A CIRCUS OF INK: EXTRACT
Updated: Sep 24
My New-Adult Dark Fantasy Romance, A Circus of Ink, is now available on Radish! Read the first chapter below, or head over to Radish to read the full thing. Link here!
In a dystopian world where stories are forbidden, Elle has a dangerous power; Creation. That's why tattooed soldier, Jay, is sent by the gods to kill her.
But when Elle is faced with the monster meant to deliver her Ending she catches the glimmer of curiosity in his eyes — an emotion so unusual in his kind. Convinced that having a ruthless killer on side will help her avenge her father and destroy the gods, she makes the decision not to run. And it changes everything.
Soon the two enemies are forced to seek refuge at the Circus at the Edge of the World, where forbidden passions start to grow. But both are keeping dark secrets. Their deaths have been written by the Creators. And the foretold End is coming.
When all are bound to the story created by the gods, can Elle and Jay re-write the deadly fate intended for them, and the world?
A dark fantasy romance for fans of enemies to lovers, forbidden love, and magic.
Once there was nothing. Then there was the Beginning. The Creators created the world out of ink and words. The Creators were pleased with what they had created. The Creators are good.
– The Book of Truth
The sky is as black as ink when I hear the footstep behind me.
I’m not supposed to use that word – ink. But I do. My father taught me it before he was taken. He taught me other words too – library, parchment, pen - but ink is my favourite. I like the way it feels on my tongue.
Ink. Ink. Ink.
I can practically taste it in my mouth, thick, black liquid stories; it tastes like creation. It tastes like possibilities. It tastes like hope.
But now is not the time to be thinking of forbidden words.
They have found me.
I can smell his body; the scent of man and outdoors – damp like the rain. I stare out through the window a moment longer; my eyes casting over the rows of Draft One skyscrapers and the sky’s water puddling on the pavement fifty storeys below.
My heart thrums hard in my chest like a bird trying to escape its cage. My feet itch to run. But that is what he wants me to do. So instead I speak. “I’ve been expecting you.”
The words come out stronger than I feel them, but I don’t want him to know that I’m afraid. If I can make him believe I am strong, then to him I am strong. Maybe I can make myself believe it, too. My father taught me that as well.
Stories are true when we believe them.
“Then you know why I’m here,” The voice behind me is low and male. There’s the gruffness of gravel about it, yet a cutting finality. It tells me there is no space for negotiation. He is a hard impenetrable shell, just like the rest of his kind.
But, no, that is not true. There are cracks in everything. And where there are cracks, the stories can grow.
I will not die. Not today.
Slowly I turn. “You’re here to kill me.”
He stands a few feet away and surveys me with cool indifference.
I think he must be early twenties. He is tall and muscular, like all the Blotters. And like them, too, he has black tattoos curling around his big arms and up his neck. His white vest has turned transparent in the rain and it clings to his hard chest and torso – revealing more inked symbols beneath.
Slowly I bring my gaze to his face, tracing his square jaw and the raindrops clinging to his light stubble. His hair is shaved close to his head, and it is as black as the sky.
He inclines his head. There’s no emotion behind the movement; no happiness, no regret, no lust for the kill. Just a nod. Yes. Affirmative. He is here to end my life.
“Run,” he says. His voice is steady. Unwavering. Expectant.
His brow furrows and a muscle twitches in his jaw.
I raise my head and meet his eyes. They’re an iced blue, but there’s a black blotch in one of his irises – like it’s leaked from his pupil. It makes me think of the moment when ink meets water. An imperfection. A flaw. There is something beautiful about it. That and the white scar that runs across one of his eyebrows.
Was he created that way? Why?
“No?” His eyes hold mine and they seem to reach inside of me. “You’re meant to run. I’m here to kill you.”
“I was hoping to persuade you otherwise.”
I think I detect a twitch his eyebrow. “That’s not the way it works.”
My eyes travel down his body – moving past his jeans and combat boots to the small puddle of rain he is dripping onto the threadbare carpet of my bedsit. It’s funny how in the big moments, your mind sometimes finds the smallest details to focus on.
“You’re ruining my carpet,” I say.
