QSFer E.J. Russell has a new MM urban fantasy out: Devouring Flame.
Reunited and reignited.
While cutting through the Interstices—the post-creation gap between realms—Smith, half-demon tech specialist for Enchanted Occasions Event Planning, spies the person he yearns for daily but dreads seeing again: the ifrit, Hashim of the Windrider clan.
On their one literally smoldering night together, Smith, stupidly besotted, revealed his true name—a demon’s greatest vulnerability. When Hashim didn’t return the favor, then split the next morning with no word? Message received, loud and clear: Thanks but no, thanks.
Although Hashim had burned to return Smith’s trust, it was impossible. The wizard who conjured him holds his true name in secret, and unless Hashim discovers it, he’ll never be free.
When their attraction sparks once more, the two unite to search for Hashim’s hidden name—which would be a hell of a lot easier if they didn’t have to contend with a convention full of food-crazed vampires on the one day out of the century they can consume something other than blood.
But if they fail, Hashim will be doomed to eternal slavery, and their reignited love will collapse in the ashes.
Luckily Smith is the guy who gets shit done. And Hashim is never afraid to heat things up.
Hashim had performed this bloody fire dance so often—ten times a day, seven days a week, for the last six months—that it had become habit. It was reduced to muscle memory, his body executing the motions without his conscious thought.
Which was both an advantage and a disadvantage. An advantage because he didn’t want to give Ringmaster the satisfaction of believing this was difficult—nothing pleased that bastard more than the notion that he was getting his money’s worth from his unwilling workers. A disadvantage because with Hashim’s brain disengaged from his actions, he found it far too easy to thinkabout the disaster his life had become.
One more day. That’s all I have to endure. One more day and my indenture to Ringmaster is over. Not that he would be free even then. Yashar, his clan sheikh, would arrive to take Hashim home until the next time Yashar decided to use Hashim’s abilities—or lately, his person—in another underhanded scheme in his quest for power and riches. Yashar’s justification had always been that Hashim owed him, owed the clan, for the bad luck he’d brought on them.
As if that was my fault. I didn’t askto be conjured out of the djinn crèche.
Though as much as he despised Yashar’s avarice and weakness of character, he loathed Ringmaster even more. Yashar was greedy and ambitious, but he wasn’t cruel. Not like Ringmaster.
Another spin. A pose. Raise the torch and prepare to swallow the fire.This was the point in the act where he scanned the crowd. “Seduce them, damn it,” Ringmaster had told him time and again.“Pull them into the tent. Get them to open their damned wallets like they’d want to you to open your mouth or bare your ass for them.”
Ringmaster had taken the job of outside talker this morning, although he wasn’t nearly as good at enticing the crowd—called the “tip,” as Hashim had learned in his months as a carny—into the tent. Apparently he wanted to make Hashim’s last day as annoying as possible. It’s working.
Ringmaster glared at him, turning his back so the marks wouldn’t see him snarl. “Look at them, you worthless piece of shit. Make ’em think they’ll get youif they shell out their gold. It’s what you’re here for.”
Like the Carnival itself, that was a trick, a trap, an illusion. As the bally act, the sideshow preview, Hashim never performed inside the tent.
Ringmaster was probably afraid he’d set the place—or one of the marks—on fire. Not that I could.The binding spell in Hashim’s wrist cuffs throttled down his power to the minimum required for his fire-eating act. When he’d agreed to the indenture to pay Yashar back for his failure in the Consort Race, he hadn’t realized how painful and crippling the binding spell would be.
He knew now. But it’s almost over.
Hashim rearranged his hands on the torches so both his middle fingers were pointing at Ringmaster, then turned with a flourish, allowing a practiced—and completely false—smile to curve his lips. That’s right. Believe the lie. You and you and—
His arms went boneless, weak, falling to his sides, the fire dying now that he wasn’t actively maintaining it. The familiar music faded away because there in the crowd was the one face he’d longed to see again, and the one face he’d neverwanted to see in this place.
