Home > Shadow's Claim (The Dacians #1)(16)

Shadow's Claim (The Dacians #1)(16)
Author: Kresley Cole

"What if I can't sneak away tonight? I won't be alone." Salem would surely tell Raum if he learned of this. And her godfather would shift to second gear-battle-ax to the brain.

Which would probably only get Raum killed by the menacing vampire.

"Then I'll come to you."

"That's not possible," she snapped. "I'll figure something out." She thought she could get the guards outside her doors to take the night off, but would Salem balk? "This will count as . . . five boons."

"One."

"Three," she countered. When he inclined his head in agreement, she asked, "Which tent is yours?"

"The quarters of the slain vampire. Look for my standard."

Then he disappeared.

She sagged, yearning for the privacy of her rooms. Now that her royal responsibilities were over, nothing was stopping her from returning. Nothing except for herself.

The winding, foggy lane to the castle was a short stroll filled with beings, but to her, it rolled on . . . and on . . . and on. . . .

She could call guards to escort her, but her kingdom was a safe place. It would send the wrong message. Plus, she didn't want others to know of her fear. In the Lore, fear equaled weakness. Weakness eventually equaled death, even for an immortal.

There are crowds all around, she told herself, nothing can get me. But then, she had been within earshot of crowds when the four had attacked her.

Bettina remembered getting dressed with friends before going out that night. She'd thought, A rave out in a poppy field-what could possibly go wrong . . . ?

Though her bones had healed seamlessly, at times like this she could swear she still felt the fractures aching.

Rubbing her arms, she took a few tentative steps, breaths shallowing, anxiety constricting her chest. Anxiety and anger-at the Vrekeners who'd twisted her. At herself for becoming a shell of the old Bettina.

She'd once been bold(ish) and quick to laugh, generally happy. She had never imagined she'd end up like this-a timorous, incapacitated mess.

Sheer will netted her a few more steps. But when she made it to a well-lit storefront, she froze, glued to its safety as if soldered there.

Someone would soon come along to walk with her. Surely. For now, think of other things.

As she feigned interest in a shelf of figurines on sale, her thoughts returned to Daciano. He'd entered for her hand-not because he was a glory hound or because he'd been condemned on his home plane.

No, apparently he'd surrendered his home forever.

And once the tournament had begun, that vampire had been the only one who'd acknowledged her, acknowledged that he'd fought for her. No one else had even looked at her. Not even Caspion.

Cas had been helpless not to respond to those battle groupies surrounding him, especially the voluptuous demonesses. My h*ps will never be that round, my br**sts that plump. The one bad thing about freezing into immortality? If unhappy with your appearance, you were eternally screwed.

Yet even the slim demonesses got a swoon-inducing grin from Cas. In fact, it seemed there was only one female he didn't respond to.

Me.

Five minutes passed. Ten. She'd begun meandering through the store, picking up a figurine here, a vase there. But soon, the shopkeeper started insisting that Bettina take them all as gifts, refusing any offers to pay.

"No, please. I'm just resting a bit inside your lovely store. I couldn't accept more." And there went another vase into a bag.

Bettina was unable to leave, and equally unable to decline the merchandise without insulting the kindly shopkeeper.

I don't even like knickknacks! Morgana would never have this problem. Bettina's deadly patroness wouldn't. Those two Sorceri females always got what they wanted.

Why can't I?

When the shopkeeper began looking for a larger bag, Bettina inwardly groaned.

Ultimately, she accepted all the offerings with a strained smile, then forced herself to turn toward the exit.

Outside, the buildings loomed taller, the alleys twisting narrower and darker. As she cautiously peered upward, that familiar seed of anxiety started to seethe in her chest-the one that wouldn't stop growing until she was covered with sweat, shaking with fear, gasping for breath.

She was trapped, standing at the threshold like an idiot, clutching her sack like a life preserver.

I hate this! When did I become that girl-the pushover afraid of her own shadow?

