And he's about to lose so much.

"Your people should take cues from you."

"What I mean is that everyone will think I'm siding with you over Cas." Perception is reality.

"You are!"

She shook her head. "It's not that simple."

"It is! Then you're not choosing me over him?"

The vampire's already driving the wedge! "Don't put it like that! And don't put my back against the wall over this!" Bettina would be damned if they set this precedent. With your actions, you train others how to treat you. "Cas will have a place in my future-resign yourself."

"Do you or don't you choose me?"

"You're not being fair to me, and you're not hearing me!" He seemed to interpret everything she said as: I want Cas. "I choose both of you-for different things. Trehan, I can't turn my back on him just because of how I feel about you-"

"Not good enough!" he snapped. In a softer tone, he added, "There will be only one male in your life-me. Tonight in the ring, I will explain this to Caspion. By the time his bones mend, he'll fear ever to look at you again."

"Enough!" she cried. "What is wrong with you?" Where is my tender, gentle vampire from last night? "You're about to get everything-this victory, your Bride, the entire kingdom. Cas gets nothing! And now you want to grind him under your boot? In front of our people? I won't have it! Show some compassion!"

"You feel that for him!" The vampire grasped her nape, studying her face with eyes gone black as pitch. "What other feelings linger?"

"Of course I feel compassion for him! We've shared years of friendship."

"It's my right to win this night!"

"Yes, it is-but that doesn't mean you have to crush my best friend to do it."

"One day, Bettina, I will reach my limit with this." He brushed her hair back, then straightened her mask. His touch was tender even as his words were harsh: "You'd best make your plea ring out, lest I rip him apart with these hands." Then he traced away.

Still shaken by Daciano's behavior, Bettina had found Raum and hastily explained the clause. He'd been bemused but accepting, deferring to her in everything-as if she were already queen.

As if he couldn't wait to have another rule. It was a little unnerving.

Next, Bettina set out to find Cas, locating him near the entrance to the sanctum. His rowdy friends were pumping him up, punching his torso as they yelled encouragement: "Gut that f**king leech!" "A pair of fangs to start your collection!" They rammed his horns, spurring his aggression, his instinctive need for a fresh kill.

"I have to talk to you, Cas."

He traced over. "What is it? I'm about to go in."

There was no easy way to put this. "What if I told you there was a mercy clause in the rules, an out for one of the contestants?"

"What are you talking about?"

"If Daciano gets you at sword point, then I can plead mercy, sparing your life. But it will disqualify you from the tournament."

Cas's eyes went wild. "Don't you dare use that for me!"

"Just wait-"

"Do you think I have no honor?"

"It isn't like that!"

Gripping her arm, he traced her out of earshot of his friends. "I was born with nothing-I've worked so damned hard to get where I am, risking my life again and again. Would you cut me down just when I'm at my highest? You would humiliate me like that?"

"You're my best friend. I can't let you die."

"Don't do this." He pinched his forehead. "I think . . . I think I would grow to hate you."

"Hate? Do you really want this to be the end of your life? To die at twenty-five? For a female you're not even in love with?"

"Tina, I know you've gotten attached to the vampire. Dear gods, I can scent him on you."

She flushed, averting her gaze.

"But I would rather die with honor than lose that way."

"I won't let that happen. I have watched round after round, sitting helpless on the sidelines while you and the vampire risked your lives. At last I can do something to help you."

"Help me-against him of all people? Daciano?"

Yes, Salem, apparently I was deluding myself about them. She'd never known two males who hated each other so bitterly-and who had so little reason to.

Chapter 46

"Worry more for him, sorceress!" Cas snapped, angrier than she'd ever seen him. "I will take him out. I cannot lose."

Where was this confidence coming from? "Did you not witness the vampire against the primordial? Be realistic. Daciano has so many years on you."

"That won't matter, not when I use his weakness against him."

"What weakness? He doesn't have any."

"Everyone has a weakness," Cas insisted. "You must let this play out! I'm a death demon fighting for my honor-I'm going to prove myself to all of them!"

"He's a thousand-year-old Dacian fighting for his fated Bride. I got you into this, Cas. I'm going to do what I have to in order to get you out of it." With that, she left him to his friends, a pack of demons yelling for Cas to slay a vampire.

Trehan had regretted his harsh words almost as soon as he'd said them. He'd returned to the tent, but Bettina had already gone.

Line : 46

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