No Man Can Tame (Page 24)

It was already a far warmer reception than he’d expected.

A troupe of vividly dressed dancers filed in, claiming the hall’s center in an elaborate routine of swinging hips and fluttering silk.

At any dark-elf queendom, now would be when the traditional games would begin, light sparring testing one another’s prowess. There was honor in challenging formidable opponents, in accepting, in winning, and even in losing, but above all, it was fun, and sometimes—as in the case of the humans’ dances—a courtship.

“Some entertainment to celebrate your visit and your union.” The duchess’s green eyes twinkled. “There will be dinner, dancing, fireworks in the garden, and then a private party in my salon until the sun rises.”

“The promise of the famous Duchessa Stroppiata’s parties does not disappoint,” Aless said as a young man brought them two goblets of wine. She must have spent a lot of time reveling in the royal court. Vibrant, energetic, curious, witty—she had no doubt shone brightly.

“I am an admirer of all things beautiful,” the duchess said, looking him over with a slow smile. “It is not every day that I have the unique privilege of hosting dark-elf royalty. Hopefully not the last.”

He could have laughed. Such attention wasn’t unusual among dark-elf women, but he hadn’t expected it here. “The privilege is all ours.”

The duchess held his gaze, a smile on her lips. What would it take to win her promise of friendship?

Flames shot high above them—a pair of fire-breathers weaving through the crowd.

Aless started, her eyes wide. Perhaps she hadn’t quite recovered from the harpies.

The duchess laughed heartily. “Do you like them? I invited them from Zehar. They’re quite talented.”

“They are,” he said to the duchess as he stroked Aless’s hand gently. “Your gardens, too, were beautiful from the window.”

The duchess swept a jewel-encrusted hand toward the doors to the courtyard. “Allow me to show them to you properly.”

He followed her, and Aless swallowed next to him and flashed a fleeting smile, holding his arm close. Did the harpy attack still affect her? Some air might do her good.

The silence was not like her at all. He’d become accustomed to battle, but that had been a lifetime of training with the kuvari and fighting alongside them, many of whom had made it into Mati’s Quorum. Aless, however, had been kept from all training and fighting, and today’s events had to have shaken her.

Footmen opened the glass-paned doors out to a colonnade. Beyond its arches, a scrolling pattern of hedges and flowers stretched far, lined by a border of trees, their dark-green foliage silvered by the stars. At its end lay a shimmering pool, steps cascading into its placid waters.

“My mother loved all things green,” the duchess said, leading them on the paths among perfect hedges, and she nodded to the abundant purple flowers. “Lavender was her favorite. When I married the duke, he was twenty-six years my senior, and we had nothing in common. I spent my time here, with the gardeners, planning this—my sanctuary. Even now that he’s gone, this garden is still where I find solace.”

By her face, she was still young, in her early thirties perhaps. The way her eyebrows creased together spoke volumes of her late husband, none of it good.

“It’s beautiful,” Aless whispered, releasing him as she curled over the lavender and inhaled, closing her eyes. She held still for a moment—one he wished to commit to memory.

The duchess watched her, that crease fading, and joined her. Her hands clasped, she cleared her throat. “I won’t mince words. Someone had the audacity to plan an attack in my city. That alone would have spurred me to side with the enemy of my enemy. But your heroism today, when you could have fled, makes me proud to offer you my friendship.”

She placed her right hand over her heart and bowed to them both gracefully. “Should you ever require assistance, you have but to ask.”

“Thank you, Your Grace,” Aless whispered, as he inclined his head.

The duchess searched Aless’s eyes, then glanced at him. “Enjoy the garden. Join me at your leisure for the feast.”

With that, she nodded to them, gold dress trailing past them as she strolled back to the hall.

As soon as the door shut, quiet settled in once more, only the muffled tune and voices from the hall, along with the trilling of insects and the occasional bird call playing the music of the night.

“My mother had a library. That was where she found solace,” Aless said softly, her eyes still closed. “I spent so much of my childhood there, with the scent of leather, paper, candle wax. Sometimes just opening a book will take me right back there.”

