No Man Can Tame (Page 16)

She stormed out to her dressing chamber, then slammed the door behind her.

Chapter 7

In the palazzo’s courtyard, Aless stood before Papà in the weak morning sunlight. Even after manipulating her into a marriage, he still hadn’t been done trying to break her. He and the queen of Nightbloom had set the Royal Progress schedule, and everyone involved had known about it but her.

Papà had known she’d miss Bianca’s wedding, and he’d said nothing. He’d even left Veron to break that bitter news.

Ever since Mamma’s death, Papà had looked at her differently, and a distance had grown between them, and grown and grown. Everything she cared about was wrong, and anything she did was punished, and it seemed he was never done punishing her. She hadn’t fit in here, not in a long while, and now she was leaving, for maybe the last time.

Bianca had finally gotten what she’d so long carried a ladder for in that orchard of daydreams.

And Papà couldn’t have even given her the sweet farewell of witnessing Bianca’s wedding. Not even that.

“You are so much like her,” Papà said, his dark-brown eyes dull. “This will be best for you.”

So like Mamma. Mamma, whose entire palazzo library and every book he’d had destroyed.

No, this was best for him. Getting rid of her, like he’d gotten rid of Mamma’s memory.

“Remember your promise,” he whispered.

“Goodbye, Papà,” she replied, before moving to Lorenzo, who wrapped her in his arms.

“I sent some things along with you for Veron,” he said, “so you two can match in equally… haute couture. Despite the piety of Stroppiata, Duchessa Claudia is a fashion snob.”

“Thank you.” With a half-laugh under her breath, she pulled away from Lorenzo as he gave her a soft smile.

“You’re getting away from the palazzo,” he whispered with a twinkle in his eye. “Make the most of it.”

Unlike him, she’d never wanted to escape the palazzo, but rather to become a more useful part of it. Maybe that was what she had carried a ladder for, only for her, it would ever remain a daydream.

“Make the most of being here, too, Brother,” she whispered back, giving his stubbled cheek a goodbye kiss as she at last turned to Bianca.

Veron clasped arms with Lorenzo as she took Bianca’s hand and met her eyes, red and welling with glistening tears. With a lace-trimmed white handkerchief, Bianca dabbed at her face, her lower lip trembling, then shook her head sadly.

Aless pulled Bianca into her arms, holding her tight. Next to her, Veron said his goodbyes to Lorenzo.

At their wedding, Veron had said, I, Veron of Nozva Rozkveta, offer you power, survival, support, defense, wisdom, and partnership, to harness for your ends or ours, as we walk our lives together from this day forward for as long as the Deep allows.

Papà had kept this from her, yes, and he bore the brunt of the blame. But she’d begged Veron, begged him to delay their departure, shift the Royal Progress arrangements, just until after Bianca’s wedding.

But his mother had given him a direct order, and that had been that.

What was important to her was supposed to be important to him, too, wasn’t it? What would life be like if even this hadn’t merited some compromise?

Bianca wept softly into her shoulder. “We’ve sent the package to Nunzio.”

Good. Then she could discuss the plans with him when she arrived in Stroppiata, where the Order of Terra was headquartered.

All the more reason to persuade Veron against the second ceremony, if he’d listen. If he’d even be open to viewpoints other than that of his mother and queen, that is.

Honesty is the one expectation I have, he’d said. Fine words. But what good had her honesty done her about Bianca’s wedding? She’d tell him her plan once they were on better terms, once she’d proven she could deliver a peace before the second ceremony.

Bianca sniffled. “I just wish—”

“I know. I’m so sorry, Bianca,” she whispered, stroking Bianca’s hair softly. “I wish I could stay.”

“I’ll visit you,” Bianca cried. “I promise.”

A lovely thought. She pulled away and smiled softly. “You’d better. I’ll want to hear every detail.”

Bianca beamed through her tears and nodded, swiping a muslin-clad arm across her face, a smiling, weeping, loving face against the backdrop of lush green and the white stone of the palazzo.

This was it. Goodbye, as no matter what happened from here on, she’d never live under Papà’s roof again.

