No Man Can Tame (Page 34)

She would do her best to take it as Kral had, and then sit down and be welcomed. Avoid an incident that could affect so many people.

Yelena circled her, feinting occasionally, laughing, but Aless didn’t move. Couldn’t move. It was either fear or determination, but as long as it kept her standing, she didn’t care.

A kick breezed by her face—just inches past her nose—

Her heart threatened to explode from her chest as the crowd heckled Yelena, shouting her name in disappointed tones.

Yelena’s steps surrounded her, and growls, grunts, hissed words. The blow could come from anywhere—from behind, from the side, from above, from below. It could hit her anywhere, and for the life of her, she couldn’t move.

Yelena circled to the front, her face contorted, and Aless chanced a look at Veron, who leaned forward at the table, both of his hands on it, with Gavri, Riza, and Zoran clamping down on his shoulders. The intensity of his gaze pierced her—

A lunge forward, then Yelena swept her legs out from under her.

Her back hit the sand.

Air whooshed out of her lungs.

“Yelena!” Veron shouted from across the hall, his voice echoing.

She wheezed, trying to catch her breath, while Yelena pinned her, took both of her wrists in the grasp of one hand, the clawed fingers of her other hand poised.

“No attempt to fight me?” Yelena snarled, tensing those fingers.

Holy Mother’s mercy, she couldn’t move even if she tried. But if Yelena had wanted her dead, then she already would have been. This was something else.

She held Yelena’s gaze. “I didn’t come here to fight you.”

Yelena bared her teeth. “Then this could be your end.”

Searching Yelena’s eyes, she gave a slight shake of her head. If that were so, her end would have come as soon as she’d entered the ring, but Yelena had pulled all her strikes, had tried to get a rise out of her. Refusing the challenge would have shown fear. And cowering in the ring would have, too. Maybe that was what Yelena had tried to elicit. Fear. And assert all humans were cowards by association.

“No,” she said quietly. “I’m your ally, and I trust you.”

But even as she said the words and closed her eyes, a coldness swept over her, claimed her, raising every hair on her body.

Maybe it hadn’t been bravery but bravado. Maybe she’d miscalculated, fatally, and Yelena would kill her.

She won’t.

A hiss cut through the air, and a crunch hit, rippling impact through the sand and floor beneath her head.

She sucked in a breath, shaking, willing her hands to move, but Yelena’s hold on her wrists was too tight.

The shadow over her shifted—Yelena—freeing her up to move a little.

Aless tapped her foot twice on the sand.

When she opened her eyes, Yelena was still above her, eyes narrowed, her brow creased.

“You—you don’t belong here,” Yelena snapped, then with a sharp breath, pulled away.

Minutes passed by, or hours, as she looked up at the black stone ceiling, waiting for her pulse to slow, for her breath to even out. Firelight flickered reflections in the mirror-like surface, and voices began to filter in. Cheers.

She pushed up to her elbow, her tailbone and her back sore as she brushed off the sand, and there was a sea of smiling faces, calls of encouragement. As she stood properly, Veron became visible between other people, held down still, his eyes wild as they met hers.

Yelena already stood at the center, paying her no mind, so she headed back to her spot at the table, nodding acknowledgments as others patted her on the back and offered kind words, and a dark-elf woman offering her treatment that she turned down. She was just a little sore, that was all.

Gavri winked at her, then she, Riza, and Zoran released Veron, who shot up from his seat.

He gathered her up in his arms, holding her tight, inhaling a sharp breath over her head before lowering his mouth to hers. Her heart raced anew as his lips pressed hard against hers, his kiss passionate and deep, his body taut and leaning into hers.

He pulled away, far too soon, and held her face cupped in his hands, searching her eyes with his own, his chest rising and falling in short, fast breaths. “Aless, that was—”

“A success?” she offered.

“—dangerous,” he said quietly, before pulling her in once more. “And a success,” he added, and she could hear the smile in his voice.