Smith. Here. Why? Why now?
In another day, Hashim would be gone and Smith would never have had to know about this humiliation, this degradation, how far Hashim had fallen since that one night when the two of them had nearly set the resort—and my heart—on fire.
But when Smith had stormed out without waiting for Hashim’s explanation, leaving him to face Yashar’s fury—which was always so much greater when money was involved—alone? Well, Hashim had let his heart-fire die too, one more smoldering ruin like the smoking torches that dropped from his nerveless hands to clatter onto the stage at his feet.
For an endless moment, he gazed into Smith’s eyes, so dark and deep. Then the embers buried in their depths flashed to life.
But not with desire.
Smith’s lip lifted in a sneer and he turned, shouldering his way through the murmuring crowd.
“What the fuck are you doing?” Ringmaster’s furious whisper cut through Hashim’s trance. “Use your flames, or I’ll throttle them down even more. Remember.” He bared his teeth—suspiciously even and white in such an enormous mouth. “I ownyou.”
Only for one more day. And because he had less than twenty-four hours to endure, Hashim lifted an eyebrow and pivoted smartly with one glance over his shoulder at Smith’s retreating back.
Judging by the prick of tears in his eyes, his supercilious smile probably slipped into something pathetic and heartbroken, so he whisked into the tent where the other acts were steeling themselves to face another tip who sometimes wanted more than what was being offered.
Since Ringmaster would have to keep up his patter if he wanted to pull any of that minuscule crowd into the tent, Hashim had time to escape before the inevitable explosion. He skirted the edge of the tent and ducked out the back, ignoring the questions called by his fellow workers.
It’s my last day. What can he do?Hashim might be a virtual slave, like all the other indentured carnies, but even indenture had regulations. They weren’t officialregulations since indentured servitude was ranked along with actual slavery as a proscribed practice in all the Interstices and most realms. But when powerful, unscrupulous people wanted something, they found a way to work around the rules. And bound “employees” were something that far too many powerful people found convenient.
Hashim sprinted down the narrow aisle in back of the sideshow tent, leaping over guy ropes and dodging other carnies on their way to or from their assignments. He reached the carnies’ mess tent and ducked inside, intending to simply rush through on his way to his dorm room. Not that that would be any safer—Ringmaster had access to everywhere on the Carnival grounds, even the carnies’ personal quarters.
“Hashim? What are you doing here? Isn’t it time for the bally?”
Hashim slowed at the question from his friend Rion, a minotaur who’d been indentured at nearly the same time as Hashim. As usual, Rion was sitting alone in the corner, his massive head and upper body dwarfing the cheap table, his horns nearly brushing the tent roof.
Hashim sighed and walked over to join him. If he didn’t, Rion would remain alone. Again. Everybody else, even the larger carnies like the golems and the centaurs, cut a wide berth around Rion. Minotaurs had a worse reputation than demons.
He sat down across from Rion. “I’m playing hooky.”
Rion blinked his soft brown eyes. He had eyelashes the length of Hashim’s fingers. “Is that allowed?”
“No.” Hashim grinned. “But I don’t care. It’s my last chance to raise a little hell before I go home tomorrow.”
Rion sighed. “I wish I could go home.”
Hashim reached over and patted Rion’s enormous shoulder. “I know. If it makes you feel any better, I almost wish I were staying here.” Almost. “My home isn’t nearly as nice as yours. Chances are, the sheikh will find another way to make money off me before too long.”
Rion frowned, a little smoke curling out of his nostrils.“That’s not right. You shouldn’t have to do what you don’t want.”
“Same goes for you, my friend.”
“But why play hooky so early? I bet Ringmaster finds some really nasty thing for you to do instead.”
“He can’t. Not unless he wants to take me out of the shows for the rest of the day.”
