No Man Can Tame (Page 11)

She met his gaze. No, she hadn’t desired this marriage, but she did participate in this ceremony willingly. For Bianca’s sake, and for the sake of future Ermacora women. Hopefully Veron would be open minded about finding another way to forge the peace between their peoples instead of the second ceremony at Nightbloom. She nodded to him.

The tension in his bearing visibly lessened, and his expression softened.

“Veron of Nightbloom and Alessandra of Silen are now bound to one another. What Holy Terra has bound, let no man sever,” Padre Graziano announced as he removed the ribbon.

Veron helped her up, and holding hands, they faced the nobiltà, who clapped softly and stared—at Veron, at her gown, some craning their necks to look into the royal box.

She followed those looks to Papà’s seat. The white of his teeth didn’t show, nor even a smile that she could discern. Just a hard, expressionless mask.

He wasn’t happy. Good. Then he was beginning to understand how she felt, how Bianca would have felt, probably how Veron felt. Even if Papà hadn’t wanted to see her as more than a chattel, he’d have to now.

Down the aisle, they passed Luciano and Tarquin Belmonte, and Tarquin—rigid as that statue of Terra herself—stared a hole through her, his carnelian gaze fixed upon her with such intensity that it felt like he looked through her. What was he seeing?

She shivered as they walked past him.

Veron walked her out of the abbazia and out to the cobblestone drive, where a grand white coach-and-six awaited.

He stepped in front of her, barring her path with his arm.

The sky darkened, enormous shadows cast upon the cobblestone streets, and a wave of gasps and withered cries rolled through the crowd outside.

Veron reached for the shield at his back as two winged creatures soared overhead, bright sunlight glittering on iridescent violet and tan scales.

“Don’t move,” he ordered, and Holy Mother’s mercy, she couldn’t even if she tried. Every part of him was rigid, focused, honed to the point of a blade as he kept his eyes fixed on the creatures.

“Th-those a-are…”

“Lesser dragons,” he answered quietly. “En route toward the sea. Uninterested in us, by the looks of it,” he whispered, “so perhaps on some Dragon Lord’s order.”

Lesser dragons… Dragon Lord…

Her entire body trembled, like a mouse under a broom, and there was no stopping it.

The shadows passed, and Veron’s bearing relaxed, his arms slowly falling to his sides as he stepped away from her.

“M-maybe it’s g-good you wore armor,” she offered, trying to swallow past the lump in her throat.

“I’d love to think so.” His mouth curved as the footmen opened the doors to the carriage. “But if they’d wanted us dead, armor or no armor, we would be.”

A nervous laugh escaped her as Veron helped her into the carriage and then sat across from her. Bianca and the sharp-eyed dark-elf guard entered after them, eyeing each other silently.

Dragons. They’d just seen dragons. Beings she’d only ever known from books.

But the door closed, the driver called, and just like that, they were on their way to the feast and their wedding night.

* * *

As the coach jostled over cobblestone, Aless stole a glance at Veron sitting across from her. His keen eyes scanned their surroundings beyond the window, and with his many weapons, he was as intimidating as any guard. More so, even.

While the entire crowd had gasped and trembled, he’d stood firm in the face of dragons. The next time those dragons appeared, they might not ignore the city, and if her people were fortunate, the dark-elves would help them.

Veron didn’t need weapons to be intimidating… That imposing physique made him strong, as strong as any guard—no, stronger. He rested a clawed hand over a knife sheathed at his wrist. Those claws—and those fangs, although she dared not look at them—meant he never needed a weapon.

He’d come to the wedding ceremony armed like a warrior. He’d said it was a dark-elf tradition, but… had he known how it would appear to humans? The dark-elves seemed to know vastly more about human society than humans knew about theirs.

But then, she hadn’t considered how her own statement would appear to the dark-elves. At all.

She’d made her point to Papà, and to everyone, about choice. But… she clenched the tulle fabric of her blood-red gown in fists. It hadn’t been her intention to oppose Veron, but that was how it might’ve looked.

No doubt the whole of the nobiltà already gossiped about her unwilling bridegroom armored from head to toe. Rumors would be spreading far and wide about how even a dark-elf only reluctantly wed the Beast Princess.

