Home > Shadow's Claim (The Dacians #1)(10)

Shadow's Claim (The Dacians #1)(10)
Author: Kresley Cole

Caspion's flushed cheeks had confirmed Salem's jab.

If she'd ever needed a wake-up call . . . Cas felt no physical attraction to her. Period. Why was she forcing this with him?

But every time she wondered when she'd become that girl-the one chasing after a guy who would never love her-she'd recall all their years together.

When she'd been orphaned after her father's death, she'd gone from crying herself to sleep, feeling completely alone-with not a friend in the world-to waking up each morning filled with anticipation of seeing Cas's smiling face.

He'd been a lifeline.

Whenever she berated herself for holding on to false hopes, she remembered his reaction when he'd first seen her injuries. With his eyes watering, he'd barked orders to get her help, urging, "Stay with me, Tina." When they'd started to set her bones, no demon tonic would put her under. He'd roared as she'd screamed.

Later she had heard that he'd destroyed his home, blaming himself for not protecting her, bellowing with frustration. Was that the reaction of a big brother? She hadn't thought so. Of course, she had no siblings for comparison.

For sixty nights, he'd tried to avenge her, but failed. No one could avenge her. . . .

Now, as the sun began setting, her nervousness ratcheted up. The vampire might return for Caspion soon; the tournament was definitely about to begin.

No more stalling. She stepped from the large pool in her bathing chamber. This room was as medieval as everything else in Abaddon, but through miraculous feats of engineering-and the work of behind-the-scene ogres-she had managed to score hot, running water all the way up in her spire.

Tossing on a robe, she asked Salem, "Got an eyeful again, didn't you?" Life with a sylph roomie-her resident peeping phanTom-had drilled out much of her modesty.

"Of course," Salem answered from the foggy mirror above her sink. "How do you always know?"

Bettina's five senses might be humanlike, but her sixth sense was strong. Well, except when she was tanked on demon brew. And besides . . . "I know, because you always do it."

She swiped her sleeve over the glass, then studied her reflection. No better than before the bath. She still looked hungover and exhausted. When she'd finally managed to drift off to sleep this morning, her customary nightmares had plagued her.

"I don't understand why you spy on me," she said. "It's not like you have a body." A servitude curse-for some mysterious crime-prevented him from becoming corporeal. And though he was still telekinetic, he couldn't feel.

"I won't be like this forever. Why, one day I'll be a real boy! And this gives me much mast**bation fodder for the future."

She rolled her eyes, hoping he was kidding. When he'd arrived here three months ago, she'd made the mistake of picturing him as a harmless, genie-type sprite, much as Raum still thought him.

The first time Bettina had sensed Salem spying, she'd figured if he wanted a peep at small br**sts and zero h*ps . . . knock yourself out.

Then she'd found out more about the "notorious" Salem from Morgana and her coterie, who'd known him before his curse. Apparently, Salem had been a ruthless warrior who "dripped sex appeal."

Bettina's innocent genie bath time had taken on an awkward new dynamic.

"You look like utter ass, chit," he said now, nudging a glamour trinket toward her.

Morgana had given it to her to conceal all her wounds after the incident, but there was still some magic left over. Should Bettina do a cursory camouflage, so her godmother wouldn't spy anything amiss?

Morgana was already hypercritical about Bettina's looks, finding her lacking compared to Bettina's mother, Eleara.

Bettina remembered one of her earliest visits with Morgana: "Oh, for the love of gold, you are an odd, tiny thing, aren't you?" she'd said with a frown. "Your features can't decide if they want to be impish like a demon cub's or arresting like Eleara's. Hmm. Well, little freakling, be of cheer, for it can only go up from here. . . ."

At the memory, Bettina set the glamour away. She wanted her godmother to know something was amiss. No less than my entire life.

"Still having the nightmare?" Salem asked.

"Unfortunately." This afternoon, Bettina had shot upright in bed, midway into one of her panic attacks. Ever since her beating, she'd been plagued with them. Her body had been tight with strain, her skin covered with perspiration. Her lungs had felt constricted as if by a vise.