His arms around her weren’t just warm and safe, but they soothed a loving familiarity into her, a feeling she wanted to wrap herself in and never leave, to fall asleep in and wake up in, to feel every day and every night, for as long as she wanted, whenever she wanted. She closed her eyes and breathed him in, the smell of leather and that forest stream, and something deeper, primal, that she couldn’t get enough of.

Soon the whooping and rhythmic thuds sounded again, and when she turned back to the ring, Yelena stood at its center, arms clasped behind her back, staring down Veron.

“She picked the wrong day,” he growled under his breath, then stood aside and thumped his fist to his chest. With one last glance at her, he rounded the table, cracking his knuckles as he strode to the ring.

“They were always evenly matched, but today, mark my words, by the time he’s through with her, she’ll be no more than a glorified mop,” Gavri remarked, her voice low among the din.

She sat down, and her bottom rebelled, but she’d give it a hot bath later as a peace offering. Gavri patted at her hair, shaking out the sand, and she grinned in quiet thanks.

As Yelena and Veron circled one another in the ring, their gazes locked, their movements perfectly synchronized, it really was like a dance. Yelena met his ferocity with a quirked brow and a mischievous gaze, and he matched her every move with a countermove, their bodies turning to one another’s whims without even touching.

It was as if they’d done this a hundred times before, a thousand times before, and knew everything about each other, a sort of natural intimacy that would take years to build, or more.

Yelena threw a punch, and he spun away with a kick that she ducked. She countered, and he caught her foot, then hooked her heel out from under her.

But her legs closed around him, and she arched her back, her palms hitting the ground as she tried to throw him. He spun sideways, but caught the floor with a palm and swept a leg low that she leaped to evade.

They knew each other’s moves, every single one, and flowed around one another like winds in a cyclone.

Evenly matched.

She started, lowering her gaze to the table, and her half-eaten plate of food. No, Veron didn’t care about that, not with Yelena, but every moment she watched them together only reinforced how perfect they looked, what an ideal couple they made, and how she could never be his equal like Yelena could. Never as strong or as skilled. Never a dark-elf warrior. And this dance, this seduction, would be something she could never do.

As for what he did see in her—could it be enough? Could it ever be enough?

Had he forgiven her for the lie?

Someone walked past—Zoran—and left the grand hall. In the ring beyond, Veron and Yelena battled blow for blow, with Yelena’s face lit up in a broad grin.

Yelena looked confident, but Veron would handle her. He won small engagements, and bit by bit, he weakened her.

With Zoran at the stable, all that remained was getting Gavri there, not alone, so Queen Nendra wouldn’t suspect anything. And nothing would happen—Gavri knew better—but they’d finally have a chance to talk.

She stood. “I think I’ll take some air,” she said over Gavri’s head to Gabriella and Riza. “Will you tell Veron I’ll be right back?”

“Your Highness,” Riza said, rising. “I shall accompany you.”

“No need,” she said with a happy shrug. “I’ll take Gavri. We’ll be back shortly.” She nodded to Gavri, who rose as well.

Riza eyed the two of them, then glanced back at the ring. “Very well. I will inform His Highness.”

Riza inclined her head and waited. Veron and Yelena were still fighting when Gavri escorted her out of the grand hall, into the ample glowing green light of the bioluminescent mushrooms.

“Thank you for this,” Gavri whispered to her as they headed for the stables, traversing the black causeways over waterfalls and dark depths.

“You haven’t seen each other for two thousand years,” she replied softly. “I think a private conversation is the very least you deserve.”

Gavri nodded, slowly brushing a fingertip over her lip. “By the way, what you did in there…”

With a shrug, she shook her head. “Now there will be no misunderstanding that my fists are useless.”

Gavri grasped her wrist. “Strength isn’t just in your fists. Strength is relying on your knowledge in the face of danger. It’s standing up to a challenge with courage and dignity. Not running away.”

She’d wanted to do right by Veron’s people—now her people, too. If Veron had possessed any remaining doubt of her commitment to him or their people, he could now cast it aside. She would do whatever it took to protect them, to keep them safe, and to maintain the peace. Whatever it took.

Gavri lowered her gaze. “Actually something I needed to be reminded of.”

Aless cocked her head toward the stables. “Then let’s go see Zoran.”