Home > Shadow's Claim (The Dacians #1)(2)

Shadow's Claim (The Dacians #1)(2)
Author: Kresley Cole

Standing more than six and a half feet tall, he towered over her five-and-a-half-foot height. His eyes were a hypnotic blue, turning stormy black with strong emotions. His proud horns were the ideal size, curving back along his fair head like a Grecian wreath. He kept them polished; they glinted like amber in the candlelight of her room.

He had sublime features-a strong chin, broad cheekbones, and full, kissable lips. She could only imagine how incredible those lips would feel against her own. They'd never kissed, had never touched beyond a hug.

She'd fallen for Caspion from the moment she'd first seen him ten years ago, when she'd been only twelve. Her beloved sire, King Mathar, had just died, and she and Raum had been presiding over Abaddon's royal court. Or at least Raum had been presiding, reluctantly.

Just three years older than Bettina, Cas had come striding into the chamber, dashing in his armor. All conversation had stopped, the crowd parting as he'd offered a bound bounty-one of her realm's most feared foes.

He didn't present it to Raum. But to her.

She'd still been in the depths of grief, feeling all alone, like a hornless Sorceri imposter who would never belong among the martial Abaddonae. But then a ray of sun had caught Caspion, highlighting those blond locks, setting his eyes aglow. Like a sign.

And she'd known that her life would never be the same.

Besides the fact that they were both orphans, they'd had little in common. She'd been a wealthy royal, treated like a fragile porcelain doll; he'd been found in an alley as a downy-horned toddler and had grown up begging in the streets. She'd been filled with self-doubt, wondering how a peculiar halfling like her could ever be queen; he'd been bold and brash, determined to make his mark, to earn the respect of the Abaddonae.

And yet the unlikeliest of friendships had blossomed. After that first day, she'd followed Caspion everywhere.

In the years to come, he'd routinely sneaked her offplane, teleporting her to the world of mortals so they could discover those new lands together. He'd eventually taken her on his less dangerous bounty hunts, while she'd marveled at his talent in tracking his prey.

They'd shared each other's secrets: his continual sexual dalliances; her modern ideals and fears about assuming the crown once she came of age and was wed.

Yet after all they'd been through together, Cas still considered her his best friend and nothing more. Perhaps this was because her looks weren't on par with his-or demonic in the least. Her features were most often described as "elfin." One problem: she wasn't an elf.

Maybe her br**sts were just too small. She glanced down, briefly glaring at them.

Didn't matter. For all her physical shortcomings, tonight she would attempt to change her friendship with Cas, to elevate it.

In preparation, she'd extinguished the chandeliers and lit a few candles throughout the rooms. She'd procured several jugs of demon brew, then dismissed the guards stationed outside her door.

And she'd dressed for the occasion.

"Won't you tell me what's going on, my darling?" she asked, edging closer. "You always trust me with your secrets. You know I'll keep them forever."

"My problem doesn't concern you," he said, absently rubbing his throat. "It mustn't."

"Hmm. Very well." She'd try another tack. "You haven't complimented me on my outfit." Bettina had grown accustomed to the jeans, sandals, and T-shirts she'd worn during her two-semester stint at college, but in Abaddon, she'd returned to dressing as her foremothers had.

In other words, she'd clad herself in provocative clothes, plaited her dark hair into wild, disordered braids, and donned as much gold jewelry as her body could carry.

As was the Sorceri way, she also wore a mask. The scarlet silk was a thin band around her eyes, making their color stand out-champagne-brown irises circled with a ring of black. According to her godmother, Morgana, her wide eyes were her best feature.

But now Cas barely spared a glance at her red lace-up bodice or her skimpy black skirt with slits up to her hips. The thigh-high boots encasing her legs in soft leather evoked no reaction. He said nothing about the gold armlets winding up each arm, the matching collar around her neck, or the diadem perched upon her head.

A master goldsmith, Bettina had created each of the pieces in her workshop-adding a surprise design modification. She was secretly proud of her skill.

