No Man Can Tame (Page 19)
Her bearing tight, she watched him, those small, clawless fingers fidgeting. She blinked dark lashes over dark eyes, beneath a furrowed brow. “In case…”
“In case they come for my blood, and that of every dark-elf here.”
The early morning rays hit the distant red clay roof shingles of Stroppiata as Aless rode alongside Veron. She adjusted her right leg in the sidesaddle, spreading out her rosy-pink brocade skirts. The pink softened her look, a subtle contradiction to her infamous intemperance… or so her sister Giuliana had once said.
In less than an hour, they’d be inside the city walls. Normally, she was accustomed to riding inside a carriage, but today wasn’t about comfort—it was about being seen. If it went well, it would set a good tone for the rest of the Royal Progress.
If it went poorly… the best case would make this entire maneuver a failure, and the worst would see her, Veron, and countless others dead.
She exhaled. Too bad those thoughts couldn’t leave with her breath.
No pressure. None whatsoever.
She’d been on a Royal Progress once, when Lorenzo had come of age. Just outside each city’s gates, Papà, Mamma, and Lorenzo had mounted horses, while she, Giuliana, and Bianca had stayed in the carriage. Smiling faces had lined the streets, eyes wide and shining, as cheers had drowned out all but the clink of coins and clop of hooves.
The people need to see Lorenzo, who’ll be their next king, Giuliana had whispered, leaning in. They need to see us, their monarchs, up close. It makes us real, creates connection, gives us the chance to show them who we truly are… or who we want to be.
Giuliana had gone on a Royal Progress in Emaurria with her husband, Crown Prince Robert, several years ago after their wedding. No doubt she’d been the perfect princess, claiming space in every Emaurrian’s heart as she’d shown them who she’d truly been. Talented and strong, beautiful and charming, a singular person capable of taming conflicts with a well-placed compliment or just the right laugh. If only Giuliana were here. If only she’d survived. If only—
No. There would be no useful thoughts in that direction. Not today. She sighed.
Golden eyes narrowed, Veron peered into the distance at the city, his face masked in black but for his eyes. His head hooded, hiding most of his ghostly white hair.
The first time she’d seen him, back in the palazzo’s courtyard, he’d been masked, hooded, cloaked—a black rider on a black horse, mysterious and intimidating, like some phantom hunter fallen to earth from the Wild Hunt.
The people need to see us.
“Veron?” she asked, and those golden eyes found her before he turned her way.
“Hmm?” A gruff sound, but soft.
Behind them, the cavalcade stretched so far back she couldn’t tell where it ended, but she and Veron needed to speak. Even if he chose to ignore her, as Papà always did, she needed to try.
This first visit was crucial—it would set the tone for the rest of the Royal Progress, and if it went well, maybe Veron would agree that they could maintain the peace as friends… and she could see her public library built. “Could we stop for a moment?”
He nodded and held up a hand.
The sharp-eyed guard bellowed, the first of a series of shouts down the line as it drew to a halt.
Veron dismounted that enormous beast of a horse, his motion practiced and fluid, and three guards followed suit as he extended a gloved hand to her. She removed her foot from the stirrup, then lifted her right leg over while turning in the saddle to the left.
It wasn’t her first time dismounting a sidesaddle, but she took his hand anyway and hopped down. Ever since her… fashion statement at the wedding, it was more important than ever that she and Veron appear at peace. Especially with Tarquin’s pride out there somewhere, watching.
Veron offered her his arm, and when she looped hers around it, he walked her to the blue-green maritime pine forest. A few feet into its concealment, he paused among some myrtle shrubs, his guards several feet behind and scanning the area.
When she’d told Veron about the Brotherhood and Tarquin, he’d taken the news calmly and said the Brotherhood wouldn’t launch an attack in a human city, that she’d be safe in Stroppiata.
That had made sense, as all the previous attacks had taken place in Immortali settlements, and yet the entire dark-elf cavalcade seemed on edge, every guard more responsive, more watchful.
“I’ll wait for you here,” he said, his deep voice muffled through his mask as he nodded toward a farther patch of shrubs.
