Home > Shadow's Claim (The Dacians #1)(12)

Shadow's Claim (The Dacians #1)(12)
Author: Kresley Cole

Chapter 12

Morgana wasn't a beloved ruler, but she was content to be a dreaded one. "Alas, poisons are frowned upon in these matchups." The Sorceri were famed toxinians. They didn't necessarily make them, but they certainly utilized them.

"I don't suppose you've finally stolen the power of foresight and have seen a good ending for this."

"Foresight?" Morgana scoffed. "Never. Oracles go soft in the head. I'll take my blind alleys and my sanity any day."

"Surely you're going to steer the course of this thing?"

"I cannot, by thought, action, or deed, affect the outcome of this tournament. But I did negotiate with Raum so that you would have some influence over the competition," Morgana said. "There will be a lady's choice round. Consider it a safety clause. Don't ask what that entails, because I'll say nothing more on the subject."

Bettina's question died on her lips. I hate it when she does that. "Are there any contestants here that you would accept as your husband?" she asked innocently.

"For gold's sake, Bettina, you know I'll never wed." She flicked her fingers in a dismissive gesture. "I'm surprised that demonic wastrel you call friend hasn't entered. Raum's certainly for that."

Really? Wait, why does everyone keep calling Cas a wastrel? Did no one see past the devil-may-care skirt chaser? He'd nabbed his first bounty at fourteen and had been risking his life to collect more ever since. Cas was determined to earn respect in this kingdom, one death demon at a time.

Oh, where was he? Bettina would have thought he'd be here to see her off. She didn't spy him below either.

Maybe he'd fled Rune to escape Daciano? Would she never see Caspion again? Then she swallowed. Or had the vampire already returned?

Surely Daciano wouldn't have come back until night was full upon them.

"You told me that you would give anything to feel safe again," Morgana said. "These competitors are feared champions."

"Many of them are dangers to me!"

"Whoever wins is who you're supposed to have," Morgana said blithely.

Bettina glared. "The Sorceri don't believe in fate."

"I will clarify: Whoever wins will be the strongest, most cunning, most powerful competitor. Potentially all of the above. That is who you will have for your husband."

One problem. A Cerunno could be all those things.

Morgana sighed. "If you don't approve of your new husband-and really, Bettina, when did you get so persnickety?-make yourself a widow. Bettina the Black Widow! Then you'll rule all by yourself with no irksome male to influence you. Just as I do."

Bettina's lips parted. Part of her suspected Morgana wanted a monster for her ward, just so Bettina would have to kill him. Morgana wanted to toughen her up-after all, Eleara's daughter had come crying all the way home. A wedding-night execution would be just the thing!

Bettina would certainly lose her reputation as a pushover.

"And what about the Abaddonae?" Bettina asked her. "Why would they tolerate a Cerunno as king?"

"Tolerate?" Morgana's many braids drifted around her head as if an invisible wind blew, and the gold pieces on her body thrummed-her anger manifested. "You're about to be their queen. They'll tolerate whatever you choose to give them. Always remember that." Smoothing her hair, inhaling for calm, she said, "Besides, you know these demons worship strength-might maketh right, and all that. They'll accept whoever wins."

A knock sounded on the door. Bettina stepped back inside her sitting room.

"Oh. How surprising," Morgana sneered, following her in. "Raum is right on time."

Her godfather strode in, clad in his ceremonial armor, his dark horns polished. His breastplate bowed out to cover his barrel chest. His black beard hung nearly to his breastbone and was neatly braided.

Whereas Morgana had scarcely cleared the doorway's width with her headdress, Raum barely cleared its seven-foot height. Even the vampire hadn't been quite so tall.

Stop thinking about him!

"How's m'girl?" Raum gave her a wink. "I know what you're thinking. Raum is handsome as the devil, eh?"

Bettina smiled fondly at him. Though her father had been kind, some part of him had always seemed . . . distant. Raum had doted on her, making up the lack. But he wasn't perfect; he'd been raised in a feudal age, and he treated Bettina like a damsel-who was continually in distress. He saw her as a fragile doll among the demons, a rare hothouse flower.

