No Man Can Tame (Page 31)
It was like this, too?
But the cavalcade was already moving, and he cocked his head for her to follow. She urged her horse after him and Noc, a line leading up to a long building, where whinnies and nickers greeted them.
Veron helped her dismount and personally led Noc and her horse inside, through the bustle of people.
A man with long, unbound hair stood before one of the stalls, rubbing a horse’s nose. Strapping, with long, flowing hair, a smile curling the corners of his mouth—it looked almost permanent. And the same shade of slate-blue skin Veron had, just a little darker than most.
“Zoran,” Veron called. “I knew I’d find you in here.”
Zoran? The same Zoran that Gavri had mentioned?
“Brother!” Zoran turned to him, those same golden eyes wide, and tackled Veron in a hug, patting him on the back. “It’s been an age!”
Zoran had the same chiseled features Veron did—the high cheekbones, prominent chin, angular jaw—and yet they were louder somehow; Zoran’s grin was broad and his laugh hearty, his movements sweeping and large. He himself was slightly taller than Veron’s six and a half feet, and wider. Whereas Veron was quiet and intense, she could already hear Zoran’s guffaws and booming voice.
“I knew that where horses were near, you couldn’t be far.” With a lopsided grin, Veron eyed his brother, clapping him on the shoulder. They stabled her horse and Noc, with a pair of stable hands coming to help.
Zoran gusted a heavy sigh. “Better here than the fortress. Nendra is occupied with her current favorite. A werewolf alpha.”
Veron’s grin disappeared as he shook his head, earning a shrug from Zoran. “She’ll tire of him soon enough. Too moody.”
Wasn’t the queen married to Zoran?
He looked past Veron to her. “And you must be Alessandra!”
Clearing her throat, she curtseyed, but he blazed right past Veron and hugged her.
“Glad to make your acquaintance, King-consort—”
“Zoran,” he corrected, his arms tight around her. “We’re family now!”
Despite his volume, his embrace was genuine, and he smelled familiar, of horse—she couldn’t dislike him.
“Nice to meet you,” she replied, meeting Veron’s sparkling gaze as he stood, one arm crossed over his chest, and the other hand curled and covering his mouth.
He looked ready to burst out laughing himself, which would be a new sight for her.
Zoran released her and leaned against a stall, his face bright. “So how do you like my brother? Is he too quiet? Too severe? With his obedience and duty and peace and all that?”
Something like a bark of laughter came from Veron before he bowed his head and coughed.
“He’s…” Wonderful. “I…” Adore him. “We…”
“Say no more.” Zoran held up a hand. “Or it’ll all go to his head.”
“Ah, so she does have a humorous bone in her body.”
Veron elbowed his brother.
“What about the boot thing?” Zoran continued. “Does he still do the boot thing?”
A wry look from Veron. “I do not have a ‘boot thing.’ It’s not my fault most boots are just not in the least—”
“You so have a boot thing.” Zoran fixed him with a stare.
“Boot… thing?” she asked. If there was one man who could make a perfect pair of boots, it was Lorenzo’s cobbler. She’d have to write home.
Footsteps padded behind her, and the mirth faded from Zoran’s gaze as he looked past her.
She glanced back, where Gavri had entered with a horse. Gavri quickly tried to back up, but there was nowhere to go.
Zoran bridged the distance between them, leaning in close. “Gavri.” The word sounded like a greeting, a whisper, an apology, and an admiration all in one.
“I need to leave. Could you—” Gavri pushed through a trio of kuvari and their horses, but Zoran caught her hand.
“Meet me here later, during dinner,” Zoran whispered to Gavri. “There’s so much I need to tell you.”
Gavri twisted in his grip, her hand going to her braid. “I—I can’t. I have guard duty.” She turned and picked through the crowded stable, but his glittering eyes followed her as she left.
Gavri really wasn’t going to hear what Zoran—the man she’d loved, to whom she’d given eight years—had to say?
She moved to follow Gavri out of the stable, and Veron caught up with her.
“See you at the games,” Veron called back to his brother, then helped her clear a path.
