No Man Can Tame (Page 48)
Beneath Siriano’s watchful eyes, her fingers curled around the cup, but—scalding the only person keeping her alive was ill advised, even for the Beast Princess. “You didn’t bring me here to talk about tea.”
Tarquin laughed under his breath. “I didn’t bring you here.”
“Fine.” She grimaced. “You aren’t keeping me here to talk about tea.”
He took a sip and then sighed lengthily through his nose. “Your Highness, I am the only person in this kingdom who has cared enough to save you from this forced arrangement. His Majesty manipulated you into this against your will, and that is a wrong that must be righted.”
Pretty words. But if he thought she’d believe he’d mobilized an army and come all the way here just out of care for her, then he was about to wake from his little daydream. “And how would you right it?”
“First, by exchanging those two beasts for you. Then, by pretending to threaten your life if His Majesty doesn’t annul your marriage—”
Only an unconsummated marriage could be annulled in Silen, but she’d keep that tidbit to herself.
“—and once he does, encouraging you to wed the man of your choice.”
Veron. Veron. Forever and always Veron.
“And I assume by that you mean yourself?”
His mouth curled in a seductive smile. “The notion didn’t seem to displease you the evening of the masquerade.”
“I assure you, I was contemplating a far cruder notion.”
“And found me to be a pleasing option.”
Until he’d opened his mouth. A single word of hatred spoken could turn even a handsome face ugly. And Tarquin had spoken many.
Despite the idiocy of his assertion, she didn’t dare laugh at him. Not while he held her captive here, thinking he’d win his path to princedom if only he just persevered. Shredding his daydream to tatters could mean he’d be holding a captive he didn’t need anymore.
And imagining the outcomes flowing from that was an exercise in terror.
“Well, here I am,” she said, holding his dark-brown gaze steadily. “If this is between you and me, you don’t need an army. Or maybe we should be marching on Bellanzole.” If she could get him moving the Brotherhood away from Nozva Rozkveta toward the capital, Papà would be forced to intervene.
“The people adore you. I have both the Belmonte Company and the Brotherhood at my command. Together, we could turn this nation on the right path, eliminate the Immortali that prey on us.” Across the table from her, he lazily crossed one leg over the other. “You are a large portion of this puzzle, Your Highness, but other pieces remain.”
“What other pieces?”
“Restoring the kingdom to its former glory. Before the Immortali invaded and ruined it.”
“The Immortali are not some monolithic entity. They vary from person to person just like we do.” Stating a belief to the contrary was just smoke. “You’re a smart man, Tarquin, so I know you understand this.”
His brow furrowed. “And in their shadow, danger follows. Life has never been more violent, more dangerous, than now.”
“We’re working to change that. The dark-elves can help us keep the dangerous among the Immortali at bay. Those who attack us first, who do nothing but murder and harm. Those are only a small fraction, but by working together, we can stand against them.”
That furrow deepened. “We don’t need to work together. We have mages.” He nodded toward Siriano, whose hard expression didn’t waver.
“But the dark-elves are just like us, Tarquin. They have marriages and families and babies. They want peace. They want love. They just want to survive.”
“Spoken like a tender-hearted woman.” He scoffed. “Do they need to be stockpiling weapons to survive? Our intelligence tells us that is exactly what the queendom of Dunmarrow is doing.”
“Can you blame them? Humans have been attacking their people since they awoke. Wouldn’t you prepare to defend yourself? Yet they want peace. They haven’t taken a single human life.”
He knocked the table with his knuckles. “Oh, but they did. Three of my scouts went missing near Dunmarrow.”
“They attacked me,” she blurted. That wasn’t the dark-elves’ fault. “I had to defend myself and killed one of them, and the other two were killed to protect me.”
He shook his head vehemently. “Those men were sent to find you, and rescue you if the opportunity arose.”
“They tried to drag me away kicking and screaming!” Her hands trembled, so she folded them in her lap. “Would you call that a rescue?”