Still, he'd been flexible in some regards-right up until she'd been attacked.

After directing an expected scowl at Morgana, Raum extended his arm to Bettina. "You look lovely. Are you ready to descend?" With obvious reluctance, he offered his other arm to Morgana. "Shall I trace the two of you?"

"Only if you want me to make merry with your intestines," Morgana replied sweetly. She never allowed herself to be traced, always traveling via a portal spell.

Bettina didn't particularly care for it either. Unfortunately, her demon half hadn't enabled her to teleport on her own, so she always felt like a failure whenever someone so easily did it.

Could nothing about me be demonic?

"But you may escort us." Morgana took Raum's arm, "accidentally" smacking him with her sharp headdress.

Dual-purpose pieces at work . . .

The three rode the elevator-manned by ogres-down to the ground floor, then started toward the Iron Ring at the outer edge of the town, near the great marsh.

With each step, the tension between her guardians grew and her own mood deteriorated even more.

I feel like a sacrifice-one shove away from a volcano opening. And still she felt more dread for Cas than for herself. Think of other things. . . .

All the fanfare distracted her to a degree. The tournament was a formal occasion, with Abaddonae donning their best clothing. Many male demons had pierced their horns with gold loops, while females rouged their much smaller horns.

Older demons clacked around in antique armor, the pieces squeaking from disuse, but the details and designs were more ornate than on modern armor. Bettina studied the engravings and raised filigrees with interest.

Finally they reached the ring. Roughly an acre in size, the arena was surrounded by stadium seats and completely caged in by iron bars. Jagged spikes protruded inward at every crossbar. Fog curled around the macabre structure, held at bay by the blue and orange flames dancing above enormous torches.

At opposite ends of the ring were a grandstand and the entrance to the warriors' sanctum, a series of catacomb-like tunnels. Running deep beneath the ring, the sanctum was like an underground bullpen for competitors to await their matches.

The grandstand was a large covered stage, swathed with precious silks. Bettina's Sorceri sensibilities couldn't help but thrill at the bold riot of colors. Sometimes Rune could be . . . bland.

Two long banquet tables stretched along either side. One table was filled with demon lords and ladies who bowed and scraped for Raum. Not so much for me.

They were all aware that she'd been attacked and physically defeated. Yet she was also the great Mathar's only offspring. Her subjects didn't quite know what to do with her.

Fitting. Folks, I don't quite know what to do with me either.

The other table was peopled with masked Sorceri dignitaries who simpered before Morgana.

Again, not so much for me. They all knew she'd had her power taken. When Morgana wasn't looking, they treated Bettina like an Inferi.

Not a real demon, not a real sorceress. Imposter . . .

In the center was another dais and a table for Bettina, Morgana, and Raum. Directly below them was the sign-in station, with weighty scrolls stacked like logs. Those contracts were thicker than one of Raum's burly arms, enumerating what must be thousands of rules.

As each contestant-with his entourage of squires and delegates-finished his processional, he would file into this station to sign a scroll, entering into an unbreakable pact.

Beside the scrolls was a quill and a dagger, because the contestants signed these pacts in blood. Bettina was privy to few rules, but she knew that the only way out of the tournament was to win-or die.

It was all so wretchedly . . . medieval. Most of the Lore's demonarchies were.

She picked up a schedule of events from her place setting. The first night's contest was to be announced. The next several nights would involve individual bouts within the Iron Ring. Night seven was indeed lady's choice-a mystery round. Even to the lady . . .

The semifinals would be held on night eight, with the final round and wedding occurring on night nine.

Bettina peered over the crowd, searching in vain for Cas, wanting him here with her. Instead she was flanked by Morgana on her right and Raum on her left, like bulwarks.

As the lengthy procession drew closer, her anxiety escalated. She turned to Raum. "Why are so many creatures entering? Abaddon's rich, but not wildly so. Our climate is hard to get used to."

He briefly buried his face in an oversize tankard of brew, then said, "Because your loveliness is legendary-"

"Raum. Please."

