Trehan had scowled at him. "Biting isn't . . . Dacians simply don't bite others," he'd said, sounding prudish and old, even to himself. "Keeping our blood untainted is what separates us from the Horde."

"Really, Uncle? You know mated Dacians must taste each other's blood. Even if no one speaks of it. Perhaps with such a king as Lothaire, bloodtaking will be taboo no more?"

"Exchanging blood could happen accidentally," Stelian had pointed out, "but a bite is consciously done. We're above such needs."

Apparently not me. Maybe Trehan had Horde blood in his ancestry . . . ?

Viktor was on the fence about installing Lothaire, saying, "He's much worse than I'd thought. The only way I'd agree is if he figures out how to bond with his female and make her immortal. Oh, and if we withhold as much pertinent information from him as possible." Why? "So he has reason to keep us alive."

Stelian had grown dead set against Lothaire.

And Trehan? I am . . . ready. New ruler or not, the kingdom was no longer Trehan's mistress. Now he was free to serve another completely, a wide-eyed halfling he would kill to possess.

To protect. Zeii mea, I want to protect her forever.

Today, at last, he had begun.

"Welcome, all, to the Morgana show!" her godmother announced to the crowd.

Bettina sighed. This is going to be a long night. She gazed around the grandstand, noting all the changes Morgana's minions had wrought over the day.

Sorceri banners of crimson and purple now swathed the area, like slashes of paint on a gray Abaddon canvas. Crystal domes levitated above the great torches, the glass casting brilliant prisms over everything.

Was it just her, or had the Sorceri banquet table lengthened-while the demon table had shortened? And no meat graced the demons' feast, which Bettina thought was unnecessarily cruel.

Raum sat beside Bettina on the dais with his goblet all but attached to his face. He was cruising toward battle-ax mode, casting Morgana black looks.

There had to be a story between those two, something more than Bettina knew.

Morgana was in rare form tonight, dressed in her most impressive pieces. Her gold bustier was encrusted with diamonds-she called the piece her "Valkyrie slayer"-and her full-length skirt was sequined with more diamonds, hundreds of them.

Across her face, she had sapphires affixed in the shape of a mask. Her eyes glowed with her amusement, lighting the gems. But her headdress was the most awing sight to behold, a fan of gold, studded with mismatched jewels-choice heirlooms from all the Loreans she'd slain over her long life.

Bettina couldn't lift the piece by herself. Three Inferi had to heft it atop Morgana's shoulders. Yet the sorceress carried it with aplomb.

Now Morgana cupped her hand to her ear. "I said, 'Welcome to the Morgana show!' "

Sorceri cheered-frantically, as if their lives depended on it. Wise.

Apparently dissatisfied with the level of applause, she announced, "I am the one who sponsored the preceding spectacles, including the floor show-"

The crowd erupted into cheers and foot stomping.

Guess my subjects are big on floor shows. Good to know.

"Silence!" Morgana commanded. At once, everyone went quiet. "Tonight's round is the lady's choice. It will have much, much more tension and emotional poignancy than the other mundane rounds." Sly look at Raum. "This is a contest of wits-the only muscle used will be the brain."

At last Bettina would find out what this was all about.

Morgana waved to the guards at the sanctum gate. "Bring forth the competitors." The six remaining males filed out to stand in a line below the grandstand-Gourlav, the Lykae, the remaining fire demon, the last stone demon, Caspion, and Daciano.

Just looking at the vampire brought on a pang of feeling. Which meant . . .

I have more than just Cas to worry about tonight.

For once Daciano wasn't gazing at her but staring out into the misty night, clearly preoccupied. What had happened to him today? What turmoil had Salem witnessed?

"Six of you will enter. Three will die," Morgana told them. "Now, the rules of this round are simple. You have ten minutes to return here with an offering for Princess Bettina. She will rate them from favorite to least. The trio whose gifts rank lowest will lose their heads."

Bettina's jaw slackened. It was one thing to see males battling it out to the death-having to decide exactly who would perish was another thing altogether. She bit out to Raum, "You knew about this?"

He patted her hand, looking anywhere but at her face. "Over before you know it, m'girl."

Tonight Morgana had made her the judge and jury. For three beings. Bettina would all but execute them herself.

As Bettina bristled beside Raum, Morgana continued, "Whoever wins tonight will go directly to the final round, awaiting the victor of tomorrow night's semifinal match."

Cas caught Bettina's eye, mouthing, Just made the finals. Of course he was jovial; he knew he was safe. He could bring her dirt, and she'd adore it.

"The runner-up," Morgana said, "will receive a tour of Rune tonight, guided by Princess Bettina herself."

Tour? Tour!!!

"You will bring your offerings to the sanctum, then return here," Morgana said.

Daciano's face was as impassive as ever, but his eyes were black. Bettina sensed that this challenge had taken him off guard.

"Beginning now." The great horn punctuated Morgana's words.




Line : 40

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