No Man Can Tame (Page 6)
“I know. I know.” Dhuro ran a palm over his damp mass of shoulder-length hair. “I just wish she’d trust us enough to tell us what’s going on.”
They passed the kuvari at the entrance and headed down the main corridor, their boots sloshing.
I just wish. That was Dhuro. Always Dhuro. Pushing for more, for privilege, instead of obedience. He’d spent some time among the humans before the Sundering, and had returned with I just wish and Why can’t she just and I think that instead of the stoneclad obedience he’d been born to.
More like Ata. Their father had thought he’d known better than Mati, and had betrayed her and given up his life for that rebellion.
He shook his head. Unthinkable. Unacceptable.
Dhuro strode toward the glaive-bearing kuvari guarding the doors to Mati’s quarters, but they barred his path.
“Prince Veron only,” one of them—Lira—said to Dhuro. “By Her Majesty’s order.”
Crossing his arms, Dhuro stood his ground, staring down at her a moment before grunting and stepping aside. “Figures. Share the knowledge, will you, Brother?”
He eyed Dhuro. Of the many things that could happen, sharing anything a queen said in private wasn’t likely. “How about a sparring session later instead?”
A corner of Dhuro’s mouth turned up. “That’ll do.” With that, he took off.
Lira and her partner opened the doors and stood aside. “Your Highness.”
Captain Riza emerged first, fixing him with sharp eyes that soon gentled. Resting a palm on his shoulder, she breathed deeply and gave him an encouraging nod. If Riza of all people was trying to encourage him, then whatever Mati had to say to him wasn’t going to be good.
“Gavri is looking for you,” he said, breaking the silence.
She gave his shoulder a final pat before donning her usual stone-faced expression anew and passing him by.
As soon as he stepped inside, Lira and her partner closed the doors behind him.
Within, bioluminescent roza vines twined around pillars, climbing and sprawling across the ceiling, casting a soft white glow inside. Roza had always been plentiful in Nozva Rozkveta, and some had already begun to bloom.
Mati strolled back and forth across the roza-vine rug, bobbing baby Dita in her arms while his sister Vadiha slept on Mati’s bed. When everyone had awoken after the Rift, Vadiha had still been with child, thank the Darkness, and she had given birth to Dita not five weeks ago. After Mati, Vadiha was Nozva Rozkveta’s strongest warrior, and she’d scarcely had the energy to stay awake to feed Dita, let alone train. The food shortage had been especially hard on her, and even with increased rations, and the volodari—her husband and their sisters among them—hunting at all hours, she still wasn’t getting enough nourishment.
His hands clasped behind his back, he waited while Mati lulled Dita into a shallow sleep, then glanced at him and toward a bench, where he sat down.
“Anything today?” she asked quietly, her voice low and even as she kept her gaze on Dita’s little slumbering face.
He shook his head. Coming home empty handed was always difficult, but all the more when he looked at Vadiha and Dita, who relied so desperately on the volodari teams’ success.
“You didn’t engage the Brotherhood.”
“On your orders, we did not,” he answered. “Vlasta took an arrow to the gut, but Xira said she and Rút would recover.”
Mati nodded softly, brushing a wisp of fine baby hair off Dita’s brow. “The conflict with the humans—and this famine—will soon be ended.”
She had said it would. And it would. Of that he had no doubt.
“I have been in negotiations with the king of Silen via correspondence,” she said, rocking Dita gently.
Negotiations? So that had been why she’d ordered them not to engage the Brotherhood. All this time, she’d been negotiating with the humans. And the other dark-elf queens must have known as well—there had been no word of dark-elves fighting back.
All for this.
If there was a bloodless way to end the conflict with the Brotherhood, then it was worth pursuing.
“Until our crops are stabilized, the Sileni are going to deliver food, both to Queen Nendra and to us, which we will distribute among the allied queendoms by way of the tunnels. This will begin as soon as the agreement is finalized in Bellanzole. And we have devised a diplomatic means of handling the Brotherhood.”
Good. As keen as he was to end the persecution, as good as it would feel to spill the Brotherhood’s blood… Blood would only beget blood. This was the whole of dark-elf history. Spilling blood only to spill more. It had to end somewhere, and if they could make peace with the humans—and survive—then he would do everything in his power to make that happen.
