No Man Can Tame (Page 43)

“Playing with each other’s hair? Not weird at all,” Aless answered. She wasn’t all that different from them, but if they were curious, she wouldn’t shut them down.

“I’m Amira,” she said, offering her hand. “You humans take each other’s hands, right?”

“We do,” she said, taking Amira’s hand.

“Gentle,” Veron warned his sister.

“I know, I know. Their skin is silk thin. I know.” Amira’s fingers were stiff as she kept her claws away. “Veron, how do you keep from accidentally hurting her? Even without the claws, I mean, the skin, you know—”

Pressing his lips together tightly, he gave Amira a slight shake of the head.

“It’s not that fragile,” Aless cut in. “I mean, I can get thrown on my backside in a ring and not explode.”

A bark of laughter burst from one of the other two women.

“This is Zaida and Renazi,” Amira said, cocking her head toward them as they inclined their heads to her, the one with the lined cheeks laughing to herself. “We’re volodari, and actually headed out on a hunt shortly, but we didn’t want to go without meeting our new sister.”

The one with the smudges over her eyes took a deliberate step forward, the rest of her body perfectly controlled. “Amira’s mouth runs away with her, but we are glad to meet you, Aless. I’m Zaida.”

Her voice was a night-quiet, misty whisper, grave, the kind that could silence an entire room. Well, except for her sister Renazi, who still seemed to be laughing to herself.

“A hunt, given the situation?” Veron asked.

Zaida looked toward him, the rest of her countenance unmoving. “Mati has us in territory farther out, by way of the tunnels.”

Amira nudged Veron’s shoulder. “We’ll be safe, Veron. Don’t worry!”

“Just because we have aid doesn’t mean we should stop our way of life. You know that, Veron.” The man with the simmering frown approached, nodding to her, every part of him taut and clenched. “Dhuro,” he said, looking her over before meeting Veron’s gaze for a moment, his own speaking a thousand words she didn’t yet understand. Dhuro seemed ready to pop like a bubble himself.

“Nice to meet you,” she said, inclining her head.

His eyes narrowed. “I wish I could say the same.”

“Dhuro.” Veron stepped up to him, every part of him rigid as he leaned in. “Apologize. Now.”

Dhuro leaned in, too. “The kuvari and Yelena talk, Veron. Did you know her sister has married into the Brotherhood general’s family? How do we know this isn’t all a human ploy to sack Nozva Rozkveta? She could be biding her time, waiting for a chance to open the Gates—”

“The ring. Now,” Veron hissed, and cracked his knuckles.

Dhuro thought she was a traitor waiting to turn on them? And Veron wanted to fight him? She touched his shoulder, but he didn’t budge.

Footsteps approached from behind, and everyone turned as the queen walked in, wrapped in her flowing white silk robe and peplos. “There will be no challenges tonight,” she said firmly. “Veron, take a breath.”

Forcing a harsh breath from his nose, Veron leaned away, fiery eyes still spearing Dhuro as he shielded her from his brother’s line of sight.

“Dhuro, sit down and keep your mouth shut until I give you permission to speak.” The queen looked down on Dhuro, her stance ready—would she attack him? Her son?—until he sighed and plopped onto the bench, slapping his palms onto the table and raising his eyebrows.

Amira, Zaida, and Renazi greeted their mother before saying their goodbyes and heading out on the hunt, and Arigo excused himself to put Dita to bed.

And just like that, she stood with Veron, facing Dhuro and Vadiha, neither of whom seemed fond of her right now. At least Vadiha didn’t call her a traitor to her face, so that was a win.

“Get the food, Vadiha,” the queen said, jerking her head toward the archway, and Vadiha obeyed, but as she passed Aless, scowled at her.

“Aless, overlook my family’s poor manners,” the queen said to her, brushing her upper arm with a light touch. “They seem to forget that they have food on the table thanks to you, and that you and Veron have been standing up to the Brotherhood from the moment the peace was signed.”

Behind her, a muscle flexed in Dhuro’s jaw.

“I understand,” Aless replied, fidgeting. “I’m new here. No one knows me yet. Trusting a stranger is a lot to ask.”

