No Man Can Tame (Page 30)
He laughed under his breath. She was right; the tunnels were massive, and they were but small ants in them. “Although the earthmovers created our tunnels and territories, we know they’re here no longer because there haven’t been earthquakes.”
“Earthquakes?” Aless’s dark eyebrows knitted together before they rose high. “Aha. Earthmovers.”
Soon, the tunnels began to twinkle in the light of their torches and lanterns, and she squinted. “What are…?”
“Gemstones,” he supplied, and she gasped. “Arcanir isn’t the only material found here, although it’s one of the few useful ones.”
Her mouth fell open. “But gemstones are—”
“Very valuable to humans.” He smiled at her. “They barter timber, leather, food crops, livestock, and other valuable items to us, and in return, they want shiny stones.”
She cocked her head. “When you put it like that, we all sound like idiots.”
He shrugged happily. “Not all of you, but if the jewelry fits.”
She stroked fingers over her pearls. “You know, it’s not just the shiny aspect. Rarity means a lot, too. It means we’ve had to sacrifice to obtain something. An entire city crafting an icon of Terra out of gold means they sacrificed a great deal for the sake of the Holy Mother.”
A little defensive. He bowed his head, hiding a smile. “Saffron is rare, isn’t it?”
She pursed her lips. “A statue made out of saffron might not last very long, Veron.” Despite her prickly tone, her eyes gleamed.
That gleam made his poking all worthwhile. There was something about her that just lightened his heart, made him feel almost weightless. The way she made him feel—that couldn’t be possible if she were malicious, someone who’d betray affection freely given. Perhaps he’d misjudged her.
People had always been difficult for him to read, ever since Ata. How could he have gotten his own father so wrong? And other volodari, kuvari, and former lovers.
He cared for Aless. Perhaps even trusted her, but not himself, not his ability to understand her well enough to predict when things could go wrong, and to stop them.
“So does Nightbloom get arcanir from here?” Aless asked.
He breathed deep. “Dun Mozg supplies us with arcanir weapons, yes. We, in turn, provide food and spices, since they’re scarce here,” he explained. “They’ve had to hunt a lot more than we have, and they’ve lost volodari to the Brotherhood. When we woke from the Sundering, all our farms had long since withered or been overgrown, so we couldn’t supply ourselves yet, let alone Dun Mozg. While we re-establish our food crops and spice caravans, we need the trade Silen could provide.”
Nozva Rozkveta had been starving, but Dun Mozg had suffered an even greater food scarcity; they’d deployed more volodari to address that, and had lost many to the Brotherhood. That would make them either happier about the treaty or more embittered toward the humans as a whole. Hopefully the former.
“You help against the other Immortali in exchange for our food,” she whispered. “And then you provide food and spices to Dunmarrow for weapons…”
He nodded. Now she understood the basics of their trade with Queen Nendra.
Before long, they came upon the circular set of Dun Mozg’s stone doors, where Riza dismounted, took one of the hammers provided, and pounded Nozva Rozkveta’s knock. She replaced the hammer and stepped back.
“That sound was…” Aless whispered to him, her head tilted.
He urged Noc closer to her. “Each dark-elf queendom has its own. It’s how we identify ourselves to one another.”
She tapped her fingers against her thigh, the same rhythm Riza had pounded. Nozva Rozkveta’s rhythm. Again and again, as if she were practicing it.
He leaned forward, watching the movement of those elegant, tapered fingers as they sounded like home, his home, their home, and when the doors creaked open, minutes must have passed… or seconds. Clearing his throat, he straightened.
Zoran, Noc thought to him, with a swish of his tail and a rolling, blowing snort.
We’ll see him soon. Veron patted him. Zoran had always visited the stables every day in Nozva Rozkveta, before becoming king-consort to Nendra, and had been fond of Noc in particular.
Once the doors were open, two kuvari stood in light arcanir armor, bearing halberds.
