No Man Can Tame (Page 27)

He nodded an acknowledgment, then washed up. All this time, from the moment he’d met her in Bellanzole until last night, she’d been lying to him. There had been moments when she’d wanted to confess—on their wedding night, and in the garden, at the very least. But she hadn’t, in all this time.

He wanted to trust her, but if she was prone to hiding things, could she be expected to change now, for the rest of her life?

They were still married. He still cared for her. But in the garden, had there been a lie in her kiss, in her embrace? Had the touch of her hand borne deception in its warmth? Had the tears in her eyes welled with betrayal?

Would she have told him the truth eventually?

Even so, that wasn’t trustworthiness. Where did that leave them?

He dressed, staring at his bow in the corner. Even if he and Aless didn’t see eye to eye right now, he had promised to train her, and he wouldn’t go back on his word. But he couldn’t forget last night either.

He grabbed his bow and headed through the parlor and out in the hall. Her light footsteps fell in behind him, along with Riza’s and Danika’s.

Some of the kuvari were already in the training yard, practicing with their vjernost blades, and the duchess’s men were somewhere between sparring and gawking. Seeing the kuvari in combat—honed for decades or centuries—was a thing of wonder, mesmerizing and deadly. One of them in Mati’s Quorum, his sister Vadiha included, would someday take Mati’s place. Their skills had to be impeccable.

At the range, Gavri was already shooting and moved to retrieve her arrows—clustered in the center, per usual—before her gaze snapped to his direction. She bowed, removed her arrows, and quit the yard.

Staying out of his sight, as he’d ordered.

He swallowed over a pain at the back of his throat.

With a tilted head, Aless eyed him, but he only took her bow and strung it for her. He didn’t need to talk, not about this.

In the sword ring, one of the kuvari disarmed another, and whoops rose up from the Sileni guards clustered around them. He nodded to the victrix—Lira, who smiled knowingly. Only Mati and Riza could take her when it came to swords, and she well knew it.

After he gathered some supplies, he met Aless fifteen yards from a target, where she crouched, plucking clover. He pointed his chin downrange. “You said you’ve done this before.”

She grimaced. “Poorly.”

“Show me.” He took a step back and crossed his arms.

She held out a partially braided clover chain until he reluctantly took it. Then, with a heavy sigh, she faced the target, nocked an arrow with her shoulders high, aimed, then closed her eyes as she released. The arrow landed on the ground five feet away.

She winced at him.

Poorly had been right. “Give it another try.”

She puffed. “Veron, I…”

He only fixed her with a stare. No one was perfect without practice.

With an even heavier sigh, she turned back to the target again, but this time, he grabbed her shoulders—eliciting a gasp, but no objection—and turned her to stand at a right angle to the target. Using his foot, he tapped her feet shoulder-width apart.

Her shoulders were tight as a bowstring.

“Relax,” he told her, patting her shoulders gently, and she smelled like… like—he frowned—like the lavender last night, and it soothed, made him want to close his eyes, breathe slow and deep.

With a nod to herself, she nocked another arrow, and he readjusted it under the nocking point on the string. As she extended her bow arm, he pressed her shoulders down.

“You’re at full draw. Transfer the weight of the bow from your arms to your back. Now aim.” As she did, he added, “See the string line up on the top bow limb a little to the right of the sight ring. Now pull your shoulder blades closer to each other as you relax your right hand’s fingers, and keep aiming. Your relaxed left hand will let your bow drop a bit. Let it. And don’t move until the arrow hits the target.”

She released, eyes open, and the arrow missed just shy of the target.

Her eyebrows drew together, but then she glanced up at him, lips parted, purple dress battered by the wind. Like the lavender last night, when they’d…

Just a blink, a flutter of dark lashes, and he was in the garden again, his shoulders tensing as he wanted to wrap her in his arms, shield her from the wind, feel those soft lips against his once more…

He cleared his throat. “Not bad. Keep practicing.”

Before she could reply, he headed for a target of his own, far from hers.

