No Man Can Tame (Page 9)

Veron seemed like a reasonable man. Maybe he’d support the idea to his mother.

“I’ll find another way,” she said to Bianca. “I have all the plans finished. It’s only a matter of finding the right investor.” And the Order would have the funds. Maybe she could send the library plans ahead to Nunzio and meet with him in Stroppiata during the Royal Progress to discuss it. But Papà would have her correspondence watched.

“Luciano and I could help.” Bianca perked up. “We could write to wealthy potential investors, find someone who’s interested.”

Her mail would be watched… but Bianca’s? Luciano’s?

“I’d love your help. I’d like you to send something for me, if you could.”

Bianca nodded. “Of course.”

Later tonight, she’d have Gabriella deliver the plans to Bianca with instructions.

“Oh! Your gown arrived.” Bianca darted toward the large, mysterious box and opened a flap. “It’s bittersweet, Aless, but the gown is at least beautiful.”

Papà had been planning to marry her off for years, and no doubt the gown had taken almost as long to make. “I won’t be needing it.”

Bianca’s mouth fell open. “But… Then what will you wear?”

Oh, she’d given plenty of thought to that over the past few days. When Mamma had given her A Modern History of Silen, she’d written inside, Be brave, my rose, and fill the remaining pages with your deeds.

I will, Mamma.

Fortunately, her bellani d’oro were still good with some of her dressmakers. The ones who didn’t fear Papà. “I will wear my thoughts, Bianca.”

Papà had bargained them away like chattels—in this day and age. Let the signori know exactly what I think about that.

After pulling off his boots—these new ones still didn’t fit right—Veron paced the dim bedchamber barefoot. Silence. They’d silenced her. He rubbed his chin. “Why? Why would she be expected to swear such a vow?”

Gavri shrugged at her post in the doorway next to Riza. “Perhaps her voice is like claws on limestone. Or perhaps she’s a twit, and her father doesn’t want you to find out.”

He snarled. “That is my soon-to-be bride you are insulting.” His gaze locked with hers in the lengthy silence before she looked away.

He drew aside the heavy window drapes and peered into the courtyard. A storm. Dark clouds had shrouded the heavens, and the world below darkened with them; heavy drops pelted the lush green leaves, the grass, the stone walkways and benches. Umbrella pines swayed in the unrelenting wind. The sky realm changed with the hour.

It was hard to get a fix on Princess Alessandra’s personality. What mattered to her? What did she enjoy doing? What did she think? Her wide eyes had answered none of those questions. Their meeting had only revealed her fear and the troubling notion of her silence.

“You suspect she is unwilling,” Riza said quietly.

He did more than suspect.

“What?” Gavri snapped. “Prince Veron is an exemplary—”

“She’s a human, Gavri,” Riza shot back, earning a groan from Gavri. “They see things differently.”

Princess Alessandra was unwilling. What else could possibly be so damaging that would require a vow of silence? “I came here believing that my bride had agreed to this.”

Gavri grunted. “This human king substituted one daughter for the other. Perhaps there is some defect she would otherwise confess to you, if not for this vow.”

King Macario had explained that, much to his embarrassment, Princess Bianca was in love with another man and making the Offering to—marrying—him, but that Princess Alessandra was equally beautiful, willing, and younger. Humans prized the youth of their brides—more childbearing years.

“No, the king swore Princess Alessandra was healthy, fertile, not with child, and willing.” Before the meeting, it truly hadn’t mattered to him which human bride he had to—as they called it—“marry,” as long as she had agreed and was honest. There had been no reason for him to interfere with a love match.

Riza stood taller, raising her chin slightly. “With all due respect, Your Highness, even if she is unwilling, does it matter? Queen Zara gave you her orders.”

Thunder rolled, then lightning flashed white into the room.

“Does it really matter what the human wants?” Gavri added.

He stiffened and glared at them. By Deep and Darkness, of course it mattered. He was bound to obey Mati’s orders, but not without care.

And yet both Riza and Gavri seemed to be in agreement. He forced himself to relax.