"Very pretty," he said in a distracted tone, glancing in her direction. "You grow prettier with each year."

She'd read in a women's magazine that a male who liked you wanted to watch you all the time. You'd catch his eyes on you constantly.

Sometimes Cas didn't look at her at all. When he did, sometimes he didn't seem to see her.

No, I must snare his attention! One of two fates awaited her, depending on the outcome of her mission tonight.

If she succeeded in seducing Cas, she would wed her heart's desire and be forever protected by the only male she'd ever loved. They would become king and queen of the Deathly Ones and live out their eternal lives together.

If she failed with her demon, a tournament would begin for her hand-and for the crown of Abaddon. Bettina had seen the caliber of contestants beginning to file into Rune.

Swilling demon lords who already had dozens of brutalized wives.

Snakelike Cerunnos who would expect her to feed their spawn-with her flesh.

A troll that wasn't an anatomical match for her.

She knew none of them desired her; they only wanted the throne. Reminded of her prospects, she laid her hand on Cas's thigh, saying in a breathy murmur, "It's been so lonely without you here these past few weeks." She edged even closer. "You still won't confess where in the Lore you went off to?"

"Doesn't concern you," he said, but she'd known him long enough to know she was wearing him down.

"Please talk to me, Cas." She twirled the ends of her bodice laces, trying to draw his attention to her diminutive-but expertly displayed-breasts. "Take my mind off my fate."

"And that is another worry I contend with." He clenched his mug until the handle bent. "How could your godparents do this to you?"

Though Raum and Morgana, the Queen of Sorceri, were lifelong foes of each other, they agreed on one thing: Bettina's need for a husband/protector/king. But since they couldn't agree on a particular male-or even a particular species-they'd decided to host this tournament.

Searching only for the strongest champion in the Lore, they'd opened it to all creatures.

Olden ways. Abaddon had once been known for blood sport within its notorious Iron Ring-and for virgins offered up as prizes.

Bettina knew her two guardians loved her; they meant well. She also knew how fortunate she was to have them in her life. Halflings born of two hostile species were often shunned by both.

"I agreed to all their terms, Cas." She remembered that fateful conversation. She'd been sobbing, telling them, "Yes, yes, I'll do anything. Just get me my power back!" Sinister and destructive as it might be.

Cas scoffed. "Agreed? You mean they manipulated you."

If Bettina ever got famous enough in the Lore to earn a trailing name-like Maksimillia the Butcher or Lothaire the Enemy of Old-it would probably be Bettina the Pushover. Maybe Bettina the Easy Mark.

"Always, they get their way with you!"

Not always. Last year, she'd stunned everyone-including herself-and defied her guardians in order to attend a mortal design college. Ever since she was young, she'd been obsessed with fashion and jewelry creation, the Sorceri love of gold and garb running deep in her. She'd consumed every book on the subject and had been hungry to learn more and hone her craft.

Far from the prying eyes of Castle Rune, Bettina had been a carefree Lorean, blending with humans, enjoying freedom, new friends, and even her own flat with electricity and modern amenities! No longer had she been a halfling freak among hardy demons-she'd been a design geek, immersed in a tribe of them.

One night had changed her entire life. She swallowed, tamping down that memory. "I wasn't exactly in a position to resist my guardians again."

The first-and last-time she'd defied them, she'd been punished to within an inch of her life.

It'd taken her two months to convalesce; being part Sorceri and on the cusp of immortality meant she had healed fully-but slowly. The only thing that had gotten her through it?

Caspion.

Each day, he'd sat at her bedside, entertaining her with tales of his debauched companions, a randy pack of young demon males.

And each night he'd hunted her attackers relentlessly. Sixty days of hardly eating or sleeping.

But a month ago, Raum had ordered an exhausted Cas off the trail, promising that a cadre of soldiers would take over. Bitterly disappointed, Cas had vanished, returning only last night.

Now he took another drink. "Why in the gods' names didn't you wait for me to come back before you agreed to something like this tournament?"