Considering the rumors about her, too, it would serve her right. She bit her lip.

The sharp-eyed guard next to Veron was glaring at her, and mustering the confidence to say anything to him beneath that glare was a losing battle. Maybe her statement had gone over even worse with the dark-elves than she’d thought. Later on, once she and Veron were alone, she would have to apologize to him.

Maybe he’d be relieved once she told him they didn’t have to wed. She’d lied in her promise, but maybe he’d overlook the lie in favor of freedom for them both.

A squeeze of her hand—Bianca intertwined their fingers and didn’t let go until the coach pulled up to the palazzo’s main gate. A crowd had already assembled, clapping and cheering to the bright fanfare of brass horns and rain of colorful confetti. Footmen opened the carriage door, and the sharp-eyed guard exited first, then Bianca, and then Veron, who held out his hand to her.

Those exotic eyes met hers, yellow like a lion’s, and she shivered, but he didn’t waver. Her heart pounding, she extended a hand to his, and he helped her exit, a sharp claw just barely grazing her wrist with a scratch. She suppressed a wince and schooled her face, willing no reaction to show.

The crowd pushed in, even against the line of Royal Guard, cheering and shouting and staring wide eyed, but Veron’s form was regal, and he held her hand as they ascended the crimson carpet into the palazzo.

Inside, shimmery bright-red roses gladdened the cavernous foyer, the loveliness of the blooms too beautiful for reality; she had seen their like only in dreams, and even then, they hadn’t reached out with color so vivid it could touch her, a scent so embracing it wrapped her in familiarity and comfort. Where had they come from?

Next to her, Veron seemed unaffected, looking only ahead toward the distant figures of Bianca and his sharp-eyed guard, but his hold on her hand wasn’t cold—it was warm, gentle.

Even if neither of them had wanted this, he’d given her no reason to deserve the rumors she’d caused.

“I wanted you to know,” she whispered, and he eyed her peripherally, “that I was trying to make a point to my father about choice. With the red dress and raven feathers. I wasn’t trying to offend you, although it occurred to me that that’s exactly what might’ve happened. I’m sorry.”

“What point was that?” he answered, just as quiet, looking ahead.

She exhaled lengthily. “That we should have a say in our own futures.”

He stiffened. “You didn’t have a say.” That steely velvet voice was low, icy.

A dreaded conclusion?

Willing? he’d asked during the ceremony.

He had cared. Maybe more than she’d assumed.

Her face turned abruptly toward his, then she looked away again, wiping a damp palm on her gown. “I… I did. Although not in the way you might expect. My father betrothed me to my sister’s love. I offered to trade places with her.”

Those vivid yellow eyes widened, infinitesimally, for just a moment.

She could imagine him summoned to a throne room much like Papà’s, his towering figure lowered, kneeling before a dais where his mother held court, surrounded by dour, silent subjects bearing witness from the shadows. His head kept bowed as she decreed her orders that he marry a woman so different from him, so undesirable. Orders he refused to disobey, no matter his feelings on the matter.

“Did your mother ask you whether you wanted this?” she thought aloud.

“No.” The answer was matter of fact, as if there could only ever be one answer. “The queen does not ask. She expects. And we rise to those expectations. Such is the life of a prince, and of any dark-elf. Ready to sacrifice for the good of the Deep, for the good of all dark-elves.”

“Sacrifice,” she whispered, repeating the word, and her voice trembled a little.

He would never have been eager for this marriage, and that suited her plans—her plans to convince him that they didn’t need to complete the second ceremony in Nightbloom—but there was something so very sad about him having no say in his happiness, something that squeezed at her heart. He was bound up, wrapped in duty like a curse, one he couldn’t break.

In this, they were the same.

His hand tightened around hers, just a little. “Forgive me,” he said deeply, quietly. He leaned in, toward her, his nearness making her quiver as those vivid eyes met hers and softened. “I spoke without thought.”

So near, so close, that terrifying, if alien, beauty was hard to ignore. The slate blue of his skin was the color of distant mountains, blue-gray behind a veil of mist. The color of ancient rock formed in the earth before she had been born, before humans had.