I’m thrilled to give you a look at Carolyn Hill’s new book Beneath the Skin
Author: Carolyn Hill
In a dystopian future, a healer and a shapechanger join forces against a ruthless alliance of powerful families.
Aleta Graham is a healer and empath, abilities that make her a useful pawn for the Dagarro family, who have addicted her to the drug known as Sand in order to keep her submissive. But Aleta is determined to overcome the influence of the drug, and make a desperate bid for freedom — even knowing that the penalty for disloyalty to the family is death.
Riven is a shapechanger, a computer genius, a spy sent by the government to destroy the power of the Dagarro. By taking on multiple identities he becomes at once Aleta’s dearest friend and most feared enemy. But in growing closer to Aleta, Riven imperils her, himself, and his mission.
The drug was wearing off. Aleta Graham’s head ached and her hands shook as she leaned against a pair of diamond-studded urns embedded in the ballroom’s wall. She fought the drug’s deadening effect and focused on one clear fact: she must escape, now, while they were all preoccupied with Joanna’s wedding.
Aleta peered out from behind the enormous porcelain vase that shielded her from the wedding guests. Joanna was waltzing across the low-friction floor in the arms of her groom. Above the dance floor, the orchestra wheeled in the air, bows sawing across strings, drums booming, cymbals chiming. The music rattled Aleta’s nerves.
She craned her aching neck and stared up, past the orchestra, her burning gaze following the inwardly sloping walls of the ballroom. Each wall was formed of gold and platinum bricks, covered with precious containers of various sizes and shapes: fine art and irreplaceable antiquities, all useless now, set permanently in the metal, an extravagant display of the Dagarro Family’s wealth. Five stories above, beyond a clear ceiling, lay the airless moon’s surface and the void of space.
Withdrawal sank talons deep into Aleta’s chest. She gasped and bent double. Dear God, she wanted . . .
Escape, she must focus on that. She wanted to escape. While Joanna smiled in the arms of her beloved under the watchful eyes of Dagarro Family security, Aleta trembled and struggled not to scream. She straightened her spine, took one step, then another, and slipped out from behind the urn into the shadows between two marble sarcophagi.
The music changed, and guests poured onto the dance floor in a rainbow of glittersilk gowns and light-washed haute couture. Aleta slid deeper into the shadows, until she could no longer see the security guards. Her wrist itched—a maddening, distracting, incessant itch. She scratched furtively beneath her formal glove. The itch grew worse. She yanked the glove off. Her arm spasmed, and the glove slipped to the floor.
Something moved behind her in the darkest shadows: a man’s figure. Melting? Changing?
Aleta blinked, trying to shake off the hallucination.
Softly, gently, the glove was placed back in her hand.
The fingers of the man who had returned the glove clamped over her velvet sleeve, pushing the fabric up her arm. Looming above her, he studied the fading blue spiderweb of lines that streaked her pale wrist.
She trembled again, this time in fear.
Dark on dark he was, dressed all in light-swallowing black silk except for a glowstone earring whose incandescence stained half his jaw a bloody red. The angles of his face were as sharp as the glint in his obsidian eyes.
He lifted his gaze and met her own. One sculpted black brow rose.
Aleta squared her chin.
Carefully, without touching her skin, he ran a forefinger above the drug’s lingering blue trace at her wrist. “A web not of your own making,” he stated. One heartbeat, two, then Darcavon dropped her arm.
“Trituros wants you,” he said, and stepped past her. As he strode toward the dance floor, light from the cascading candleplants glinted off his tightly bound black hair.
Aleta stood, stunned. Darcavon had seen that she was fighting the drug the family used to enslave her, yet he hadn’t called the guards.
It made no sense. The Darcavon she had always so carefully avoided was a perfect creature of the Family Dagarro, as ruthless as Trituros Dagarro himself, advancing in the household ranks with the cold inexorability of a glacier, intent—so rumor had it—on becoming seneschal.
Her hands shook. He must be setting her up for some later, unguessable purpose of his own.
