No Man Can Tame (Page 50)

He took a deep breath and then sighed, meeting her eyes with a soft look. “Your Highness, if any of that is true, then all I’ve done is make one terrible mistake after another, mistakes I can never take back. If any of that is true, how can I live with myself?”

“By not making any more terrible mistakes,” she replied. “You have the chance to find Arabella and tell her that you love her and that you’re sorry. You have the chance to stop all of this before it gets any worse, Tarquin.”

He lowered his gaze a moment, then glanced at Siriano before turning back to her. “I don’t, Your Highness. Even if Arabella is still alive, even as one of the Immortali, the only people here who would stop this are Siriano and me. But there is an army outside who won’t back down until a river of blood flows. And the two of us can’t stop them.” Before she could reply, he cut in, “So you see, Your Highness, what you’re saying can’t be true, and I have to believe that it isn’t.”

Heaving a breath, he rose and headed for the tent flap.

“Not just you and Siriano, Tarquin,” she said, twisting around toward him. “I would stop this, too, with both of you. With everything in me.”

He looked over his shoulder. “It doesn’t matter anymore. The Brotherhood wants blood. King Macario offered to trade Veron of Nightbloom for you, and I just accepted.”

Chapter 27

The glowing red sun was faltering through the cloudy titian sky, and as Aless stood at the front of a company of Brotherhood soldiers, that dusky sky looked to her like a fire amid clouds of ash, billowing and graying as far as the eye could see.

The forested horizon was darkening. When she’d told Veron that Tarquin wouldn’t hurt her, he might have believed that, trusted it, but Papà? Papà had never listened to her before, and he wouldn’t have started now. If he’d believed Tarquin would kill her, if he’d agreed to retreat in exchange for her, that would have left Nozva Rozkveta exposed to the Brotherhood. Vulnerable.

And that, Veron wouldn’t allow. He wouldn’t allow his people to be abandoned by their allies, to starve, to do battle out of desperation, not if he could stop it. He’d sacrificed himself in marriage for them before. And if he arrived tonight, he would be sacrificing his life for them now.

Tarquin wouldn’t hurt her, and not even the Brotherhood army would. But there was no such certainty for Veron.

Don’t show up. Don’t show up, Veron. Please. Don’t show up.

Maybe Tarquin was wrong. Maybe Papà wouldn’t agree to trading Veron. Maybe this was all part of a maneuver and an attack was imminent instead, while Veron would be kept safe, and the shifting feeling in her chest would dissipate.

In the darkness, the full moon rose in the sky, golden, enormous.

Tiny peeked out of her hair over her shoulder.

“Stay hidden, Tiny,” she whispered, just barely audible. If any of the Brotherhood caught one of the Immortali—albeit a minuscule one—things could go badly.

Tiny flitted back into her locks and climbed up by her ear, chiming softly in her little bell voice.

Tarquin stood stiff as a rod next to her, his eyes searching the horizon, Siriano next to him, and a company of rigid men behind them. They were hard men, with hard eyes and hard faces, a sort of darkness emanating from them, a coldness, and it made her shiver. These were not men looking to make peace, no matter what the offer would be. That was not what they had come for.

She might have been able to turn Tarquin from this course, but the hundreds here, the thousands with him? Some had their own Arabella, and a truth behind her, and others believed things that were completely false, and yet others were so afraid of sharing the world that they cloaked that fear with aggression. They hated from a place of bitter ignorance, one they preferred to take out on the Immortali instead of taking responsibility for.

This world needed a library like the one she and Veron dreamed of building. This world needed a hundred libraries. A thousand.

She looked away from them to the dim horizon, where a small group of silhouetted figures approached.

No, Holy Mother, please…

Yet she’d know the shape of him anywhere, his gait, from a mile away, in the dark—she’d know him.

Her feet were moving before she could think, but Tarquin grabbed her forearm and pulled her back.

“Not yet,” he said sternly, and yanked her into place. “One hundred yards.”

Holy Mother’s mercy, she’d wanted to stop a war, had wanted to protect Veron, had never dreamed he’d disobey Queen Zara and come after her. She loved him for it, but now what had seemed like her best course of action had become her gravest miscalculation.