She'd peered around her room, assuring herself, I'm in my home. Those fiends aren't here. No Vrekener has ever come to Abaddon. . . .

Bettina had two goals in life. One of which was to feel safe again. She could remember what it was like not to have fear constantly creeping up on her. She remembered life without her debilitating attacks.

She used to be able to walk the town without a care, used to be able to visit the rain forest by herself. Now she couldn't exit the castle unescorted, could scarcely navigate the interior of it alone.

Her episodes seemed to be getting worse. And last night's break-in had been a serious blow to her recovery. Despite a warding spell, the vampire had entered her room "with ease."

"You should talk to someone about it," Salem suggested. "Get it off your chest."

She rubbed her pounding temples. "Are you offering to be a sounding board for me?"

"Only if you want to hear your mirror snore. From what I've been able to piece together, I'd be bored silly."

She glared, unable to tell if he was joking. "Then why are you still here?"

"I found out a lot about our mysterious assassin. Did a little digging, calling in favors from some very old phantoms. No one knows secrets like phantoms."

"Tell me," she quickly said, beyond curious about the vampire Daciano.

"It's rumored that his people live inside the hollowed-out mountains of an entire range. No one in the Lore can prove they exist, not even the most skilled phantom spies. Caspion could very well be the only outsider at large who has seen Dacia and lived. They'll remedy that soon enough."

Bettina's hands fluttered to her throat. Why wouldn't Caspion agree to enter the tournament? He'd prefer death by assassin over her? Was he so averse to exploring even the possibility that she was his?

Salem continued, "Their species is proud, powerful, but they never engage wiv the outside. If a Dacian is seen outside of the realm by an otherlander-that's what they call us-then he's mystically forbidden to return. Except for in your case. According to my sources, the Bride of a Dacian is a Dacian, to their way of thinking. So he could go home. But not after he comes for you tonight, before all and sundry."

"He's not interested in me. Remember? He flat-out told me he had no plans to return for me, and he can't lie."

Naturally Bettina was delighted by the idea of his never returning-if that meant Cas was safe. Yet a tiny part of her also had to wonder why males found it so easy to pass her over. She'd never heard of a vampire ditching his Bride. Ever.

"You can't see, but I'm shrugging." In a contemplative tone, he said, "Can you picture living in Dacia? Learning all about the Realm of Blood and Mist? I'd give me right invisible arm for a chance at that."

"Living underground, inside a mountain? With no forest? Never to feel the sun on one's face?" Nice place to visit, but . . . "Let's just say I'm glad I don't have to worry about Daciano returning."

"I'm telling you, he'll be back. And if you ever go to Dacia, I'm tagging along," Salem assured her. "Oh, and by the way, your patroness contacted us, wants a new piece. Something 'seductively lethal.' "

Another commission? Bettina experienced a thrill. Though she'd been selling jewelry for years now, it'd never been about the compensation; her parents had left her plenty of wealth, which Raum continued to grow for her.

If Bettina's first goal in life was to feel safe, her second was to walk down a busy street and see someone wearing her creations. She'd daydreamed about it, wondering how she'd react.

After the incident, she'd changed her focus, designing adornments with a dual purpose-jewelry pieces that doubled as weapons.

She hand-fashioned old standbys-like rings with poison reservoirs-as well as body jewelry: mesh tops that could ward off a sword blow, armor-piercing brooches, collars with embedded blades.

Sorceri coveted such accessories, but high-quality pieces were often hard to come by.

Bettina liked to call her work "lethal luxe" or "blood bling." Salem laughingly deemed them "slaughter chic," avowing that "Deadly is the new black."

Whenever anxiety threatened or she was dwelling on her tragedy in the mortal realm, she adjourned to her workshop and created in a frenzy.

When Salem had first seen her like this, he'd sneered, "Look at the Keebler elf, wiv her wittle tools!" Then he'd grown intrigued with her creations, securing her first patron-for a hefty finder's fee, of course.

