Home > Shadow's Claim (The Dacians #1)(14)

Shadow's Claim (The Dacians #1)(14)
Author: Kresley Cole

"Where do you hail from? What is your standard?"

"I hail from nowhere you know." The vampire retrieved a beautiful antique-looking banner of red and gray from his coat, handing it to Raum. "This is my standard. I enter for the hand of Bettina."

He can't lie? Then he's not here just to kill Cas? He wants to marry me? She just stopped herself from fanning her face.

Why can't I catch my breath?

Her godfather cast him a studying glance. Raum couldn't bar the vampire entrance, but surely he would demand more information.

Instead Raum examined the standard, returned it, then offered Daciano the blade and quill. "Well then, Prince of Nowhere. Sign your name."

Still holding her gaze, the vampire dragged the blade across his palm, blood welling. Without hesitation, he signed, never looking down at the contract, never taking his penetrating eyes off her.

Bettina could tell Morgana was glancing from the vampire to her and back, but didn't acknowledge her godmother's curiosity.

Once Daciano's entry was complete, Raum announced, "The lists are filled! The tournament has officially begun."

Cheering sounded from the spectators before Raum quieted them once more. "Now, on the first night of the tournament, we will have a melee. All competitors will go in unarmed, race to reach strategically placed weapons, then kill at will."

"Oh, I've always enjoyed a spirited melee!" Morgana said, as if she were talking about a potato-sack race. Then she gazed past Bettina, her eyes gleaming with approval-no doubt ogling the vampire.

When Bettina refused to look at him, Morgana tapped her chin with a metal claw. "You don't appear to be an afterthought with that one, dearest freakling. You appear to be the only thought."

I've done it then. Trehan had stood up in front of thousands of gaping Loreans, pledging himself to winning Bettina. He'd stepped from his comfortable shadows directly into the spotlight, under the crushing weight of the crowd's scrutiny.

No longer was he the enforcer of Dacian laws. No longer did he live among books, merely reading about social interactions. He wasn't just an observer; he was present and involved, with an unshakable purpose: I will possess her.

He'd left behind all he loved, but he'd also shucked off his deadening existence. And at this moment, excitement over the future outweighed his regret of the past.

This close to Bettina, he could scent her light perfume and sweet skin, could hear her shallow breaths as she studiously ignored him.

Yes, I will possess her-and I'd do far worse than this for the privilege.

He almost looked forward to battling for her favor. Killing was what he did, was all he knew. And Caspion? He was a mere obstacle to be dealt with when the time came.

Somehow Trehan would devise a way to seduce her once more. I'm betting everything that she'll respond again. Perhaps he should do as the madman Lothaire did, and bargain with her?

Before the tournament began tomorrow night, Trehan would ready himself, gorging on blood and perhaps finally sleeping for an hour or two. Many of the demon lords would imbibe this eve, were already drunken. Tomorrow, they'd be compromised. Trehan would have another advantage. Not that I'll need it-

"But there's a twist," Raum announced. "Night one . . . begins in five minutes."

Gasps sounded. Those drunken lords sputtered their protests.

"Two hundred and twenty-eight will enter the Iron Ring before the gate slams shut," Raum said, his voice booming with finality. "You'll kill until the great horn blows. Though many of our contestants will never get to hear it. . . ."

As the competitors filed off to the ring, Bettina chewed on a fingernail, the fingers of her other hand drumming.

Just moments ago after Raum's announcement, Caspion had traced to her side, smoothed a braid behind her ear, then bravely set off to the warriors' sanctum.

Daciano had strode off as well, yet he lingered outside the ring. Awaiting something from her?

"So, Raum, who do you think will be the bettors' favorite?" Morgana asked.

Raum dragged his face from his tankard. "No Abaddonae would bet against their own."

Cas, my demon, who's about to be locked in that cage! Bettina started on another nail.

Morgana slapped her hand down. "I believe I'll put karats on the clear-eyed vampire."

Bettina's gaze darted to Daciano. His overall demeanor was bored. But she could see his cunning gaze taking in his enemies. She suspected she was about to witness the lethality she'd only sensed before.