“That would be tough. You’re the reason people pay for the sideshow. Some of them are really mad that you’re not inside too.” Rion dug an orange out of his My Little Pony lunch box. “I’ve heard customers in the labyrinth talking about it before.”
“Well, not this morning, they won’t. I let my torches gutter in the middle of the dance.”
“What?” Rion stopped peeling his orange and stared. “You neverlet your fires go out. You told me you had to take every chance you got to flame because of the binding spells. Won’t you get sick?”
“I’ll make it up with the rest of the shows.” Even if Ringmaster made good on his threat—which he couldn’t if he expected Hashim to lure the tip into the tent for the rest of the day—once the cuffs were off tomorrow, he’d recover quickly enough. The only question was whether he’d be able to resist setting fire to Ringmaster’s tent on his way out.
Hashim sighed, the hurt and humiliation and, yes, guilt, rolling over him again. “There was someone I knew in the audience.”
“So? There’s bound to be. The same people show up here all the time for some reason. Wait.” Rion sat up, his ears flicking forward as they always did when he was excited about something. “You mean the guy?”
Hashim almost regretted telling Rion about Smith, but he’d had to talk to someone. “Yes. Him. Smith.”
Rion pushed up from the table, making its legs bow and groan. “Where? I want to see him.”
“You can’t. He left.” And there came the hurt again, the loss. I can’t blame him, though, can I?
Rion blinked again. “He left? Without talking to you?”
“Rion, I did something bad to him. Something no demon should everdo to another. It’s like our sacred pact.”
“But you didn’t mean to.” Blink blink blink. “Did you?”
“No. It was an accident.” But was it? Hashim had agreed to use that blasted fire gem to bind the prince to him when Yashar and the Faerie Queen conspired to place him in the candidate pool. He didn’t want to do it—had no wish to ensnare the prince just to fulfill Yashar’s hunger for power and the Queen’s desire to rid herself of her son. He understood what the prince’s feelings would be all too well. Hashim had been stripped of his own free will the moment Yashar conjured him into being.
But the fire gem spell required willto activate. Had Hashim, somewhere during that passion and flame-filled night, wished—even to himself—that he and Smith could stay together?
He didn’t remember it precisely, but considering how overwhelming the connection was, it was entirely likely.
“Did you tellhim it was an accident?”
Hashim lifted an eyebrow at Rion’s outraged tone. “I didn’t really have a chance. He’s made a habit of walking away from me.”
Rion returned to peeling his orange in one long spiral. “But if he knows you didn’t mean it, he won’t be so mad anymore. Maybe he can fix the bad thing that happened. You said he was smart.”
“Yes. He is.” Too smart to get entangled with me.“It’s probably for the best this way. It’s not like I’m free to be with him. Once I’m back home, I won’t be allowed to see anybody at all. Not of my choice anyway.” Yashar preferred to keep Hashim as a secret weapon.
“I still think you should talk to him.” Rion offered Hashim an orange section. “It would make you feel better to tell him, even if he stays mad.”Hashim accepted the orange, its sweet-tart juice bright against his tongue after the heat of the single flame he’d managed to devour. “Perhaps. But it hardly matters what I want. I’ll never see Smith again.”
E.J. Russell–grace, mother of three, recovering actor–writes romance in a rainbow of flavors. Count on high snark, low angst and happy endings.
Reality? Eh, not so much.
E.J.’s paranormal romantic comedy, The Druid Next Door,was a 2018 RITA® finalist. She’s married to Curmudgeonly Husband, a man who cares even less about sports than she does. Luckily, C.H. also loves to cook, or all three of their children (Lovely Daughter and Darling Sons A and B) would have survived on nothing but Cheerios, beef jerky, and Satsuma mandarins (the extent of E.J.’s culinary skill set).
E.J. lives in rural Oregon, enjoys visits from her wonderful adult children, and indulges in good books, red wine, and the occasional hyperbole.
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