Riza stepped forward. “Hail, kin of Dun Mozg, blessed of the Deep, the Darkness, and Holy Ulsinael,” she called out, and every dark-elf in the cavalcade saluted. “We of Nozva Rozkveta come as kindred, in the service of His Highness, Prince Veron u Zara u Avrora u Roza, Valaz u Nozva Rozkveta, Zpevan Kamena, Volodar T’my, and Her Highness, Princess Alessandra u Aldona u Noor u Elise, Valazi u Nozva Rozkveta, Valazi u Silen.”
Aless leaned in. “Those are the names of my mother, my grandmother, and my great-grandmother,” she whispered, her voice high.
Was she surprised? “My mother wanted to know everything about you,” he whispered back. And I wanted to know everything about you…
“Dun Mozg bids you welcome,” came the Dun Mozg kuvari’s reply. “May the Deep, Darkness, and Holy Ulsinael guide you in our queendom.” The two stepped aside, standing at attention as the cavalcade passed into the open doors. “Her Majesty, Queen Nendra, awaits you in the grand hall. Enjoy the games.”
“Games?” Aless asked him. “Like you mentioned at our wedding?”
He nodded. “Our festivities include games, where anyone can challenge anyone in the ring to a light hand-to-hand match.”
“Anyone?” Her voice broke.
Closing his eyes, he brought a hand to his face. It was so commonplace a tradition among his people, he hadn’t even thought about it.
He should have.
He cleared his throat softly. “Yes. Anyone.”
Aless tightened her quivering fingers on the reins. There would be games tonight, and she—who’d never trained in combat a day in her life—could be challenged?
Gentle warmth rested on her hand, Veron’s palm on her skin. Riding close, he dipped his head, meeting her gaze with his shimmering golden eyes.
“It’s only light sparring, but there is no honor in challenging someone unskilled,” he said delicately.
“Yelena,” the sharp-eyed guard said with a cough, earning a glare and a hiss from Veron.
That couldn’t be good. “What’s Yelena?”
“Not what. Who,” the sharp-eyed guard answered, while Veron waved her off.
“Don’t listen to Riza. Yelena won’t challenge you.”
The sharp-eyed guard—Riza—scoffed, the sound echoing in the enormous dark tunnel.
Aless grasped Veron’s fingers. “Who is she?” A rival? An old flame? An enemy?
He closed his eyes a moment and exhaled lengthily. “Yelena is spoiled—”
“Strong,” Riza interjected.
“And your former lover.” Riza scowled at him. “She’ll feel an instant rivalry.”
Veron grunted. “Her people are starving and getting picked off by the Brotherhood. She knows better than to jeopardize this treaty.”
What kind of woman was she, this Yelena? Strong, ambitious…
“She doesn’t have to harm Her Highness,” Riza said. “A challenge will be enough for everyone present to witness Her Highness decline. Dark-elves will never respect Her Highness after that.”
So she couldn’t fight, and she couldn’t decline.
There had to be other moves to make. She just had to find them.
“I’ll talk to her,” Veron bit out to Riza.
“When has that ever worked?” Riza asked derisively. “Just ignore her. Completely.”
“That might anger her enough to goad her,” he replied as they neared the end of the tunnel.
“It’s your best chance,” Riza shot back, and they continued arguing, but it didn’t matter.
She had no control over what this Yelena might do or not. All that remained was gathering what facts she could to determine a course of action. The right course of action, to both earn the dark-elves’ respect while staying out of Yelena’s way.
The tunnel opened to an unimaginably enormous cavern, so vast its end wasn’t visible, washed in a soft green glow that illuminated buildings below. The cavern walls bloomed with green—
“Bioluminescence,” Veron whispered in her ear, his steely velvet voice making her shiver. “Fourteen types of bioluminescent mushrooms grow in our queendoms.”
Mushrooms? They looked like flowers, almost. Like petals. But beneath them was a city like black glass. Buildings with jagged edges, spikes, hard angles, but glossed and shining like mirrors. People wandered the black stone paths, chatting and laughing, while others disappeared into caves branching off from the main cavern. At the center of it all was the largest building, like a budding black crystal cluster, beautiful and majestic, surrounded by a glowing teal waterway that overflowed to the depths below.
Her heart froze, then pounded. “It’s breathtaking.”
Veron chuffed quietly, his eyes glittering. “Wait until you see Nozva Rozkveta.”