No Man Can Tame (Page 4)
But his silence persisted, and Bianca’s hand went limp in hers.
“With this marriage”—Papà stood—“you will be making peace between two nations. There is no greater thing anyone can do for our kingdom, Alessandra.”
He’d agreed to it!
She wanted to grin, but… she’d just won a wedding to one of the dark-elves. Maybe there was something more she could add to the bargain. “And the library? I want to teach in Bellanzole like Mamma did.”
He looked away. “I gave your mother too much freedom, and that is what killed her,” he said softly. “If she’d only stayed in the palazzo instead of venturing among the rabble, she would still be alive.”
And that was it? Because Mamma had been killed, no one could ever do anything again?
After years of research, she’d worked tirelessly on the proposal, but he and Lorenzo hadn’t replied. He could at least give it serious consideration. “I handed you plans for the library, and lists of all the masters to build it, and suggestions to finance—”
“That was what your mother wanted, and look what happened to her!” Papà shouted.
She shuddered. Mamma had died, but she’d devoted her life to sharing knowledge with others, teaching everyone willing how to read, gathering wisdom about the natural world and all things that grew. She’d always been known as the wild heart no man could tame, but Papà had loved what she had loved and had done the impossible—or at least he’d pretended to support her. After her death, everyone had forgotten her wish. Just as they had forgotten her.
But I haven’t. “Papà, please—”
“Libraries mean paesani who can read, write, and think, who can write pamphlets and treatises, and protest instead of working. Find new ways to destroy us.” He heaved a sigh. “This is a volatile time. The kingdom cannot take such a risk.”
“The truth. And Alessandra, do you have any notion of what it costs to build a library and keep it maintained?”
“Yes. It was all there in the—”
“Not monetary cost. You laid out a tax plan to see it done. But the non-monetary costs of taxing our signori, especially now, when many of them are stretched thin or deep in debt to finance defenses against the Immortali? There’s another harpy nest just outside of Stroppiata! We have bigger concerns right now. By enacting your plan, I’d be sowing the seeds of rebellion myself.
“Our survival has not come without sacrifice. Your sister, Giuliana, she married Emaurria’s Prince Robert to become queen, to help protect our kingdom and forge favorable trade terms when her time came. And she was killed. We lost not only our precious Giuliana, but the boons she would have granted our kingdom. And you failed to captivate the new king.”
Captivate? The king was in love with another woman; there had been little else to do but leave gracefully. “He was already—”
“Whatever the reasons, you failed. This is a responsibility you must accept and now account for. The terms are set, and fulfilling your duty now will mean no more paesani lives lost to battles with the dark-elves, no more money spent on it by signori for defenses against them, and it will mean a military ally against the other Immortali, knowledge of this new world, and valuable trade.”
Bianca approached and bowed her head. “Papà, please. Aless is taking my place, and the least that—”
Papà held up a hand.
There was no use trying to convince him. He’d already made up his mind; she and Bianca were no more than pawns.
Her library, a place where she could help anyone who wanted to learn and grow, nobiltà or paesani, human or Immortali—had it only ever been a dream, just like the courtyard of overgrown roses and its spellbinding perfume?
But she—she would do what was required to make peace between her people and the dark-elves. It didn’t necessarily have to be marriage.
I’m not useless. But I won’t let you define my purpose.
She’d agree to this arrangement, but as soon as Bianca and Luciano were married, she’d find a way to persuade this dark-elf prince to release her, to let their friendship show the peace between their nations. Marriages had solidified peace for millennia, but these were modern times. Surely consensual, honest friendship could demonstrate a partnership without resorting to a marriage neither party desired?
In fact, the entire kingdom could stand to see the point: it was time for a change.
She crossed her arms and lowered her gaze. “Fine.”
“Good.” He descended the steps and placed a hand on Bianca’s shoulder. “Your wedding will be three days after Alessandra’s. Congratulations, luce dei miei occhi.” He cupped her face in one hand. “You will make a beautiful bride.”
Bianca smiled as he dabbed at her tear-streaked cheeks. Her large, agate eyes were soft. “Thank you, Papà.”
