No Man Can Tame (Page 22)
But the duchessa had instructed Captain Scianna and her household to lead them inside discreetly to freshen up first.
Which was good… because next to her, Veron’s ghostly white hair was a deep, dark crimson, stained with blood, which was smeared all over his pale, slate-blue face and neck, and soaking his leathers. Utterly chilling. Combined with his coiled rigidity and the grim set of his jaw, he looked like a demon warrior, made of wrath and malice, a thirst for blood in his narrowed golden eyes and not a shred of mercy to be found.
Phantom hunter from the Wild Hunt indeed.
The conspirators responsible for the attack weren’t worthy of his mercy, and to her mind, deserved every ounce of wrath and malice he had. Even aside from the repugnance of trying to spark a war—that mirror had been left behind—there had been children in that crowd. She’d even given a little girl jewelry—which could have drawn the harpies. Thank the Mother none of the children had been harmed.
The attack needed a response.
Out the window, the garden was serene, a colorful geometric knot, but the window reflected her and Veron over its greenery.
Someone had planted the mirror on that arch—likely the Brotherhood. They hadn’t openly attacked a human city in their war on the Immortali, but they’d been willing to let one breed of Immortali kill the other, even if humans would have been caught in the middle. Even if she had been caught in the middle. So much for Tarquin’s promises.
This union had been about securing peace, but safety had gone. She was no longer the palazzo’s Beast Princess, deflating oversized egos and raising eyebrows at court. She and Veron were now a symbol—a symbol some would try to use, and others would try to destroy.
Not without a fight.
“Veron,” she whispered as they ascended the carpeted stairs behind a chamberlain, and Veron’s hold on her hand tightened, ever so slightly, as his narrowed eyes eased, settled on her. Warmth, comfort, the calloused roughness of a grip that had wielded bows and blades. That could protect her.
Somehow, from the streets of Stroppiata to the stairwell of this castle, she’d held his hand the entire time.
And he’d let her.
“Are you all right?” he rumbled, his voice low and his brow furrowed as he looked her over.
“I am. That is, I’d… like to start learning the bow.” To start protecting herself, and him, and anyone who’d need it. It was past time. Papà had always forbidden it, but Papà wasn’t here now.
Veron’s mouth curved for just a moment, then he inclined his head. “We’ll start tomorrow morning.”
Those quiet words, offered freely, with the hint of a smile, warmed her, but that furrowed brow returned. Although he walked alongside her, held her hand, he was still out on the blood-drenched streets, still eye to eye with the harpies, among the screams and fighting.
It’s all right, she wanted to say, but… no. It wasn’t all right. Not in the least. But she’d find a way to make it so.
Thank the Holy Mother that the dark-elves had had their blades—made of arcanir—which seemed to disrupt certain abilities of the Immortali, and had ended the harpies.
The chamberlain led them to quarters, and the sharp-eyed guard, along with two others, swept the rooms before giving the all-clear. While she and Veron entered, Gabriella excused herself to oversee the delivery of their luggage.
The rooms were opulent—the ducal apartment, no doubt—with fine white silk upholstery, blackwood furnishings, and high ceilings. Veron approached the windows, peering out with a discerning eye. A wary eye.
After what had happened, what could she say to him?
The Brotherhood had risked much, and this wouldn’t stop.
Revealing the setup could turn the public against the Brotherhood, but it would also shift national attention from the peace to the rebellion. And with the Immortali openly fighting in human cities, there was too big a risk that the Brotherhood would enjoy vocal support, whether it would deny planting the bait or not.
Publicizing the unrest could be exactly what the Brotherhood wanted. The entire purpose of the Royal Progress—spreading the message of peace—would be frustrated. Hushed. The focus would once more return to the threat of the Immortali.
But did it have to?
“Not without a fight,” she murmured.
Veron, his arms crossed, turned to her with a raised brow. She’d start protecting him, herself, and everyone else—for now, with the only methods she knew.
“You think we failed.” She moved toward him as servants entered with pails of steaming water for the bath, poured into a tub behind her.