Papà, standing first in line, raised his chin and met her eyes. He’d been the first to bid her goodbye, reminding her of her promise. She remembered all right. She’d promised to wed Veron, which she had done, and the rest was up to her and Veron.

Papà tipped his head toward the waiting cavalcade just as Gabriella took her arm, leading her away. With food, coin, her belongings, and picture books for the children along the Royal Progress, the number of carts had grown.

“Come, Your Highness,” Gabriella said. “We’ve a long road ahead of us.”

A long road indeed.

She fisted her gray skirts. Just as she was about to turn away, Veron approached Bianca—and bowed. Low.

In the ensuing silence, he remained utterly still, his powerful form as if sculpted from stone, ready to endure for centuries, millennia.

He’d bowed. Apologized to Bianca.

Bianca’s perfectly sculpted eyebrows shot up.

So did hers.

* * *

Aless pulled aside the curtain in her carriage. All was verdant and beautiful outside—the cypress trees lining the road, the fields of grass, the umbrella pines in the distance, and the occasional fields of artichokes or orchards of lemon trees. So bright and cheerful. Maybe Bianca was airing out her wedding dress right now, smiling and laughing with her ladies-in-waiting, preparing for the big day.

Veron had apologized to Bianca, but he’d still gotten his way, hadn’t he? Could he be trusted, or did he only wear a mantle of earnestness, beneath which only his mother’s will lived and breathed? Begging him had been awkward, but being rejected had been even more awkward.

He rode just ahead, his hooded figure nevertheless identifiable by his broad shoulders and bearing, atop that massive beast he called a horse. She narrowed her eyes.

He glanced over his shoulder in her direction.

With a huff, she yanked the curtains shut and crossed her arms.

“I’d hoped he’d find a way for you two to remain for Her Highness’s wedding,” Gabriella whispered from the seat next to her.

At least Papà had sent one familiar face with her.

“Will his mother always have the final say over everything?” Gabriella asked under her breath.

“Too early to tell.” Aless exhaled slowly, stroking the cotton batiste of her gray skirts. But it seemed Veron didn’t have a disobedient bone in his body. He’d been reasonable and kind, and because of that, she’d hoped he might soon hear her out about a friendship instead of a marriage.

But now she wasn’t so certain.

If his mother had ordered this union, then to alter that, it would take more than simply asking in order to convince him. She’d need to sort out the library plans with Nunzio and present Veron with an idea for a joint venture, something to symbolize their peoples’ new peace and ongoing friendship. A place where humans and dark-elves could unite.

It would start with this one place, the library, and then grow. Maybe someday, Silen would be a land where humans, dark-elves, light-elves, and other peaceful Immortali all lived together in harmony.

Once she and Nunzio spoke and planned in concrete terms, she could bring their ideas to Veron and hope for the best.

Gabriella patted her hand, imparting warmth with a gentle hazel-eyed look. “I wish they weren’t so cold to you, Your Highness,” she said. “Perhaps it would be better if the Brotherhood helped you escape? Would they do that, or would it have to be violent?”

The Brotherhood—no. She did not want any part of that. As much as she wanted freedom from this marriage, she didn’t wish for the Brotherhood’s plan of fire and death to succeed.

“Before we left,” Gabriella continued, “there was word that they sacked a light-elf settlement near the coast. People were saying the Brotherhood put all of them on a ship to Sonbahar in the dead of night.”

Sonbahar? For what? The slave markets? Unthinkable. “Are you certain?”

“That’s what they’re saying, and that now the surrounding villages will be ‘safe.’ They seemed just fine before.”

Safe? Safe from what?

There had been rumors that sick or misbehaving children were light-elf changelings, that any maiden or child that disappeared was abducted by the light-elves or the other Immortali. That light-elves cursed crops, stole random trinkets from people’s homes, poisoned livestock…

But surely no one had believed such farfetched tales? Light-elves had no magic and rarely if ever ventured out of their forests. They placed no value on jewels or precious metals, let alone worthless trinkets.

Human women fled their husbands, children got lost, crops failed, livestock died. It was easier to blame the Immortali than to accept the cruelty of everyday life. And the Brotherhood encouraged it.