Pulling the glove securely over her hand and wrist, Aleta peeked around the end of the sarcophagus. The closest guard was looking in her direction. Linked to the family’s security net, the guard knew that Trituros wanted her and that she should leave the ballroom and head toward the patriarch’s office.
She cursed silently to herself and stepped out from behind the sarcophagus. The mouths of the vases buried beneath the clear floor gaped up at her in silent warning. She must be careful—very very careful—or Trituros would know that the drug was wearing off.
The man who would be seneschal turned and watched Aleta walk toward the arched doorway. Had she seen him change shape? After long years of planning and preparation, had he ruined everything because he had needed a few brief moments to be himself?
He noticed the slight hesitation in the empath’s step as she neared the door guard, and he noted the squaring of her shoulders as she continued past.
The pad of his finger tingled where it had almost caressed her flesh. She had skin as white and cool as purest marble, and eyes as green as ancient jade, lit from within by a fire he’d not seen before in her glance. The family and its drug were banking that fire, enslaving her to their own ends.
But he had ends of his own.
And he would be seneschal, no matter the cost.
In the cavernous office, center of the Dagarro Family’s power, Aleta stood behind Sol Trituros Dagarro, who floated in his hoverchair. Her ungloved hands rested lightly on the old man’s head, and her heart hammered in her chest.
The room was dark, lit only by fluorescent butterflies in crystal spheres that cast a fluttering glow across the patriarch’s carved wooden desk. Ancient books lining the walls faded into the shadows; coated with a clear sealant, each volume was fused to the others in a solid mass that rendered them unreadable.
The only sound was Trituros’s ragged breathing.
The patriarch’s pain coursed through Aleta’s fingers and lodged in her skull as she used empathic healing to nourish his failing nervous system. She must conceal how strongly she felt his pain, lest he realize that she wasn’t properly dosed.
“Ah, child,” Trituros sighed, “you work magic.”
He looked like anyone’s grandfather, sitting there, his skin lined and spotted with age, his eyes careworn, his hair white and thin.
He had killed thousands. Maimed millions. Poisoned the lives of countless billions.
Despite Aleta’s best efforts, her fingers trembled.
The patriarch’s eyes flew open, and his wrinkled hand clapped down atop her own. She knew what he would do before he did it, and she tried to prepare herself for the concentrated stream of poisonous emotion he sent to test her receptivity: all the vile things he’d ever said and done as head of the galaxy’s most corrupt of the Ten Families, boiled down into the essence of evil and felt at her.
Aleta couldn’t help it. She screamed.
“Child.” He rotated in his floating chair, looking much healthier than he had when she entered the room.
She pulled away, but he caught her wrist and lifted her sleeve. He shook his head at the fading blue web of blood vessels beneath her skin. “I’ve been neglecting you.”
Aleta bit back a curse. Only a while longer, and she might have escaped, might have been free.
“You are invaluable to me, child.” His rheumy eyes locked upon her own. “I shouldn’t have let the Chan girl’s wedding distract me from your proper care.”
Trituros reached toward his desk. A compartment slid open, from which he removed a slim hypo-knife and a jar. The jar’s seal popped at a touch of his finger. He inserted the hypo and extracted a small, opalescent object: her savior, her damnation, the drug known as sand or, in this more concentrated form, pearl.
His smile was gentle. “Your reward for faithful service.”
Aleta stiffened as he held the hypo to her wrist. The knife stung as it sliced her skin, deposited the pearl into the web of blood vessels, and sealed the breach. She knew the drug was already flooding her veins and arteries, artificially enlarging her capillaries so that they became visible to the eye, dragging her down beneath its sticky strands. It would steal her will. It would dull her wits.
Trituros patted her hand and turned, his jaw twitching once to activate his comm implant. “Send in Chan.”
The door slid open, and the lights came up as more butterflies poured into the crystal globes. Joanna’s father, the Dagarro seneschal, entered the room.
