Home > Shadow's Claim (The Dacians #1)(11)

Shadow's Claim (The Dacians #1)(11)
Author: Kresley Cole

"I did."

"Will you have offspring now? I'd like to be an auntie."

He exhaled a gust of breath. Offspring. When he'd been younger, he'd longed for his Bride, for a family of his own. As ages whispered past, he'd lost hope.

Now he could mate another female and beget young. But children with Bettina . . .

Would never see Dacia. Would never grow the House of Shadow.

"I don't know, Kosmina. My Bride doesn't care for me at present."

She glanced up, brows drawn. "Then she doesn't know you."

"I appreciate your confidence." He still couldn't believe that his Bride and his niece were about the same age.

If some lecherous, centuries-old male lusted for Kosmina, Trehan would gut him so slowly.

And still I go to Rune?

"I'll keep your home and your collection as you left them, Uncle, just in case. But I hope you make a life out there." Her light blue eyes went dreamy. "Every day, I imagine leaving this place."

She was forbidden to leave the kingdom. In this, he agreed with his cousins; it was too dangerous.

"I imagine it will be like waking up, like rising from a coffin and coming to life."

"Coffin, Niece?" She described herself as if she were dead. "Come now, it's not so bad. Life is good here. You're safe from the plague." Afflicting only the females of their species, the sickness was deadly even to immortal vampires. Deadly-or worse.

"Good here?" she queried softly. She pointed to his favorite seat. "Then imagine sitting there, reading the same books. For another thousand years."

The idea made him feel vaguely nauseated, her point delivered. For one so childlike in many ways, she was uncommonly observant.

He managed an even tone as he said, "Imagine the alternative: never seeing my home again, allowing my house to perish when so many have died for it." Years wasted, waiting for something that would never be? Years spent fighting, only to abandon those vendettas?

Those vendettas defined him. His duty defined him.

Without those things . . . I will not be who I was.

"We're all slowly moldering down here," Kosmina said, "as good as dead, just waiting for a deathblow. At least you'll be free now."

"As good as dead?" he scoffed. She exaggerated.

"Mirceo said all of the royals-except for him-were 'in stasis.' "

Trehan pulled the invitation from his coat pocket. Have I been "in stasis"? If so, nothing could upend his entire existence quite like this tournament.

A marriage ceremony. Death matches in a stadium. The crown of the Abaddonae.

Me, a demon king?

When he gazed back at Kosmina, he found her eyes watering. "There now, Niece." He chucked her under the chin. "I'll probably return anon."

As if he hadn't spoken, she said, "I will miss you."

He picked up his bag, then gazed around for another look. A last look?

"Uncle Trehan?"

"Yes?"

"Do you want to hear something sad?" He raised his brows. "Your leaving is the most exciting thing that's ever happened in my life. . . ."

Morgana stood at the doorway in all her furious majesty.

"You are not yet dressed, and I am unamused," she snapped as she swept her gaze over Bettina, still clad in her robe. Three slaves-powerless Sorceri known as Inferi-trailed in the sorceress's wake, weighed down with cases of cosmetics and accessories. "Ah, you've been working on your trinkets, haven't you? What an . . . adorable hobby."

"They're not trinkets." Bettina's shoulders went back. "They're art; I'm an artist. And it's not a hobby-I sell more than I can make."

"Of course you do, dearest freakling." Then she frowned. "Where's your phantom? The notorious Salem? I don't sense him."

"He stepped out to let me get ready."

When her godmother made a moue of disappointment, her Inferi as well, Bettina asked, "What exactly is Salem notorious for?"

"Why don't you ask him?" Morgana's attention was already on Bettina's wardrobe. "Now, we have scant time! Raum, curse his demonic soul, will be here at sunset to escort you." She waved her hand, and several outfits flew out of Bettina's wardrobe, landing on a divan. Then she turned to Bettina. "Let's see what we have to work with." Morgana shoved her in front of a full-length mirror, stepping behind her.