He tilted his head, scrutinizing her. “You didn’t want to be saved?”
This conversation was taking a wrong turn. “My father wanted to build a peace. That peace falls apart without me.”
He stood from the chair, pacing the tent. “He built that peace on your sacrifice. You were a victim, just like Arabella. It wasn’t right to begin with.”
He wanted to talk about right?
“Tarquin, I saw what’s been done to that unicorn. That wasn’t right either.”
“Unicorn? You mean that Immortali horse-beast?”
“It’s not a beast. They are peaceful beings—”
He turned on her, his face contorted. “My sister, Arabella, was fond of your so-called ‘peaceful being.’ She was an innocent—she loved singing and picking wildflowers and admiring beauty of all kinds. She saw one of those Immortali horses and couldn’t stop looking at it, searching it out. One day, she disappeared, and not three days later, that beast trespassed onto our lands and started attacking our doors, breaking windows, terrifying everyone, destroying everything.”
“So you tortured it?”
He leaned in. “It kept coming back, wreaking havoc, so my men caught it. Due to its size and strength, they’ve been trying to tame it, but it’s been a waste of time. They’re of half a mind to just kill it.”
“So you’ll just let them kill anything that won’t obey?” That was what all the unicorn’s injuries were from? “Tarquin, that is an intelligent being. It has thoughts and feelings and may be vastly older and wiser than you and me. You can’t just lock it up and abuse it like that.”
“It is the reason Arabella is gone. If not for that… thing, she would have been safe at home.”
“It’s not a thing! It’s a—”
Tarquin’s frown faded slightly. “It’s a what?”
Veron had told her all about them. She sat up. “Tarquin, unicorns have a territory they stay in. They abhor all violence. They’re pacifistic by nature.”
“Not this one.”
She nodded. That was the problem. Something didn’t fit. “You said it showed up three days after Arabella disappeared?”
A line formed between his eyebrows as he lifted a shoulder. “What of it?”
Holy Mother’s mercy, if she was wrong about this—
“You said Arabella loved unicorns, that she’d go off in search of them, just to look at them.” When he nodded, she continued, “Unicorns are shapeshifters, like werewolves. They can turn people, Tarquin. And you said this unicorn showed up a couple days after Arabella disappeared? And unlike their peaceful reputation, it was destroying things? If she wanted to become a unicorn—”
“You’re saying that thing is Arabella?” he shouted at her, his eyes wide and blazing.
She flinched. Perhaps not her greatest move ever.
“If that’s true—and it’s too ridiculous to be—then why hasn’t she changed back? If she’s a shapeshifter?”
She swallowed. “You kept her bound in arcanir chains. It can interfere with the Immortali.”
He scrubbed a hand over his face. “If this is true… If that thing was Arabella…”
“Then you’ve been torturing the very person you set out to defend.”
He froze, standing still in the dim lamplight of the tent. So many evil deeds he’d done in the name of his sister, and there was a chance she was not only alive but had been in his custody all this time, harmed by his very own men, desperate to show her brother in any way she could who she was… to no avail.
“General,” someone called from outside the tent, and at Tarquin’s permission, Siriano pulled the tent flap aside and let in a young officer, who eyed her, gawking at her clothes—her disguise.
With a glower, Tarquin motioned the officer to continue.
“Sir, scouts say King Macario’s forces have made camp south of us, on the hills abutting the river to the east. The duchessa’s army has taken up position to the west and is building makeshift fortifications.”
Her heart pounded.
Papà had come for her.
And the duchessa had joined him.
Tarquin moved the two map markers accordingly, his face a veneer of calm. “Send a message to King Macario. Tell him he shall annul the princess’s marriage to the beast—”
How dare he call Veron a beast?
“—and that he shall contact the duchessa and order her forces to withdraw along with his own, before dusk tomorrow. If he does not comply, Her Highness will be executed the dawn after.”