A special place to her.

“I’d like to see it someday,” he said.

Aless’s eyes fluttered open, and she gave him a watery, sad smile as she straightened. “Papà had it destroyed.”

“Destroyed?” He shook his head.

Aless stroked gentle fingers over the hedges, meandering the path for a few steps.

“Tell me,” he said to her, and she looked over her shoulder with a half-smile, her gaze dropping, then shrugged half-heartedly. A fragrant night breeze swept through the trees’ canopy, curling the flowers to its direction, and she shivered as her dark ringlets swayed.

Undoing the toggles on his jacket, he approached her, then took it off and settled it about her shoulders. She covered his hand with hers, holding it there a long moment, and he pulled her to him, slowly walking the path.

“My mother adored books,” she said with an ephemeral smile. “They lined the hall to her heart, you see. My father built her a library and proposed to her there. She filled it with stories and ideas from around the world, from all time periods and cultures.

“She wanted to share that joy and knowledge with the world,” she said, her voice breaking as her eyes teared up, shining in the lambent starlight. “Every week, she and her ladies-in-waiting would read to the local children in Bellanzole, and then teach anyone who wanted to learn. Many women learned, and they took new jobs and traveled, bettered their lives. A few years ago, a man came, saying he wanted to learn, but while she was teaching him, he blamed her for his wife leaving him… He had a knife… She died before anyone could do anything.”

He held her closer, and she stopped, rested her head against his chest. Humankind had changed, in every way but the ones that mattered.

“Papà banned her ladies from returning to read or teach,” she whispered, muffled against his shirt. “He destroyed every book in her library, and the place itself, blaming it for her death. I cried and begged him not to, but he had the Royal Guard restrain me while it was done. My copy of A Modern History of Silen was the last book she gave me.”

Tucked into his embrace, she went utterly quiet, leaning into him, brushing his chest with her cheek, so small and slight. Not the woman who’d ridden at his side with her head held high, regal and formidable, indomitable.

Those were walls she’d taken down for this, for him, allowing him to see the little child inside whose father had destroyed not just a library but the precious memory of her mother. That loss still had to hurt, and so did her own father’s coldness to her in doing what he’d done.

He shielded her from the breeze, his shoulders taut. He wanted to meet that coldness with warmth, that loss with comfort, destruction with creation. Nothing would harm her like that again, not while he drew breath.

Against a field of lavender, she gazed up at him, her face tear streaked, and he brushed the wetness from her cheek with a thumb, and leaned in. She raised her chin, and his lips met hers, so soft, her skin the smell of salt and summer flowers as she relaxed in his arms. Her palms glided up his back, her fingers pressing, no prick of claws, just her touch, her wanting.

She leaned into him, opening her mouth to his, the sweet bloom of a dark red wine on her exploring tongue, slow, sensual. Her breaths warmed his mouth as they fell into rhythm, longing, urging, and by Deep and Darkness, it was all he could do to cup her face, deepen his kiss, meet her tongue’s sensual taking with his own.

The muffled music from the hall stopped, and he pulled away just enough to watch her open her eyes and lick her lip, then smile as her cheeks flushed. He took her hand in his.

“Do you know of any other marriages between humans and dark-elves, Veron?” she whispered, searching his eyes. “I… I wonder how they work. And what would be expected of me as your wife?”

“I know there have been marriages between humans and Immortals, but I don’t personally know of any,” he answered, gently stroking her knuckles. “Our society expects dark-elf women to be fierce fighters and protect their families ruthlessly. But I didn’t marry a human only to expect her to be a dark-elf,” he said with a half-laugh. “Just be yourself, Aless. My only expectation is that you’re honest with me.”

She beamed, the smile reaching her eyes, but it began to fade. “Veron, I…”

He shook his head. “Really. Don’t change a thing.”

Her eyes brightened, and she nodded. “I won’t. But, Veron…”

Little lights blinked into existence around them, glowing all around them. Pixies.