The difference between the two women was striking. Voluptuous Morgana wore a gauzy scarlet skirt, an intricately wrought gold top that concealed her br**sts-barely-and a connecting jeweled collar. Claw-tipped gauntlets covered her hands and forearms.

Her pale blond hair was interwoven throughout her gold headdress. The piece was substantial, fanning out behind her like a barbed sunset, so wide it had narrowly cleared Bettina's doorway.

Her mask was black with inlaid onyx, highlighting her lustrous eyes, her nearly black irises.

Morgana was resplendent; Bettina was . . . Bettina.

On almost every day of her life, she was reminded of her own ordinariness. The male she loved considered her nothing more than a plucky-sisterly-tagalong. Her godmother, a renowned beauty, considered her the awkward spawn of Bettina's late mother.

Strangely, the Dacian had gazed at Bettina as if she were the most beautiful creature in the world. Of all the females the vampire had ever met, she had been the only one who could bring him back to life.

And the things he'd told her! For him, Bettina's eyes hadn't been promising good things, or even seductive things, but irresistible ones. He hadn't merely found pleasure with her, he'd savored her "treats" because she'd "delivered." He hadn't simply enjoyed her taste; it had maddened him.

Just thinking about his husky tone as he'd uttered these shocking things made her face and chest flush-

"You appear overtired," Morgana said with a critical eye. "This won't do. You must look your best when you're presented this eve."

"I believe you mean displayed."

Morgana's three Inferi froze in their unpacking, amazed that Bettina would contradict the great queen.

Ire flashed in Morgana's fathomless gaze. "Need I remind you that you agreed to this tournament?"

"Only because I didn't understand what it would really be like. You made it sound like a noble affair filled with romance and pageantry." Bettina had pictured hot suitors from allying demonarchies battling fiercely for the right to call her wife.

"I will forgive this insolence, chalking up your behavior to nerves." Morgana's eyes glittered with warning, silvery pinpoints dotting her dark irises-the rattle before a bite.

Immediately backpedaling, Bettina said, "Nerves, yes, of course." She could feel Morgana's power brimming. Which made her wonder, Why did I ever vow not to tell her about Caspion's predicament? Her godmother could eliminate the vampire assassin with a flick of her hand.

The tiff forgotten, Morgana directed her Inferi to get to work on Bettina. "Hair, dress, makeup, jewelry, mask." Clap clap. "We want the princess looking elaborate! But not necessarily ostentatious. Though she could never upstage me, I don't want her to appear to be trying to."

Bettina sighed and cooperated, dutifully raising her arms, closing her eyes, puckering her lips. Resisting Morgana was impossible-and for others, deadly.

Raum had once asked Bettina, "How can you even tell your godmother loves you?"

"One, because Morgana keeps visiting me in a realm she hates. Two, because I keep surviving the visits. . . ."

Within minutes, Bettina had been transformed. She wore a cropped, sleeveless top of gold mesh, with slightly thicker mesh to cover her br**sts. Her skirt matched, slit up the sides, to show off her jeweled garters and silky thigh-highs.

Her mask was made of bold jade-green feathers that jutted up like small wings well past her head. Her thick hair had been wrapped around her diadem, holding it in place.

"Well?" Bettina asked.

"You are pensive, and it affects your looks. You're not exactly a great beauty anyway. Mouth too wide, cheekbones too sharp. You appear to your best advantage when you smile."

Last night in the dark, her smile had made the vampire's breath hitch. Why do I keep thinking about him? He's not returning.

Then Morgana's words sank in. "Do I really need to appear to my best advantage?" Bettina dared to ask. "The competitors aren't here for me." Morgana opened her mouth to argue, so Bettina said, "Oh, there might be some that are attracted to me. But at best, I'm an . . . an afterthought."

"Afterthought? Do you actually care what they're thinking whether before or after?" She tsked, examining her costume claws. "You should be thanking your godparents for this opportunity. You told us that you wanted to feel protected. To Raum's archaic way of thinking, that means a protector. In any case, this is for your own good. Or have you forgotten that night?"

"As if I ever could." As if you'd ever let me. The humiliation of the court, her cowardly screams echoing from this spire as they'd set her bones . . .