She knew her fear was irrational. There'd never been a Vrekener in Abaddon. If one managed to enter this plane, the Abaddonae milling around would never let it hurt their princess.

The demons would trace into the air and attack, asking questions later. She knew this.

So why wouldn't her body listen to her mind?

"Bettina!" Caspion? He'd left his admirers for her? "I've been looking for you!" He jogged up to her, still spattered with dried blood from the fight. He glanced around, lowering his voice. "You're alone here? Aren't you afraid?"

Salem and Cas were the only ones who knew about her phobia. "It isn't so bad tonight." Not a lie-she hadn't had a full-blown attack yet.

He didn't look like he believed her. "I'll walk you back." He took her bag with a frown-he knew she wasn't a knickknack type of person-then offered her his arm. As they started toward the castle, relief breezed through her. The shapes of the buildings morphed to normal, the alleys opening up like mortal freeways.

"You fought really well tonight, Cas. I was so proud."

"Did you see what Daciano did?" Before she could answer, he said, "Bastard muscled into my skirmish just for the chance to kill me himself! I was about to get free of that whip even without his interference."

Not true-and Bettina was almost glad it wasn't. Otherwise I bet five boons for nothing.

"The vampire returned for you."

She gave a slight nod. "I could scarcely believe it."

"I was only in Dacia for a short time. But from what I heard, Trehan is like Mr. Dacia. He loves his kingdom more than any of them. You two must've had, uh, some night." He seemed to be looking at her with a new regard, which flustered her.

"What are you doing here, Cas? I thought you'd take another female"-or two, or three-"home with you. Aren't males usually keen to after a battle?"

His shoulders went back. In a steady tone, he said, "No others for me, Tina."

With a tremulous smile, she murmured, "Really?"

"People would talk. I would never insult you like that."

Her smile faded. "I appreciate your consideration." People already talked. She was the subject of pity, the weird halfling hopelessly in love with a strapping demon.

"Now that I've entered, everything has changed."

"How so?"

"I will figure out a way to defeat Daciano. Somehow. And I will win you. We'll rule together, and we'll be good at it. I will endeavor to always be true to you. I consider us betrothed; I have since I signed my name to enter."

"Endeavor?" she said softly. "Will it be so difficult?"

"It's not exactly my nature. And you're not my mate." He raked blond locks off his forehead. "I did warn you, Tina. You have to be patient with me."

She sighed. He was trying. "I know. And I appreciate all you're doing. But why are you so certain you'll defeat the vampire? Daciano seemed formidable"-unstoppable-"in the ring."

"I'll study him, discover his weaknesses."

If only it were so simple. "And what about Gourlav?"

"I'll figure it all out. Don't fret over me."

Of course she would fret over him. She'd been doing it for nearly a decade.

Cas escorted her to her secreted castle entrance, but didn't follow her in.

"You're not coming up?" she asked, though she wanted to work anyway.

"We can't do that anymore. People will talk if I go to your spire."

She raised her brows. "Most of the combatants will be in a brothel tonight, but I'm expected to go to my lonely bed?"

"That's the way of this world, I'm afraid." His expression darkened. "I'm concerned about the Dacian returning to your apartments. He cannot have access to you, Bettina."

"I thought a vampire could never hurt his Bride."

"I'm not worried about him hurting you. I'm worried about him pressing his claim, trying to bed you fully."

"Salem will boot out any unwanted visitors."

After a moment, Cas nodded. "Tomorrow at sunset, I'll escort you from here and bring you back after my fight. Consider it a date," he said with an affectionate smile.

Surely he knew what effect that look had on her. "A date."

"You've been proud to call me friend, Tina. I'll make you proud to call me husband. I vow this."

And there went her heart.

"If you want to leave this spire, you must contact me first."

"You know I'm too scared to go about alone." Will I be tonight?

"True." He gave her a brief peck on her forehead, then traced away.