Papà had to have a contingency plan. This couldn’t be it. He couldn’t just be turning over Veron. He couldn’t.

Her heart thudded in her chest as she stared into the distance, at the broadness of his shoulders, his long hair tousled by the wind, and as he approached, the shape of his face cleared, his sculpted jaw, his straight nose, his pale eyebrows, his jutting chin… and those intense golden eyes she had looked into countless times, had seen in kindness, in anger, in frustration, in pleasure, in love…

“Veron,” she whispered, and every part of her trembled, willed her to go to him, to wrap herself around him and never let go.

Next to him was Lorenzo, in a violet brigandine over a darker gambeson, with a bandolier of knives around his chest and a small squad of Royal Guard. His face was slack, eyes downcast. So Papà had sent him.

“Aless,” Veron said, his voice breaking, and a pain formed in her throat.

“Veron,” she whispered, leaning forward, pulling at her arm in Tarquin’s hold.

Finally, Tarquin moved forward with her in his grasp, Siriano at his side, and a squad of soldiers with him. She struggled in his hold, trying to break free, until at last he released her, and she ran to Veron, into his waiting arms. His embrace closed around her, and held her close, kissed the top of her head, and when she looked up at him, brushed her lips with his.

Holy Mother’s mercy, after hurting him as she had, she had no right to this, to him, and he should push her away, shun her, hate her, but even knowing all of that, in this one moment, she couldn’t fathom not holding him with everything she had.

“Veron, I’m so sorry,” she said softly, her eyes aching as they watered. “I thought if they took me instead, they wouldn’t kill me, and Papà would have to intervene… and that he could stop the war. I’m so sorry—”

“Shhh,” he whispered in her ear, stroking her hair softly. “No more of that. Not now. You meant well—I know that. It hurt, deeply, but I know you meant well.” He raised her chin gently, rubbing it with the callused pad of his thumb, taking her in with a soft gaze.

“Are Gavri and Valka—”

“They’re safe. Worried about you,” he said with a soft huff, “but safe.” He was so calm, so incredibly, impossibly calm.

“I’m sorry I didn’t tell you,” she blurted. “I knew about your father, and I—”

“I know why he did it now, Aless.” His voice was even, serene, as he searched her eyes. “My father. He left without a word because he couldn’t let anybody stop him. He was determined to give up his life… because he loved us. It hurt me then, but I understand now. What he did wasn’t a betrayal. It was the ultimate act of love.”

There was something different about him, something settled and peaceful, something so unbelievably calm, and yet it tore her up inside, raged, so much that she wanted to scream and beg and cry, do anything and everything to chase that resigned expression away, and everything and everyone but Veron.

A pair of hands closed around her upper arms—a royal guard’s.

“No,” she said, and swung her head from side to side as Tarquin’s men apprehended Veron, pulled him away from her, dragged him. “Please. Wait—”

She twisted to keep her eyes on him over her shoulder, where his eyes were still on her, too. A hardness rose in them, a restraint that turned his whole body taut as they bound his wrists.

“Veron,” she cried, as Lorenzo took hold of her and whispered words of comfort.

“Live, Aless,” Veron called out, his voice hoarse. “I love you.”

One of his captors kicked at the back of his knee, forcing him to the grass, while another grabbed a fistful of his hair and pulled his head back.

She cried out, a shrill sound she didn’t recognize, as Veron kept his jaw clenched, stayed soundless, rigid, and as a blade hissed free of a scabbard, she begged, pleaded, a string of words whimpering from her lips—

“Please,” she cried, her pulse hammering in her chest, wild, violent. “Don’t! Veron!” Her shriek cut the air, following by the thudding staccato of clopping hooves.

A streak of pure white burst from the trees—the unicorn—racing toward Tarquin, directly for him.

Men shouted, drew swords and bows, and the soldiers keeping Veron gawked.

“Hold fire!” Tarquin yelled, the unicorn closing in on a hundred yards, over a ton of muscle and power tearing up the grass.

“Shoot it!” someone shouted.

“Hold!” Tarquin faced it head on. “Arabella!”