No Man Can Tame (Page 32)

It was the right move.

He turned away and strolled to the exit. “Nice talking to you, Yelena,” he deadpanned.

“See you at dinner,” came the jesting reply.

Aless rose from the stone bench in the chamber she shared with Veron. Decorated in smooth stone and metal, its surfaces were hard, sharp, softened only by what appeared to be undyed silk, a soft, cottony white. Silk bedding, cushions, curtains. Even a silk rug, woven in shades of white and tan. The room was a marriage of soft and hard.

In the mirror, she wore her dark-blue satin dress—one of her best—fitted through the richly embroidered bodice, with boots beneath, and the strand of Mamma’s pearls around her neck.

She couldn’t fight—true—but she was still a princess of Silen. And everyone who looked her way tonight would know that, and know that with her station came the aid they all enjoyed. And that if any harm came to her, they’d be without it.

Gabriella tightened the braid she’d coiled at the nape of her neck. “There. Perfect.”

“I approve,” Gavri commented from her post at the doorway, swirling the tip of her own braid around her fingers. “There’s something I love about that hairstyle, but I can’t quite put my finger on it.”

As casual as Gavri seemed now, her meeting with Zoran had shaken her. She’d practically run from the stable after all.

“Very funny.”

Both Gavri and Zoran had things they needed to say to each other, it seemed, questions that needed answers, wounds that needed healing. Maybe it would be better if they said them instead of keeping them bottled up inside. Easier for them to move on.

She strode up to Gavri and jabbed a finger at her. “You are going to meet him in the stables later.”

“I am?” Gavri stared down at her finger. “I can’t. What about guarding—”

Aless shook her head. “You need to hear whatever he has to say to you. You two have loose ends.”

Sighing, Gavri leaned her head back against the door. “If Queen Nendra hears of it, even if nothing hap—”

“You can’t help it if I need to get some air and require my guard to accompany me, can you?” With a grin, she breezed out the door.

“Good plan,” Gavri said in a high-pitched voice, sidling up to her. “I like it.”

In the hall, Veron strode toward them, over six feet of black-leather-clad muscle, the hard angles of his terrifyingly beautiful face tight, eyebrows drawn, golden eyes hard. Riza followed him with a scowl.

Had he spoken with Yelena, then?

But when he looked up, met her gaze, those hard angles gave way to a soft smile. One she’d put there.

He gave her a once-over, and the curve of that smile was unmistakable as he took her hands. “You look beautiful.”

“All Gabriella’s work,” she said, rubbing her thumb over his hand.

He gave a friendly nod to Gabriella, who curtseyed. When his gaze wandered to Gavri, she bowed her head and looked away.

This disagreement between them would have to end. Maybe they could discuss it later tonight.

“How did your talk go?” she asked as he wrapped her hand around his arm and led her down the hall.

“Swimmingly,” Riza snapped, shaking her head.

Veron hissed at Riza, then turned back to her, rubbing warmth into her hand. “She’s eager to rule—”

“That’s one way of putting it,” Riza mumbled under her breath.

“—but is frustrated in her mother’s shadow.”

“She’s frustrated, but she’s not stupid,” Gavri said, despite Veron’s glare. “If she embarrasses Her Highness, when Queen Zara hears about it, that could affect relations with Dun Mozg. She won’t endanger the alliance.”

“You don’t know her as well as I do,” he snapped.

“No one knows her as well as you do,” Gavri shot back, then her eyes went wide as she swallowed.

Veron went rigid, but Aless stepped in.

“How do the games work?” she asked as they crossed a corridor in the black crystal palace, their booted footsteps echoing.

“The first warrior may challenge until she or he loses,” Veron said. “When the first warrior finally loses, the victor issues challenges until she or he loses.”

“How do you win?”

“Get your opponent out of the ring, or until your opponent taps twice,” Gavri supplied, and Veron nodded, but a frown slowly furrowed his face. “No blood drawn—it’s bad form.”

“What about the ring? What’s in it?”

Veron jerked his head back. “No,” he hissed, stopping near a stone bench.