As she rode up the elevator, she considered what Cas had said about discovering the vampire's weaknesses. He couldn't get close enough to Daciano to learn anything meaningful.

But I can.

Inside her suites, she removed her cloak and mask, calling out, "I'm back."

In a distracted tone, Salem answered, "So you are. Big night, then? Lots of developments."

Floating closer to her, he said, "I told you the vampire would return. What was he talking to you about on the stage?"

Chapter 17

"Nothing important."

"Your little chin-wag wiv him was the subject of much discussion. He was all proprietary with you, like you'd known him a while."

"I never saw him before last night. You know that."

"You held his things for him while he fought," Salem pointed out.

"Because he foisted his coat on me!"

"Perception is reality, chit. The wily leech wants others to think you're his."

Chit? She was a princess! Why did everyone forget that?

Because you let them. . . . She remembered Morgana had once told her, "With your actions, you train others how to treat you."

"I don't want to talk about the vampire," she said. "I've got work to do." She turned toward her workshop, planting herself at her drafting table.

Again and again she attempted to sketch a new piece, but she was stumped. She needed a unique design, something Patroness had never seen.

She tapped her pencil against her bottom lip, her thoughts turning to tonight. Even if she decided to go, how was she supposed to get from point A to point B alone, without an episode?

To go undetected, she'd have to choose the most deserted route. A recipe for disaster.

Which would be stronger? A panic attack-or her vow to give the vampire what he asked for?

Bettina rose, stretched in a futile effort to relieve the tension in her shoulders, then began to wander aimlessly, still debating what to do.

She found Salem in the sitting room, unusually quiet, using telekinesis to thumb through her celebrity magazines-luxuries imported from the mortal realm.

She paced up and back; he turned a page. Repeat.

They continued like this as her grandfather clock ticked on. . . .

Toward midnight, she knew she had to get rid of him soon. But how?

"Princess." Salem suddenly occupied the door. "Going out for a spot."

"Pardon?" Yes, she wanted to get rid of him, but what if she'd actually wanted protection? "You're leaving me? What if I'm afraid the vampire might return?"

"Tonight I'm on a mission."

"What kind of mission?"

"The kind that takes precedence over protecting you from a vampire who will never hurt you."

"Tell me what you're talking about."

"I'm going to spy on Gourlav, try to puzzle out a way to kill him-without bringing ruin on the kingdom. Otherwise you just got engaged to him tonight."

She shivered at the thought. Before she could ask more, he said, "Laters."

Alone. One less obstacle to prevent her midnight meeting.

Bettina poured a glass of wine with a shaking hand. Dread over the short walk to the field of tents mingled with a different kind of anxiety. What favors would Daciano want from her? What might he demand? Maybe he'd ask for a repeat of what had happened last night.

More kissing, more touching.

She was so curious about him, about his reactions to her-about males in general.

If only she could remember her first sexual experience more clearly. Though much was foggy, three things had been etched into her mind: the pleasure of his mouth on her br**sts, the new and wondrous feel of his shaft, and the scalding heat of his seed.

Face flushing, she drank deeply. She thought about sex as much as the next twenty-something halfling, and Daciano had given Bettina her first taste of real passion.

In turn, she'd blooded him, giving him his first release since his heart had stopped beating; had it been all he'd hoped?

How could it have been? She was hardly an experienced sexpot. Add "sexually untutored" to her list of deficits.

Damn it, how could she be insecure about this-she hadn't asked for him to steal into her bed!

Okay, say I go . . . Yes, she'd promised to give him boons. But she hadn't vowed to perform them blindly. She needed to set parameters tonight. Then she'd proceed to learn everything she could about him to help Cas.

Salem will figure out Gourlav; I'll handle the vamp.

This worry might be all for naught. Most likely she'd freeze at the castle entrance, unable to venture forth. Or would her vow compel her to skulk down darkened lanes-alone, powerless-exactly the sort of place where enemies were wont to hide?

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