No Man Can Tame (Page 41)

After hours of more riding, night had fallen, and she could barely see her hand in front of her face, let alone the path ahead, but Veron and the rest of the kuvari picked their way confidently. She wanted to ask him about it, but her backside and thighs were so sore, her entire body so achy, she couldn’t even muster the words anymore. Her thoughts lingered on Gavri, and praying for her safety and swift return, along with Valka.

Her eyelids were drooping when something glowed faintly ahead. Like fireflies, lights winked in the darkness, flowing in lazy curls and scrolls. Pixies.

A fresh, alluring scent filled the air—roses—its density surrounding her, so powerful she could close her eyes, reach, and touch the velvety petals. A dream—no, a hallucination?

The glow of the pixies gently illuminated vines twining old ruins, climbing the stone, claiming it in sprawling, verdant green—an ancient courtyard—and bright crimson blooms unfurled amid a thicket of green, roses so large, so vivid, as if they’d grown from her dreams and fantasies. In full bloom, mysterious and lovely, exhaling that most spellbinding perfume in the pure air. So tangled, wild, and yet they shimmered in the glow, dazzled with an otherworldly beauty.

The only roses she’d seen even approximating their brilliance had been at the palazzo, during the wedding, but they hadn’t glittered as these.

“Veron,” she breathed, and her voice was no more than a thin, tired whimper. “These roses…”

Warmth met the top of her head in a kiss, and his tightening embrace pulled her closer. “We brought many for the wedding in Bellanzole, but once cut, they begin to lose their luster. They shimmer here, wild and free, because this is where they belong, where they can thrive.”

As they approached, she gasped. For a lifetime, she could take in their beauty and never get her fill. These roses weren’t like the trimmed, manicured gardens of the nobiltà, but an unfettered, chaotic beauty that nothing tried to contain.

Ahead, a thicket of them knotted in a massive bramble, thorny and breathtaking.

“Nozva Rozkveta is seated over the largest Vein of anima in the land, the force from which all life and magic springs. And for as long as we have existed here, so has the Bloom, cocooning our home from all who would do us harm, allowing in only friends to our kind.”

It was as if the land itself protected Veron’s people—now her people—enshrining them from danger.

Soon, Veron halted the cavalcade and everyone dismounted. He helped her down onto her sore legs, and it took some waddling while braced against him before she could even move properly.

They approached a Bloom thicket, knotted and twisted chaotically in vines and roses, but Veron didn’t stop. The tangle parted for him, reshaping into an arched colonnade that he entered without hesitation. All around them—on the sides, above them, even below—vines writhed in living form, held that shape, as she accompanied him, as the others followed behind with Noc and the horses.

At the end of the Bloom’s colonnade, the path lowered to a large stone door, ancient and massive, etched with runic script. Still holding her hand, Veron approached it and tapped a rhythm on its face, the Nozva Rozkvetan knock.

The massive door opened, ground against its stone frame, revealing a tunnel inside and two kuvari in leathers.

“Your Highness,” they greeted in unison. “Nozva Rozkveta bids you welcome.”

He thanked them as he entered, stroking her hand softly, and the rest of the cavalcade followed.

The tunnel was dark, but at its end was a lavender glow. As they approached, Veron raised her hand to his lips and pressed a gentle kiss to her skin.

“Welcome home, Aless,” he whispered, and they stepped into a vast space.

Bioluminescent mushrooms climbed the cavern walls, bathing the realm below in that lavender light, along with radiant white glowworms and glittering vines of the Bloom sprawling as far as the eye could see.

She gasped, looking everywhere at once, at gleaming dwellings of mirror-like black stone and glistening streams weaving among shining paths. On the outskirts, fields of green shoots peeked up from ebony soil.

“H-how can they grow here, when—”

Veron grinned at her, his golden eyes soft. “The Vein. It seeps life into everything here. Into everyone.”

Groups of singers ringed unfinished structures, their tones impossibly deep, their songs unlike anything she’d ever heard. Passersby stopped to bow and offer cheery greetings.

Veron nodded toward the tall, black towers peaking above a building like a cluster of crystals. “I wish we had time to stop at the lifespring first, but we need to tell my mother what’s happened.”

“Let’s get Gavri and Valka back first,” she said with a nod, and then she could ask what a lifespring was.