He follows my gaze, lifts up his feet, and appears to study the wet dirt he has tracked into my apartment. He looks almost apologetic. Then he blinks and his features tighten once more.
“It’s not your carpet – it belongs to the Creators. And you won’t have any need for it soon.” He sounds irritated. “You’re supposed to run. Go on, I’ll give you a head start.”
He flicks his hand dismissively. Then he looks absently around my small, standardised accommodation – his eyes tracing the dim bulb in the centre of the damp ceiling, the tattered mattress on the floor, the metal table, the exposed pipes beneath the sink. And, though he doesn’t know it, his gaze flits over the impossible door, too.
“Go on,” he says. “Get out of here.”
He jerks his head back to me. His eyebrows raise up, emphasising the scar permeating through one of them. “I don’t think you quite understand the severity of your predicament, little Twist.”
“I understand perfectly. And don’t call me that. I’m Elle.”
“If you understand, then run,” he moistens his full bottom lip, “little Twist.”
His eyes don’t move from mine, but there’s a glimmer of amusement in them, now . I am a mouse between the paws of a cat – he knows he can kill me but he can play first. His amusement buys me time. And time is what I need.
I hold his gaze. “No.”
“Well aren’t you the stubborn one?” He looks at me and fascination burns from the depths of his eyes. He doesn’t understand. “But I’m going to kill you. Why would you not run?”
“Because you expect me to,” I say.
He frowns. He is tall, over six foot, too big for my dingy bedsit. He shifts slightly, from one foot to the other.
“It’s written. You run. You die.”
He is sure of this. But there’s something like curiosity glimmering in his irises. This is unusual for a Blotter, curiosity.
“Where is it written?” I ask. His eyes widen almost imperceptibly. “Show me.”
I take a tentative step forward and his biceps clench, emphasizing the black tattoos glistening over them. His eyes hold mine – he tilts his head to the side. “What are you doing?”
He is even more confused now. But intrigued too.
It keeps me alive.
I am supposed to fear him. I am supposed to run away. He is supposed to kill me. Those are the rules. That is how it is obviously meant to happen.
But I have always found ways to twist the rules.
He watches me closely as I take another wary step – my heart is hammering in my chest, faster than the rain that pounds against the window behind me.
His breathing is heavier now, his chest moving up and down quickly. He’s excited, I think. This is new to him. And Blotters do not get surprised. He doesn’t move back as I stop inches in front of him. Heat radiates off his body despite the fact he’s drenched and it’s cold in my bedsit. I’m engulfed in his masculine scent – salt, sweat, and rainwater. There’s an odd vulnerability, dancing in the cold blue of his irises. He’s not afraid – he knows he could kill me in an instant – but he doesn’t understand what is happening.
Words hang in the air of my dingy apartment; heavy and unspoken. They’re new. They crackle between us. Untold stories twist like smoke; I feel them curling around our bodies, pulling us together. Now we have met - our tales are entwined. They will be now until they end – one way or another.
How else could it be?
His eyes do not move from mine. He reaches for my face and I breathe in sharply. His thick eyebrows knit together like he doesn’t understand what he’s just done as he cups my cheek in a large hand. I don’t pull away. I feel the roughness of his fingers, the strength in his arm. But he is gentle.
He looks down at me and he studies my face, the curiosity in his expression heightening. I steady my nerves, hold my composure. It feels intimate and my pulse races under my skin – hot as fire. I feel the burn of his eyes as they trace my collarbone then move down to my black vest top, the drab factory overalls from the job assignment I’ve been working – sleeves tied around my waist, and the combat boots I got from the black market.
I study him too – the ink that covers almost every inch of him except for his face: the black symbols, the codes, the instructions. The images of what has come to pass, and the scenes that are written into his future.
I have never seen a Blotter up close. I have actively avoided them for the five years since my father smuggled me out of the Final City before he was killed. He fascinates me. We are new to each other and despite the fact that I should have run, and he should have killed me already – he continues to stare, his thumb pressed against my cheek near my lips.
It is then, standing so close to him, that I see the small black image inked on his chest, through his wet top. It is small, barely a smudge, but something draws me to it. What is that?! Tentatively I lift my hand, and, very lightly, I touch it.
He flinches – his hot muscle hardening beneath my fingers. His eyes narrow and my breathing quickens.
