Home > Shadow's Claim (The Dacians #1)(17)

Shadow's Claim (The Dacians #1)(17)
Author: Kresley Cole

She inhaled deeply, struggling to block her mind off from those memories. To no avail.

We've been watching you, Princess. Those fiends still lived, could very well be watching her right now.

A mouse might escape from a hawk, but never for long.

She flung her glass against the wall, hating her fear. Hating herself.

Trehan often awaited his targets. He had crouched upon roofs in the night, leaning against chimneys. He had hovered above them as light as mist. Always, he studied them before he struck.

Now he stood in the foggy drizzle upon a rooftop outside Castle Rune, awaiting Bettina-to watch over her. After the way those drunken entrants had spoken about her, he would never allow her to walk through the encampment alone.

Earlier, he'd collected his bag of clothing and weapons from beneath the bridge-he supposed some part of him had always known he'd enter the tournament-then traced to the fallen vampire's tent.

Inside, he'd found an ornate desk and chair, a divan, golden goblets, carafes of blood, and a bed of furs on the ground, as was the vampire way. Amenities and luxury for the taking. The Horde had always been wealthy.

So he'd unpacked his few belongings. In his haste, he'd been forced to leave behind so much. But he had the two items he truly treasured: his father's sword and the scry crystal. The former was sentimental; the latter was priceless.

After hanging his standard outside the tent, he'd made himself at home-because that was the closest thing he had to one now.

A short conversation with the dead contestant's vampire squire had gained Trehan a new servant as well.

Now in the streets below him, the mad scramble of delegates and contestants spying on each other had begun. Soon he'd have to undertake a fact-finding mission of his own. But for now, his focus was on Bettina.

Through the fog, he spied movement at the base of the castle. A concealed door was opening, revealing her at the threshold. She wore a cloak that covered her hair and most of her body, as well as a mask. But he could still see she was panting, her gloved fingers digging into the doorjamb.

She looked as if she were a vampire about to check the time-with a sundial.

Eyes darting behind her mask, she took one halting step out, then another. By the time she reached the closest building, she had to stop and lean her slender frame against a wall for balance as she nearly hyperventilated.

She dreads meeting me this much?

And why wouldn't she? He'd forced an overprotected, virginal-and very young-female to sneak to his tent for an assignation. In her mind, he was almost a stranger, and she would have no idea what he might demand.

No doubt she imagined the worst, and now her nerves were frayed. Guilt scored him.

But then a scavenging kobold, a sort of reptilian gnome, knocked over a basket near her, scuttling away. She jerked away from the clatter with a cry and flattened herself against the wall. Chanting something between breaths, she pressed one hand to her forehead as she swayed.

Surely this was more than nerves, more than virginal misgivings. She was utterly terrified.

Her trembling brought to mind the moments from last night when he'd been struggling not to bite her. Though he'd been nigh mindless in the grip of his blooding, he now recalled two words she'd whispered, "Not again."

She'd thought he was about to hurt her; clearly someone already had. Another vampire? Trehan didn't think so-she'd shown no more reaction to that Horde vampire at the tournament than to any other contestant. Then who?

She was like the most absorbing book he'd ever encountered. How to turn the page?

Suddenly that strange and inexplicable frustration from months before returned, the dread that had woken him. He rubbed his chest. What had called to him so sharply then? It must have been related to her.

Protect.

Trehan traced behind her, secretly wrapping her within the mist. As his blood female, she was of his kind-even if she didn't accept that yet-and the mist was a part of them all.

She soon calmed, not completely, but enough to steady her breaths and continue on to the tent.

He had to uncover what his little Bride feared. So he could destroy it.

Of course, he was the last person she'd confide in. But there were other ways to learn about her. His gaze fell to her neck, to her wildly beating pulse.

Using one of Lothaire's tactics had brought about this meeting. Perhaps if this bargaining with Bettina proved successful, Trehan would employ another of the Enemy of Old's tricks. . . .