He grinned back at her, then raised Aless’s chin with an abrupt finger. “Alessandra. Try not to destroy the peace. I know it is difficult. But try.”
She scrunched her face, and his eyes gleaming, he walked away, his guards trailing him.
Her life could be over, and he jested? Holy Mother’s mercy.
She’d agreed to wed the dark-elf prince, and to say nothing until their marriage vows, and so she would. No words to him, anyway. She would complete the wedding in Bellanzole and say no words until after that.
No words. She smiled. But there were other ways to get a point across.
As the tree he perched in swayed in the raging storm, Veron held his bow at full draw, tracking the hind through the wind-battered foliage. He’d been here for hours and was not going home empty handed. Not today.
His people had been starving for several months, scraping by on small game and what sustenance they could find in the Deep before the crops could stabilize in a couple months.
He couldn’t afford to miss, but if he couldn’t get a good shot, he wasn’t about to let the animal flee and suffer until she died. A waste of a life.
There would be a good shot. Deep, Darkness, and Holy Ulsinael, there would have to be.
As the hind picked her way through groaning trees and fluttering shrubs, she paused every so often, swished her tail, swiveled her ears irritably. Not yet. So agitated, she’d jump at the snap of the bowstring. Not yet.
His arms ached as he held the excruciating full draw weight, twisting his position to keep her in his sights, and she emerged past the enormous trunk of an old oak, halting in the howling wind, and as his tree swayed, he timed the shot—
The distant, roaring call of his fellow volodari hunting team. Short, sharp—a warning.
More calls from his team answered, their longer, acknowledging roars closer—Vlasta’s, Dhuro’s, Rút’s, and Gavri’s—
His arrow lay in the undergrowth battered by the storm. The hind was gone. He’d shot too late. Just a second too late.
And for that, his people would continue to starve.
The acknowledging growls repeated, and he roared back, listening to the calls return all the way to Vlasta’s distant one.
He stashed his bow, dug his claws into the bark, and rappelled down the trunk. His boots slopped into the mud—they still didn’t fit right, and now they’d slosh the length of the way home.
Other than the storm, all was quiet, with not a single person in sight, much less an enemy. But still, he drew his vjernost blade. Made from the magic-nullifying metal arcanir, it could also kill most Immortals, on the chance a basilisk or a wyvern had attacked.
But it wasn’t basilisks or wyverns that had been the most pressing threat recently. No, it was the human Brotherhood that had been hunting him and his people for months. Entire parties of volodari from other dark-elf queendoms had disappeared while hunting or foraging. A few from his home, Nozva Rozkveta, had evaded them with only injuries, but if nothing changed, it would soon come to deaths on one side or the other.
The echoing roars led south, and staying low in the concealment of the shrubs, he made his way through the stormy forest. A crack ahead, high in the canopy, and a long scratch—Gavri, his kuvara royal guard.
Like a living and breathing shadow, she splashed into the mud in her black leather kuvari armor, her long white braid sopping wet, and she shook out her hands, throwing scraps of bark off her claws. Her deep-amber eyes fixed on him, and she cocked her head south.
He nodded. Given her call, Vlasta must have sighted an enemy. If she was in trouble, they had to get to her.
They retraced their steps toward the tunnel Gate they’d emerged from—Baraza Gate, where Vlasta had taken the first hunting stand. They passed the second stand—where his brother Dhuro should have been—but it was already empty.
By Deep and Darkness—
Voices rang out, human voices calling out in Sileni—near Baraza. Gavri tugged his sleeve southeast, toward another Gate.
Wordlessly, he followed her lead, and as the shouts neared, he and Gavri quickened their pace to a run, leaping over deadfall. If they didn’t make it to a Gate before the humans caught up to them, there would be no re-entering Nozva Rozkveta at all. They’d be stranded…. and likely killed.
Gavri’s heel hit a pile of soaked leaves, and she slipped into the mud—he caught her arm and yanked her up. The humans’ shouts increased in urgency. They were gaining.