No Man Can Tame (Page 28)

Gabriella pulled back, beaming. “We’re more alike in that than you think, Your Highness.” She half-laughed under her breath. “My mother loved books and teaching with Her Majesty, helping the poor in Bellanzole. And when His Majesty forbade it… it broke her heart. She wants to see us doing that again. And so do I.”

All this time, Gabriella had quietly supported her. As she’d helped distribute books and discuss plans, it hadn’t merely been as a lady-in-waiting, but as a dreamer herself.

“I promise you that I will realize it. Even if it’s with my dying breath.”

“I know you will. And I’ll be there to help,” Gabriella whispered, just as the hall door creaked open.

“His Highness awaits you downstairs,” a low, feminine voice called.

“We’ll be right out,” she replied. When the door shut, she stood and stepped into her matching yellow taffeta shoes.

She bit her lip. “Gabriella, do you know who that was?”

“Her name is Gavri, I think. She had a falling out with His Highness a few days ago.”

* * *

After saying their goodbyes to the duchessa, Aless let Veron help her into the carriage, where he sat across from her and Gabriella, who held the offerings of lilies, peacock feathers, honey, and pomegranates in a myrtle-wood basket.

He wore another of Lorenzo’s gifts, a gold-embroidered black brocade overcoat, fitted from the shoulders to the waist, and then split and flowing from the hips to the ankles. It had an elegance to it, a drama that Lorenzo no doubt had loved, and a cut suited to strong shoulders and a fit physique.

Veron, and the other dark-elves, remained unmasked, unhooded. None of the duchessa’s household seemed fazed, and hopefully their luck would continue with the paesani.

The carriage set out, and the castle’s verdant, manicured grounds moved past the window, the standard of the Sileni nobiltà. Everything ordered and uniform, nothing like the sprawling wild roses in her daydreams. Not the variegated, messy, beautiful chaos of vines and blooms and ruins.

Leaning back against the seat, Veron rested an ankle on his opposite knee. He looked her over, and when his eyes met hers, he nodded toward the offerings. “What do they symbolize?”

She cleared her throat, trying not to seem too excited by the notion of him merely speaking to her. But it was progress. “They are Terra’s offerings. The lilies are for loyalty. The peacock feathers for longevity. The honey is for abundance, and the pomegranates for fertility.”

He raised a pale eyebrow and tilted his head.

Swallowing, she lowered her gaze to her yellow-taffeta skirts and clasped her hands. This was their one chance to leave a peaceful and positive impression in Stroppiata, instead of the harpy bloodbath of their arrival. But it was also her sincere prayer, for blessings she very much wished the Holy Mother would someday bestow upon her.

By the time they stopped at the shrine, a crowd of paesani had already gathered, watching as Veron helped her and Gabriella out of the carriage with an escort of dark-elf royal guards—kuvari—and cheering as dark-elves distributed food. More and more people moved closer, and the crowd grew and grew, voices shouting, hands reaching, bodies pressing closer, tighter.

“We have to move. Now,” the dark-elf guard with the braid—Gavri—hissed to her. “On foot, we can’t control this crowd. The situation could deteriorate quickly.”

She’d trust Gavri’s expertise—they would only stay long enough to fulfill their purpose. With a nod, she headed toward the shrine with Veron and his kuvari.

Along the way to the monumental bronze doors, Gabriella handed her the basket of offerings, and holding it with one arm, she clasped hands with an old woman, then two young women, and little girls. They’d all come to give their thanks at Terra’s shrine, and in this, they were the same.

“Terra’s blessings upon you!” an elderly woman offered.

“And upon you,” she responded, the same response every Terran always gave to the blessing.

For his part, Veron smiled kindly at her side, offering cordial greetings and thanking the people for their blessings. His nearness was warm, comforting, and without even looking, she could feel his big form beside her, his watchful eyes glancing at her every so often.

As a pair of guards opened the bronze doors, Veron’s gloved hand took hers, and they entered.

Some of the crowd filtered inside—as expected, to view this moment, to spread the word. Gavri and the other guards kept the crowd at a distance, while she and Veron faced the marble altar and the enormous golden statue of Terra beneath the saucer dome. She’d seen it before, hand in hand with Mamma, craning her neck to see to the very top and following Mamma through the prayer and ritual.

