and muscle, every nerve and pulse of her. “Unless . . . Are you pretending to be someone else?”

  Aya almost smiled at the odd sound in his voice. She wasn’t sure if he liked the idea of pretending or if he was uncomfortable with it.

  “The winner also gets a job,” Aya said mildly, even though her heart raced in fear of Belias’ reaction. He wasn’t her husband yet, so he couldn’t order her not to enroll in the fights. He would be her spouse before the competition started though; then, her every action would be subject to his approval—or require her to lie.

  She caressed his chest as she spoke. “I could be something more than a breeder if I won.”

  “You’ll be my wife, little bird. Mother to my heirs. Fierce enough to keep our young alive. Why would you want anything else?” Belias pulled back from her then and looked down into her eyes. His brow was furrowed, confusion clear in his expression.

  Aya shook her head. Belias might be more thoughtful than a lot of daimons in The City, but he was still unable to see how her lack of options wasn’t for the good. She withdrew from his embrace and walked back to the center of the fight space.

  “I want to fight in the competition,” she announced.

  Her betrothed, the daimon she loved and would soon marry, walked over to face her.

  She lifted her chin and met his eyes. Gone was the daimon who teased and smiled. Instead, he looked every bit the stern soldier he appeared when they walked through the carnival together. She knew that he finally understood that she was serious, and a part of her wished that she’d kept her silence a bit longer. They could’ve had at least a few more months together.

  He held her gaze. “I forbid you, Aya.”

  “We are not wed yet,” she reminded him. “You don’t have the authority.”

  “By the time Marchosias’ Competition starts, we will be.” He lifted his fists in a boxer’s stance. “If you want to fight more, I’ll fight you, but I won’t allow my wife to grapple in the street like a cur.”

  Aya lifted her own fists.

  “Do you understand me?” he prompted.

  She swung, missed, and dodged his first punch before saying, “I understand.”

  AYA WALKED THROUGH THE carnival with the comfort that came from both class and competence. Those who abided by the rules wouldn’t accost her, and those who weren’t swayed by law were typically daimons she could dispatch if need be. Her mother would still be appalled to know that she’d walk
ed through the carnival without guard or betrothed at her side. Aya felt a flash of guilt at the thought; ever since she’d learned that the woman she’d thought of as her mother all of these years wasn’t any blood relation to her, she’d been a model daughter. There was something heartbreaking in knowing the secret that her mother didn’t.

  “Watcher’s blood, given freely,” a hawker called from a booth she was passing.

  The vendor next to him waved a beautiful blue mask in the air. “To protect your privacy.”

  The conventions of privacy were essential: customers wore the blue mask so they could hire work without anyone knowing who they were. Aya had several blue masks to wear should she need to purchase services anonymously; every ruling-caste daimon did. She’d never hired black or red maskwork, having no need of assassins or pleasure vendors thus far. She had no enemies to dispatch, and Belias had been more than attentive to her needs.

  Will that change when I end our betrothal?

  She couldn’t see any other option. If she were wed, she’d be made fertile by the ceremony, and she’d be his to command. The competition would be closed to her once he had spousal authority; he’d already said as much. She couldn’t see any way to the future she wanted without the competition.

  She purchased the blue mask without bartering. It was new and unlike the others she owned. It felt like a step toward freedom that was both frightening and exhilarating.

  What would it be like to wear the mask? To hire someone whose face I’d never seen to kill for me or to please me? The thought of paying for pleasure was disturbing, but not as much as the brief thought of having to wear the red mask herself. How will I support myself if I am unwed? She’d had spending accounts from the man who’d raised her as if she were his daughter, and Belias assured her that her father’s account would still be hers to access even after the wedding. If she didn’t wed Belias, she wasn’t sure if she’d lose her accounts. What are the terms of the wedding contract? There was no way to see it, so she wouldn’t know the penalty until the deed was done.

  “Was there something else?” the vendor asked.

  Aya stepped into the shadowed stall. It was empty save for wares he’d not yet sold and a rodent of some sort that scampered farther into the darkness when they’d entered. Secrets came with a price in The City, but the vendors in the carnival knew that they’d be out of business in an instant—and probably out of a pulse—if they didn’t hold their secrets close.

  “I need another mask,” she said in the sort of cold voice she’d once associated with their ruler, Marchosias. She’d need to be more like that to do what she’d have to the next year, maybe the rest of her life. She had to be stronger, colder, fiercer, or she’d be dead soon. She eyed the booth with false calm and added, “Not blue.”

  The vendor waited for only a moment before asking, “Full face?”

  She nodded.

  “Plain or elaborate?”

  “Plain . . . and not red. I need a black mask.” Aya wasn’t sure she’d wear it, but if she were denied her coins because she was refusing her marriage, she’d need to earn enough to survive in the comfort to which she was accustomed. That level of financial comfort would be a necessity in order to hide her fall from privilege.

  The vendor pulled back a faded cloth to reveal rows of black masks. “Each design is used only once, so the identity of the wearer has some degree of individuality without sacrificing his or her privacy.”

  Behind her, the vendor pulled the cord that held open the entrance to the stall, giving her the secrecy she’d forgotten to request before shopping. The whoosh of the door closing was followed by a mutedness. The sounds of the carnival were dampened within the enclosed stall, and the enormity of what she was doing settled over her. Am I a killer? It was never what she’d set out to be, but she would choose murder over enslavement.

  “Do you need a manager?” the vendor asked. “Forgive the presumption, but you seem new to this.”

