No Man Can Tame (Page 2)
A vow not to speak until her wedding. Many parents in Silen demanded it of their daughters for arranged marriages among the nobiltà—both a show of piety and a way to ensure loose lips didn’t beget unfortunate slips. “How ruinously traditional.”
The fox man tittered. “One can only hope the tradition continues after the wedding!”
Aless forced a laugh. “How utterly draconian of you,” she said as sweetly as she could while the man nodded along effusively.
“Indeed! Very kind. By your leave, Princess,” he said, taking a bow before leading his avowed speechless fiancée away.
Most of the paesani couldn’t read, but the nobiltà’s only excuse was willful ignorance. But knowledge wasn’t as prized here as it once was. Papà—and everything he stood for—was evidence of that. Sighing, she looked out at his opulent domain.
Masked guests dressed in the height of Bellanzole couture mingled and danced. The nobiltà and the nuovi ricchi devised this adventure, preened for one another as usual, their eclectic fashion diverse—within an allowable variation, of course.
Except for Signore Raven—Tarquin Belmonte. No, he’d thrown the allowable variation to the winds and had come here to shock. To arrive cloaked in death was to object. In his raven mask, black brocade doublet and trousers, and a feathered mourning cloak, he filled out couture well, and he had a lot of nerve showing up to a masquerade at the Palazzo dell’Ermacora dressed in funereal garb. As much nerve as a princess in a grotesque lion mask.
She grinned. A man with a spine. Good. At least one courtier who didn’t fall all over himself bowing and scraping before Papà.
Bianca had found something to do instead of squabbling. There was wisdom in that. She’d do her all to get that meeting.
Eyes locked with his through her lion mask, she turned, rearranging her ample costume mane behind her, and glided through the crowd with ease, mingling, brushing off eager courtiers as she stalked from the Sala di Forza and out onto the balcony.
He’d follow, of course. The perfect moment to come. She traded brightly colored silks and paintings of Forza’s many mythical victories for the faraway diamonds dusting the black velvet sky.
Gripping the stone balustrade, she closed her eyes and took three deep breaths. The soft, fresh scent of roses embraced her, surrounded her, as it had countless times in her dreams and fantasies. The same dense, overgrown courtyard of vining roses in full bloom sprawled before her, mysterious and lovely, exhaling the most spellbinding perfume in the clearest, purest air. She reached out a fingertip and could almost feel the velvety soft, shimmering petals—
“The lion’s den is the balcony, is it?”
Next to her stood a vision in black feathers, nearly six feet tall and built like a gladiator. Tarquin Belmonte. She blinked, and that spellbinding perfume faded. She gave him a coy once-over. “Don’t you have a carcass somewhere to peck at?”
A half-laugh. “I have sight of better game.”
Suppressing a grin, she shook her head. “Bold as a raven.”
He rested his hand on the stone balustrade, too, his warm skin just barely touching hers. “Nothing less than bold can be expected to win a princess.”
“Is that what you came here for?” Nobody dealt in boldness like the Beast Princess. She turned to him, covered his hand with hers, and reached for his raven mask. “To ‘win’ me?” When he didn’t move, she took it off.
Carnelian-brown eyes gleamed in the starlight beneath black lashes and matching close-cropped hair; the lines of his coarse jaw were strong, and the corners of his mouth turned up mischievously, as if he knew something she didn’t.
She hadn’t expected a handsome face to match the tall, well-muscled physique. But then, she hadn’t seen Tarquin Belmonte in years, since before he’d taken over his father’s mercenary company and grown into that role. And my, had he grown.
“Princess Alessandra,” he said sotto voce, his Roccalano accent melodious, “I have come here for anything you wish of me.”
She should have laughed, but no part of her could muster anything like it. Not at him. Not at those bold words.
His gaze stroked over her once and again. “I know it is a masquerade, but why a lion? And a grotesque male lion, at that?”
She smiled, reaching for borrowed words. “Telling you would reveal the answer in the most unexciting way.”
He quirked a brow. Let him sweat a little.
Lively notes plucked on the harp inside—a quessanade corrente.
