No Man Can Tame (Page 3)
She didn’t want to. She would never. There had to be some way to fix this.
“Bianca, you will be wedded to Prince Veron of Nightbloom,” Papà declared, and her gaze snapped back to him. “And Alessandra, you will be married to Luciano. We’re fighting wyverns, harpies, basilisks, and all manner of beasts—we can’t afford to fight the dark-elves, too. Their numbers could help us quell the Immortali beasts in the heartland, help relieve the burden on our military. There will be a wedding ceremony here for Bianca and Prince Veron, then another in Nightbloom, and the peace will be sealed. In between, you will wed Luciano, Alessandra.”
Aless blinked over her wide eyes and swallowed over a lump in her throat.
Bianca’s smile faded like a pappose dandelion in the wind. Her olive skin paled, and the sheen of her agate eyes dulled.
No, it was all wrong. Everything.
“Papà.” Aless shook her head. There had to be another way. There had to be. “Might there be a different way to secure the alliance than with a marriage? Is there any other possible way?”
Papà’s eyes narrowed, and he interlaced his fingers. “Blood is the only way an alliance like this could be upheld. The bond of shared blood.”
Shared blood? He had to mean children.
She frowned. “How can a marriage between a mortal and an immortal work? Can the species even breed? Are children possible?” She’d never read of such a thing.
“Quite possible, I’m assured,” Papà replied matter-of-factly, his face a dour mask. “And elders are treated with respect in their society. The gap in aging would be handled appropriately.”
The gap in aging. What a quaint way of phrasing the rapidity of Bianca’s old age while her so-called husband would remain young, watching her wither. Probably eager to remarry to one of his own kind, counting down the days.
Was that the manifestation of Papà’s love for his favorite daughter? Sending Bianca to someone who’d eagerly await her death, a place where she’d waste away without love or anything that brought her joy, just to serve as a broodmare for his precious alliance?
A soreness formed behind her eyes, and she rubbed her sweaty palms into her tulle gown. “How can you do this, Papà? Surely you know how Bianca feels about Luciano?” She wrapped an arm around Bianca’s trembling shoulders.
He breathed deeply. “This is what’s best for you.”
“I know what’s best for me.” She glared at him. “I refuse to marry Luciano. You must release Bianca from this… this nightmare of a betrothal.”
Papà dropped his forehead into his hand. “Alessandra, this wedding will happen with or without you. You can either appear in person or be married in absentia, but you will be married, and Luciano will take you to Roccalano, with or without your assent. You will do this, or you will be useless to this kingdom.”
Useless. He’d called her that before, a long time ago, although she was certain he hadn’t known she’d been listening. When she’d been eight years old, Mamma had been lamenting the latest physician’s torture devices.
Must we put her through so much suffering? This treatment must be agony, Mamma had said. And yes, that back brace had been extreme, too rigid, too tight, painful to tears.
We must, Papà had answered sternly. Unless her spine is healed, she’ll be useless in this world.
In the hallway outside the solar, she had covered her mouth, hidden her tears, smothered her sobs. Even at eight years old, she had resolved to learn everything she could about running a kingdom, even if she had to do it alone. And to never be useless, no matter what Papà thought of her.
And here she was. Boxed into the only purpose he had for her.
Or so he thought. She refused to look away from him. He wouldn’t ruin Bianca’s life, not as long as she had a sister talented at stirring up oceans of trouble.
Bianca sobbed into her shoulder, and Aless rubbed her back gently.
“And Bianca?” she asked. “She clearly doesn’t want to marry that dark-elf male. Will you see her dragged away to their… their cave?”
“If that is what is required.” He regarded Bianca, her downturned mouth, and his gaze softened. “But Bianca has always understood the burden of royalty. I have faith she will not disappoint.”
What a man of honor, this prince! He’d drag Bianca kicking and screaming to his hole in the ground? “Such a moral and kind man you’ve chosen for her.”
“He is,” Papà answered, unperturbed. “He’s mending the rift between our people. He’s a paragon among his kind.”