Because my godparents pushed so hard. Because I feel unwhole without my power. Because they withheld the worst details of this medieval fiasco.

"I had little recourse." And even less now. In fact, Bettina had only one move available to her: seduce Caspion. Only a virgin could be offered up for the tournament. "And besides, I had no idea when you would return since you left me no word." Over the years, he'd disappeared from time to time, going on his more perilous hunts-or benders or attending orgies or whatever else he and his wild friends did.

"What's done is done, Cas. The fact remains that unless I come up with a way out of this tournament before the start tomorrow night, I'm going to be married off to a stranger by the end of next week."

His voice barely above a whisper, he said, "I'm going to be dead by the end of the night."

Chills raced over her. "You can't say something like that, then not explain. Aren't we friends?"

"So many things I've wanted to do," Cas said, his eyes distant. "So many things I've never even begun."

She'd felt the exact same way in that field of poppies.

He finally faced her. "Remember when we were going to travel the rest of the worlds? See every single demonic plane in the Lore?"

"We can still do that."

"No, Tina." He ran a palm down the leg of his black pants. "I've broken one of their laws. They will send him. Straight from the Realm of Blood and Mist."

"Who?" Bettina demanded. She'd never heard of this realm. "Who do you think will hurt you?"

Who could? Caspion was an adult demon male, now fully immortal. He was also a talented swordsman. She'd watched him train for countless hours. Even now his ever-present sword glinted proudly from the sheath at his side.

So why was his expression one of obvious dread? She'd never seen the stalwart Cas like this.

He suddenly looked his age: a young twenty-five. "They have a secret kingdom, hidden from the Lore. . . ."

Oh, yes, he was on the verge of telling all. "Go on, darling."

"Their people rarely leave-and then only in a cloaking mist that makes them invisible. Though most 'otherlanders' are forbidden within, I had a powerful friend, a sponsor of sorts, so I was allowed inside." He paused for a long drink. "But once an otherlander enters, he can't ever leave-except upon pain of death. Yet I did. I couldn't stay in that place any longer, one just as primitive as Abaddon. Here, at least I'm free to roam where I will! And my sponsor . . . he changed. Drastically. So I escaped, never thinking their killer could find me on our plane, but I sense him. Already I sense him in Abaddon."

"Tell me who is looking for you!"

Staring past her, he muttered, "The Prince of Shadow. The most soulless bastard I've ever met. He comes in the mist, an assassin without equal. To be targeted by him is to be as good as dead."

"No! We'll fight this male. I'll sic the entire army on him, place a bounty on his head! What type of Lorean is he?"

"The kind our army can't fight. Ah, Tina, I shouldn't have left here, should never have gone there to begin with! I was just so godsdamned frustrated, after failing over and over. . . . Now the last thing I'll see is a crescent moon."

"My darling, you're not making any sense," she said, desperate to stop this assassin. She would gut any foe of his with her new blade-the secret one she'd designed to slip into her gold collar. "Let me repay all your kindness to me, Cas. I can help you now."

"Without your power?"

How matter-of-factly he spoke about that, while she suffered chills. "Then Salem can help." Salem, her new "servant."

Once a phantom warrior, able to solidify his body at will, he'd been cursed to be a sylph-an invisible spirit, an air elemental. He could possess just about anything-a raven, a pillow, a clock. She would order him to keep an eye out for this mysterious assassin.

Instead of always spying on me. Did Morgana and Raum actually expect her to believe that Salem was a mere domestic? She'd barely shooed the sylph out of her rooms before Cas had arrived tonight. "Salem's telekinesis is surprisingly powerful-"

"No one can help me." Cas stood unsteadily, unfolding his tall form. "I must go, meet with some friends. Settle my accounts. Tell no one of this, Tina, or you betray my trust."

Shooting to her feet, she cried, "Please don't leave." He could be going to his death!

"My cards have been dealt. At least no one can say I didn't pay what I owed." He gave a bitter laugh, as if at an inside joke.

She grabbed his brawny arm. "Then return here tonight."

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