The games… the ones where—unless she got an idea in the next few hours—she would let down all of her new subjects with a single word.
As Veron entered the training cavern, Yelena was already there in her kuvari robes, practicing the sword. Her hair was up in the braided circlet as it always had been, and her movements were lithe and agile as ever.
“Did you miss me?” she asked with a sweep of her blade, smiling impishly.
“Two thousand years passed in the blink of an eye,” he murmured, leaning against a blackstone pillar. Two thousand more could pass before he’d miss her—no, not even then.
Dark-amber eyes darted to him as she stepped into a lunge. “Look at you, all decked out.”
He was already dressed in his combat leathers, ready for dinner.
“So your mother finally married you off. And to a human.”
He crossed his arms. He cared for Aless, but rubbing it in Yelena’s face wasn’t going to win him any favors here. “I do as my queen commands.”
She forced out a laugh. “I certainly would have used that to my advantage.”
“It was never going to be yours to use.”
Setting her jaw, she practiced a block. “You just couldn’t see my vision.”
Oh, he had seen her vision, all too clearly. An ambitious, royal-blooded kuvari who had known she could never have defeated her own mother in single combat… and so had used a love affair with him in Nozva Rozkveta to try to learn Mati’s weaknesses, in a bid to seize the throne of Nozva Rozkveta. Her plan had relied on making the Offering to him, then dueling to join Mati’s Quorum—but he’d learned about Yelena’s lies first and had told Mati.
Instead, Mati had betrothed Zoran to Yelena’s mother. And that had been the end of that.
“Your… ‘vision’ was a pack of lies,” he said casually. “And I wasn’t about to let you try to overthrow my mother.”
“Try?” A deep laugh. “I would have succeeded.”
Yelena was a skilled warrior, but not Mati’s match, whom even Nendra would have struggled to best. But for a person desperate to step out from her mother’s shadow, Yelena truly seemed to believe in what she was saying.
“You don’t have anything to prove,” he said. “Everyone knows you’re one of the strongest kuvari. And not just in Dun Mozg.”
She rolled her eyes, slashed low, and then high. “I don’t need to be told that.”
“Because you already know. Everyone already knows.”
She blew a sharp breath from her nose. “Your point?”
He stepped in front of her, and she stopped a blow just short of his arm. Her eyes wide, she looked him over, and he rested a palm on her sword-hand.
“My point is that Alessandra is a human,” he said, keeping his voice low. “There’s nothing to be gained from challenging her.”
With a sneer, Yelena straightened, pulled away, and sheathed her sword, her pale kuvari robes dark with sweat. “Is that what you predict I’ll do? Challenge your little human?”
“I know better than to try predicting what you’ll do, Yelena.” He peered down at her, at the wheels turning in her gaze, in her expression. “But our peace with the humans, our trade—even the food this queendom is getting—rely on my marriage with Alessandra.”
“They’re weak. Helpless. At the slightest challenge, they scurry like salamanders. No strength at all.”
“Not in the ring. Not combat strength. But Alessandra has a different kind of strength,” he shot back. Aless wasn’t weak. Wasn’t helpless. In a test of wits, Yelena would find herself vastly outclassed.
“There is only one kind of strength that matters, Veron,” she hissed.
This was going nowhere. “I’m asking you this as a favor, Yelena.”
“A favor? For old times’ sake?” Raising her eyebrows, she looked away with a shake of her head, then crossed her arms. When her eyes met his once more, they were narrowed and dancing mischievously. A look he’d seen from her countless times. “Maybe one last roll in the moss, then, for old times’ sake?”
He groaned under his breath. There was no sense in trying to reason with her when she would only toy with him for her own amusement. Yelena was determined to issue the challenge and embarrass Aless in front of everyone present, send a ripple through the queendoms about the new Nozva Rozkvetan human princess refusing to fight and thus having no honor.
No more toying. He’d simply beat Yelena to the ring and challenge her first. Once he defeated her, as victor he’d be able to choose his next opponent, and that would be that. Yelena would never even get the chance to embarrass his wife.