Home > Shadow's Claim (The Dacians #1)(13)

Shadow's Claim (The Dacians #1)(13)
Author: Kresley Cole

Though the deadline to enter was imminent, Trehan still hadn't made a decision. Probably because he hadn't yet laid eyes on his Bride.

Instead, he'd glided along the periphery of the crowd, studying the large arena and the massive stadium-style seats overflowing with spectators.

He'd tried to imagine what it would be like to kill in front of them. For so long he'd hidden his skill-now to possibly display it in front of thousands?

Soon the grandstand would be in sight. She would be in sight.

Ever cold, ever logical, Trehan didn't make impulse decisions. Whenever someone tried to create a sense of urgency to move him to action, he dug his heels in, preferring absolute inaction.

But he feared that once he saw her, the need he'd felt last night would redouble, his control faltering.

Chapter 13

Over and over, he thought, Your Bride or your house? Your female or your kingdom?

No more stalling. He raised his gaze to the stage . . .

There she was.

Under the bright arena flames, his dark-eyed halfling looked like his most fevered dream in her jewels and revealing silks. Her dark hair was plaited into shining braids all around her face. Her jade-green mask highlighted her brilliant eyes.

First thought: Fuck the kingdom.

A sharp shake of his head. Steady, Trehan. Be rational, investigate.

Beside her were a male demon and a sorceress-must be the demon duke and the Queen of Sorceri.

Though Bettina seemed oblivious to all the gawking eyes on her, he did not like that most of her body was displayed to a multitude of covetous male gazes.

That's my Bride they lust after.

Despite her penchant for baring her body, her face was again concealed by a mask. I haven't fully seen her face, and still I consider this. But even as the thought arose, he realized that didn't matter. The physical was only part of what attracted him.

Still hidden, Trehan traced to a line of demonic contestants, listening to their conversations.

One young animus demon admitted to another, "I don't have a choice. Either I enter or my father will kill me."

A pathos demon said, "Of course I want the crown. Doesn't mean I won't breed on her for three litters a year."

A rage demon said, "The halfling's part sensual sorceress, part lusty demoness. I'd fight for a single night with a creature like that, much less an eternity. She's as good as beneath me."

The last two comments made Trehan's vision blur with rage, his fangs sharpening uncontrollably. No, be reasonable. This isn't you-

Reasonable? When all he wanted to do was rip out their arteries with his teeth?

Could Bettina hear any of these exchanges? She held herself very still, very regally-a detached beauty. So different from the shy seductress of the evening before.

But then, for just an instant, he saw a glimpse of fear in her eyes. His predator's gaze detected that wildly fluttering pulse in her neck.

Trehan might have resisted his mounting need to claim her, might have resisted the call of her blood. Yet her fear was intolerable to him.

He examined her more closely. Now that he knew what to look for, he could see her trembling. And why not? This wasn't a tournament for her hand-this was a virgin sacrifice, a spectacle.

The instinctive need to crush whatever threatened her hammered at him. The need to make her foes die bloody . . .

When the last of a line of roughly two hundred and thirty suitors had been presented to Bettina, she sank back, rubbing her forehead. Morgana reached over and pinched her chin, turning her face left to right. With a scowl, she shooed her ward away. A brief reprieve?

Trehan traced behind Bettina, secretly following her as she retreated to an alcove deep within a garden.

Gods, he liked the way she walked, liked the way the ends of her hair swayed back and forth just above her taut ass. With each step, a pale, gartered thigh flashed out from underneath her slinky skirt.

His swift erection didn't even surprise him. Nor did his lustful thoughts. Gods, female, the things I would do to you. . . . I'd rip those garters away with my fangs, your panties too. Then I'd spread your long, svelte legs wide and bury my tongue between them.

To claim the kiss he'd hungered for last night . . .

Everything about this woman aroused Trehan literally beyond reason. A fiery arrow through the temple? Will I ever recover from the shot?

After taking a seat on a bench, she turned to talk to a . . . plant? "Any sign of him?"

"No. I've looked for the last two hours, checked every whorehouse twice."