He grunted. “We did fail, whether I think it or not.”
“Everything was going well until—”
“The attack. And that’s all anyone will remember.” His low voice became practically inaudible. He lowered his chin, and his gaze dropped to the floor. His eyes shut, he stood in the window’s sunlit radiance, covered in blood and gleaming, terrifying and bright.
As the winged shadows had sailed in overhead, she’d been frozen to her saddle, unable to move, unable to think, staring at gaping mouths with sharp teeth, at frenzied eyes, at razor-like talons. Seeing a vision of flesh torn and blood rain, an unholy feast in the sky above an anguished city. And then she’d been pulled from the saddle, wrapped in sheltering black, and moved to a tight alleyway.
Veron. The low rumble of his voice, the rainwater and fresh earth of his scent. His shielding arms, his dauntless form, his implacable mettle. He hadn’t hesitated. Hadn’t frozen. Hadn’t panicked.
He’d saved her life.
She reached up to him, to where his long hair swept over his shoulder, and she pulled the tie binding his braid, slowly, gently. His eyes opened just a sliver, pale lashes catching the sunshine’s luminance, and his breathing slowed.
The coppery tang of blood was overpowering, and with his arms crossed, those sharp claws rested on his biceps.
But she pulled that tie down and off. Looped her finger through the weave of his braid, undoing it, unbinding it, freeing it.
He didn’t move, simply watched her through those slitted eyes, let her do as she willed.
I’m open to your wishes, he’d told her the night of their wedding. You shouldn’t fear rejection should you express them to me.
He’d saved her life—and she could kiss him just for that. But when she did, she’d want him to kiss her back. And not just because of his mother’s orders, nor because of duty, but because he wanted to. Which at worst was an impossibility, and at best, a challenge.
But challenges were made to be answered.
“Alessandra,” he breathed, and she wanted to hear him say her name again, a hundred times, a thousand times. To call her the name she only allowed her loved ones to call her.
“Aless.” She smoothed her hand from his hair to his leather-armored chest. “Call me Aless.”
The smooth sound was a bare stroke, an intimacy, but she wouldn’t close her eyes, wouldn’t let herself descend deeper into the moment, read her hopes into his words, that he might see her as something more…
She wasn’t more.
She was—how had Papà put it?—willful, short tempered, sharp mouthed, and presumptuous. Disobedient.
Everything a man didn’t want in a wife…
On their wedding night, Veron had led her to understand that if she wanted more, he’d give it to her. Was that what he was doing? Giving her what she wanted, no matter how he felt?
But her fingers pressed against the leather.
He caught her hand, his hold careful, his claws well away from her flesh. Brushing his thumb over her fingertip, he smudged the bloodstain already on her skin, from the armor. “The blood.”
Something thudded behind her, and she glanced over her shoulder. The last of her luggage, including the trunk Lorenzo had given her.
She turned back to Veron.
There was the blood, yes, but even more pressing, the duchessa awaited them. “There’s a bath ready,” she whispered.
With a deep breath and a nod, he looked past her and back again. “Will it offend you if I…?”
“Not in the least,” she replied too quickly. “But if you wish me to leave, I’ll—”
“No.” He straightened. “Stay.”
Before she could reply, he released her and passed her on his way to the tub.
“Lorenzo had me take a few things for you, since we would find ourselves among the nobiltà,” she said, among the rustling of leathers and fabric.
“That was generous of him. It was a help at the capital.”
Holy Mother’s mercy, he was removing his clothes, right behind her, and her heart was in her throat, as if she’d never been around an undressing man before.
So instead she opened the trunk from Lorenzo and removed an assortment of men’s couture. “I think the clothes will help bridge our people’s differences. Sort of like the flowers.”
A soft splash of water, and she was wringing a shirt in her hand. She cleared her throat. “Speaking of the flowers, I don’t think we failed today.”
“No one died. None of the attendees were even injured. If anything, we proved that your people can deliver exactly what you promised—help against the other Immortali.” She chose black velvet for him, a well-tailored jacket and trousers, without the color and ornamentation that would seem as though they were trying too hard.