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Shadow's Bane (Dorina Basarab) by Karen Chance (1)

Prologue

Mircea, Venice, 1458

It was freezing. He knew that because he could see other peoples’ breath frost the air as they passed, a crowd of shapes that should have been nothing more than dark blurs, but instead were full of light and sound and . . . life. He could close his eyes and still see them, streaks of color against the night, with bright streamers flowing out behind them like the pennants that used to fly from the ramparts at home.

One approached the shadow where he stood; she was so vivid that she almost seemed unreal. Her eyes were blue, shimmering deep and dark, but not cold. Not the color of the ocean, but of the skies, limitless and clear, even shadowed with the knowledge that something wasn’t right. That somewhere nearby, a hunter waited.

A strand of red hair slipped out of the hood of her cloak, curling against a cheek that others might have called pale, but which to him glowed peach and pink and warm, like a lantern against the blacks and grays of the narrow street, and the silvered thread of a canal behind her. The colors dimmed and bloomed with every heartbeat, with every sigh of breath that issued from between cold-reddened lips. The life pulsing in her veins called to him like a siren’s song, urging him to loosen the night he’d wrapped around himself and take one step into the street.

That was all it would take. One step, one lifted hand to call her to his side, one vague brush against her mind to overcome the fear that hastened her feet and sent those beautiful eyes darting into shadows. Just one.

He didn’t take it.

But someone else did.

Mircea saw him even before he moved, not a man but a boy, barely a year out of the grave and without the hard-won restraint Mircea had learned. He must have been local; no one so far gone in bloodlust could have made it this far otherwise. Venice was an open port, where vampire territories were forbidden and everyone was permitted, but this child would have gotten himself killed long before he reached it.

She came closer, the boy trailing her in shadow. Mircea could smell her now, a scent as bright as the daylight she seemed to carry within her, a strange, exotic perfume: bitter orange, honey musk, ambergris, and vanilla, set against the sweet smell of female sweat. His gut twisted, yet he gave no sign.

Because she wasn’t alone.

He couldn’t see the one who trailed her, like the fisherman following the bobbing of his lure. The light he gave off was dim, almost indistinguishable from the glimmer of moonlight on the water below. So dark, in fact, that even with vision many times sharper than a human’s, Mircea could barely discern him, and only because he had known he would be there.

The boy didn’t see him. The boy couldn’t see anything but her. Mircea remembered those days, not so far in his own past. When the bloodlust took you, it was a terrible thing, like being possessed, to the point that he understood why humans called them demons and thrust crosses in their faces.

Crosses didn’t help. Or holy water, or garlic, or wedging bricks into the mouths of the dead, as the locals had taken to doing in a vain attempt to keep them from feeding if they rose. When the demon rode you, only blood would satisfy him and return you to something like sanity.

It was a state the boy had not seen in some time.

The young one slipped closer, in and out of shadow now, visible in glimpses even to human eyes. And audible, too: a strange, low keening issued from between his lips. This was not the savage predator of legend, capable and cruel, but a half-starved child with no master to tend him, no family to help him, no one to lean on for information or even succor.

Stumbling through the night, all alone.

Mircea knew that feeling.

He’d entered this strange life through an old woman’s curse, and hadn’t understood what was happening when his skin started to burn in sunlight, when his food became oddly flavorless, when his eyes seemed to acquire a cat’s vision, suddenly able to see clearly even in the dead of night. Not until his enemies caught up with him, tortured and buried him, leaving him to gasp his last breath in that tiny coffin underground, had he understood. And clawed his way back to the surface in a rebirth of sorts, as terrified and disoriented as a babe, and as ignorant of the new world he found himself in.

Yes, he understood.

He didn’t know this one’s story, only that he wouldn’t be on his own, crying in need, if he had a family to look after him. So he was one of the thousands who washed up on these shores every year, unwanted, abandoned, lost. Made by mistake, on a whim or as punishment for an infraction, and then cast aside to die alone.

Because vampire death was something of a Venice specialty.

But before they died, they hunted. And ones like these hunted wildly, so driven by hunger that they no longer cared for their own safety, much less that of their prey. And while the Vampire Senate allowed them the right to feed here, on the massive festival crowds too drunk to know the difference, mangled corpses were treated seriously.

Members of the city watch, the special ones with the Medusa-head armor and the Senate’s backing, had a hunt of their own, rounding up those who killed when they fed and carrying them away to tiny prison cells. Where they could scream themselves hoarse, or shred their hands battering warded walls that would never yield, and slowly starve surrounded by silence. As if they, too, had been buried alive.

But that wouldn’t happen here.

Because something else hunted tonight.

When the trap sprang, it took place in an instant, almost too fast even for Mircea’s eyes to follow. The boy leapt, with a strangled cry of defeat and desperation, as if he’d been holding himself back but could bear it no longer; the girl turned with a cry of her own, lips parted, eyes wide and frightened; the darkness surged around them.

And the next thing Mircea knew, the girl was alone once more, her breathing rapid, her lips trembling slightly, one pale hand gripping her throat.

Until the darkness whispered something that even Mircea couldn’t hear, and she turned and stumbled away. Walking hurriedly, almost drunkenly, down the street, not a woman but a trap. One that had been sprung and was now being deployed once more.

Mircea waited, unmoving, unbreathing, as the girl and the strange, dark shadow that followed her passed him by.

And then he slipped out into the street, quiet as a breath of wind, and cloaked in a shadow of his own.

And followed.