Riza joined them as they strode toward the palace, and every muscle in Aless’s body rebelled. The long ride had been difficult, painful, but they’d made it here before the Brotherhood could catch up to them.

Nozva Rozkveta would have time to prepare for the attack, and by the grace of the Holy Mother, hopefully the food had arrived by way of the tunnels.

Four kuvari guarded the palace entrance, and they stood aside as Veron entered and proceeded straight down the main hallway to a set of massive doors.

Two kuvari opened them, and inside, the grand hall yawned, massive, the Bloom vines climbing its walls, ceiling, and stalactites and adorning them in glittering green and crimson roses that radiated a vivid glow.

This place breathed life, teemed with it.

At the end, a regal woman sat atop a translucent crystal throne, its peaks fanning out behind her. She had a diamond-shaped face, elegant and smooth, slightly lighter than Veron’s, and voluminous platinum hair, cascading in curls sectioned with beads, a futile attempt to contain the wild tresses. Her clothes were a robe and peplos of the finest silk she’d ever seen, and Papà’s imports had not been inexpensive. Her feet were bare and clawed, their points shorter than the sharp ones on her hands, where she wore a pair of arcanir bracers.

Every part of her was lithe, sleek, and even as her crossed leg bounced lightly, it did so with a catlike grace, and yet her arms and shoulders were muscled, toned. The queen sat upon a throne now, but her physique said she could have anyone pinned to the gleaming black stone within seconds.

Her eyes were a warm amber, gentle and placid, and yet they glittered with innumerable facets of jeweled wisdom so deep those eyes could be infinite.

Veron’s mother. The queen. Queen Zara.

This was her husband’s mother, and meanwhile, she’d arrived with Veron in wrinkled, dirty, rain-and-sweat-soaked clothes, looking like something feral and smelling… well, “worse” was putting it mildly. Clearing her throat, she swept some stray horsehair from her rain-damp riding habit, her other hand in Veron’s warm hold.

The queen smiled as her gaze landed on Veron, genuine, sweet, in a way that lit her face radiantly. She stood from her throne, pushing off with a limber little leap, and strode the length of the distance between them.

Veron bowed before the queen, and Aless followed suit.

“Welcome home, Veron,” the queen said evenly, her low voice mellifluous, pleasant. “And you, daughter”—a gentle hand touched her shoulder, and Aless slowly straightened to face a smiling queen—“I welcome with a glad heart.”

The queen was so beautiful that it was difficult not to stare.

“Thank you, Your Majesty,” Aless breathed. “I’m honored to finally meet you.”

The queen glanced down to where Veron’s hand still held hers, and somehow, the queen’s radiant smile widened. “I hope in time you’ll come to call me Mati.” Turning to Veron, she added, “I am overjoyed for you, Veron.”

A corner of his mouth turned up as his gaze turned to her briefly, soft and loving, shining and pleased, before he looked back to his mother, that gentle smile fading. “Mati, I wish we came only bearing good news.”

“The supply caravan arrived by way of the tunnels earlier today, and we’ve already begun distributing food,” the queen replied. “And they brought news of the Brotherhood army and your plan.”

If only that were the only bad news.

Veron took a deep breath and nodded. “They’ve taken Gavri and Valka captive.”

Chapter 21

Veron walked with Aless to his quarters, her hand in his, and stared at the floor. He’d brought home his bride, and his mother and queen already approved of her. He’d be making the Offering to Aless at the second ceremony in three days.

In those three days, they might already be embroiled in a war.

One of his best friends and another of the kuvari could be held by a radical faction determined to annihilate his people.

Mati had said she would be sending one of her kuvari to the Brotherhood army to discuss terms. One had already volunteered, even knowing it was likely a suicide mission.

If only they could send in a small team to rescue them—but that would have no chance of success. If Tarquin was smart, he was holding Gavri and Valka in the heart of the camp, and a dark-elf team would have no chance of making it through the outskirts. Gavri or Valka or both would be killed, along with the team.

The convergence of such keen anguish and the most ardent joy he had with his wife weighed like the sky of stone upon his shoulders. He held her hand, and allowing himself to feel even a fraction of that joy came with the sting of Gavri held prisoner, possibly hurt, possibly suffering, and their people stepping into what could be an impending war.