“Sit, old friend,” Trituros said, waving a hand toward a chair placed before his massive desk. “A momentous day, this. A fine day for your daughter to wed.”
Pierson Chan smiled. “Indeed, Sol Dagarro, a fine day.”
As Chan settled himself in the chair, Trituros motioned to Aleta. “Get us a drink, child.”
Her wrist tingled as she crossed the room and tapped the spine of one of the thousands of old books. A bar unfolded from the ceiling, and she removed two goblets and a decanter. By the time she was done pouring the wine, her arm was prickling and her chest was warm. She fought the drug, but it fought back: the rim of the goblets sang softly, and the thick red wine seemed to flow in slow motion, its sweet heavy aroma swirling up to envelop her.
She took careful steps now: set her heel down, then pushed off from the toe, right foot, left foot. She placed the first goblet within Trituros’s reach on the desk and handed the second to Pierson Chan, who smiled kindly at her. She froze, blinded by his smile.
As the drug swamped her senses, the room seemed to fold in upon her. She lost the thread of the men’s conversation. Butterfly colors screamed; air slammed at her ears. Aleta fought the hallucinations, trying to cling to reality, but reality was so full of cruel memories . . . years of struggle, of poverty, of being alone.
The drug defeated her. With a mother’s warmth and a father’s love, it buried her unhappy past beneath a syrupy coating of euphoria. Aleta sighed, let caramel colors carry her away, and entered the dream.
After some uncountable period of time, Aleta’s system acclimated to the drug’s initial rush, and Trituros’s voice penetrated the syrupy fog.
“Good. There you are.” Trituros shifted in his hover chair and pushed his empty goblet across the desktop. “Bring us more wine.”
Aleta did as she was bid. She took delight in the pull of her muscles as she crossed the floor. She smiled at the simple pleasure of standing in place when she was done. She awaited Trituros’s order to withdraw so that the patriarch and his seneschal could talk serious business. She was content.
In her mind, something fluttered, its wings beating—once, twice—then went still. She thought, mildly: Had there been something bothering her? No, surely not.
Trituros’s bass voice rumbled pleasantly in her ears. “Pierson, old friend. You have betrayed me.”
Insect shadows flickered across the desktop, the rug, the chair in which Chan sat. Aleta smiled at the pretty patterns.
Pierson Chan’s arm jerked, and wine flecked the front of his shirt. He lowered the goblet and set it aside. “Trituros, I—”
“You, of all people. Old friend.”
Aleta watched, mesmerized, as Pierson gripped the chair’s armrests, his knuckles like chiseled stone.
Aleta swung her gaze slowly, focusing on Trituros’s face. He motioned toward Pierson Chan.
She looked from Trituros to Joanna’s father and back again. Trituros repeated the familiar motion.
Mechanically, Aleta stepped forward and wrapped her fingers around the back of the seneschal’s wrist. This was not routine, Aleta thought vaguely, not the sort of thing Trituros did to Pierson Chan.
But she knew her task. Sharpening her attention to a pinpoint, she read Pierson’s emotions. They fluttered beneath her fingertips: anger, resentment, apprehension. Trapped butterflies.
Two guards stepped into the room, followed by Darcavon.
Pierson’s apprehension grew.
Trituros watched Aleta’s face as he continued. “Old friend, you made a deal with the Trefanu. You sold them Dagarro secrets. And in exchange, they allowed Joanna to marry their third-born son.”
Aleta felt Pierson’s fear, sharp and tearing. Despite the pain, she smiled. She knew this emotion, had felt it many times in the people Trituros had her read. Fear was familiar, predictable—welcome.
“And now,” Trituros shook his head, “you must die.”
Pierson’s sudden spike of mortal terror was too much, too close. It hurt. Oh, it hurt. Aleta’s body hunched, but she laughed in joy because this terror, too, was familiar. She knew it like she knew the drug’s embrace.
Trituros smiled. “No one betrays me.” He stared hard at Aleta. “Especially those I hold dear.”