And if they couldn’t make peace with the humans… then he’d make certain his people would be the ones to survive. The humans were numerous, but his people had trained for battle from the moment each of them could walk on toddling legs—if it came to war, the humans would fall.
“In return, they want our assistance in keeping the Immortal beasts at bay.”
That was simple enough. All the volodari were trained in combat against all beasts—Immortal or otherwise. “Is that all?”
She met his gaze and held it. “I’ve agreed to give them one more thing.”
If it meant food for Vadiha and an end to the conflict with the Brotherhood, then that was worth almost anything.
Veron swept out an arm and caught the stone before it could hit his fey horse, Noc.
Good catch, wasn’t it? he thought to Noc, who only snorted. Come on. It was good.
Good, Noc thought back. Yes.
“Get out of our kingdom!” an elderly human woman wailed at him from the small crowd, spittle flying from her mouth.
“Divine take you!” another cried. “And all the rest of the monsters!”
“Silence!” Riza spat from beside him. “You human filth dare attack Prince Veron? Danika, Gavri”—she cocked her hooded head toward two of the kuvari guarding him—“cut out their tongues. Now.”
Danika and Gavri dismounted, boots thudding on the summer grass, and drew their vjernost blades. The small crowd shrank away.
“Captain,” Veron warned, muffled through his face mask. Danika and Gavri halted, although they stood ready to attack.
Riza turned to him and inclined her head the merest fraction. “Your Highness.”
One of the human children ogled them wide eyed. Veron chuffed softly and tossed the stone to him. The Brotherhood merited all of Riza’s anger, but these humans? They were peasants—agitated, but not murderous. Even now, they shrank away, some looking to him with big eyes.
He pulled aside his leathers at his chest to expose the royal black sun tattoo over his heart to the humans. “No harm was done, Captain. They did not know me.”
Her eyes narrowed. “Highness—”
“No harm was done.” Firmer this time.
Mati’s orders to them all had been clear: Keep your peace, but do not allow any harm to come to the prince. Harm none unless he is harmed. And even Riza wouldn’t dare to disobey the queen of Nozva Rozkveta.
“Highness.” Riza nodded coolly. “Mount up!” she bellowed to Danika and Gavri, then turned on the humans, scowling. “Remember this day, humans. You keep your tongues at the mercy of Prince Veron u Zara u Avrora u Roza, Valaz u Nozva Rozkveta, Zpevan Kamena, Volodar T’my. But disrespect His Highness again, and I won’t be able to hear his mercy over the sound of your blood spraying.”
Subtle, Riza. Very subtle.
The crowd scattered, some humans sprinting away, others running with occasional glances over their shoulders. The human child stood frozen, grass-green eyes wide as moons, clutching the stone to his chest. The boy could only be a few years older than Dita. He’d always liked children, and human ones were no different, even if they didn’t recognize royalty.
“Hyah!” Riza urged her horse forward.
He smiled behind his face mask at the human child as the cavalcade moved once more, continuing down the cypress-lined road to Bellanzole and the soaring Palazzo dell’Ermacora.
Most humans probably hadn’t seen one of his kind in millennia; their ignorance was understandable, if inconvenient. Dark-elf royals did not adorn themselves in the golden crowns and circlets to which the human peasantry was accustomed to seeing on theirs; dark-elves knew their royalty by their bearing, their demeanor, their faces, and as a last resort, by their black sun hearts, tattooed by royal czerni ink at birth.
Nozva Rozkveta’s scribes had been working tirelessly to bridge the gap between Old Sileni and the modern tongue, and although he, his party, and many of the other dark-elves spoke the modern tongue now, that didn’t cure the ignorance.
Mati had sent him—and the entire host of dark-elves—on a diplomatic mission, leaving camps of dark-elf troops in his wake to help keep the peace for themselves and the humans against the beasts, all part of the bargain struck between Nozva Rozkveta and the kingdom of Silen.
He rode up to Gavri, who eyed him peripherally and hissed.
“I don’t question my queen’s wishes,” she said, shaking her head vehemently and sending her braid swinging from side to side, “but you, one of our most valued princes, are doomed to make the Offering to one of them? It’s a sad fate.”