No Man Can Tame (Page 7)
“Do not question Queen Zara,” Riza snarled at her, and Gavri inhaled sharply but nodded.
He’d known both of them his entire life; they were as much his friends as they were kuvari. They could always be trusted to tell him the truth.
He gazed out ahead, at the humans’ world of lush green, so different than home. Human mages shaped this sky realm with magic like the Stone Singers shaped the Deep with song, spelling buildings and roads like the Stone Singers sang stalagmites, stalactites, columns, and pillars. He still had memories of sketching sky-realm flora and fauna with Ata as a boy, when he’d been training to become one of the volodari. But after Ata’s death, he hadn’t sketched much of anything.
The humans and their sky realm were different, but difference was not inherently bad. He’d brought a myriad of roza blooms grown from the Vein of Nozva Rozkveta’s power, a gesture he hoped would demonstrate the bridge that could exist between their realms.
“It’s what I was born to do, Gavri,” he replied, and her head perked up. “I’ve been raised knowing my life is not my own, but to be bargained away by my mother, to strengthen Nozva Rozkveta and our people.”
Riza nodded. “And you perform your duty with honor and valor.”
Gavri bit her lip. “But they… they are just so ugly.”
He laughed under his breath while Riza snarled at her again.
Oh yes, humans were ugly. Their women weren’t taut and toned like dark-elf women; human women were soft like the very livestock they raised for slaughter. They had no fangs or claws, which even dark-elf children had. And their skin—thin, delicate, so easily broken.
By Deep and Darkness, what he’d give to be in a hunting stand now, in a raging storm, instead of on his way to make the Offering to one of them. It was enough to make him shift in his new boots, which fit even worse than the old ones. Ata had been a skilled hand with leatherworking, and no pair of boots had fit right since his… death.
Too picky, Noc chimed in.
You don’t wear boots. If you did, you’d be picky, too. Trust me.
The human, Noc clarified. You both live, both walk on two legs. Man. Woman.
As if that were the whole of it.
But he didn’t have to desire the human. He just had to make the Offering to her. With this agreement, Vadiha, Dita, and all his people would no longer starve—that alone gave it merit. And there was far more to Offering than mere desire. There was trust, partnership, encouragement, companionship. And any human woman who’d agreed to make the Offering to him had to be open minded; that alone gave her potential as a partner. In any case, there was nothing more important than doing Mati’s will, for the peace of Nozva Rozkveta.
He drew in a deep breath. He was only twenty-seven—unless he counted the 2,372 or so years all the Immortals had been petrified since the Sundering… which he didn’t—and by the end of the week, he’d be making the Offering. To a human.
By her agreement to it, she welcomed him into her life. That much was certain. And it meant this peace between them would succeed; and once it did, the peace between their people would, too.
As long as she was honest, he could trust her, and as long as they could trust each other, they had a chance.
“We will do what’s right. This Offering will go smoothly,” he assured them both. Besides, Riza had helped him choose an impeccable Offering gift for the princess. “And once it does, all of this unrest will dissipate.”
Riza scoffed, then shrugged. “I pray to the Deep for it, Your Highness.” Hesitating, she lowered her gaze for a moment, her brow furrowed. “But… Gavri’s objections aren’t entirely without merit. If there’s one thing I’ve learned about the humans, it is that they can never be trusted, especially when it comes to doing what’s right.”
Beneath the late-afternoon sun, Aless held still in the courtyard, her spine straight, her shoulders back, her chin high. The summer breeze riffled the rosy-pink silk brocade of her gown and the carefully styled curls cascading down her back. The jeweled circlet was warm against her forehead, but Papà had left specific instructions with her ladies-in-waiting and maids. They had decorated her like a horse for dressage.
“You really won’t speak to him, my lady?” Gabriella, her friend and lady-in-waiting, whispered, tucking a lock of hair behind her ear.
She’d already promised Papà she wouldn’t. And it really didn’t matter, did it? Her choice didn’t matter, so why would her words? This prince would probably arrive on his mother’s orders just to look her in the mouth and check her gait. A chattel didn’t need to say a word to be useful.