Would he target Cas immediately?

Turning to Bettina, Morgana said, "I believe the Prince of Shadow is particularly motivated. He looks like his heart is in this. His beating heart."

Bettina stifled a gasp. Of course Morgana had figured out who Daciano's Bride was. But Bettina couldn't think about that now.

"The leech is blooded then?" Raum asked, taking another gulp from his mug. "Wonder what his Bride has to say about this?"

She's pissed! And terrified for Caspion. "If Cas can trace, he'll be safe in there, right?"

Morgana snorted. Raum uneasily pulled at the collar of his breastplate.

"Couldn't he just continually teleport around the ring if he wanted to?" Bettina asked. "Or if he got injured?"

"If he wasn't caught fast by a stronger opponent, then yes," Raum said. "But tracing is not without its perils. To strike an accurate blow you have to materialize fully for a split second. And whenever you disappear, you risk losing sight of your opponent, something no warrior is keen to do."

Morgana added, "Plus you run the chance that someone will predict where you will reappear and be waiting with, say, a raised mystical sword. I killed my last demon that way." She made her voice like an innocent girl's as she said, "Oh, no, please stop with your tracing! It's confusing my feeble female mind!" She abruptly made a chopping motion against the table. "Then SLASH."

Raum looked unimpressed with her theatrics. "It's also physically draining, especially for the injured. The ability is a great advantage, but it also brings great risk."

Talking around another fingernail, Bettina asked, "If a competitor gets into trouble, what's to stop him from teleporting back home or something?"

"The blood pact they signed."

So Cas was well and truly trapped? If he . . . died, she didn't know how she'd recover.

The highlights of her history with him flashed through her mind-all the things he'd done to win her heart. Cas taking her to her first baseball game and patiently explaining the rules. Teaching her to drive a mortal car. Escorting her to fashion shows and art exhibits, even when he was so bored he could barely stay awake.

He was young, and sometimes he could do stupid things, but he was bighearted. She'd recently found out that he'd been secretly giving food and clothing to other foundlings, using some of his newfound influence to set up apprenticeships for older orphans.

Everyone was always so dazzled by his looks that they never realized he had substance-and loyalty. She knew he would give his life to protect hers. . . .

Bettina's reverie was interrupted when one of Morgana's Inferi hastened over to the queen with a written message. The sorceress snapped, "What fresh hell is this?" then tore open the black seal.

In a completely unsmooth attempt to be smooth, Bettina stretched her arms, leaning back for a look at the page. She caught a few words-"portents," "Gilded One," "rising," and "Accession"-before Morgana wadded up the paper so hard her metal claws dug into her palm.

The Gilded One was La Dorada, the Queen of Evil-and Morgana's nemesis, thought to be dead.

With a curse, Morgana rose, shoving her chair back with a wave of her hand.

Bettina dared to ask, "La Dorada is rising?"

In a distracted tone, Morgana answered, "Do excuse me. Someone needs to die." Over her shoulder, she told Raum, "In my absence, keep this tournament . . . interesting."

"Absence?" he sputtered. "You can't leave! You're the cohost!" He leapt up and followed her, arguing with her as she and her train of Inferi hastened toward her travel portal.

As soon as Bettina was alone, the vampire traced beside her and grasped her hand.

Aware of the spectators watching her, she tried to appear calm as she hissed, "Release me!" between gritted teeth.

He didn't. His hand was hot, swallowing hers.

She inhaled his crisp scent, and memories of the night before overwhelmed her-which infuriated her. "You told me you wouldn't come back for me!"

"I said I didn't plan on returning for you. I've since changed my mind." His eyes were now green, his gaze narrowed with intent. "Listen to me, female. Your Caspion will live or die this eve based on my actions."

She raised her chin. "So certain you'll defeat him? I'm not convinced. And if you did strike him down, I'd hate you forever."

"Then convince yourself of this-I will influence the others, telling them that Caspion the Tracker is a kingdomwide favorite who must be eliminated early. Unless . . ."