“Duty must supersede honor, Your Highness.” Riza clenched her vjernost blade’s pommel. “Sometimes, to save thousands, one must be sacrificed.”

Gavri nodded, her brows drawn.

The peace. How many dark-elves and humans had died to this conflict? And how many more would?

Their parents had already sacrificed him and Alessandra for the sake of those lives. Could he do the same? The Brotherhood’s attacks had to end. The famine had to end. If he wavered now, how could he return and look Vadiha—and Dita—in the eye?

His duty was to Nozva Rozkveta, its queen, and its people. All else came after. Riza and Gavri were right. Even if Princess Alessandra was unwilling, his hands were tied. As were hers.

But there would be two ceremonies. If he was right about everything, then there would be the entirety of the Royal Progress back to Nozva Rozkveta for him to elicit her assent. They had to marry, but whatever her fears were, he could allay them. If she could never see him as a lover, Princess Alessandra could live her life as she wished, to the best standard he could deliver, and he could live his. A practical arrangement.

He could never defy Mati’s orders, so he would find a way to persuade Princess Alessandra on the way to Nozva Rozkveta.

He heaved a sigh. The hunting stand in a storm only seemed more and more appealing as the days went by. “I’m going to bed.”

“Sweet dreams, Your Highness.” The corner of Riza’s mouth twitched—a grin, for her at least.

Gavri eyed her with an impish grin and puffed a breath, blowing a wisp of hair off her face.

They both well knew he’d barely get in a wink. At least with this on his conscience.

But he rounded the canopied bed, out of their line of sight, and undressed, then parted the bed curtains and settled in. The soft mattress yielded under his weight, and he stretched out, curling an arm behind his head. It had been a long time since he’d slept in a human bed. They were far more luxurious and intricate than the practical dark-elf beds, but he missed the pleasing give of moss filling and the coolness of plant-fiber bedding. No doubt Princess Alessandra would prefer something like this instead—he’d have to arrange one for her.

Everything in Nozva Rozkveta was prized for its practical value. He’d have to explain that to her. An Offering—a wedding—celebrated not just a union, but what each partner could offer the other. And he’d been raised his entire life to become a person of worth: a capable hunter, swordsman, archer, and rider; well educated; strong, honorable, and valorous. A prince Mati could trade confidently when the time came.

And the time had come.

Tomorrow, he would make his Offering to Princess Alessandra of Silen. He’d never been to a human wedding, but they wore armor, carried weapons, and rode horses everywhere else, so weddings were no exception, right?

Chapter 4

Aless dismissed all her servants from the private chambers outside the nave of L’Abbazia Reale. She smoothed the wrinkles from her wedding gown, yards of Pryndonian white lace and intricate pearl beading. It was a gorgeous gown, one any happy bride would eagerly wear down the aisle.

Any happy bride.

She paced the gray rug, whipping the gown’s train about her. No matter what happened afterward, today she would be officially married. Even if she could persuade Veron not to complete the second ceremony in Nightbloom, they would always be married by Sileni law.

But if they didn’t live as husband and wife, that wouldn’t matter, would it? And it wasn’t as though she’d need to remarry for love. As long as the Paladin Grand Cordon could help her see the library built, as long as she could teach there, she didn’t need a thing more.

This would all work out. Terra willing, everything would go as planned.

Tradition had ruled over so many lives, including her own, for long enough, and other voices had chosen for her. Maybe standing up to that today, even a little, would make a difference.

Yes, she would marry Prince Veron and she wouldn’t destroy the peace, but she would speak her mind on it, in the only way left to her. Papà may have given her no other meaningful choice, but she still had this.

A soft rap came to the door, then one more. She opened it. “Bianca.”

Bianca gave her a wide-eyed look, her mouth falling open, then cleared her throat and hastily waved in two servants with a trunk.

“Were you seen?” After they entered, Aless glanced out into the hall, left and right, but no one else was about other than the Royal Guard. Good. No one to tell Papà.

“No.” Bianca nodded to the servants, who set down the trunk and left. “Are you sure you want to do this?”