Radiance (Wraith Kings #1)(12) by Grace Draven

Her husband rode ahead of her, deep in conversation with the cavalry commander.  Mertok’s arrival during their battle with the Beladine raiders had swelled the Kai troop to formidable numbers.  Brishen had assured Ildiko that it would take far more than a band of cutthroats to defeat them now.  They remained on alert; however, and kept the day watch doubled when they stopped to camp and sleep.

As if he sensed her gaze on him, Brishen glanced over his shoulder and halted his mount.  Kai riders eddied around him as he waited for her to catch up to him.  He offered her a tired smile, and even in the suffocating darkness, Ildiko saw the weary lines etched into his features.  Recovered from the mortem light’s possession, he still bore remnants of exhaustion from the fever.

“That is a somber set to your mouth, wife.  What grim thoughts plague you?”

She hesitated in telling him.  Brishen had been even more solicitous after he’d awakened from the mortem fever and discovered her sitting nearby with Anhuset.  Ildiko had exercised her newly acquired rank and extracted a reluctant promise from the Kai woman not to say anything about her slashed sleeve unless Brishen asked directly.

“You’re asking me to lie to my cousin and my commander, Your Highness.”  Anhuset’s eyes had narrowed to glowing slits.

Ildiko had stripped out of her torn gown, aware of the Kai’s equal measure of disapproval and curiosity. She shrugged into a new gown, haphazardly tying laces.  As long as her clothes didn’t outright fall off her, she didn’t think the Kai soldiers would much care that she looked more bedraggled than a laundress on wash day.

“I’m asking no such thing.”  She ran her hands over the skirt in a futile attempt to smooth out the wrinkles.  “If he asks what happened, tell him, but there’s no reason to run tattling to him over something as trivial as a torn sleeve.”

Anhuset crossed her arms, mutinous.  “It could have been worse.”

Ildiko didn’t argue that one.  It could have been infinitely worse.  Her heart had almost leapt from her chest when Brishen suddenly lashed out in delirium, his nails slicing through her sleeve like knives.  She didn’t have time to cry out before a hard shove from Anhuset sent her flying halfway across the tent.

“Anhuset, what good will it do to tell him other than to make him worry or fill him with guilt?  What’s done is done, and I’ve come to no harm.”

“You shouldn’t keep secrets from him.”  Anhuset refused to yield.

Ildiko blew a strand of hair out of her eyes and resumed her seat near a feverish Brishen but out of striking range.  “It’s not a secret; it’s just a fact that offers no benefit in being retold.”  She mimicked Anhuset’s posture and crossed her arms.  “Do I have your promise?  Say nothing unless he asks?”

They engaged in a silent battle until Anhuset exhaled a frustrated sigh.  “I give you my promise not to say anything about this to him unless he asks.”  She scowled.  “You’ve the skill of a Kai courtier, Your Highness.  Able to twist reason to suit your purpose.”

Ildiko recognized the mild insult within the compliment but took no offense.  “Well at least, there is some commonality between our two peoples.”

The two women held an uneasy truce between them, and Ildiko’s prayers were answered when Brishen regained his lucidity without any recollection of striking out at his wife while in the throes of delirium.  There had been more than one moment when Anhuset practically vibrated with the temptation to blurt out something, but she held her tongue and busied herself with organizing the evening travel plans with Mertok.

“Ildiko?  Where are you, wife?”

Ildiko blinked, brought back to the present by Brishen waving a hand in front of her face.  “I’m sorry.  I was daydreaming.  Or would that be nightdreaming now?”  She smiled, then remembered his first question.  “Not grim thoughts.  Just a curiosity.  When you were sick with the mortem fever, you confused your mother with Talumey’s mother.  Anhuset said yours doesn’t smile often.”

She left her question unspoken, giving him an escape if he chose not to expand on Anhuset’s remark.  Instead, he leaned back in the saddle, his wide shoulders relaxed.  “My cousin is right.  The queen isn’t one to smile.  If she does, then you look for the knife wielded from the shadows.”

Ildiko gaped at Brishen.  He’d described his mother in such a mild voice, as if the murderous tendencies he hinted at were no more interesting or threatening than if she had an obsessive love for orange slippers.  “Are you serious?”

“Quite,” he said in that same neutral tone.  “I doubt my father has slept a full night with both eyes closed since he married her.”

Ildiko shuddered inwardly at the prospect of meeting her new mother-in-law.  Her aunt had been a force to be reckoned with.  Haughty, self-important and devious, Fantine had been a master strategist, manipulating the many Gauri court machinations with a skilled hand.  King Sangur; however, trusted his wife wouldn’t kill him while he slept.  Obviously, the same couldn’t be said of the Kai king and his lethal queen.

“I’m not looking forward to meeting your mother, Your Highness.”  A few soft snorts of laughter sounded from the Kai soldiers riding nearby.  Ildiko met Brishen’s wry gaze.  “Should I wear this breastplate when we’re introduced?”

Brishen’s teeth were like ivory daggers in the darkness.  “I’ll protect you.  Besides, she won’t harm you.  She’s too enamored with the idea that I’ve been forced to take a human to wife.  If there’s one thing Secmis loves more than plotting an assassination, it’s watching misery.”  He nudged his horse closer to hers and leaned in.  “Be sure to act completely disgusted with me and bitter at your fate,” he said softly.  “She’ll make sure we’re in each other’s constant company.”

Ildiko’s thoughts reeled.  One thing was certain—she wouldn’t be bored.  Staying one step ahead of her malevolent mother-in-law would take all her wits and focus.  How a viper of a woman as Brishen described managed to raise such a jovial, affectionate man flummoxed Ildiko.

“You must take after your father in temperament,” she said.

The humorous snorts from earlier turned into outright guffaws.  Brishen’s grin widened.  “Hardly.  My mother sleeps with one eye open as well.”  He reached for her hand and gave it a squeeze.  “Don’t worry, Ildiko.  You’ll understand more about my parents when you meet them.  I’m counting on you giving me your honest impressions afterwards.  I suspect they will be entertaining.”

Ildiko didn’t return his grin.  He might find all this quite funny; she found it terrifying.  She stiffened her back and clutched the reins in a tight grip.  Her new in-laws may be a deadly pair, but she refused to be intimidated.

“I doubt we’re much different from any other royal family out there, human or Kai.”  Brishen edged his horse closer to hers.  “We marry to strengthen our positions, hold our power, acquire more land and provide heirs for the throne.  A business arrangement in every way.”  His features sobered, the grin fading.  “If we’re lucky, we find an amiable companion in our spouses.”

His description applied perfectly to the royal family in which Ildiko was raised.  Her parents’ love for each other had been an anomaly rarely seen among the Gauri aristocracy and not witnessed at all in Sangur and Fantine’s immediate family.  Marriage was business and politics.  Affection and bedsport were usually reserved for mistresses or the occasional lover.

“And mistresses?” she said.  For some reason she chose not to dwell on, a discordant internal note thrummed inside at her at the idea of Brishen having a mistress.

One black eyebrow rose.  “What about them?”

“Do you have a dozen or so?”  Ildiko raised her chin at the twitch of laughter that played across his mouth.  It was a perfectly legitimate question.  Her cousins’ husbands each had a mistress and a bevy of bastard children.  Her uncle, the king, kept a prima dulce named Annais, for which Queen Fantine was eternally grateful.

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