“Sand.” Gavri raised an eyebrow at him.

Sand… That wouldn’t hurt too much. “It’s light sparring, right?” she asked. “What if I accept the challenge?”

“Absolutely not,” Veron said through clenched teeth.

“Not a terrible idea,” Gavri replied while Veron scowled at her. “Hurting Her Highness would destroy the peace. She wouldn’t use the games to truly injure Her Highness.”

“If she endangers the peace, that could mean her people don’t eat.” She took Veron’s arm with both of her hands until he looked at her. “If she wants to rule and she’s intelligent—which I expect her to be, if you were fond of her—then she won’t starve her people just to make a stranger look bad.”

“She’s passionate about leadership,” he said with a sigh, “just extremely impatient, and sometimes myopic.”

That sounded all too familiar. With a fleeting smile, she lowered her gaze as they walked endless stretches of gleaming black floors reflecting the light of mushrooms, glowworms, and torches.

Yelena—as a woman among the dark-elves—had a real chance, no matter how small, of ending up a true leader. When a dream became tangible, the temptation to reach for it became nearly irresistible. What had Yelena done?

Nothing too repugnant, if she was still free, still an heir to the throne here. She might have been impatient, but not deranged.

Soon, the din of myriad voices muffled through two heavy stone doors.

“If she challenges you,” Veron whispered, “just decline. There’s no good reason for you to take such a risk.”

Two kuvari, armored in sage-tinted arcanir plate, opened the doors, revealing a sea of people crowding long stone tables and benches. Some of whom had arrived with her and Veron—her people.

Every reason for her to take such a risk.

“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,” a herald shouted, and every voice in the room hushed as Veron escorted her and Gabriella in, along with Riza, Gavri, and ten other kuvari. Every dark-elf stood, tall and straight, arms at their sides.

Floor candelabra and massive crystalline girandoles lit up the grand hall, reflecting firelight off surfaces like black glass, with an empty ring of sand at the center, outlined in white etchings. Their steps were the only sound, and as they passed several empty spaces on the stone benches, most of their entourage stopped but for her, Veron, Gabriella, Riza, and Gavri.

The air was thick with the savory spice of roasted sausage, and the lemon, olive oil, polenta, and rice-flour pasta. The aroma of Bellanzole’s viands—human foods.

Veron led them to the farthest table, where a well-built, statuesque woman waited in a gleaming black throne, her long hair secured high, surrounded by four men, Zoran among them. No one else here seemed to have more than one partner, but this queen did. She wore impeccable plated black leather, and armor over her fingers.

“I am Queen Nendra. Welcome to Dun Mozg, Prince Veron, Princess Alessandra.” With a measured smile, Nendra inclined her head, and she and Veron responded in kind. Nendra gestured to the men surrounding her. “This is my king-consort, Zoran”—who grinned and nodded—“and my concubines—”


“—Kral, Ivo, and Cipriano.” A grim-faced muscular dark-elf in armor, a pale and slender well-coiffed man in a black coat, and a black-bearded, green-eyed man, olive-skinned just like her. Sileni?

Human? No, Zoran had mentioned a werewolf lover, hadn’t he? What about Ivo?

But she greeted each in turn with Veron until Nendra gestured to the spitting image of herself, with her white hair braided in a circlet about her head.

“And this is my firstborn daughter, Yelena.”

“A pleasure, Your Highness.” She inclined her head to Yelena.

Yelena smiled, but it didn’t reach her tawny eyes, and every shred of her brown leathers was pulled tight. A muscle twitched in Yelena’s clenched jaw. “The pleasure’s all mine.”

Queen Nendra glowered at her, then glanced at a young girl seated next to Yelena. “And my youngest, Karla.”

Karla, her voluminous hair tied in a high ponytail, met her gaze squarely, even while partially hiding behind Yelena’s hip. A bold little girl, she could be no older than five or six, if dark-elf children aged as human children did. But even for a child, she was thin. When Veron had told her about the starvation, she hadn’t wanted to believe him, but he’d been right.