Across the room, his back to the wall of imprisoned books, Darcavon folded his arms.
Trituros returned his attention to Pierson. The seneschal’s wrist shook beneath Aleta’s fingers.
“You did not sell our most important secret. There is some loyalty in that.” Trituros’s gaze softened, and his lips worked for a moment, as if he were chewing something. “I will be merciful.”
Aleta felt hope coalesce in Pierson, like drops of fine wine in a nearly empty decanter.
“I will see to your daughter. I shall take care of her . . . as my own.”
Hope evaporated. Pierson drew a ragged breath, and Aleta drew one just as ragged. “Trituros,” he said, “I beg of you—”
“It is too late.” Trituros waved a hand. “You should have come to me when you were first troubled by temptation. Now, it is far too late.” He stared once more at Aleta. “Guards, take Mr. Chan for a walk outside.”
At this sentence of death, all the things Joanna’s father had tried not to show Trituros flashed through Aleta’s flesh and across her own face: terror, hatred, denial, despair. She staggered, a butterfly with torn wings.
Trituros’s smile broadened, and he sipped his wine. “A fine year, this vintage,” he murmured.
As the guards led Pierson Chan out of the room to die on the airless surface of the family’s moon, Aleta swayed and collapsed to the floor, sitting in a graceless heap.
Darcavon took a step forward. The whisper of his black silk garments scraped at her ravaged emotions.
The light in the room seemed to recede, then rush forward frantically, drowning sound and sensation. Aleta sank her fingers into the rug, holding on.
Into the roaring silence, Trituros raised his glass and proclaimed, “A toast to the bride and groom.”
Aleta drew a ragged breath. Another. The air was thick.
Darcavon strode to the desk, snapped a clipdisk onto the wooden surface, and placed one hand, spider-fashion, atop the disk. “So,” he said.
“So,” Trituros agreed. “Your information was correct.” He studied the other man. “Now you wait to see if I will reward you with Pierson’s position. You watch me, knowing that I know your kind. Ambitious. Useful. Dangerous.” He set the goblet on his desk and lifted a finger. “You think, perhaps I will kill you, so that one day you do not serve me as you served Pierson.”
Impassive, Darcavon waited.
Trituros hovered out from behind his desk and drove his chair in a circle around the other man. Darcavon neither made way for the patriarch nor turned as Trituros passed behind his back. Aleta huddled in her skirts, crawling into dream.
“How shall we repay the Trefanu’s slight upon our family’s honor?” Trituros asked abruptly. “I say we kill their son, Joanna’s groom.”
Darcavon’s lip curled. “You are testing me.”
Trituros paused beside the desk, hovering upward so that their eyes were on the same level.
Darcavon planted his other hand on the desk and leaned toward Trituros. “I say we don’t kill him. We addict him. That will destroy the marriage eventually, at which point, Chan’s daughter will return of her own volition. The Trefanu will know who has ruined their son, but they will have no recourse. Instead of a quick death and clean grief, their agony will be ongoing as the galaxy ridicules their son’s weakness. He will serve as a constant reminder to the lesser families—that it is folly for any of the Thousand to plot against the Ten. And if the Trefanu do manage to free him from the drug, then we arrange for his death.”
Eyes locked, the two were still for a moment before Trituros smiled. Darcavon nodded and took his hands from the desk.
“Well done,” Trituros said. “A drink for my new seneschal, child.”
Trituros’s command brought Aleta back from the haze she had pulled protectively around her. Her limbs lifted her from the floor and carried her once again to the bar, where she poured wine into yet another goblet.
It was beyond her, however, to carry the drink to that dark man who stood waiting by Trituros’s desk. But there was no need: in two long strides, Darcavon crossed the plush white rug and took hold of the slender goblet.
She looked up at him. His fingers and her own lay side by side on the glass, almost touching. The heat of him flowed over her skin.
She let go of the goblet and stepped back.
Something unreadable moved in his dark eyes.
