Radiance (Wraith Kings #1)(13) by Grace Draven

Brishen lost the battle not to smile.  “A dozen?  I doubt I could deal with one.”  He shifted into a more comfortable spot on the saddle.  “Besides, I have a Gauri wife to comfort me.  Why take a mistress?”

His answer puzzled Ildiko.  “But that isn’t the role of a mistress.”

“Isn’t it?  I think we all seek companionship, wife.  Sometimes it’s physical; sometimes it’s much more.”  An odd flicker danced in his eyes, and like his grin before, his smile faded.  “Loneliness is an empty void.  We look for that friend in the light.”  His glowing eyes squinted a little, deepening the laugh lines at their corners.  “Or in the case of humans, in the dark.”

Brishen stopped his horse for a second time and tugged Ildiko’s reins to halt her mount as well.  He must have given an unseen signal because the Kai riding with them widened the space around them to afford more privacy.

“What is it?” she said.  “What’s wrong?”

His gaze pressed down on Ildiko.  Not the smothering weight of a too-heavy blanket in summer but more like an embrace that invited affection.  Not for the first time, she desperately wished she could read his eyes, see past the luminescence to the equally bright soul behind it.

“Will you be that for me, Ildiko,” he said.  “That beacon in the void?”

Ildiko’s heart cracked.  Loneliness had been her most constant companion, the silent shadow that hovered over her for years.  If there was one thing she understood, it was the emptiness of the internal void.  Her reply might not make sense to him now, but she’d explain later when they were alone.

She reached out, fingers tracing the herringbone pattern of his chainmail sleeve.  “The void is vast, like the sea at night and no land in sight.  I’ll be the beacon, Brishen.”

He captured her hand and kissed her palm.  His lips were cool on her skin.  “My parents will loathe you, wife.”  Ildiko felt all the blood drain from her face.  Brishen’s smile returned.  “Don’t be afraid.  That’s a good thing.  They’ve hated me since birth.  They only like those they can crush.”

He looked as if he’d say more but was interrupted by sharp cries and excited yips from the other Kai.  Ildiko tried to understand the rapid stream of unfamiliar words flowing between the soldiers, but all she could catch was “Haradis,” and “gate.”  She turned to Brishen.  “What are they saying?”  His reply birthed a legion of butterflies in her belly.

“Beyond that slope is Bast-Haradis and the capital.  Welcome to my kingdom, Ildiko of the Kai.”

CHAPTER TEN

Brishen escorted Ildiko down the long corridor that lead to the throne room.  She held onto his arm, her fingers digging furrows into his skin, even through his vambrace.  It was the only sign of her anxiety, besides her ashen pallor.   She wore a serene expression, and her steps were sure and steady in the hallway’s darkness.

Ildiko had grown quieter the closer they got to Haradis and gone completely silent when they topped the ridge that looked down on the dimly lit city nestled in a small valley ringed by gently rolling hills.  She’d answered his questions with nods or shakes of her head, and every once in a while a short yes or no.  He could smell the fear rolling off her.

“You’re not alone in this, Ildiko,” he reassured her for the dozenth time.  Before their trek to the throne room, she simply nodded.  This time she turned to him, her face wiped clean of expression.

“This is the kingdom of Bast-Haradis, Brishen.  I’m human.  Here, I am alone.”

He halted and she with him.  Brishen gazed at his human wife, touching on the colorful hair and strange eyes, the pale skin with its ever-changing shades that were subject to her moods.  His soldiers’ reactions to her would be nothing compared to those of the Kai court.  Insular for so long, most of the nobility had rarely seen a human.  Those who had, barely remembered.  They’d stare and whisper amongst themselves and do so, so much worse than that.

Brishen wanted to protect her, shield her from the inevitable trial of meeting not only the vipers amongst the court but those who ruled them—his parents.  He was powerless to do so.  She’d have to face them all, one human amongst a people who once considered all her kind food.  But she wouldn’t do it alone.

He reached for her free hand.  “You are also a princess of the blood through marriage, a member of the royal family.  My wife.  Every Kai in that room owes you their allegiance and respect.  I will cut out any tongue that would try and besmirch you, Ildiko.”  He pressed his lips to her palm.

The tiniest crack appeared in her serene composure.  Her mouth twitched with the hint of a smile.  “Or bury an axe blade in their heads?”

His guilt over his inability to rescue her from his own family eased a little at her humor.  “I’m adept with spear and sword as well.  Just name who you want me to skewer for you.”

Ildiko’s smile widened.  “Not the best approach I think to winning supporters.”  She inhaled a long breath before slowly letting it out.  “I can do this, but you must promise not to let go of my hand, even if I’m breaking your fingers.”

Brishen gently pulled her into his embrace.  She felt fragile in his arms—barely more than shadow wrapped around slender bones and clothed in Gauri silks.  “I promise.”

“I will not shame you with my fear, Brishen,” she whispered against his neck.

He sighed into her hair.  “But I might shame you with mine, wife.”  He stroked her back and offered a last bit of advice before they made their introductions to the court.  “They are only serpents, Ildiko.  Crush them beneath your heel.”

He led her the rest of the way to the ornately carved double doors guarded by a pair of soldiers.  The sentinels bowed, their faces as closed and expressionless as Ildiko’s was now.  The doors swung open, revealing a cavernous chamber with tall ceilings, walls decorated in tapestry and weaponry and lined by statues of ancient Kai kings and queens—all lit by wavering torchlight.

Brishen barely registered its grandeur.  He’d grown up in this palace.  The hall had looked like this since before his grandfather was born and probably long before that.  Instead, he focused on the pair of figures watching them from the thrones elevated on a platform reached by a set of nine steps.

The silence greeting him and Ildiko gave way to a rising din of voices, a steady buzzing that grew in volume like the approach of a locust swarm.  There were shocked gasps, comments about the Gauri woman’s terrifying eyes and strange face, expressions of pity for him.

Ildiko might not understand most of what was said, but it didn’t take a fluency in the Kai language to know her appearance was causing a stir.  Like him, she kept her gaze trained on the king and queen.  Her fingers were icicles on his.

“Steady,” he said under his breath.

They stopped at the first step leading to the thrones.  Brishen tugged lightly on Ildiko’s hand and they both genuflected.

Brishen addressed the floor.  “Your Majesties, I am your humble servant.  I present my bride, Ildiko, niece of the king of Gaur, Sangur the Lame.  Now hercegesé to me.”

The throne room had grown silent once more, pulsing with anticipation as Brishen and Ildiko waited on their knees.

“You may rise.”  King Djedor’s sepulchral voice echoed throughout the chamber.  His eyes were nearly white with advanced age, and the gray skin hung on his facial bones like sodden garments clipped to strung line.  “I’m told the powers in Belawat tried to have you killed to show their disapproval of this marriage.”

Brishen knew his father well enough to know that as soon as this introduction was concluded, he’d be summoned to his father’s council chamber for a full accounting of the attack.  He shrugged.  “We killed them all but lost three of our own.  Our companions fought bravely.  I carry the mortem light of one.”

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