Maiden, Mother, Crone; She of the Heights; Protector of All. The Goddess towered before them in shining gold, a crown upon her head, a peplos draped about her, bearing a spear in one hand and a phiale in the other.

With one hand offering, and with the other fighting.

Her hand in Veron’s, Aless approached the altar, knelt, then placed her offerings upon it. “O blessed Mother, worshipped and adored, called by women in tearful need and in rites at ancient shrines, please accept these humble offerings. Revered among the Eternan pantheon for the realms you protect, for the bounty you offer, for the life you bloom, we ask You to watch over us as we journey this path together toward Your guiding light.”

A hush had settled over the shrine.

Holy Mother, please let us succeed in sowing this peace, in stopping a war no one needs to fight. She kept her head bowed, as did Veron at her side. Please guide me and let me be stronger, braver, more compassionate. Grant me the strength to follow your teachings.

At long last, she made to rise, and Veron helped her to her feet. He’d been by her side, supporting her as she’d prayed.

“What do you pray for?” he asked, looking her over, his eyebrows drawn.

“Peace. Strength,” she whispered back. And when it came to the peace, they could use all the help they could get. Especially the Holy Mother’s. “But mostly just giving thanks.”

When she grinned out at the crowd, some faces beamed back, but others faced away, murmurs spreading.

They hadn’t been here long, but clearly long enough to allow doubt to enter, and questions.

“Monsters,” someone whispered.

“Dangerous,” said another.

No. She had to save this—now. The only way she knew.

She cleared her throat. “People of Stroppiata,” she called out, “we thank you for opening your city and your hearts to us, and allowing us to share in our worship of the Holy Mother.” She looked out over the people gathered as they quieted. “I have offered prayers for as long as I can remember, and today, I stand here blessed—with a husband both kind and strong enough to defend our people, and a new family, as both Sileni and dark-elves join together against the Immortali that would threaten us, and for the righteous cause of a lasting peace.” Both for survival, and our own betterment. “We follow the Holy Mother’s guidance—sharing our bounty with one hand, but with the other, defending one another against any dangers that would seek to destroy us, or to divide us. And together, we are strong. Terra’s blessings upon you all, my brothers and sisters.”

“And upon you,” came the harmony of replies, the response every Terran instinctively gave, ingrained from early childhood.

She inclined her head, as did Veron next to her, but his golden gaze rested on her, intense, but softening as his mouth curved. That look remained as they exited the shrine, boarded the carriage, and headed for the city’s western gates toward the dark-elf queendom of Dunmarrow.

Arms crossed, Veron leaned against the carriage’s window, a smile on his face and a gleam in his eyes. “You were amazing in there, Aless.”

So she was back to being Aless and not Alessandra. A step toward earning back his trust, maybe?

Don’t put the cart before the horse.

Next to her, Gabriella grinned, but covered it and looked away. Nice of her.

“It was just some words,” she answered, tapping his boot with her shoe. “Nothing like battling harpies.”

“No,” he said, with a slow shake of his head. “You know your people. You see them.”

It was nice of him to say, but their argument had inspired her to look closer. And she would continue doing so. But… “I won’t argue with that.”

And so she didn’t.

Chapter 14

Sitting on a blanket, Aless steeped passionflower tea before the campfire while watching the chestnuts roast. The late-afternoon sun peeked through the canopy of turkey oaks, sparse but a vivid green. Some of the dark-elves picked through the undergrowth and climbed a massive sweet chestnut tree, gathering more that Gabriella helped collect.

“Are they any good?” Gavri asked, nodding toward the tree.

Over the past couple of days, they’d spoken from time to time, as Gavri seemed to guard her when Veron wasn’t around. She wanted to befriend Gavri if she could, but hadn’t caught her for more than a few minutes at a time.

“I’ve had chestnut creme in desserts before. Very sweet. Tasty.” Crème de marrons, as the Emaurrians called it. “I’ve read about soldiers in ancient Silen eating chestnut porridge the morning of battle.”