Veron took her hand and rubbed her fingers gently. “But they all know me. And trusting me isn’t a lot to ask of my family.”

Dhuro rolled his eyes as Vadiha brought in platters of food. The queen gestured them to the benches, and they all sat. Across from Dhuro, Veron glared at him, eyes wild and intense, narrowed. She held his hand, giving it a squeeze every so often, hoping to break that intensity. To no avail.

Dhuro glanced at her from time to time, over the dishes Vadiha laid out. When she finished and everybody was seated, the queen took a deep breath, sweeping her voluminous unkempt tresses back over her shoulder.

“I’m only going to say this once: Aless is our ally and part of our family.” She looked from one face to another at the table, meeting Vadiha’s stern face and Dhuro’s simmering frown unequivocally. “Dhuro, repeat that to her and apologize.”

His face hard, Dhuro looked away, ran a palm over his mass of shoulder-length hair, and turned back to her. “You’re our ally and part of our family. I’m sorry for accusing you of betrayal,” he gritted out.

The queen looked to her. “Do you accept? If not, it won’t be Veron thrashing him in the ring, but me.”

What, really? The queen would fight her own son—no, thrash him?

Well, Queen Zara certainly ruled her family with an iron fist. And… perhaps it was best to remain on her good side.

Aless cleared her throat. “I accept. Thank you, Dhuro. No hard feelings.”

He raised an eyebrow but said nothing more as they ate the spread of human food with some stew made from small game the volodari had hunted. The queen asked about the ceremony in Bellanzole and their trip, while Vadiha asked about the attack in Stroppiata and their skirmish outside of Dun Mozg. While Veron cooled, she answered most of their questions, playing with his fingers.

After a brief lull, the queen’s kuvari announced Riza, who entered and saluted.

Queen Zara gave her leave to speak, crossing her long, elegant legs as she perched on the bench.

“Your Majesty, Halina returned with the Brotherhood’s answer,” Riza said, breathing erratically. Had she run all the way here? “It’s… They’re being difficult.”

Queen Zara waited.

“My queen—”

“What was the message?”

Riza bowed her head, her eyebrows drawn together, and for a moment, she shot a pained glance at Veron, and then at her, before looking back to Queen Zara. “It said, ‘If you do not comply by dawn, our geomancer will collapse all tunnels leading from your queendom. We will lay siege until you wither and die. If you wish to live to see the dawn, return our princess to us and you may have your two beasts alive.’ ”

Return our princess? She started, but Veron took her hand in both of his. With a grave face, he shook his head slightly at her.

The queen didn’t move, simply stared evenly into space. “It said ‘live to see the dawn.’ There is nothing there about suspending hostilities beyond that.”

“You’re not actually considering giving Aless to them?” Veron demanded, a low growl riding his question.

“Of course not,” Queen Zara hissed. “But I have to determine whether this is a good-faith starting point to begin negotiations before I issue a counteroffer. It sounds, however, as though even if we were to comply, it wouldn’t mean anything but a ceasefire until the dawn.”

“What about Valka and Gavri?” Dhuro spat. “We’re leaving them to die? I say we do the trade.”

Queen Zara twisted so fast that she grabbed Dhuro’s throat before he could evade. “You have no say.” She tapped a claw to his neck. “And you forget yourself, child.”

Livid eyes held the queen’s.

“Your Majesty,” Aless squeaked, even as Veron shook his head at her, “with all due respect, he’s not wrong. My life isn’t worth more than anyone else’s. Especially not two. Their general is my sister’s brother-in-law. He’s wrong, but… they won’t kill me. I’m certain of it.”

Even the scouts outside Dun Mozg hadn’t hurt her—they’d only tried to capture her and bring her to Tarquin.

Queen Zara still gripped Dhuro’s throat. “I appreciate your valor, Aless, but like Dhuro, you have no say in this.” Queen Zara’s gaze slid to hers, and the queen smiled softly before shoving Dhuro away. “Supper is over. I will summon the rest of my Quorum and prepare for the dawn. Veron, Aless, you will stay in your quarters. The next few days will be difficult, but we are well supplied and we will persevere, as we always have.” With that, she nodded toward the archway, and everyone but Vadiha rose and headed out.

No say. Every part of her rebelled.