He’d simply place her in his cart, take her to the dark-elf cave, and shelve her like some trophy to present whenever the need arose to prove peace with the humans. They’d say, We have no quarrel with the humans! Look, one of our princes has a human wife.
And because the dark-elf women ruled Nightbloom, she would never have a say in anything, never make herself useful there, just remain a pawn as she had here, except in an alien culture that spoke an alien tongue, and surrounded by strangers who had no reason to be friendly with one of her kind.
Mamma’s library would never be built, she’d never help anyone learn to read, nor Immortali and humans learn about one another in a place of peace and knowledge.
Surely this dark-elf prince didn’t wish for this fate any more than she did, and yet they both had to do this dance at the behest of their parents and rulers.
Which didn’t make it any better.
A bee lazily flew by. Sting me. Please, please, please sting me. Anything to avoid this meeting.
Hooves clopped beyond the iron gates, and a cavalcade of riders trotted into the courtyard, ringed by the Sileni Royal Guard. The strangers were cloaked and hooded in black, shadows but for their unsettling yellow irises and ghostly white hair. The occasional glimpse of slate-blue skin peeked over the face masks covering their mouths and noses.
As they began to dismount, they revealed leather-armor-clad muscle on lean, athletic frames. Each of them had to be at least six feet tall. The tallest of them—on a massive, mesmerizing destrier, its ebony coat gleaming in the sun—was bulkier, with broad shoulders, thick biceps and thighs, a muscular chest. A male.
He hitched the blade at his side and dismounted nimbly, rubbed his hand and wrist, and took in the courtyard with narrowed, searching eyes. They settled on her. Intense. Eerie.
Different from the rest. The only male among them. It had to be him.
But neither he, nor any of his party, were dressed in a manner befitting royalty. They all wore mere black leathers and plain cloth, like any common soldier. Maybe a sign of how special he considered this meeting.
He would have already met with Papà at Bellanzole’s walls for escort into the city. Papà had met this Immortali male and, despite his obvious insult, had allowed him entry to this courtyard.
But would anything have deterred Papà from this bargain? He’d sold Bianca’s hand in marriage, sight unseen, to this Immortali male. He could be ugly, disfigured, beastly, utterly disgusting—even beyond being a dark-elf—and would that have changed Papà’s decision at all?
Of course not. He’d bought his peace already. Cheaply. And hadn’t even tried anything else.
She stiffened as the male approached her, escorted by one of his own and a Sileni royal guard. Maybe her Vow of Silence was for the best, as her words would have been just as frozen as the rest of her.
He inclined his head. “It is my honor to meet you, Princess Alessandra,” he said, his low voice like velvet over honed steel, muffled through the black cloth face mask. “I am Veron.”
That voice—deep and flowing like the mirror-black rivers of the Lone.
Holding her breath, she looked at his hand—gloved—his fingers pointed, but he didn’t offer to take hers.
“It is your custom to take hands,” he said, matter of fact. He removed the gloves and passed them to his companion, a sharp-eyed female standing at attention, a soldier by the look of her. He extended his hand, slate blue, with long fingers capped in points.
The moment had almost passed when she shakily offered hers in return.
Callused skin closed around her fingers as he raised her hand gently, pulled down his face mask, and lightly pressed his lips to her knuckles.
The barest touch, and a shiver tingled down her spine before she could stop it. He could kill her. With little more than a sweep of his hand.
As he straightened, she covered her reaction with a smile, which he returned.
Fangs. Sharp, pointed fangs, like a lion’s. She held her smile, kept it plastered on her face. Hopefully it would keep any other reaction from showing.
“It is the first time you have seen one of my kind in person.” His eerie eyes stayed fixed on hers, unwavering, his callused hand still wrapped around hers.
Nothing moved in the courtyard. Holy Mother’s mercy, even the breeze didn’t dare blow.
She nodded. That smile was still plastered on her face—she returned her expression to some semblance of normalcy.
Like the rest of him, his face was hard, all brutal planes and angles, with even harder eyes. As a statue, he might have been terrifyingly beautiful, but living, breathing, he was simply terrifying. Like a nightmare from a children’s fairytale.