"Unless what?"

"You vow to grant me a boon, one to be determined later." He spoke over her sputtering: "And I will not only spare him, I'll dispatch any competitor you choose."

"You're blackmailing me?"

"Consider it . . . bargaining."

"Why should I trust you?"

"You know I don't lie." Leaning down, he murmured at her ear, "Tell me a target, or tell Caspion goodbye."

She quickly said, "How am I to choose? I want them all gone!"

"Then promise me even more favors. Accept me as your champion, and I'll rid the entire ring of life."

After this night's humiliating procession, she was tempted-with the exception of Cas, of course. But until she determined what type of "favor" Daciano might demand, she'd limit the exposure.

To one. Bettina found the serpentine entrants the worst. The mere thought of mating with one of them made her gag. Not to mention the idea of delivering eggs. "Fine. I vow to the Lore to grant you a boon, if you spare Cas and dispatch the larger Cerunno."

Daciano gave her a formal bow. "As you wish." Then he shrugged out of his coat and handed it to her. "Hold this, Bride." Such a trivial request, but it made it appear that they were already together. "Naturally, if I have an opportunity in the ring, I could expand our arrangement . . . ?"

"For more of these boons? Forget it."

"Know that I'll kill the Horde vampire for free." At her frown, he explained, "I will require his tent for the duration." And then he was gone.

Trehan stood within the Iron Ring, surrounded by stands of gawking Loreans, but he focused his mind on what was at stake.

Her. Bettina.

Now, like so many times in the past, he had a sanctioned kill to make. He marked his prey-the Cerunno his Bride must fear above all the others.

Trehan gave a cursory glance over the weapons available: lances and varieties of spears, war axes, maces, swords, and two different types of whips. One was coiled razor wire, the other coated with a viscous layer of oil-a whip of fire. He was a master with all these.

He noted that many of the competitors were studying the placement of the weapons, deciding which would suit their own strengths best. But few were studying their opponents. Fools. Weapon choice depended upon the opponent.

Try felling a Cerunno with a spear and see where that leaves you. . . .

Besides, within moments there would be far more weapons than those alive to wield them.

Trehan made quick calculations. The males most likely to give him any competition whatsoever: the incredibly fast Cerunnos, the other vampire, the three Ajatars, the rabid-and therefore unpredictable-Lykae. The two massive stone demons as well. They could make their muscles so rigid that blows would bounce off them, as if off stone.

The Horde vampire stared hard at Trehan, no doubt trying to assess his strengths. He would believe Trehan was a weaker Forbearer, a turned human.

Ah, but that ravening Lykae was barely able to refrain from attacking the red-eyed vampire even now. Could he be counted on to keep that Horde lord occupied?

And the Cerunnos? Trehan had stalked them in the past, had observed them in battle. He knew how they distracted your attention with their sword work, while their tails slithered up behind you. . . .

When Raum returned, apparently from arguing with Morgana, he signaled for demon guards to close the enormous iron gate. The other entrants' muscles were tensed. Trehan's were relaxed.

I've prepared my entire life for this tournament, even if I hadn't known it-

He felt a vibration beneath his feet. Then another. Footsteps. Something was coming, something with mass. A last competitor?

Just before the gate closed fully, a being emerged from the fog, heading for the ring.

Trehan raised his brows as he craned his neck up. And up . . .

Chapter 15

The things I do for my Bride.

What-is-that?" Bettina murmured as a giant demonlike creature entered the ring.

He stood well over ten feet tall, with pebbly green skin like a toad's. He sported not one, not two, but three pairs of horns. Rising straight up from his forehead were two slimy yellow ones that matched the color of his slitted eyes; two more capped his muscular shoulders; a third pair jutted from the backs of his elbows.

Fangs protruded up from his bottom row of teeth. A line of mottled tusks jutted down from its chin, like a bony, spotted beard. Lengths of chain crisscrossed his otherwise bare chest, holding up a leather half-tunic like suspenders from hell.

At each step, the packed-clay earth quaked beneath his boots.

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