"Do you remember what you told me when we were tucking your ribs back into your torso like little babes under a blanket?"

Bettina nearly retched. "I-I remember." She'd promised them anything.

"Everyone in the kingdom heard you shrieking like a banshee," she continued. "Then I arrived, soothing your woes."

Morgana had scratched her with a toxin-dipped metal claw, and the world had gone blessedly black. . . .

Before an attack could seize her, Bettina hastened outside to the balcony, breathing deeply of the twilight air. She peered upward, some part of her expecting to feel the whoosh of wings at any moment. If she couldn't trust her barrier spell . . .

Just when she'd begun backing off the balcony, Morgana joined her. "Still afraid they'll come here for you?"

"Occasionally." Always.

"That's not rational. There's never been a Vrekener in Abaddon. Why would they chase you down?"

"Vrekeners never abandon their hunt." Yes, she'd once been a mouse beneath a hawk's talon, and she'd escaped. But she knew the hawk would never rest until it had recaptured its prey.

"How could they even reach this plane?" Morgana asked. "They can't trace or create portals. They can't simply fly really, really hard."

I know this.

"There were rumors that the elders of the Vrekener clan vowed to end the killings after Eleara," Morgana said in an inscrutable tone. "Didn't you tell me that your attackers were an offshoot group, acting outside of orders?"

Bettina gazed down at her shaking hands. "I believed so." Though Vrekeners condemned spirits, the four who'd targeted her had been drunken-and their violence had seemed . . . personal. We've been watching you, Princess. "I-I can't be sure."

"Perhaps if Raum can actually eliminate them, you'd feel safer."

For Bettina's willing participation in the tournament, her godparents had made her promises. Raum would send a cadre of demons out to hunt down and secretly assassinate all of Bettina's winged attackers-as yet, those Vrekeners remained untouchable. Morgana would locate and return Bettina's power to her. The sorceress remained coy as to whether she'd retrieved it or not.

"I'll feel safer once I get my power back." Bettina had once been a Queen-not yet a royal one-but a mystical one. A Queen was someone who had better mastery over an element or force than anyone else. She'd been the Queen of Hearts-

"It didn't help you the first time."

"No. But I would learn to control it better, would practice more. Have you located it?"

Morgana quirked a mysterious blond brow. "Don't worry-you'll have it before you wed."

Bettina sighed, turning her attention to the rain forest beyond the city. Deep within those giant moon-raker trees, closeted in vines, was her folly-what used to be her favorite place in Rune. But since the attack, she'd avoided any place with trees.

It was almost worse that she could always see the forest from here, forever out of reach.

She trained her gaze far below. Thousands of demons and other Loreans had flocked to the streets, tossing confetti over the procession of combatants.

Brightly colored pavilions and tents circled Abaddon's famed Iron Ring-an enormous stadium with a caged arena. A grandstand overlooked all. Bold standards hung limp in the still, humid city.

Bettina surveyed the procession, shuddering at many of the "suitors." The pus demon wore rubber boots and gloves to catch the filth bubbling from his skin. A pair of Cerunnos slithered along the cobblestone streets, leaving sidewinder trails in the confetti. A crocodilae shifter went shirtless, the better to show off his speckled, platelike skin.

"Look at the males below." This is actually happening. She'd wanted to feel safe; those entrants were terrifying. "They're repulsive."

"Not all of them. I dated a coil of Cerunnos once-they're not as bad as one would think." Morgana tapped her claw-tipped finger against her bottom lip. "Regrettably, no Sorceri are expected to enter. Even assured of my involvement, they all think this contest will be fixed. Or that it will come down to simple brute strength."

If the Lykae were the physically strongest breed of Lorean, the Sorceri were among the weakest.

Morgana frowned, then said, "Of course, I could force the issue-if I thought a champion of ours might actually survive."

As the Queen of the Sorceri-both royal and mystical-she had absolute mastery over her subjects and all their individual powers. She could order any member of their species to do anything, and they would be compelled to obey. Or she could simply steal their powers.

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