Radiance (Wraith Kings #1)(10) by Grace Draven

They spent the early part of the evening holding ad hoc court in a forest clearing.  Ildiko had been too exhausted the dawn before to meet the new members of their entourage.  That, and the aftermath of the bloody skirmish between the Kai and Beladine raiders had precluded any social introductions.  Securing a safe camp and clearing the dead had taken up everyone’s time.

Brishen informed her they wouldn’t break camp until the next night.  Tonight would be devoted to the funerals of the three Kai who had perished in the attack.

“What of the dead raiders?”  Ildiko tried not to look too often at the corpses piled near the road.

His lambent eyes narrowed to slits.  “We’ll burn them before we leave and return their ashes to Belawat.  Message received.”  His voice was cold, flat.

Ildiko shivered, not because of Brishen’s sudden icy demeanor but because they’d both been targets for revenge.  Marriage obviously had many more pitfalls to beware of besides sharing a bed and a household with a stranger.  She didn’t fool herself into thinking the man who tried to drag her from beneath the wagon had only meant to scare her.  He would have butchered her on the spot and smiled while he did it.  Ildiko was glad he was dead and equally glad it had been Brishen who killed him.

Some might wonder at her lack of fear regarding her new husband.  Dreadful in appearance, lethal in combat, Brishen was all that was cordiality and dignified royalty in every interaction with her.

When their camp had settled in, he took the time to introduce her to the Kai cavalry who’d come to their rescue, and his Master of the Horse, Mertok.  As she expected, the Kai soldiers were formal, polite and refused to meet her gaze.  They had no problem gawking at her when they thought she wasn’t looking, and Ildiko had been tempted more than a few times to cross her eyes and watch their reaction.

As perceptive as he was affable, Brishen squeezed her waist in warning and bent to whisper in her ear.  “Don’t even think about it, wife.  You’ll notice half of them are sharpening or cleaning their weapons.  All I need is for someone to inadvertently slice themselves open because you startled them.”

Ildiko stifled a laugh behind her hand.  Brishen’s answering predator grin made the hairs on her arms stand up in warning, but she patted the hand at her waist and remained unafraid.

The moon glimmered directly above them—a Kai noon—when all their party, except those on guard, gathered in the clearing and formed a circle around the three fallen Kai.  They looked no different from when they were alive except for a change in their skin tone.  Instead of the slate gray with its undertones of teal and lavender, the flesh had paled to the color of cold ash.  Their bodies were laid out side by side, dressed in their armor.  They held their arms crossed over their chests, favorite weapons beside them.  Ildiko stood outside the circle on a tree stump tall enough that she could see over the mourners’ shoulders and into the circle.

Anhuset entered the circle with a small amphora.  From it she poured a glistening stream of oil over her fingers and crouched to draw a mysterious symbol on the forehead of each of the dead soldiers.  Like the other female Kai, she shone cold and elegant beneath the moon’s pale rays, her silver hair shimmering.  She opened the consecrative with a chant in the Kai tongue, a sing-song cant answered in chorus by the surrounding Kai.  Ildiko only knew a smattering of bast-Kai words, but she easily recognized a lamentation when she heard one.

The dirge continued, rising and falling in volume.  The Kai swayed with its undulating rhythm, their glowing eyes bright in the woodland darkness.  From her vantage point, Ildiko clearly saw Brishen.  He stood on the opposite side of the circle from her, his lips moving as he sang with his comrades.

Ildiko’s eyes widened, and she gasped when a soft light suddenly suffused the dead Kai, creating a nimbus that washed like spiller waves over their bodies.  The light broke, stretching into sinuous threads until they coalesced into three spectral forms, vaguely human—or Kai—in shape.

The living Kai continued the lamentation, the higher female voices melding with the lower male registers.  A single bright light, no bigger than a butterfly,  ignited within each of the three specters hovering over the bodies.  The memory spark.  The mortem light.

Brishen and two others broke from the circle and approached the dead.  The phantoms swirled around them, seeming to dance in time with the dirge.  Tears filled Ildiko’s eyes as Brishen and his companions opened their arms and were embraced by the dead whose spirits twirled and swayed before enveloping the living completely, sending tendrils of radiance into their mouths and nostrils.

Ildiko’s wonder battled with horror as the spirits of the fallen Kai possessed their willing hosts.  Brishen had told her his were a people of night.  They avoided the sun when possible and rejected the day for their hours of activity.  Yet seeing her princely husband and his two subjects lit from within by the resplendent dead, she couldn’t imagine any who embraced light more than the tenebrous Kai.

Brishen burned like a torch within the circle, his glowing eyes sulfurous instead of their usual nacreous shade.  The two soldiers standing with him bore the same look.  One staggered with the force of the possession, and the mortem lights pulsed under their clothing—candles lit inside living lanterns.

The possession lasted only a moment before the spectral entities abandoned their worldly anchors on a mournful exhalation and faded into the vast night, leaving their mortem lights behind with their hosts.  Their physical bodies collapsed inside their armor, desiccating into a fine dust until they melded with the earth beneath them.

The dirge faded as well until the Kai stood silent together, serenaded only by a cool wind.  Ildiko leapt off her tree stump and hurried to Brishen.  He leaned weakly on Anhuset, his features as colorless as the dead Talumey who’d gifted his life memories to him for safekeeping.  His fellow vessels looked just as weary and stood with the help of others, as if holding a mortem light sucked out all their strength.  Brishen’s eyes were twin suns in his face, and he reached for Ildiko with a hand that trembled.

She clasped it and drew him to her, leaving Anhuset to hover close by.  “Anhuset, help me get him to our tent.”

The Kai woman nodded and signaled with one hand.  Two more soldiers appeared.  Brishen sagged between them as they carried him to the tent and laid him carefully on his pallet.  Ildiko knelt by her husband’s side and curled her hand around his.  His eyes were closed, but the mortem light inside him still glowed through his eyelids.

Anhuset settled on the floor on Brishen’s other side.  “He and the others be like this for a few hours and then suffer mortem fever.”

Ildiko’s stomach flipped.  “Mortem fever?  He’d said nothing of a fever.”

The other woman pulled a blanket over Brishen’s still body.  “A light vessel drowns in the memories of the dead until they become accustomed to them.  It’s temporary but painful while it lasts.”

“Bursin’s wings!  Do all the Kai go through this?”  Ildiko was rapidly reconsidering her envy of such a gift.  She stroked the back of Brishen’s hand with her thumb.

Anhuset shrugged.  “Only those who volunteer.  Brishen volunteered to act as light vessel for Talumey until we reach Haradis.  He’ll turn Talumey’s mortem light over to his mother once we’ve arrived.  I’ll stay here with you until he adjusts and overcomes the fever.”  She leaned back against one of the tent supports in a pose that lacked any tension.

Ildiko wasn’t fooled.  She’d observed the interaction between Brishen and his cousin.  Anhuset was worried.  “I’m harmless, Anhuset.  You don’t have to protect him from me,” she joked gently.

Anhuset stared at her, mouth unsmiling.  “Mortem fever can make a Kai go mad.  I’m not protecting him from you, Your Highness, but you from him.”

CHAPTER EIGHT

There was madness in memory, especially when the memory wasn’t yours.  Brishen lay on his pallet, eyes closed, and watched the life of young Talumey twist and entwine with recollections of his own life.  Beloved faces flickered in his mind’s eye, some his, some Talumey’s, along with emotions that accompanied them.  Father, mother, two sisters.

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