He made a gruff sound, then said, "Some are glory hounds, but mostly it's the Accession. War has routed many Loreans from their homes. Others are champions for an entire species, who hope to win the throne and give their peoples a place to live. Some are emissaries of a sort, looking for an alliance for their realms. Still others are pawns, controlled by powerful masters, who'll merely cede the crown if they win."

"You'd let a pawn win me?"

"We can't exactly prove who's a pawn until after the tournament."

Bettina narrowed her eyes. "There's more you aren't telling me."

"There's a last class of competitor. . . ." He patted her hand, a consoling gesture. "The condemned."

"Excuse me?"

"They were sentenced to die for various crimes in their home planes. Their only option is to compete in this, win, then turn over the crown to the ruling power."

Bettina was aghast.

"All that matters naught!" Raum assured her with the gentlest tap on her shoulder (when he would've whaled someone else on the back). "I still have hope that Caspion will enter and defeat them all."

Hope? He and Morgana both seemed to have pinned all their hopes on, well, hope. Bettina wanted something more concrete, thank you very much. Besides, Caspion had no intention of entering.

"I've seen the way you look at him," Raum said. "That lad's the one you want, isn't he?"

He doesn't want me back.

Under his breath, he said, "Morgana fought me on him, said she saw you with someone 'more exotic.' But if Caspion enters, she can't say anything." Raum gazed around. "Where is he anyway?"

"I haven't seen him all day."

"There are still a couple of hours left until the entry deadline."

Morgana jabbed her with an elbow. "Here comes the first contestant. Now remember, don't bow your head too deeply. Even if your subjects are mere demons, you still have royal blood. . . ."

One by one, squires and delegates introduced their champions. Morgana provided continual-and scathing-commentary, as regular as a laugh track.

Most were representatives from the various de-monarchies, which pleased Raum. Several storm, ice, stone, rage, and fire demons were in attendance. Even a winged Volar demon entered. Not to mention the excretorian, who left a trail of pus on the sign-in desk.

A few contestants stood out. A snarling Lykae, with his ripped shirt and wild eyes, was surely a pawn. His three cloaked "squires" manhandled him to the sign-in station, then collared him away.

"Those three are warlocks," Morgana murmured. "An ancient order called Those Best Forgotten." She and Raum shared a look. "A-list," she said in a yesss! tone.

Raum, however, appeared uneasy, like a teenager whose illicit party had outgrown his sire's den.

Morgana added happily, "And right before the Accession!" That brutal immortal war-when all factions were forced to battle for supremacy. With each day, the warring Pravus and Vertas alliances strengthened. . . .

Next, two handsome centaurs approached, their sharpened hooves ringing on the walkway. With their bows strapped across their bare chests, the pair gave Bettina a flattering show of attention.

After them, a Horde vampire lord bowed courteously, but his bloodred gaze was restless-so different from Daciano's. Once the lord signed in, he hissed at the Lykae, his natural-born enemy.

The sole troll in the procession was enormous, its shoulders nearly as wide as it was tall. Bristly hairs dotted its body, covering its lengthy tail. In one grubby hand, the creature carried a spiked club bigger than Bettina's body.

She muttered to Morgana, "Now we're just being ridiculous."

Morgana shrugged. "The tournament is open to all."

There were the fire peoples: a Chimaero with skin that turned to flames and three Ajatars, dual-headed dragon shifters. Then came the snakelike competitors: two Cerunnos-princes of the Serpent Lands-and Meduso, son of Medusa.

"That one has a poisonous tongue," Morgana supplied in a delighted tone. "Haven't you heard? Once you go snake, you never go back."

Bettina sighed. I feel like I'm on the Island of Misfit Toys.

During a lull in the procession-the next demon appeared to be falling-down drunk-Bettina rubbed her hand over her nape, sensing something amiss. More than what's obviously amiss?

Naturally, most in attendance were watching her, but for some reason, her sixth sense was clamoring with awareness. . . .

Hidden in mist, Trehan had traced to Rune, back to the drawbridge he'd crossed such a short time ago. He'd stowed his belongings beneath it, then moved toward the Iron Ring.

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