I made it! Somehow Bettina had walked-alone at night-all the way to the vampire's tent.

She glanced around the empty space. So where was he?

"Bettina," he intoned from behind her.

She whirled around with a cry. "Y-you startled me."

The vampire was studying her with a quizzical glance. Right now, his eyes were a steady, dark green. They were handsome.

He was handsome?

He wore black leather pants, the cut more old-fashioned, but they looked good on his muscular legs. His tailored white shirt was made from a light material that did nothing to disguise the latent strength of his chest, those corded biceps and broad shoulders.

The sight made her frown. She'd had the run of his body last night-but she'd wasted her chance to satisfy her curiosity. Great. She dragged her gaze up to his.

When not wearing a scowl, his face was . . . pleasing. He'd certainly cleaned up well after the melee.

She felt safer with him than out on the street, even found the tension leaving her shoulders, her temples and jaw. In its place, that heated awareness returned, bringing with it irritation. Was she actually attracted to this vampire?

Every time he was near her, those molten feelings returned-she seethed inside, not with anger, but with something.

"Please sit," he said, ushering her to a divan. "Shall I take your cloak?"

Parameters, Bettina. "Look, Daciano, I came here to pay off boons, but I didn't agree to open-ended favors. I want to set a time limit for this meeting. I suggest twenty min-"

"You'll stay till dawn." His tone brooked no argument. "Your cloak?" he asked again, as if she hadn't spoken.

There went that plan. With an aggrieved air, she removed it, handing it to him. Or trying to.

For a long laden moment, he just stood there staring at her body, his eyes smoldering.

She'd deliberately worn a more modest outfit, one her godmother would consider "frumpy." Bettina's top of braided gold strands barely molded to her br**sts; her jade silk sarong was split high, but only on one thigh. Accessories: a jet black mask, small diadem, and black full-length fingerless gloves. No flirty garters or thigh-highs.

All in all, this was demure by Sorceri standards. She'd seen Morgana attend a state dinner in nothing more than a micromini and glorified pasties.

She delicately cleared her throat; he exhaled a gust of breath, finally meeting her gaze and reaching out to take her cloak.

"Arresting, Bettina," he said in a roughened voice. "Quite literally."

Bettina was a design geek, a virgin who'd failed to seduce the male she was closest to. Now this vampire was looking at her as if she were a femme fatale. And for a crazy moment, he'd kind of made her feel like one.

"Would you like a drink?"

"I guess." Desperately. "Sweet wine if you have it."

"No demon brew?"

"Never again. The one time I tried it, a vampire appeared in my bed."

With raised brows, he traced to pour her a glass. She thought she heard another exhalation. Had she rattled the centuries-old vamp?

Taking a seat, she surveyed his appropriated tent. A fire burned in a copper pit, the smoke venting out through a shielded opening in the canvas. Though a light rain had started outside, the interior was snug and warm.

The floor was a platform of wood, covered by luxurious rugs. A desk and chair occupied one side of the tent, that log-like scroll of rules on the floor beside it.

A deep bathtub stood in one corner, while a sprawling pallet of furs lay directly atop the platform in another. No raised bed for him-because vampires slept as close to the ground as possible.

As he poured himself a goblet of blood from a warmed carafe, she said, "I can see why you wanted this tent. It screams vampire."

A slight frown. "You and I are not so different, Bettina."

Chapter 18

"We are wildly different."

"Not so much that we can't find common ground."

"Oh? Is that why I'm here?" she asked, adding dryly, "To look for 'common ground'?"

He simply said, "Yes." Offering her the wine, he asked, "Were you worried about someone seeing you on the way here?"

She accepted it. "I wanted to avoid that, yes."

"You seemed . . . on edge walking here alone."

"You spied on me?"

"I watched over you," he corrected, sitting beside her. "I would never let you walk alone this late at night."

