No Man Can Tame (Page 51)
The unicorn charged him—fifty yards, thirty—
Holy Mother’s mercy, maybe it wasn’t her—
Four legs Changed to two, a shock of sable hair blooming from her head, and beautiful and lithe, she ran, weeping, stumbling over her own legs to trip at Tarquin’s feet.
Murmurs of “unnatural” and “kill it” rippled through the Brotherhood forces as Tarquin raced to her, throwing off his officer’s coat to wrap her in it. He fell to his knees before her.
“Arabella,” he said, his voice breaking, and took her in his arms, where she sobbed into his chest. “I’m so sorry, Arabella. I’m so sorry.” He rocked her gently, patted her back.
“Stop this, brother,” she croaked, her green eyes big and dazzling as she looked up into his face. “No more violence on my account. No more violence. Please.”
Veron’s captors didn’t move, and neither did he, frozen on his knees, his head pulled back—but the hand holding it had loosened its grip.
Veron—please, be safe… Veron… She moved, but Lorenzo held her back with a shake of his head. He patted one of the knives sheathed in his bandolier.
The company of Brotherhood soldiers stood, some with bows drawn, others staring. A couple neared with readied crossbows.
“Stand down,” Tarquin ordered.
The crossbowmen didn’t waver.
“I said stand down!” He glared at the crossbowmen.
“You heard the general,” Siriano bellowed, stepping up with his right hand glowing a faint green.
A crossbow fired.
Tarquin lunged in front of Arabella.
The bolt lodged in his shoulder.
Veron headbutted the captor fisting his hair.
Another raised his sword.
Lorenzo threw a knife into the man’s neck.
Complete chaos broke out among the Brotherhood ranks, infighting and arrows loosed as Siriano raised an earthen wall between the company of men and their forward party. Lorenzo ordered his Royal Guard to attack, and they sprang into action, swarming Veron’s captors as he fought them.
One of them charged her and Lorenzo, but she ducked, covering her head as Tiny flew out and attacked the man’s face. He swatted at her but missed, and Lorenzo threw a salvo of knives into the man’s leather-clad chest. He spluttered and fell.
“Tiny!” she shouted, and the pixie flew back to land on her shoulder, chiming angrily.
A royal guard cut Veron’s bonds, and he grabbed a blade from the ground, fighting until every last Brotherhood soldier on this side of the wall lay dead.
She ran to him, and he turned, catching her in his arms, breathing her in, and already they were moving back toward Lorenzo along with his Royal Guard.
“Veron, for a second, I thought—” Her voice broke.
His eyes fixed on the earthen wall, he held the blade out at the ready, but his gaze darted toward hers a moment. “So did I.” He shot her an uneasy grin.
Tarquin lumbered backward toward them with Arabella and Siriano and, facing the wall, drew his sword.
Lorenzo drew his own. “Stay back, Belmonte! Or I’ll have your head!”
Tarquin’s eyes darted to his just a moment while he pulled Arabella in protectively. “I surrender. Please, I mean none of you any harm. I just want to make sure Arabella’s safe.”
The loud din of battle rose beyond the wall, chaotic, deafening, and men began to break through at the end of its length.
Siriano raised another perpendicular to it. “General, we need to move.”
“Just wait,” Lorenzo said.
“For what?” Tarquin hissed, and Arabella sobbed, trembling against him like a leaf in a storm.
The ground shook as she whirled around.
Heavy Sileni cavalry charged toward them—hundreds—thousands—with a glowing veil above them, lighting the way—pixies.
Tiny shot out and raced to join them.
“Move in!” Siriano yelled, and with a gesture, raised a triangular wall between them and the charging cavalry.
His first spell collapsed, and the Brotherhood’s fighting broke through. With a nod from Tarquin, Siriano dispelled the second wall, and they all stood within the triangle’s protection, huddled, as an earthquake of thundering horseflesh pounded past them and into the infighting Brotherhood forces.
Screams and shrieks tore the air, and the sounds of horns and shouted orders.
The Brotherhood was utterly decimated, broken bodies and blood—
Veron pulled her in, tucked her face against his chest, and she shook, squeezing her eyes shut. The battle, the violence, was horrific, but Veron was here, safe, his warmth soothing into her, his breath soft on her head, his hands stroking her back, alive.