“Maybe you should marry him, then.”
“He and his people have been mercilessly attacked by humans for months, and he’s followed orders not to engage, not to fight back at all. He has an iron will and a disposition toward diplomacy.”
Humans had been attacking him and his people for months, and he’d been under orders not to fight back? “So before he’s even met Bianca, he’ll already hate her because she’s human.”
Brilliant. Even better.
Bianca swept her forearm across her eyes and rested a hand on her arm. “Aless… It’s all right. I’ll… I’ll do what Papà says.” She sniffled. “And haven’t you been saying how much you’ve wanted to do something important for our kingdom? Luciano is… an influential man, and I’m… I’m sure you’ll find a way to work together. This is your chance.”
Bianca was in love with Luciano, and Papà had just announced her betrothal to a dark-elf! How could she stand there and say this was all right? Bianca had been waiting for a marriage since her sixteenth year; she was twenty-three now, had finally fallen in love with a man, and was to be married off to some… dark-elf? How could she just accept this?
If it were me, I’d fight tooth and nail. I’d find a way to make the dark-elf release me, even if no one helped me. I’d do it on my own.
If it were her…
Bianca offered her a sad smile and a nod as she turned toward Papà, but Aless grabbed her arm.
Her heart thudding in her ears, she met Bianca’s gaze. She wasn’t going to marry her sister’s love. She wasn’t going to let Bianca live a bleak life. She could make it right. She—
Bianca drew in a sharp breath and shook her head. It didn’t matter. She didn’t need Bianca’s permission.
“Papà,” Aless said, sweeping up her tulle skirts as her heels clicked up to the first step of the dais. “Offer me instead. I’ll wed Prince Veron.”
Behind her, Bianca gasped. “Aless, you can’t! You don’t know what you’re—”
“No. I do know what I’m doing.” She watched Papà’s face for any sign he agreed, but it betrayed nothing. “Please, let Bianca marry Luciano, and I promise I will marry Prince Veron.”
Papà heaved a long-suffering sigh. “Bianca can be trusted to do her duty. You cannot. Luciano will know this by now”—her reputation, of course, preceded her, too—“but Prince Veron is not a Sileni. He won’t understand your… spirit, and this kingdom needs a peace with Nightbloom to succeed.”
Papà was right; Bianca would do her duty. But in doing so, she’d utterly destroy her life.
“There’s no sense in both Bianca and me being unhappy,” she replied, shaking her head vehemently. “Let me take her place. I will marry Prince Veron.”
Papà rested his chin on his fist. “Alessandra, you know I love you. But if we are being honest, you are willful, short tempered, sharp mouthed, and presumptuous. You are everything a man does not want in a wife. You try to hire street urchins for your household, donate your coin to peasant rebellions, find every opportunity to show the nobiltà you ‘disagree’—”
It was on the tip of her tongue to object, but he did say sharp mouthed.
She sighed. Yes, she’d done all those things. He had no reason to expect anything like silent obedience from her.
Maybe there was a way to persuade him, an old tradition among the most devout of Terrans—something the priests and paladins of the Order of Terra still did, designed to create circumstances for introspection and self-reflection. Even if in name only… “I won’t say a word to him. I will swear a Vow of Silence and say nothing to him until the wedding.”
A vow. And she’d say nothing to him. It wasn’t quite the old tradition, but hopefully Papà wouldn’t ask too many questions.
* * *
A grin tugged at the corners of Papà’s mouth. What amused him more? Her keeping her peace now, being married off to one of the Immortali, or promising to keep her mouth shut?
Maybe all of it. “This is an easy choice. Make Bianca happy,” she said, squeezing Bianca’s hand, “and get rid of me. All in one sweep.”
Papà sighed again with heavy shoulders, no doubt weighed down by two decades of her disappointing him. “I’m not trying to ‘get rid’ of you.”
She shrugged. He could couch it in whatever words he chose. He’d decided he’d had enough of her, and that he’d needed to sacrifice Bianca. Each of them knew this truth, hard as it was, no matter what else he said.