And Bettina would have to forgive me. . . .
Raum, the apparent master of ceremonies, motioned for the crowds to quiet down. "Tidings to the Abaddonae, fiercest of all the demonarchies!" More cheers. "And also to those from offplane who've journeyed here for our-humble-little tournament." Laughs sounded. "Together with my cohost, the all-powerful Morgana, we welcome you."
When he indicated her with a jerk of his chin, she rose. Without a wave or gesture of any sort, she swept her gaze over the crowd as if staring down every single attendee.
Only when the crowd had grown utterly silent did she sit again. She whispered something to Bettina, something that made the girl nod warily.
"Now, the stakes of this contest are high. Each round is to the death, yet one will have no fighting at all. Perhaps a game of wits? Ah, but never a game of chance! You have to earn Princess Bettina's hand, proving yourself worthy of her line."
Raum held up a gold case-the one that housed Bettina's summoning medallion? "Yes, the stakes are high, but the rewards are commensurate. The victor will win dominion over the fair princess herself!"
Dominion. Trehan nearly growled.
Bettina's face heated, her fists balling. She was clearly unhappy about her circumstances; so why had she allowed herself to be offered up? Last night, she'd said, "They willed it."
Then Raum held up a crown. "And the right to rule the Deathly Ones."
An armored storm demon-from a demonarchy infamous for its harems-shouted, "I'm already a royal. I'm only here to plow the princess!"
Guffaws sounded. Bettina flinched as if struck. Just as Trehan tensed to attack the male, Morgana stood once more, with her braids coiling like whips. In a clear, ringing voice, she snapped, "Respect-is-not-optional." Swirls of sorcery radiated from her.
Raum gave Morgana a quelling look, then asked the crowd, "Now, have all the competitors been accounted for? The deadline nears."
Your female or your kingdom? Trehan stared hard at his Bride, compelled to be near her, to be touching her this very instant.
Just then, she glanced down at her twining fingers. When she looked up again, her eyes were watering, her little mask askew.
Should I protect her, even if she doesn't want my protection?
"We have two hundred and twenty-seven?" Raum said.
At the demon's words, Trehan's thoughts began to race. Entry about to be closed. Ready to feel thousands of gazes upon your back, Trehan? Think! Enter, and you will not be who you were. Which might be good. I only leave the coffin to kill.
Have I been moldering? Have I been as good as dead?
He was a loner by nature, with a sacred duty to murder, taught by experience to trust no one. Added to that, he lived in a closed, hidden society that worshipped reason and believed in the absolute control over one's emotions.
Surrounded now by all these new scents, sights, sounds-by all this life-he realized the answer.
Trehan had been a shade. But like the dead, he was the last one to know it. No wonder killing comes so easily to me. I'm halfway to the grave myself.
Yes, he'd been buried in the earth like some dormant thing-an unfeeling machine. What would await him should he decide to rise?
Remaining dormant was comfortable. No sharp emotions, no uncontrollable urges.
No regret for all his many years already wasted in that static state.
Think, Trehan! To pursue Bettina would mean forsaking everything he'd ever loved and embracing everything that had ever challenged him.
Your kingdom? Or the one who first awakened you . . . ?
Raum gazed around at the crowd. "Then the lists will be considered full-"
"Hold demon," a male called from the back. "You've one final competitor."
Bettina would have recognized that deep, accented voice anywhere.
She squeezed her eyes shut. The vampire was here, somewhere in the crowd. And he planned to compete?
Just when she'd thought the night couldn't possibly get worse.
Earlier when Cas had told her he would enter, with his shoulders back like some sigh-worthy hero of old, her heart had leapt. Then at the sign-in desk, he'd qualified his actions: "There, Tina. If I'm marked for death anyway, I might as well try to save my best friend from a nightmare marriage."
And now this?
"Is that another vampire?" Morgana murmured in an intrigued tone.
Bettina opened her eyes and drew a shocked breath.
There Daciano was, striding toward her, his face grim with determination. The light of the grand torches sheened off his black hair.
Tonight his clothing was more regal, the fine lines and cloth looking like they'd cost a pretty karat. He also wore a full-length trench coat of black leather that fitted flawlessly over his broad shoulders and narrow hips.
The fog seemed to part for him; the crowd certainly did. Even among the strapping Abaddonae males, his towering body stood out. He could have traced, but he chose to walk, heightening her suspense.
Last night, she'd asked herself, What foreign assassin would dare target a Deathly One in his home plane of Abaddon?
This one. Trehan Daciano. A professional killer.
This isn't happening. Why, gods, would he return? And why enter? Why not wait to finish his mission until after the tournament?
Her gaze slid to Caspion, standing slack jawed outside the ring.
Then she remembered: once seen like this, Daciano could never return to his home.
No wonder Cas was stunned!
The vampire hadn't spared him a glance, his attention solely on Bettina. Initially the Dacian's eyes had been a deep green. Yet when his gaze locked on her, they flooded with black.