“Then shall we begin the revelation with a dance?” He offered her his hand. She took it and replaced his mask upon his head, then he tucked her arm around his and led her back into the grandeur of Sala di Forza.
Across the room, Bianca danced with Luciano, two matching masked cats, but Papà’s willowy page, Alvaro, approached them. He bowed and spoke to Bianca, who smiled, nodded, then promptly bid Luciano goodbye before gliding to the hallway.
Only one thing could drag Bianca away from her forbidden fruit.
And now Alvaro, his young face lined grimly, made his way to her. He bowed. “Your Highness, Princess Alessandra, His Majesty requires your presence.”
“Does he?” She held back a grin. Success—finally. She spared Tarquin a disappointed shrug. Their revelation would have to wait.
“It must be the Immortali again,” Tarquin said darkly. “A corruption that must be eradicated from the kingdom.”
A corruption? He had to mean the monsters among the Immortali? The harpies, the basilisks, the wyverns—not the peaceful Immortali people?
She frowned, but such fire smoldered in Tarquin’s eyes that it burned the question from her lips.
“Your Highness,” Alvaro prompted.
As if she would pass up her long-awaited meeting with Papà. She hmphed.
With perfect form, Tarquin inclined his head to her, and she acknowledged him before turning to leave. What Tarquin didn’t know was that Papà would never desire her presence for input regarding an important matter—such as conflicts with the Immortali. No, when it came to what really mattered, Papà preferred she be like a rabbit-masked courtier under a Vow of Silence.
This would be a scolding, nothing more, but she’d use it to her advantage.
As she followed Alvaro through the dimly lit hallway, Bianca offered her a thin smile. A pitying smile.
So she assumed… Bianca had assumed what everyone would assume.
Papà had only one use for his Beast Princess.
Aless shook her head and swallowed. She’d barely set foot at home—Papà wouldn’t send her away for yet another courtship. Not so soon.
* * *
Aless glared up at Papà, seated up on his throne beneath the high vaulted ceiling. He’d left the masquerade right after she’d arrived—because he’d been so pleased, no doubt. But he looked the epitome of regal, dressed in expensive violet silk brocade and wearing the jeweled crown on his coal-black hair streaked with ash. Royal guards in purple cloaks lined the room, standing in perfect formation, immovable, intimidating.
Here in the throne room, he could remind them exactly where they stood—far, far below—and who he was. King.
But for once, he actually detailed the kingdom’s dire need to her and Bianca.
Papà stroked his close-cropped beard. “That scoundrel Sincuore and his pirate rats have all but devastated our navy. Our resources must be diverted to replenishing it, meaning we need protection and peace in the heartland.”
While the coast needed defending, the heartland was rife with immortal beasts attacking the paesani, as well as unrest between humans and the Immortali.
“The Belmonte brothers have both come here expecting marriages in exchange for their mercenary services,” Papà continued, “but I have only one daughter to give to the Belmonte family, and she is going to Luciano.”
Bianca smiled at her. So she was getting her Signore Cat. The orchard of her daydreams was coming true, and it had never been so wonderful to have been so wrong. Aless held back an inward grin.
But why had Papà called them both here?
“We are making peace with Nightbloom.” He leaned back in his throne.
The dark-elves? Papà was going to stop the hatred after all—
He’d said he had only one daughter to give to the Belmonte family. That meant…
Peace by marriage.
To the dark-elves.
Her blood ran cold.
He’s offering me up to Nightbloom?
Holy Mother’s mercy, he wanted her to marry one of them? They had claws and fangs, lived in underground caves where not a single rose would grow. No hint of Mamma’s gorgeous gardens there. They ate lizards and lichen, had creepy yellow irises, ghostly white hair, and blue skin like a snake’s. Her skin crawled.
She cast her gaze aside, at the massive tapestry of Forza slaying the hydra. That mythical monster was about as attractive to her as a dark-elf male. She didn’t hate them, but she definitely didn’t want to marry one of them, kiss one of them, sh-share a marriage bed—
She fought back a gag. Those clawed hands on her body, fanged teeth in a mouth kissing hers—
A shudder rattled her bones. Peace was a worthy end, but Papà couldn’t expect her to—to wed one of them.