I feel that I have just put my hand on one of the mutated wolves that on occasion stray into the outer Drafts or stuck my fingers into the flames that roar in the trash cans under the bridges.
He is dangerous. He is a weapon controlled by the Creators. He is a monster wearing the skin of a man. He is a killer.
What am I doing? Why aren’t I pulling away?
His heartbeat pounds, fast, against my palm.
And then his fingers are up in my white blonde hair, gripping tightly. I wince but refuse to cry out.. His eyes are blazing and his expression is suddenly hard. His face is inches from mine and a flush creeps into his cheeks. His breath is hot on my skin. “What the fuck are you doing?”
With my other hand I grapple at his fingers and his grip tightens. I see a hurricane behind his eyes. There is a hint of fear within it, behind the anger.
“Where is it written?!” I try to keep my voice calm, but panic begins to twist and curl inside my gut. “Where is it written that I die?! Show me.”
What if I was wrong? What if I can’t talk my way out of this one?
“Where is it written?!”
Behind the storm, behind the anger, I still see the confusion in his face, the intrigue in his eyes. His entire life is mapped out for him in ink on his skin. But this wasn’t written. He hadn’t expected this interaction. In the confusion is hope. If only I can push him hard enough.
He pulls, forcing my throat upwards. I bite back a cry and my eyes bore into his. “SHOW
He roars; a harsh sound that tears from his throat as he releases me. I stumble into the metal table behind me – gripping onto its edges – breathing hard.
“Why are you frustrating me?!” He yanks down top of his white vest exposing his chest as it rises and falls with uneven ragged breaths. My pulse races. “Here, see?! Are you happy now?!”
Heartbeat pounding in my ears, I drop my gaze from his face to the tattoos drawn across his skin.
Above his heart, among the other black lines and symbols etched into his skin, is a black circle. Within it is a white twisted line, broken in the centre. Ice spreads across my chest. It marks my death. I can feel it. As can he.
We are bound by ink. He is meant to kill me.
To the side of it is the tattoo I put my hand on moments before. It’s something I recognise, something that means something to me. It’s a dandelion seed - floating there in the narrow space between the images.
It reminds me of something my father used to say to me.
Stories grow like dandelions in the cracks between the pavement.
I have a forbidden tattoo on my ankle.
Why would a Blotter have the same one inked onto his skin?
He lets go of his top and his expression hardens. The fear, and anger is wiped from his face. Only his ragged breathing and a slight twitch in his jaw betrays any hint of emotion.
“If you won’t run, I’ll have to do it here.” He moistens his lips. “It’s only a slight deviation. It will be permitted.”
“Are you sure?”
He pauses. “Yes.”
He takes a step towards me. His biceps bulge and the black images that mark him a monster become more pronounced. I push myself backwards into the desk. “You don’t have to do this.”
“I do. It is written.”
I shake my head. “I won’t die today.”
He pauses. Then his expression darkens. “Sorry, little Twist, but you will.”
My eyes dart toward the door he does not know about, the door that isn’t supposed to be there. The door I don’t fully understand. The door I think I created.
I need more time. “I’m going to run now,” I say.
The tension in his big arms releases somewhat. He’s relieved that things are finally going the way he expected them to go.
“Go ahead.” He steps to the side, clearing the way toward the one exit that has been built into my bedsit; the exit that is built in the exact same place as every other exit door in the Draft. “But I know where you’ll go. It is written.”
“Is it?” I flash him a smile.
Darkness flits across his expression. I think I can detect a hint of regret. “Yes.”
Then his thick eyebrows furrow as I dart in the opposite direction he expected, towards the tall cupboard at the end of my mattress. I throw open the impossible door. I jerk my head over my shoulder and catch his widened ink-blotched eyes.
“I’ll see you soon.” I say.
I disappear inside.
LAUREN PALPHREYMAN is a writer based in London. She is best known for her supernatural teen romance series, Cupid's Match, which has accumulated over 50 million hits online and was published by Wattpad Books / Penguin Random House, October 2019. Find her on Instagram @LaurenPalphreyman and on Twitter @LEPalphreyman. Get hold of her debut, Cupid's Match, here!