  He didn’t look her way. Instead, he started withdrawing masks and holding them up to her face. It felt oddly reminiscent of the way the dressmakers eyed her as they held up bolts of fabric. After rejecting several, he held out a mostly plain black mask with ridged brows.

  Aya accepted it and put it to her face. “It’s a precautionary mask.”

  “Ah,” he said, as if he heard such things all the time. He took the mask from her, exchanging it for one that curled around her cheeks. Dangling black feathers hung from the sides.

  “If you decide to don it,” he said as he studied the mask she now held in front of her, “come round at the start of the carnival or the start of the Night Market. I accept small requests that aren’t worth the attention of the ones who are barely masked.”

  “I see,” she said. She didn’t though. This wasn’t the sort of business she knew how to handle. She’d figure it out, but she was still trying to find her footing. Ruling-caste girls were raised to learn how to support their spouse, protect their young, mind their spouse’s mother, and manage a household once they were old enough to take over the duty from their spouse’s mother. They weren’t taught the intricacies of contracting for murders.

  The vendor took in her expression and added, “If they’re wearing only the small masks, they’re better than you and I could ever be. The kind of jobs that those ’uns take are handled through the Conflict Resolution Centers.” He grinned at her, revealing several teeth that looked like they’d never been cleaned, and added, “A lady like yourself would want a different kind of job, a softer one.”

  She didn’t correct him, so he kept talking as he shuffled through his stores of masks again. This time when he withdrew his hand from the options he held one up with a triumphant smile.

  She accepted it and brought it to her face. This mask hid her mouth behind lips carved in what looked to be a kiss-in-progress. It was feminine, with narrow arched brows and high cheekbones. It looked like everything a delicate woman should be, and to further hide her face, it came with a black cowl that fell over her hair, effectively shrouding everything above her shoulders. A dusting of black stone was mixed into the paint, giving the illusion of glints of shadow on darkness.

  “This is the one,” he said. “Murderous lady.”

  “Accepting only female clients,” Aya said in a moment of sudden clarity, her face still hidden behind the black mask. “At my discretion. Nothing petty.”

  The vendor’s smile widened. “A killer with a cause . . . and the rate?”

  “Depends on the case, the caste, and the coins she can access,” Aya said. A part of her wanted to say that she’d do it for free if the case was extreme or that she’d do it for the practice to prepare for Marchosias’ Competition. The more cautious side of her reminded her that she might need to do it for coin to survive. If her father’s orders were that she be left penniless if she ended her betrothal, she might need to be more flexible.

  She lowered the mask, and the vendor accepted it to wrap it in soft paper. Anyone seeing her with the package would assume she’d bought a blue mask—which she also had.

  As she paid the man for her new black mask, she wondered how different her life would be right now if her birth secrets hadn’t ever been revealed to her. She told herself that she’d still have had hesitations about the lot in life that had been doled out to her, but she couldn’t truly know that. If she were simply another ruling-caste girl with a handsome, loving daimon—one destined for power and position—would she be buying a black mask? Would she be entering Marchosias’ Competition?

  WHEN SHE RETURNED TO her family home in the section of The City reserved for the oldest, most respected of the ruling-caste families, she wasn’t surprised to find her mother waiting in the sitting room. She was well aware that her mother had a thriving network of spies, as was appropriate for a woman of her station.

  “Alone, Aya? You’d go there alone? What would Belias think?” Her mother remained seated.

  Aya took the seat beside her mother. As much a
s she wished she could stand calmly, say her piece, and leave, she knew that to do so was impossible. She couldn’t tell her mother everything, but she also couldn’t refuse to talk to her.

  “It’s not going to be any of his concern soon,” Aya said levelly.

  Her mother’s pretty face was marred by sudden wrinkles as she frowned in confusion. “Because you won’t be going around on your own?”

  “Because my betrothal is ending,” Aya corrected.

  Her mother reached out and patted her hand. “Is this about mistresses? I know it’s troubling, but they need looking after too. Belias can shepherd several women. He’s a good leader.”

  “No, Mother.”

  “Is he being cross with you? You can be a trying child. Men do not like obstinacy in their wives.”

  Aya closed her hand around her mother’s, preventing her from patting Aya again. “I’m breaking the engagement because I want to make my own decisions.”

  Her mother laughed, and Aya didn’t know how she’d cope if her mother rejected her completely. She knew that this woman hadn’t given birth to her, although she didn’t know that, but she’d raised Aya. In all ways but biology, she was Aya’s mother.

  “You always overcomplicate things,” she said. “Either persuade him to let you have your way or accept that he has a good reason for refusing.”

  “Because you and Father selected him to marry me?”

  “He comes from a good family, Aya.” Her mother paused, and then delicately asked, “Is he . . . unsatisfying in some way? Is this a rebellion?”

  Aya sighed. “It’s not about Bel. It’s about me.” She paused, weighing the risks of admission, before adding, “I’m going to enter the competition.”

  Her mother shook her head. “You always were your father’s daughter.” An admiring light filled her eyes. “He was a wonderful fighter.”

  And Aya wished that she were her father’s true daughter, but the father who raised her was no more her father than her mother was. They’d been bespelled to believe she was their own child after their infant had been killed. Her father had gone to his death still thinking that she was of his blood, and Aya was going to do whatever it took to preserve that secret for her mother and for herself. Doing so meant never having children of her own because unlike the witch who gave Aya life, she had no ability to hide another’s magic.