No Man Can Tame (Page 42)

“Papà will come to our aid, Veron,” she said, rubbing his arm. “He wouldn’t make this alliance unless he was prepared to defend it. And we’ve already demonstrated its validity. Dark-elves defended humans in Stroppiata. We earned the duchessa’s friendship. People embraced us. The Brotherhood alone is left, an embittered old radical on the back foot. Papà will snap up the chance to rid his land of it.”

The lives and wellbeing of Gavri, Valka, and all their people rested with a man who had traded Aless—his brilliant, brave, wonderful Aless—away with not a care to her unwillingness, in the coldest, most unfeeling way imaginable.

“I wrote to everyone. I wrote to Bianca, and to Lorenzo, too,” Aless added, giving his bicep a squeeze. “Lorenzo won’t give up on this—unlike Papà, he actually cares about us. And maybe Bianca could have a word with Luciano, convince him to talk his brother down.” She gave him a nudge. “We have multiple plans in place. Something will work in our favor. You’ll see.”

Those hopes were remote, but she was right in her optimism, in her morale. They had to believe in something, or else the battle was already lost.

“Besides, your mother already said she had a plan.”

In an hour, Mati expected them over for a midnight supper with Vadiha, Dhuro, and Yelena. Before he and Aless showed up, he’d have to muster the requisite morale. Mati had given her orders. It was time to support them.

“You’re right. I know you’re right,” he said, pulling her in to kiss her temple. “We’ll find out more when our messenger returns.” Not if, but when.

She gave him an encouraging nod as he opened the door to his quarters. Not much had survived since the Sundering, but he’d never needed much.

Inside, the space was bare but for his blackstone tables, laden with bowstrings, fletching, arrowheads he’d been making, and a boot brush and leather balm. Aless flitted to it and lifted the brush, grinning. “You really do have a boot thing.”

He cleared his throat. “Taking care of your boots is just being responsible.”

She lifted a brow, her grin broadening.

“If you don’t, the leather can be hard, too stiff, unforgiving, and—”

That brow lifted higher, and she leaned against the table. “I’d say ‘go on,’ but I have the worst case of saddle soreness known to humankind.”

Shaking his head, he smiled and closed the distance between them, grazing her cheek with his fingers. It was a surreal pleasure to stroke her without worrying about his claws harming her, and he couldn’t get enough of her smoothness, of touching her, everywhere she wanted, in the way she wanted.

“If you’re sore”—and he was, too—“I have the perfect cure for that.”

Shuttering her eyes playfully, she tilted her head. “I am all for curing, although I should warn you that after days of riding in the rain, I reek like a farm animal right now.”

He suppressed a smile. There was a possibility that something more amusing than Aless existed in the world, but it had to be slim. “I meant the lifespring. It has restorative properties.”

Those eyebrows shot up and her mouth fell open before she tried to turn her face away. But no, he would get full view of this. Blushing, she looked everywhere but in his eyes until at last she relented and bit her lip.

“I’d love to hear all about this ‘cure’ you thought I meant,” he teased, holding her gaze.

Her long, elegant fingers toyed with the fastenings on his jacket as that blush was soon joined by a coy smile. “Well, it would involve you, me, and…” She glanced toward the bed, then gasped. “Veron!”

He followed her line of sight to the enormous human-style mattress sitting on the platform below his blackstone headboard. Her mattress. “Someone must have brought it in from the tunnels.”

She darted to it, ran her hands over it, then pressed a palm into its springiness. “This really is… How did you…”

“I thought you might like it,” he said, “so I had it brought over from Bellanzole with us when we left.” Along with all its bedding and pillows and countless other things that had adorned the beds in King Macario’s palace—somewhere, in one of the carts.

Her eyes were wide but, when they met his once more, took on a mischievous gleam. “Oh, Veron… This bedchamber will see a lot of ‘curing.’ A lot.”

He burst out laughing before he could help himself, and she only grinned back at him. He offered her a hand. “But first, the lifespring?”

Taking it, she nodded. “And supper.”

