No Man Can Tame (Page 33)

Nendra turned to her people, arms raised. “Our honored guests have arrived,” she bellowed. “After Kral saved two of our volodari yesterday, he has the honor of first match. Let the games begin!”

Cheers rose up from the crowds, who then seated themselves at the stone benches once more. A musician in the corner began a beat on a large, resonant drum.

Scowling, Veron gestured her to a nearby space, where she sat between him and Gavri on the cold, hard surface, with Gabriella beyond, and Riza at the end.

“What’s wrong?” she whispered to him.

He shook his head. “I didn’t realize anyone would have the honor of first match.”

At least it wasn’t Yelena.

The spread before them was colorful, with dishes of steaming pasta and sausage placed among Sileni boules, greens, fruits, and cakes. The entire table was laden with human food.

“Please tell me there’s butter,” Gavri murmured under her breath, patting Gabriella’s arm. “Gabriella put some in my chestnut mush earlier today, and Holy Ulsinael, she changed my life.”

She laughed, and across from her, Cipriano was hiding a smile as he buttered a roll.

“Some things are worth the two-thousand-year wait,” he remarked, his voice deep and gravelly.

“I’m going to need that. Really, really need that,” Gavri said, her eyes fixed on the block of butter.

Nendra tipped her head up to Cipriano. “With this new alliance, you can have all the butter you want. Just don’t get fat, eh?”

“If I don’t, it won’t be for lack of trying, my queen.” They shared a grin that would have been sweet if Zoran hadn’t been sitting between them, blinking lazily.

“Would you pass the, er, gigantic human bread loaf?” he asked Veron, waving a fork around, and Veron obliged with narrowed eyes, sliding the boule over to him across the table.

Yelena observed the exchange with an aloof glare, her gaze raking over the spread of Sileni food. Karla sat next to her, her little pale eyebrows drawn together as she looked out at the dishes. Yelena gathered some pasta and bread onto her plate, whispering words in an encouraging tone.

As she offered her little sister human food, Yelena had to know what the peace meant. She had to.

While Zoran tore off a chunk of bread and buttered it under Gavri’s avaricious gaze, Kral stood and took to the empty ring. At its center, he clasped his hands behind his back and faced toward Yelena, who still sat with Karla.

A series of whoops rose up and rhythmic thuds of hands pounding on the stone, until Yelena looked over her shoulder at him, thumped her chest twice with a fist, and stood to raucous cheering.

“And so it begins,” Veron said on an exhale.

“Why fight during a celebration?” she asked quietly. “Why not just dance?”

“It can be like a sort of dance,” Gavri said, her mouth full of buttered bread. “When two warriors are attracted and then equally matched, it’s… probably what you humans would call a seduction.”

Swallowing, she nodded. Dark-elves chose their mates by their strength, choosing equals.

And never in her life would she ever be equally matched to Veron in combat.

Kral and Yelena circled one another, exchanging jests and feints, before Kral threw a punch, his massive physique the charge of a bull. Yelena misdirected his arm and evaded, dodging an elbow before landing a knee to the gut, then the face.

She backed away, grinning at Kral, who rubbed his jaw. As they circled, he moved her closer and closer to the white ring, until she tried to dart left.

He blocked, enclosing her in his enormous arms, but she slammed the top of her forehead against his face. His grip loosened, and she grabbed his arm, twisted it, and with her foot to his back, shoved him out of the ring.

Cheers rose up from the crowd while Yelena held up a fist, grinning.

No blood—Yelena had to have pulled her punches?

“Is he going to be all right?” she whispered to Veron.

“Nothing the hot springs won’t cure,” he whispered back.

Prodding at his face, Kral headed back to the table, where a dark-elf in gray robes and bone necklace rushed to tend him. All the while, Ivo and Cipriano and even Nendra herself patted him on the back while others shouted calls of support.

When they quieted, whoops staggered across the sea of tables, and that rhythmic thumping on the stone began again, and in the middle of the ring, Yelena stood, her hands clasped behind her back—

And staring right here.

Chapter 16

Aless shivered.

Holy Mother’s mercy. It was happening. It was actually happening.