She glared at the plant, then murmured, "Did you see the way those entrants looked at me? I'm surprised they didn't want to check my teeth."

The plant replied, "Actually, one of them plans to remove all your teeth, so that you can handle his 'penile girth.' His words, not mine."

Who the hell had made that remark? Someone soon to die. Entering the tournament would afford Trehan the opportunity.

"Enough!" She started visibly shaking, her big eyes full of woe.

Trehan wanted to end that mouthy plant. Then I'd enfold her in my arms and tell her that all will be well. He found himself easing closer to her.

"I know what they plan for me," she said. "Oh, why won't Cas come?"

Always she thinks of that f**king demon.

Just before Trehan reached Bettina, Caspion appeared beside her, steps away from tracing directly into Trehan!

"Tina," the demon murmured, reaching for her.

She rose, her face crumpling as she launched herself at Caspion.

It isn't his right to embrace her. She is mine! Only centuries of honed self-discipline kept Trehan from ripping them apart. Investigate, Trehan. Delve. You know so little about her. . . .

Caspion whispered something in her ear, something Trehan couldn't hear. She gave him a wobbly smile, gazing up at the demon with open adoration. Hearing of her affection for Caspion was one thing, seeing it another.

Kill him. Trehan's hand fell to his sword, but before he could act, Caspion traced away with Bettina in tow.

Where had that bastard taken her? Trehan's gaze darted. When the two appeared on the grandstand, he exhaled with relief.

Only to tense once more-Caspion was striding toward the sign-in table? When the demon lifted the quill and dagger, the crowd cheered.

That son of a bitch! Trehan recalled the invitation. All competitors were mystically protected. With a swipe of the blade and a scratch of the quill, Caspion had entered the lists-removing himself from Trehan's reach.

At least until the tournament ended.

I can wait till then to kill him. Caspion might not even make it past the first round. Another might do Trehan's work for him.

Or I could enter. Two birds with one stone. He'd have no choice but to kill Caspion.

And Bettina would have to forgive me. . . .

Raum, the apparent master of ceremonies, motioned for the crowds to quiet down. "Tidings to the Abaddonae, fiercest of all the demonarchies!" More cheers. "And also to those from offplane who've journeyed here for our-humble-little tournament." Laughs sounded. "Together with my cohost, the all-powerful Morgana, we welcome you."

When he indicated her with a jerk of his chin, she rose. Without a wave or gesture of any sort, she swept her gaze over the crowd as if staring down every single attendee.

Only when the crowd had grown utterly silent did she sit again. She whispered something to Bettina, something that made the girl nod warily.

"Now, the stakes of this contest are high. Each round is to the death, yet one will have no fighting at all. Perhaps a game of wits? Ah, but never a game of chance! You have to earn Princess Bettina's hand, proving yourself worthy of her line."

Raum held up a gold case-the one that housed Bettina's summoning medallion? "Yes, the stakes are high, but the rewards are commensurate. The victor will win dominion over the fair princess herself!"

Dominion. Trehan nearly growled.

Bettina's face heated, her fists balling. She was clearly unhappy about her circumstances; so why had she allowed herself to be offered up? Last night, she'd said, "They willed it."

Then Raum held up a crown. "And the right to rule the Deathly Ones."

An armored storm demon-from a demonarchy infamous for its harems-shouted, "I'm already a royal. I'm only here to plow the princess!"

Guffaws sounded. Bettina flinched as if struck. Just as Trehan tensed to attack the male, Morgana stood once more, with her braids coiling like whips. In a clear, ringing voice, she snapped, "Respect-is-not-optional." Swirls of sorcery radiated from her.

Raum gave Morgana a quelling look, then asked the crowd, "Now, have all the competitors been accounted for? The deadline nears."

Your female or your kingdom? Trehan stared hard at his Bride, compelled to be near her, to be touching her this very instant.

Just then, she glanced down at her twining fingers. When she looked up again, her eyes were watering, her little mask askew.

Should I protect her, even if she doesn't want my protection?

"We have two hundred and twenty-seven?" Raum said.