Aless rubbed her neck as Veron led her into the smaller, private dining chamber of the queen. The ache she’d felt there—and everywhere else—had disappeared, along with every trace of soreness ever. A short soak in the lifespring, and she was completely renewed.

They’d met two women there, Vlasta and Rút, who’d thanked Veron profusely for his help.

He’d explained that they were lifebonded, a dark-elf ritual that somehow joined two lives as one. They made each other stronger, shared life, but if one died… they’d share death, too. An oddly frightening and yet romantic concept.

The mystic at the lifespring, a healer named Xira, had given her robes that the other dark-elves seemed to wear outside of special occasions and traveling or combat. Soft and a neutral off-white, they wrapped her comfortably, with matching trousers that tucked into boots. It was strange not wearing her usual garments, not to mention wearing the same clothes as Veron, but she wanted to make an effort to fit in. These were her people now, too, and her family.

The queen wanted to have a private meal with her, Veron, his brother, and his sisters, but there was so much happening that it seemed impossible to just focus on getting to know her new family.

And there was the matter of the library. Paladin Grand Cordon Nunzio hadn’t seemed averse to the plan, and she had to strike while the iron was hot, but with the Brotherhood threatening all-out war, it would have to wait.

She took a deep breath. Tonight was about making a good impression.

“They’ll adore you,” Veron whispered to her as they entered the queen’s quarters, where glowing Bloom vines wrapped pillars and climbed across the ceiling, like something out of a daydream. Veron led her off to the side, through a large archway into a dining room with a round blackstone table ringed by benches.

A number of people were already there—a stern-faced woman with long, tousled hair, carrying a little baby, and a man with her, the sides of his head shaved and his hair tied back.

There was a tall man with shoulder-length hair, his face simmering under a taut brow, and three women with wild hair only barely tamed into thick braids—clearly they’d taken after the queen. The three of them wore face paint, one with black smudges over her eyes, another with a strip across them, and a third with a line across each cheek.

All eyes turned to her and Veron as they entered, with the stern-faced woman holding the baby and the man with her rising first.

“Everyone, this is Aless,” Veron said with a smile. “Aless, this is my sister Vadiha; her husband, Arigo; and their daughter, Dita.”

Dita had large, sunny-yellow eyes with long lashes, chubby little cheeks, and little pointed ears, with fine white hair wisping off to the side.

“She was hungry, so she’s up a little late,” Vadiha said as she approached with Dita in her arms, who reached out a tiny hand for Veron’s hair. He gave her his finger to clutch instead and kissed her forehead lightly.

“Veron,” Vadiha breathed, her eyes wide as she stared at his hand. Her husband’s eyebrows shot up, too. “What’s happened? Did you—did you do that to yourself?”

His claws. He’d said they were a point of respect, hadn’t he? This was a shock to his family, because he’d changed for her.

But that change… had meant everything. It had meant they could both set aside fear, and be together without worrying about accidents. He’d done it for the sake of their marriage. Even faced with his family’s shock, she wouldn’t take that back. Even if that made her selfish.

Veron gave his sister a cavalier shrug. “I’m happy, Vadiha.”

But Vadiha’s gaze meandered to her, blinking long, pale lashes.

Veron leaned into his sister’s line of sight, blocking her. “Vadiha. I mean it.” His carefree voice had firmed.

But his sister’s eyes only hardened as they met his.

“Love,” Arigo whispered to Vadiha, “it’s not self-harm. Some things need to change when two worlds collide.” Arigo offered her an encouraging smile and a nod as he accepted Dita from his wife. “It’s great to meet you, Aless. Welcome to the family.”

“Thank you,” she said, with a smile and a nod in return. “I still have a lot to learn, so I appreciate any help as I find my footing here.”

Dita cooed, blinking wide amber eyes at her, and reaching for her hair with tiny, clutching hands.

Arigo laughed. “I’m sorry. She seems to be in a hair-loving phase.”

“I kind of want to touch it, too, though. I’ve never touched a human’s hair,” one of the women said as the trio approached, a strip of black face paint across her eyes like a blindfold. She pursed her lips. “Is that weird?”