She'd accused him of not hearing her, and she was likely right. Just the mention of that demon's name had sent him into a rage.

He exhaled a long breath. He should have explained his situation to her:

I am exhausted, Bettina, drained of blood, and my mind is not well. Today, I've learned that Dacia will definitely have a new king, and for the first time in a millennium, I am certain it won't be me. I've made sacrifices to have a life with you, and so I unreasonably expected you to bow to my will without question.

He would tell her this tonight before the ceremony, smoothing things over. And once they were wed, he would take her repeatedly, savoring more of the bliss she'd given him last night. At the memory of her abandon, even his blood-starved body stirred for more.

Except for her hesitation over his bite, she'd surrendered herself fully, satisfying him in untold ways. The final time he'd taken her, he'd gazed down at her face and a truth had struck him: Bettina este viaţă.

Bettina is life. He could never go back to the way he was before.

Tonight, after he'd claimed his wife, he would force himself to drink and sleep, and then finally his thoughts would clear. They can't get worse.

Nothing made sense today. His temper lay ever at the ready, his mood foul. His body was weakened, his head dizzy. Something is off with me.

Was it because he hadn't marked her? According to the physiology book, a vampire needed to pierce his mate.

But he wasn't just a vampire. He was still Dacian.

Right now, he wished he wasn't. Trehan never would have thought that he'd envy a maddened red-eyed vampire like Lothaire, one who'd apparently taken his Bride's neck as he'd claimed her.

Binding her to him. Lothaire obeyed instinct; Trehan resisted it.

The Enemy of Old was healing; I'm backsliding.

Trehan felt . . . ill. His throat burned, and his tongue seemed thick, sticking to the roof of his mouth. His lightheadedness was turning into a pounding headache, even as numbness spread through his limbs.

Just get this fight over with. Everything he desired, everything that belonged to him, was there for the taking. He was so godsdamned close, only needed to go seize it.

He gazed in the direction of the ring. My prize awaits with widened eyes.

Ready for his match, Trehan squared his shoulders, the movement sending him atilt.

He realized something was definitely wrong . . . when he traced to the sanctum . . . and collided face-first into a wall.

One doesn't have to be a sorceress to sense the night's portentous atmosphere," Morgana murmured from her seat on the dais.

Bettina agreed. As Raum greeted the crowd, she gazed over the arena. The rain today had left the ring a red-clay mire. Coils of fog slithered around the cage, oozing from the ground and weaving through the bars.

The full moon riddled the haze with wavering spears of light.

When Raum announced the competitors, the crowd cheered, but their reaction was muted, as if they sensed the ominous air as well.

Caspion and Daciano entered the ring then, tracing over the mud. At this point, she just wanted the two to be safe. She'd deal with the fallout later.

While Raum continued his announcements-about the midnight wedding ceremony, the forthcoming kingdomwide holidays to celebrate, and so on-Bettina studied the vampire.

In each round, he'd been the picture of coldness. Eyes intent, expression focused. A male bent on a single task.

Now sweat dotted his brow and tracked down his temples. His pupils were dilated, and the finest lines of blood streaked from the corners of his eyes.

When he shook his head hard, nearly losing his balance, Bettina's hand shot to Morgana's arm. "Look at the vampire!"

"What is it?"

"Look at his eyes."

She squinted. "Oh, for the love of gold! You have to be kidding me."

"He's been poisoned!" Bettina hissed. She knew the symptoms as well as the next Sorceress.

Morgana gave an astonished laugh. "Your wastrel got clever."

"No! Cas wouldn't have done this," she said, even as she recalled his unwarranted confidence.

Tomorrow night's his last. . . . I cannot lose. . . . I'll use his weakness against him. . . .

"Perhaps Caspion and another planned this?" Morgana sliced her gaze over to Raum.

Cheating is rampant. Was that what the two of them had been talking about last night? Poisoning wasn't outside of the rules.

Then comprehension dawned. It had to be Daciano's cousins who'd done this! He'd told her that all of them were forever trying to kill each other, and they'd been in his tent earlier.

"Your vampire's been given something very potent," Morgana observed. "On a scale from one to five-five being the rare toxin that could actually kill an immortal-I'd put him at four."

"Four? What do I do? What can I do?"

"Hope he can rebound from such a strong dose."

In an obvious bid to do just that, he shook his head again. He nearly reeled before he regained his balance. He seemed confused, his feet sluggish in the thick mud.

He's getting worse.

She turned to Cas. He was seething, his horns ramrod straight, his fangs swollen. He unsheathed his sword, gripping it tightly, his arm muscles bulging. His friends in the stands yelled, antagonizing him even more.

Daciano ran his sleeve over his eyes, then again, as if his sight had been dimmed. When he drew his own weapon, he staggered once more.

The gate clanged shut for the last time. Before Bettina could say a word, Raum gave his signal. And she was helpless yet again as the horn sounded its final blare-




Line : 45

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