“Papà planned to strong-arm the Brotherhood into returning Veron once you were safe,” Lorenzo said quietly. “You didn’t think we’d just hand him over, did you?”
On his knees in Mati’s antechamber, Veron watched as she paced before him, Yelena, and Aless. There was a violence in her stride, in the contortion of her face, and he knew better than to speak until she spoke. Especially after all he’d done.
“Your Majesty,” Yelena blurted, “I just want to say this was all the human’s idea, and I didn’t have anything to do with it. In fact, I wasn’t even part of it until she asked me to be, and as a guest here, I didn’t feel I could turn down a princess of—”
Mati stalked to Yelena, eyes wild, met her face to face, and roared. Yelena squeezed her eyes shut at the deafening sound, as he and Aless leaned away.
“You,” Mati said with a sneer. “After your weak-willed, cowardly scheming to depose me, you now lack the honor to take responsibility for your actions? Queen Nendra has given you to me as a gift. To do with as I see fit. And your days as kuvara are over.” Mati stayed in Yelena’s face, her stare relentless, but still Yelena didn’t open her eyes. The moment lingered long past comfortable. “You will henceforth be a sluha and serve the kuvari and volodari in any way they desire.”
A sluha. She’d have to serve as a page.
Yelena winced but did not speak.
Mati moved to Aless. “And you. I give you my son, my blood, and welcome you to my queendom, only for you to betray me at the first opportunity. What were you thinking?”
Aless shook, her fingers trembling at her sides. “I-I thought if I f-failed and was c-captured, my father would have to g-get involved and help. And if I succeeded, the B-brotherhood would have n-no leverage.”
Mati narrowed her eyes, but there was a glimmer. “Be that as it may, that decision was not yours to make. Flout my orders again, I will have you harvesting cave lichen until you forget what civilization looks like.”
Aless nodded hastily. “Y-yes, Your Majesty.”
“It is your dark luck that King Macario and I have chosen to declare this as a joint operation, in which we both agreed to trade you for my two kuvari as part of a larger strategy. I don’t have to tell you what it would look like if the world believed I sacrificed my human ally’s daughter or, worse, couldn’t contain a single human barely out of her childhood years.”
Aless swallowed audibly.
Mati glared at each of them in turn. “Any of you speak of this to anyone, and I shall claw out your tongues with my bare hands. Do you understand?”
“Yes, Your Majesty,” they said in unison.
At last, she strode to him and crouched. “And you, Veron, who have ever been a credit to this queendom and to me, have disappointed me gravely with your disobedience.” Her eyes softened a moment as her eyebrows pulled together. “For that, you are dismissed from the volodari for the foreseeable future—”
Dismissed from the volodari? It was the one thing he had any considerable skill in doing. But even as his body rebelled, he knew he deserved any punishment Mati had to give, and this—by all rights—was lenient.
“—and you will be placed with the stavbali to build whatever Nozva Rozkveta requires.”
The stavbali did backbreaking work assisting the inzenyri and the Stone Singers, but he’d do whatever was required to make amends.
“With that said,” she added, a faint smile curving her lips, “you did everything in your power to protect the one you love.” Her face went slack a moment. “I am proud that you did, that you loved fiercely and forgave, even if your actions were reckless.”
She was… proud? He didn’t regret what he’d done, not even a little bit, because although Mati was angry and he’d disobeyed, Aless was still here. He was still here. All of Nozva Rozkveta was still here. What they’d done hadn’t been right, but it had led them to this moment, where they were all still alive and had a future ahead of them.
Mati was angry… but sometimes there were more important concerns than not angering loved ones. Like saving the love of his life and trying to stop a war. And for that, he’d take this punishment, a hundred punishments, a thousand—as long as Aless still lived and breathed.
He glanced at Aless, who was still trembling, but if Mati was fortifying the stavbali, that could only mean one thing: Aless’s dream was about to come true. Their dream.
Sighing, Mati rose. “Despite all of your actions, we managed to avoid all-out war, reaffirm an alliance, and build a new one. Now get up and join me in the grand hall, where King Macario, Queen Nendra, Duchess Claudia, and all of Nozva Rozkveta await.”