No Man Can Tame (Page 40)
From Yelena, that was a glowing endorsement.
“And I don’t believe a word about those human deeds in her tales,” she added with a grunt, “except the parts about all the dying and fleeing.”
He suppressed a smile. So she’d been listening to Aless reading.
With the rain coming down, the day dragged traveling in the sky realm, but at least in the tunnels their cargo caravan wouldn’t be slowed by it. No doubt the food and supplies from Bellanzole and Stroppiata would arrive in Nozva Rozkveta well before he did. He and Aless had also sent Gabriella with Danika to deliver the message to King Macario; with any luck, they’d take the tunnels as far as they could and stay out of the Brotherhood’s reach.
Without carriages and cargo, his group made good time, even in the mud, moving fast enough to keep ahead of the Brotherhood’s army while leading them away from Dun Mozg. He and Yelena had made sure to leave behind easily found tracks, so if the Brotherhood wanted him or Aless, they would follow.
Despite being faster, he and the rest of the group still took precautions—short rests only and sleeping in shifts. Scouts to make sure they weren’t cut off by a forward team—Riza was out now with Kinga. With any luck, they’d be in Nozva Rozkveta tomorrow night.
Unlike Dun Mozg, however, Nozva Rozkveta wasn’t encased in arcanir. While nestled on an enormous anima Vein, its only protection was that any magic used on it would mean the witch risking convergence—or what today’s witches referred to as “fureur,” according to Aless. Tapping into the earth’s life force, its innate magic, would mean certain death for a witch. That and potentially upsetting the earth’s anima.
It would be enough. Deep, Darkness, and Holy Ulsinael, it had to be enough.
Gavri rode nearby, and he’d promised he’d think about forgiving her.
One betrayal did have the power to destroy everything, but pushing someone away was destroying everything with his own hands. He couldn’t predict others’ actions with perfect accuracy, couldn’t account for mistakes or betrayals, but when it came to people he loved, he wanted to be there for them through the bad and the good. When they made mistakes, he wanted to be there to help them, to support them, to save them if he could, instead of isolated, away, alone.
Malice didn’t hide in every untruth. He was tired of losing things, but that meant he needed to stop pushing everyone away.
“Gavri,” he called, and she looked over her shoulder, her wet braid swinging, and slowed. “I… I wanted to say I’m sorry. I overreacted.”
Her eyes widened, and she glanced down at Aless before meeting his eyes anew. “You don’t need to apologize to me, Veron. I understand.”
He took a deep breath and brushed his fingers through Noc’s mane. “No, I do. I want to.”
She shook her head.
“I nearly let one argument destroy our friendship. Can you forgive me?”
With a subtle smile, she bowed her head. “Already forgiven. And I’m sorry I let things with Zoran interfere with my duties. It won’t happen again.”
The thought of Aless being under the rubble threaded rigidity through him, but she was right here in his arms. Everything was all right.
“How did things go with you and Zoran?” he asked.
Gavri rolled her eyes and heaved a sigh. “I’d resolved to lock up my heart, to keep him out. And then in Dun Mozg, he told me I was the love of his life, that it had been so hard to leave that he couldn’t bear to say goodbye, and that we could never be together.”
That much was true. Zoran’s Offering to Nendra had sealed the alliance between Nozva Rozkveta and Dun Mozg. For as long as Nendra remained in power, Zoran had to stay by her side as king-consort if he wanted to protect that alliance. Zoran and Gavri had loved each other—did love each other—and could never be together.
And I get to be with Aless. In his arms was everything he’d never known he’d wanted, but if he’d been a little more skilled, a little more talented with a blade, he might have been the strongest of his brothers and been bargained away to Nendra instead of Zoran. That was an unjust twist of fate he felt keenly, that he should have Aless in his life when Zoran couldn’t be with Gavri. “I have no wisdom for it. Would that the Darkness had shadowed your lives differently.”
Her gaze downcast, Gavri lifted a dispirited shoulder. “We serve at Her Majesty’s pleasure.”
As she looked back at him over her shoulder, she raised a fist.
The entire group came to a halt. She gestured behind them, where two riders tore up the muddy ground at a steady clip. Riza and Kinga.