At the demon's words, Trehan's thoughts began to race. Entry about to be closed. Ready to feel thousands of gazes upon your back, Trehan? Think! Enter, and you will not be who you were. Which might be good. I only leave the coffin to kill.

Have I been moldering? Have I been as good as dead?

He was a loner by nature, with a sacred duty to murder, taught by experience to trust no one. Added to that, he lived in a closed, hidden society that worshipped reason and believed in the absolute control over one's emotions.

Surrounded now by all these new scents, sights, sounds-by all this life-he realized the answer.

Trehan had been a shade. But like the dead, he was the last one to know it. No wonder killing comes so easily to me. I'm halfway to the grave myself.

Yes, he'd been buried in the earth like some dormant thing-an unfeeling machine. What would await him should he decide to rise?

Remaining dormant was comfortable. No sharp emotions, no uncontrollable urges.

No regret for all his many years already wasted in that static state.

Think, Trehan! To pursue Bettina would mean forsaking everything he'd ever loved and embracing everything that had ever challenged him.

Your kingdom? Or the one who first awakened you . . . ?

Raum gazed around at the crowd. "Then the lists will be considered full-"

"Hold demon," a male called from the back. "You've one final competitor."

Bettina would have recognized that deep, accented voice anywhere.

She squeezed her eyes shut. The vampire was here, somewhere in the crowd. And he planned to compete?

Just when she'd thought the night couldn't possibly get worse.

Earlier when Cas had told her he would enter, with his shoulders back like some sigh-worthy hero of old, her heart had leapt. Then at the sign-in desk, he'd qualified his actions: "There, Tina. If I'm marked for death anyway, I might as well try to save my best friend from a nightmare marriage."

And now this?

"Is that another vampire?" Morgana murmured in an intrigued tone.

Bettina opened her eyes and drew a shocked breath.

There Daciano was, striding toward her, his face grim with determination. The light of the grand torches sheened off his black hair.

Tonight his clothing was more regal, the fine lines and cloth looking like they'd cost a pretty karat. He also wore a full-length trench coat of black leather that fitted flawlessly over his broad shoulders and narrow hips.

The fog seemed to part for him; the crowd certainly did. Even among the strapping Abaddonae males, his towering body stood out. He could have traced, but he chose to walk, heightening her suspense.

Last night, she'd asked herself, What foreign assassin would dare target a Deathly One in his home plane of Abaddon?

This one. Trehan Daciano. A professional killer.

This isn't happening. Why, gods, would he return? And why enter? Why not wait to finish his mission until after the tournament?

Her gaze slid to Caspion, standing slack jawed outside the ring.

Then she remembered: once seen like this, Daciano could never return to his home.

No wonder Cas was stunned!

The vampire hadn't spared him a glance, his attention solely on Bettina. Initially the Dacian's eyes had been a deep green. Yet when his gaze locked on her, they flooded with black.

As they'd been last night.

With his every step closer, awareness pricked her senses-the heat of the flames, the scent of her goblet of wine, the way the damp night air clung to her bare arms.

All she could think over and over: That vampire was in my bed, touching me as no other had before.

As he closed the distance, she felt increasingly weak and breathless, as if a flash-fever had taken hold.

How could merely looking at someone make her react physically? One word arose in her consciousness. Dalit. In Demonish, it meant lightning-in addition to another quaint, old-timey meaning.

"Who is that gorgeous male?" Morgana asked.

Chapter 14

Bettina had never heard her sound so interested in a stranger.

The vampire wasn't gorgeous to Bettina, but he was . . . striking.

"Oh, my gold, is he a Forbearer?" Morgana asked.

With his clear eyes, Daciano looked like one. No one would ever guess he was from the fabled Realm of Blood and Mist.

Once he neared the lower grandstand, Bettina subtly shook her head, warning him away, but he didn't break his stride.

Earlier when Caspion had approached the sign-in table, the crowd had cheered for one of their own. As the vampire approached, everyone grew silent.

Crickets. A dog barked in the distance. A demon cub gave a cry.

"Your name?" Raum asked in puzzlement.

"I'm called the Prince of Shadow," Daciano answered in that resonating voice.

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