She just had to decline and—

Next to her, Veron stood, staring down Yelena with an unwavering ferocity, and thumped his fist twice against his chest.

Yelena shook her head and looked over at her.

Gavri stood, thumping her chest.

Another shake of the head.

Across the table, Kral sat, having lost but nonetheless earned the respect of his family, friends, and subjects. There was no dishonor in losing. Only in failing to rise to the challenge. And then not only would she disappoint the dark-elves of Nightbloom, her own people, but she’d also humiliate them in front of an allied queendom.

“Your Majesty,” Veron declared, turning to Queen Nendra, “I ask your permission to take my wife’s place in the ring.”

Queen Nendra leaned back in her throne and scowled at Yelena, who still stared right here. The crowd had gone utterly silent, as if three hundred people had stopped breathing.

“The games are tradition, Prince Veron,” the queen replied in an even tone. “They must be fought by those who are issued a challenge, or not at all.” The queen’s gaze shifted to her, widened just slightly.

Even Queen Nendra invited her to decline.

“Princess?” Queen Nendra asked. “You must accept or decline,” she said slowly, “unless you are blessed by Holy Ulsinael.”


The queen’s gaze lowered to her belly.


A way out? It would be easy to lie, the easiest thing in the world, but in a few months, the odds were that everyone would know it. She could lose their respect anyway.

But as the dark-elves sat around tables of human food, as their queen celebrated a human and dark-elf marriage, Yelena would have to be insane to harm her. And an insane person wouldn’t so lovingly have tried to feed her little sister.

As Veron stood, fists clenched, his eyes met hers, intense, pained, and as committed as he’d been to the truth before, that intensity suggested the opposite now.

What about the consequences? How would this reflect on Veron, on his mother, on the people of Nightbloom? And would his mother retaliate over the embarrassment, as Gavri had suggested?

Even if Yelena was willing to risk her people’s wellbeing—Karla’s wellbeing—she wasn’t. Wasn’t willing to risk anyone’s wellbeing just to keep her own backside unbruised, especially when Yelena had every reason not to hurt her.

With a swallow, she stood. “Your Majesty, I am not in a holy state.”

A ripple of gasps spread through the hall.

Veron took her hand. “Aless, no,” he whispered. “Please.”

She curled her fingers into a fist and thumped it twice to her chest, but the silence didn’t break.

“Your Majesty,” Veron called out, turning back to Queen Nendra, “I won’t—”

Queen Nendra raised a hand. “The challenge has been accepted.”

Yelena bowed elaborately.

“Yelena,” Veron snarled. “So help me Ulsinael, if you—”

Riza and Danika rose to grab Veron’s arms and forced him to his seat while he bucked their hold. Even Zoran approached to help, and they finally wrangled Veron onto the bench as Zoran murmured reassurances.

Two taps. A step out of the ring. That was all it would take.

She took Veron’s hand and offered him a look she hoped was reassuring. “Please. I have to do this.”

His eyes locked on hers, blazing and furious as he heaved forceful breaths. “If she touches you, Aless, I—” A madness creased his features before he shook his head.

But she hadn’t miscalculated.

Yelena wasn’t insane, and if she did someday want to rule her people, destroying this peace and starving them was not conducive to that. What were weapons in the hands of emaciated soldiers?

She’d wanted to embarrass the human. Maybe even frustrate Veron. But her bluff had been called, and in two taps or just a couple steps, this would all be over.

She rested a palm on his cheek. “Trust me in this, Veron, won’t you?”

As he stared at her, she stroked his cheek softly before she kissed him. Then, with a nod to him and another to Gavri, she stepped over the bench and made her way to the ring.

In the center, Yelena waited with a bitter smile, her eyebrows raised. “That was foolish of you, human.”

Aless stepped into the ring but stayed on its fringe, close enough to step out quickly if she needed to. “I married a dark-elf, and this is part of his people’s traditions. I want them to be our people, and that means stepping forward. Joining.”

“Brave words, human.” Yelena lowered into a fighting stance, narrowing her eyes. “But how brave are you?”

Inside of her, everything trembled, but she kept her fists clenched, stood her ground. She couldn’t fight, not in the least, but this wasn’t about winning a fight.