Before a mirror, Aless rubbed her shoulder as Gabriella put the finishing touches on her hairstyle. She shifted in the chair, rubbing against smooth mahogany armrests, and flinching. Both of her shoulders hurt, and her arms, and her fingers… but she and Veron still had to make an offering at Stroppiata’s shrine before they left the city. Although she felt like a mess of soreness and fatigue, she’d have to be perfect. Ideal.

Or at least look it.

Veron had kept his word and given her an archery lesson today. If she’d been a better person, she would have released him from the promise. Let him keep his distance. Let him forget all about her. Not worn the lavender dress. Not used the lavender perfume. Not seized the opportunity to get close, as she’d once seen another courtier do.

But she wasn’t better. His touch, even through his mask of coolness, had been like a comforting whisper, telling her all hope wasn’t lost. Maybe it wasn’t. But whatever his feelings for her became, she’d heard him clearly last night: she hadn’t examined too closely the things and people she hadn’t wanted to see.

She would today.

And for their sakes, she wouldn’t disrupt the peace in any way, even if Veron hated her for the length of their marriage. There had to be another way to realize her dream, one that didn’t involve abandoning the marriage—and she’d find it.

“Well, what do you think?” Gabriella asked, smiling in the mirror as she evaluated the elaborate hairstyle, with warm hazel eyes.

The princess in the mirror didn’t look like a cold-hearted liar or betrayer. She had shining hair, half of it up in soft twists with pearl pins, with the rest flowing voluminously in gentle brown waves. A delicate pink stained her lips, and the daintiest blush enlivened her cheeks.

Gabriella had suggested a yellow taffeta dress with gold-threaded embroidery, and it was bright and happy, with long, flowing sleeves that softened the look even more. The color of the sun, of the Goddess’s bounty each harvest. Fitting.

“You’ve outdone yourself,” Aless whispered as Gabriella laughed and fastened a strand of pearls.

“Today is important, so you have to look the part.” Gabriella adjusted the pearls, keeping the closure at the nape of Aless’s neck.

So much effort. “I thought you didn’t like the dark-elves?”

Gabriella’s hand rose to her chest. “I don’t think anything of them—I—”

“Just with the talk of the Brotherhood, it seemed—”

“I only thought you wanted out of the marriage. That day we left the palazzo, you looked so… so…” Gabriella’s round face sank in the mirror. “I just want you to be happy.”

In the years she’d known Gabriella, there hadn’t been a hateful bone in her body. Maybe there still wasn’t. “Well, today I look it, thanks to you.”

With an uneasy smile, Gabriella took a step back, clasped her hands, and gave a pleased nod in the mirror. Gabriella’s dress was a plain but well-tailored mauve satin overgown with a white cambric kirtle beneath, feminine and cut fashionably. Always taking great care in her appearance.

“Have I ever asked you where you’re from?” Aless whispered, meeting Gabriella’s eyes in the mirror.

Those beautifully shaped eyebrows shot up. “Vistadelfino. Our fathers grew up together, and His Majesty made him the conte there. My mother was one of Her Majesty’s ladies before…” Gabriella lowered her gaze and breathed deeply.

One of Mamma’s ladies… before she was murdered.

“I became your lady shortly after…” Gabriella swallowed. “And you never asked me, but… you hardly spoke then.”

After Mamma’s death, all she’d done was read. About ancient wars, myths, and world-spanning romances. About women who fought, women who ruled, women who married for love. About mothers and daughters being strong together, and idealistic heroes bettering people’s lives. About anything and everything that could take her from the misery of her own life then. Gabriella had been there with her, side by side, and had never pried or pushed. Just accompanied her when she’d most needed someone.

“Thank you,” she whispered, and Gabriella raised a hand, shaking her head. “No, really. Mamma’s been gone a long time, and I should have gotten to know you better—”

Arms closed around her, and she gasped, blinking, wrapping her own arm around Gabriella.

“Your Highness, it is my duty to take care of you, not the other way around.”

“I’d like for us to take care of each other. You’ve been my friend for as long as I can remember, and I… I want to be your friend, too.” She breathed in the gentle lilac of Gabriella’s long, sable hair. “I want to know what’s important to you.”