“One more test,” Trituros said, and motioned Aleta to take Darcavon’s wrist.
Aleta’s hand rose, then hesitated. Drug-induced obedience struggled with her instinct not to read this man.
Darcavon lifted an eyebrow. He cocked his head to one side, seeming to study her hesitation. A moment passed, stretched thin between them.
Smiling the barest ghost of a smile, Darcavon thrust his wrist beneath her fingers.
Aleta cried out. His emotions were a vast, deep, dangerous ocean, layer on layer of cold currents descending in a churning morass. She swam frantically on their surface, pulled this way and that, fearing to drown.
Then a sudden clarity, despite the pearly fog of the drug: out of the depths, a disturbing rapport—a salty chill that called her, blood to blood. She craved that connection like she craved pearl.
“Child. Tell me.”
Aleta jerked at Trituros’s sharp command and read the surface of Darcavon’s mind.
“Confidence,” she mumbled.
“Louder,” Trituros said. “These old ears.”
“Confidence,” she repeated, her voice flat. “Determination. Ruthless calculation, competence, and self-control.” She paused. “Desire.” A hunger that shivered along her skin.
She felt Darcavon’s wrist twitch beneath her fingers and looked up into eyes as cold and penetrating as his emotions.
As a riptide would suck her body from the shore, so that glance sucked the drug from her mind, revealing danger, danger all around. She must cling to that clarity.
Trituros tapped a finger on the desk, considering, then nodded to himself. “Desire is good. Through desire, he can be controlled.” He hovered to the ground and pointed to the floor in front of him.
Swift as nightfall on the sea, Darcavon swept away from Aleta and knelt on the white rug at Trituros’s feet, his black cape settling like a liquid stain around his legs as he placed his steepled hands between Trituros’s own.
Aleta sucked in a breath. The sudden loss of contact with Darcavon struck like drug withdrawal. Danger: he was as dangerous as the drug. She must fight the pull of both the drug and the man.
The new seneschal bowed his head. “My loyalty is yours, Sol Dagarro. And my life.” The lie fell easily from his lips, as so many lies had done in the past.
Trituros activated rings on each of his middle fingers and speared the seneschal’s hands with two metal filaments. He did not even flinch.
“I take your loyalty, Darcavon.” The metal filaments retracted. “For now, you may keep your life.”
Aleta stared at the spots of Darcavon’s blood marring the white rug. Remember, remember: that blood could be her own.
“Leave us, child.”
She took a shaky breath and turned away.
Aleta jerked backwards, as if filaments pierced her own flesh.
“Remember,” Trituros said, “I will take care of you. Always. As I take care of all my old friends.”
Released by a wave of his hand, she stumbled from the room, knowing those words for the threat they were. All that he had done in her presence today was no sign of trust, but a way to drag her further into complicity.
She must escape, or die.
About the Author:
Born and raised in the heart of Silicon Valley, I developed an abiding sense of wonder and a fondness for heroic geeks.
By the age of eleven, I was reading all the science fiction I could lay my hands on at the local library, and, because they were shelved together, I was also reading all the fantasy books. Genre-straddling works by Andre Norton gave me the impression that everything I was reading belonged on one wonderful spectrum of imagination and possibility. Andrew Lang’s fairy books (in all their colorful editions) left me with the equally strong impression that Beauty and the Beast is the yummiest folktale ever.
I entered university a chemistry major intending to become an astronaut who would rocket into a brave new future, and I left (or, rather, never left) with a doctoral degree in rhetoric, a dissertation on James G. Frazer’s twelve-volume encyclopedia of magic, science, and religion, and a job teaching writing at the University of California, Berkeley.
And now I write my own science fictional variants of Beauty and the Beast, exploring the romance of the alien, the metaphorical beast in every man, even in the handiest of techno-geeks.
When I’m not writing, teaching, or reading, I’m quilting, playing board games, or hurling heavy objects into the air above my head. Or I’m sitting on the couch, eating almond M&Ms and daydreaming about life amongst the stars.
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