“No.” She smiled, shaking a ladybug off her rosy-pink skirts. “Not that.”
With a glance at his nearby guards, she took his hand and led him behind a thicker orange-red trunk, where he looked down at her with glimmering half-moon eyes.
She reached up and brushed a finger along the edge of his black hood. “Do your people always wear masks and hoods?”
He looked away. “In the sky realm, yes.” A matter-of-fact answer.
A pale eyebrow quirked. “People fear us.”
People did fear them. Their imposing size. Those golden eyes, like those of predators in the night, with sharp canine teeth to match. Hair pale as a ghost’s, come to drag them to the Lone. Blue-gray skin, so different from their own, its hue cold and stony. And claws… she well knew those.
Biting her lip, she slowly raised a hand toward his face, and when he didn’t move, simply kept those golden eyes fixed on her, she tugged down the mask, revealing his sculpted jaw, the slate-blue of his face.
So close, his scent of earth and fresh water soothed its way to her nose, like a meadow after a summer storm, maybe, and she breathed in deeply, rising on her tiptoes to draw back his hood. Her finger brushed against smooth, pale hair, and for the briefest of moments, he closed his eyes, exhaled through parted lips.
For a second, everything paused. The breeze rustling through pine needles and myrtle leaves, the nearby whisper of a guard, the distant calls among those in the cavalcade, and everything waited as that slow, quivering exhalation rolled through him.
His eyebrows drew together as his eyes found hers once more, searching, questioning, but only a muscle twitched in his jaw.
No part of her would move while those eyes held her in place, not her hands, not her lips, not even her tongue.
Her pulse raced her breathing, and which was faster, she couldn’t tell.
Dark-elves kissed, didn’t they? That’s what this felt like, almost a kiss…
Only… he dropped his gaze between them, and both her pulse and her breathing—thank the Mother—slowed.
He, too, had been frozen, but had it been in repugnance or discomfort? Unsettled that she might have been trying to kiss him? It had only been a few days since their wedding night, when he’d made it very clear he hadn’t found her attractive in the least.
Had that changed, even a little? Or were his reactions a courtesy, so his human wife wouldn’t feel like a fool? Or maybe a show.
There was no order of his mother’s that he’d refuse. Even on his wedding night, utterly repulsed by his human bride, he would have done his duty if she’d demanded it. He’d been ordered to marry her, and any warmth, if that’s what it was, would be in service of that order.
When he looked at her, he’d only ever see a human. Someone unappealing he’d been forced to wed. That’s all she’d ever be.
Obedient as he was, he’d been kind to her. Sympathetic. Understanding. Patient.
And to her, now, the thought—of kissing him—
She sucked in a breath.
It didn’t fill her with repugnance or discomfort.
It didn’t unsettle her.
She shook her head. This wasn’t why she’d led him here. “People fear the unknown.”
He blinked, those eyebrows still drawn together.
“The people need to see us up close,” she said, repeating Giuliana’s wisdom. “It makes us real, creates connection, gives us the chance to… show them who we truly are… or who we want to be.”
The breeze picked up, and a lock of hair wisped across her face, but supple leather grazed her cheek as he tucked it behind her ear with a gloved hand.
“Alessandra,” he said softly, his brow creased, “it’s not the same. The people don’t want us to be real. It’s why we cover ourselves.”
She took his hand. “But you are real. And the nightmares we imagine behind the masks and the hoods are more terrifying than the reality.”
He grinned, but then suppressed it. “More terrifying?”
That pale eyebrow quirked again, and she laughed.
“You know what I’m trying to say!” She averted her gaze as her cheeks warmed. “Our people are more alike than they are different, and once the reality is known, there won’t be as much to fear. Nor anything to fear, I hope.”
He tilted his head, working his jaw. “What do you suggest?”
“No masks. No hoods. You’re distributing food and coin, so let the people associate that with your looks. Smile—”
He did, exposing those longer, sharp fangs.
“—but maybe not too broadly,” she said, wincing, receiving a huff in reply. “And if people give us flowers, bouquets, take them. It’s hard to fear anything covered in flowers.”