Bettina supposed that should irritate her, that she should rail at him for being a stalker and hate him even more.

Instead, the realization that she'd had a deadly guard watching over her the entire way was . . . reassuring. "That was your mist. You surrounded me." She'd perceived the cool, comforting embrace of it, but hadn't known what it was. It had blunted her panic attack.

Not all by myself, then. "So you truly can turn into vapor?"

He inclined his head. "All Dacians can. A talent born from a time before we came upon our mountain realm, when the light was too great and the shadows too few."

Before she could ask him more about this, he said, "Were you that nervous about meeting me? Or was it more?"

More, so much more! "I have no idea what you'll demand." And yet she wasn't frightened of what he might do. Again, she felt no trepidation where he was concerned.

He gazed away, looking troubled. "I told you I'd never hurt you. If given leave, I'd do nothing but protect you."

He'd seen her reaction outside; she didn't want him to think he was responsible for that. Not out of concern for him. She simply didn't want the vampire to think he'd intimidated her. "Look, I just don't like to walk alone at night. I might have . . . issues-ones that I don't want to speak of."

Naturally, Trehan wouldn't rest until he was fully versed in these issues. "Your kingdom is secure. Most beings cower before your guardians. Not to mention that you're a sorceress. What issues could you possibly have?"

Her eyes narrowed with irritation. "We're not friends, Daciano. We're not confidantes. Why should I tell you anything about myself? You are a threat to me. You blackmailed me today."

"Unfortunate but necessary." He leaned forward on the edge of the divan, resting his elbows on his knees. "Now back to the subject at hand. You whispered 'Not again' when you thought I was about to hurt you last night."

She glanced away, clearly trying to remember what she'd said.

"Has another vampire touched you?"

"No!"

"A sorcerer then?" he quickly asked, setting away his goblet. "I read that Sorceri constantly battle for powers. Was yours stolen from you?"

"Another subject I don't want to talk about!"

Trehan sensed he was close to the truth, so he pressed on mercilessly. "I also read that your kind consider a root ability akin to one's soul?"

She peered hard into her cup. It shook in her hand. Her expression was a mix of sadness, frustration, and . . . shame.

This fragile creature had been violated like that? Someone had dared steal her power.

He was awash with pure rage-an unfamiliar emotion for him. Give me names, the scantest direction! Yet he leveled his tone when he asked, "What was your root power?"

In a voice just above a whisper, she said, "I was a . . . queen. The Queen of Hearts."

"What could you do?"

"I could make a being's heart stop. For all time. I could make an enemy's chest explode."

"Did you wield it to defend yourself?"

Staring past Trehan, she murmured, "I didn't have time. They dropped from . . . I-I never saw them."

"Them?" More than one? Barely managing to rein in his fury, he bit out, "Direct me to these thieves, and I will slaughter them."

She glanced up at him, clearly startled by his tone.

"No one steals from us, dragă mea."

Bettina felt raw. Trehan Daciano now knew a secret only a handful of others shared. How had he gotten under her skin like that? And why was he so adamant about avenging her? "There is no us, vampire. Again, I'm here under duress."

"Tell me who hurt you."

"You've known me for twenty-four hours. Yet you're willing to wade into danger, risking your life to avenge me?"

"Yes."

"I'm not a vampire. I can't wrap my mind around this spontaneous protectiveness."

"That part is not much different from a demon's mate."

Apparently, I don't get that either.

"Twenty-two years ago, my Bride was born. For two decades she's been without my protection. From what I can glean, that span of years has been treacherous for her. Simply put: someone hurt her-I need to make that being suffer in unspeakable ways."

Daciano's strength and will were nearly palpable, a heady combination. She finally understood why some women were hopelessly attracted to dangerous men. Not that she was. But she could see it.

"Can your power be returned to you?" he asked.

"Morgana has promised to do just that before I wed."

"A condition of this tournament? But isn't she worried about who the victor might be?"

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