"Here's the downside," Salem said now. "Patroness wants it in two weeks' time."

"So quickly?" Bettina hastened into her workroom, scanning her jeweler's benches. She was as proud of her workshop as she was of the pieces produced there.

She had collected a master's set of cutters, polishers, burs, and drills. On one bench, old-fashioned swage blocks and mandrels sat beside state-of-the-art, propane-fueled solder guns and hot-air pencils.

On another bench, she had design sketches and a backboard filled with spools of gold chain. Dress dummies stood at intervals throughout the space.

To cheer her after the incident, Salem had occasionally made them dance.

"Two weeks? What am I going to do?"

Salem answered, "Give her the field-tested armlet, if you can clean the vampire funk off it. Still can't believe you got the spring mechanism to work."

Bettina had told him how it had successfully pierced Daciano's hand. "I want to keep that one." Though Patroness was a style setter-and a fearsome female-Bettina couldn't part with the armlet. It symbolized a little victory, her first since the attack.

"Your call, but if I were you, I'd almost be more afraid of disappointing your Patroness than your godmother. Speaking of which . . ."

"I sense her too."

"I'll let you and the womenfolk get yourself all tarted up." With a "Laters, dove," Salem disappeared, abandoning Bettina.

She hastened from the workshop just as the front doors to her spire whooshed open.

The only thing greater than the pull of Trehan's home was his curiosity about his Bride. Yes, he'd decided to return to Rune, but only to fact-find.

Or so he kept telling himself. Yet I packed a bag?

As Trehan ran his fingers down the spines of treasured books, he wondered if his mind was playing tricks on him, misremembering how good it'd been with Bettina.

Those moments of pleasure couldn't possibly have been as sublime as he thought them. Her clever weapon and drawings couldn't have been as fascinating.

However, he'd prepared for any eventuality, packing clothing and other essentials. Inside his coat, he carried an ancient silk standard of red and gray, symbolic of blood and mist-of the kingdom he loved more than anything.

Yet again he surveyed his apartments. If he chose Bettina, he'd be leaving behind a millennium's worth of accumulation-a fortune in gold, his extensive arms collection, artwork, about two hundred thousand books.

He'd be leaving behind his history, his very identity.

After a sleepless span, Trehan still wavered. Of one thing he was certain. I'd kill for another feel of her in my arms.

Instinct rode him hard, an uncomfortable position for a logical Dacian to be in-because instinct was rarely logical.

Yes, his father had told him to be an example. Trehan seriously doubted his father had meant an example of what not to do.

"Uncle Trehan?" a soft voice called.

He traced to the sound, finding his "niece" Kosmina standing by his bag, a troubled look on her face.

She and her brother Mirceo were the last of the House of Castellan, the castle guard. The heart of the kingdom.

Kosmina was such a contradiction. She was completely innocent in matters of love and painfully bashful. Her clothing was always demure-today she wore a traditional gown, floor-length with the collar nearly reaching her chin. Yet at the same time she was a mistress of arms-and a merciless killer.

Trehan had helped train her with weapons. He suspected that each of the cousins had secretly had a hand in raising her. I have so much more to teach her. Yet after today he may never see her again; whereas the male cousins traveled outside Dacia, Kosmina had never been beyond its stone borders.

"Uncle Viktor said you were leaving." She shyly glanced up at him from under blond bangs.

"Rest easy. I might be returning directly. I only go to observe, just as I often do." He frowned. "Mirceo doesn't suspect you've come here?" Dacianos didn't usually meet in private-unless a fight was imminent. The last thing he needed was Mirceo appearing, sword in hand, to defend his sister's life.

Chapter 11

As if I'd ever hurt her. Trehan pinched the bridge of his nose. Distrust and dread marked their family, just like a curse.

If only it were so easy as that. Curses can be broken.

"I keep telling him that you won't harm me," Kosmina said. "Stelian's the only royal you'd truly kill."

"Is that so?" Trehan asked with a hint of amusement at her conviction.

She outlined a pattern of the rug with the toe of one boot. "You found your Bride?"

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