In his bout against the remaining Ajatar, he'd walked through flames, his outline illuminated-no panic, just pure will as he'd made his kill, collecting one head, then the other.

Against the Volar demon, he'd demonstrated just as little emotion. With his face expressionless and his eyes that impassive green, Daciano had winged the creature, then taken its head effortlessly.

Many of the Abaddonae were speculating that he was a turned human, a Forbearer. Some of them believed he must be the oldest Forbearer ever turned, considering his strength and his control with tracing.

Most had deemed him chillingly cold.

If she had a gold piece for every time Cas had muttered, "Bastard's got ice in his veins" . . .

But Bettina thrilled to watch him fight. As someone interested in mechanical precision, she could appreciate his daring but methodical style.

A killing machine.

Yet she'd also seen him as no one else had-his grim face alight with pride, his eyes dancing. . . .

Even if she could deny that she'd missed him, she couldn't deny that her body hungered for more of what he'd given her.

Her only exchanges with him? After each of his matches, he'd given her a bow in acknowledgment, then he'd leveled that penetrating gaze on her.

Recalling how his irises changed as he beheld her-forest green flooding black-made her shiver even now.

She could imagine his look said: I'm fighting for you. Soon you'll be mine.

It made her feel like the most desirable woman in the world.

Others had started to remark on the way he looked at her, nicknaming him the Prince of Obsessions. Bettina Abaddon-an object of obsession?

She couldn't quite buy it either.

Besides, if he was so obsessed, then why had he made no move to contact her? Salem had mentioned that he was never in his tent during the day. Where would the vampire go if barred from Dacia?

She'd noticed that his clothing was often in disarray, as if he'd traced into the ring directly from another fight. He would have mud splashed across his pants or a ripped shirttail. Once he'd had snow on his boots and a spray of crimson on his sleeve.

What? Did he have a part-time job or something?

Maybe he'd simply tired of the chase. She replayed his parting words continually. Lest you lose a male who'll desire only you . . .

The idea of losing him brought on a wave of sadness. Which made no sense; if she loved one male, how could she feel things for another?

Admittedly, things were strained between her and Cas. The more he tried to be on his best boyfriendly behavior, the more distance seemed to yawn between them.

Whenever he remained at an endless banquet with her-instead of running off with his rowdy friends-he could be the picture of attentiveness. Until he inevitably slipped up with a longing gaze at the exit, or a buxom serving wench distracted his attention.

Then he'd look guilty, like he was inwardly berating himself. Which made her feel guilty for dragging him into this. Would he forever gaze at other females, wondering if that one might be the one? Would he forever imagine attempting other demonesses to find his fated mate?

She wasn't eaten alive with jealousy like before-not after all the things she'd done with Daciano. No, she was more contemplative about Cas's insistence that another female would be his. What if he'd been right?

What if I've been . . . wrong? Maybe it hadn't been a matter of their different stations or his insecurity over his birth. Maybe it hadn't been a matter of his sown oats.

She and Cas had never been ill at ease with each other before. At times she feared they were trying to wedge their relationship into a mold that would never fit.

Speaking of which . . . She glanced down at the mold she'd been filing, gawking at the pile of shavings. Ruined. She chucked it into the wastebasket, then squeezed her forehead with frustration.

Chapter 28

Everything was changing, her life altered by this tournament in unforeseeable ways. And possibly for nothing.

Raum had visited today with some startling news-

"Honey, I'm home!" Salem called out, returning from his daily duties: spying. Entering the workroom, he occupied a length of chain on the backboard. "Damn, chit, maybe you want to file the shavings down too?"

She glared. "I'm preoccupied, okay?"

"And I'm holding me palms up in surrender-but it's fake. 'Cause I never surrender. So how much longer till you finish?"

"I'll complete fabrication before the round tonight, attaching the palm grip to the four top rings. Basically everything but the spring mechanism and the sneak blade. When I get back, I'll do that and then etch the rings. You can send word that she'll have it tomorrow."

Which was an important step. Bettina straightened her arms, clutching the edge of the workbench. Because if Gourlav wins, I'll be seeking asylum in Patroness's kingdom.

Of course, without her medallion, Bettina couldn't exactly escape her new husband's clutches.

They still had no idea how to defeat the primordial, and there were only three rounds left-including tonight's lady's choice round. She'd secretly been hoping that this round would afford her the opportunity to take out the primordial herself.

"What's going on out in Rune?" she asked Salem.

"Commerce," Salem said in an impressed tone. "Lots and lots of commerce. Your backwater kingdom is now a hot tourist destination."

As the final battles neared, fans of all stripes-sometimes literally-had arrived on the plane, filling inns and eateries. Young Loreans were camped out around the Iron Ring, playing music and building bonfires.

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