They rode up, and Riza slowed her horse to a trot, approaching him.
“Your Highness,” she said, heaving tired breaths, “a forward team. Less than half a day behind us.”
They’d relied on the likelihood that the Brotherhood would follow, but a forward team made the situation vastly more dangerous.
“At this rate, they’ll catch us tomorrow afternoon,” Kinga added, panting.
“Send Gavri and Valka to keep an eye on them. And as for us, no more long stops,” he bit out. They couldn’t risk them. If they were pinned down, and the Brotherhood army caught up to them—he shook his head. “We pick up the pace.”
Riza gave a curt nod. “You heard His Highness,” she called out to the group. “Move out. Now!”
Aless woke from dreams of vining roses and Veron’s touch. As she blinked her eyes open, the sun was setting, and she was still in the saddle with Veron. She glanced around for Gabriella—but no, she’d sent Gabriella with Danika through the earthmover tunnels to Bellanzole, with letters for Papà, Bianca, and Lorenzo, and even Duchessa Claudia along the way. Holy Mother, keep her in your light.
“Are you hungry?” Veron whispered in her ear, his voice a low rasp. He handed her some bread and cheese they’d gotten in Stroppiata.
“Thank you,” she said softly, and nibbled on the food.
When had he last slept? Their pace had only picked up since news of the forward team, and it was taking a toll on everyone. They had to stay ahead, but they couldn’t take much more of this. Veron couldn’t take much more of this.
She’d woken a few times during their travel as they’d paused briefly to feed and water the horses, to rest them and switch to fresh mounts, but Veron had told her each time to go back to sleep. She was saddle sore and tired, but if they hadn’t stopped for long since yesterday, he had to be exhausted. “Is there a way I could stay awake and you could sleep?”
He kissed her cheek. “We’re almost there. Only a little more, and then we’ll both get some rest. Promise.”
His optimism was heartwarming, but she could hear the exhaustion rasping in his deep voice. He was tired. Beyond tired.
Next to them, Riza pulled up on her horse. “Your Highness…” Her voice drifted.
Riza wasn’t one to mince words, at least not in the short time she’d know her. This had to be bad news.
Veron stiffened. “What is it?”
“Gavri and Valka should have returned from scouting by now, Your Highness.” The words were quiet. Uneasy.
Maybe they’d gotten lost. Maybe one of their horses had lost a shoe. Or maybe…
“Could they have gotten lost?”
Veron took a deep breath. “Not out here. We know these wilds well—sometimes our hunting or scouting takes us out this far.”
We have to look for them, she wanted to say.
But it was the wrong thing, and she knew it, deep in her bones. If the Brotherhood had captured them, then they wanted Veron to come looking. Wanted to capture him, and maybe even her, and do who-knew-what to everyone else here.
She and Veron needed to negotiate for their release—only… they had nothing but themselves to offer. And Gavri and Valka would only be leverage until Tarquin got what he wanted—vengeance for his sister, Arabella.
But Queen Zara would be in a better position. And yet… “There has to be something we can do, Veron,” she whispered. “It’s Gavri.”
“Gavri and Valka know what it means to be kuvari,” Riza said, sternly but not bitterly. “They are prepared to give their lives for our prince, and for Nozva Rozkveta.”
“It doesn’t need to come to that,” Aless replied, twisting in Veron’s hold.
“There are no other options,” Yelena said from next to them. “We’re in no position to negotiate, and the humans would be waiting for a rescue mission if we tried that.”
As much as she wanted to argue for Gavri, none of what Yelena had said was incorrect.
Veron’s grip on the reins tightened, and next to them, Noc, unburdened and resting, blew out a breath and tossed his head.
Veron nodded. “No more scouts. We make for Nozva Rozkveta, then I’m certain my mother will send a messenger for terms.”
“It’s the right call,” Yelena said.
It didn’t feel that way, but getting themselves caught or trading themselves in wouldn’t help Gavri or Valka. They had to handle this carefully, with Queen Zara.
Riza passed on Veron’s orders, and the cavalcade picked up the pace, pushing their horses to the limit. Noc ran alongside the others, spurring them on, and she couldn’t help but glance around Veron’s arms from time to time, searching the darkening distance for Gavri and Valka.