Radiance (Wraith Kings #1)(14) by Grace Draven

Another murmuring buzz passed through the crowd of courtiers lining either side of the throne room.  Brishen had done the family of the fallen soldier a great honor.  The king’s expression didn’t alter at the revelation.  Brishen had expected nothing more.  His father had never expressed either approval or disapproval of his younger son’s actions.  They had no bearing on the throne or line of succession; therefore they were of no importance.

He did turn a curious gaze to Ildiko.  “I remember the first time I saw a human.  A man.  The women are even uglier.”

A titter of laughter passed through the crowd and just as quickly died when Brishen turned to note who laughed.  Ildiko’s fingers twitched in his grasp.

Djedor’s wrinkled lips stretched into a grin, revealing teeth gone as black with age as his eyes had gone white.  Brishen braced his shoulder against Ildiko’s to keep her from lurching backwards.  The king turned to his silent wife.  “What think you of your new daughter, Secmis?”

The queen, beautiful and as youthful as the day she married her husband, stared first at her son and then at her Gauri daughter.  Unlike her husband, she spoke the Common tongue so Ildiko would understand everything she said.  “Welcome to Haradis, Ildiko Hercegesé.  I hope you can find your place here.  My son has sacrificed a great deal to marry a human woman and seal our alliance with the Gauri.”

Her lip had curled as she spoke, and though her voice was even, Secmis didn’t bother hiding her contempt for Brishen’s wife.

Brishen fancied he heard Ildiko’s back crack as she stiffened next to him.  She yanked her fingers out of his grasp and advanced to the second step, shoulders back, chin raised in a haughty manner that challenged the queen’s own arrogance.  A collective gasp rose among the watching nobility.

Brishen dropped his hand to his sword pommel.  Gods forbid he’d have to slash his way out of the throne room to prevent his mother from killing his wife, but he’d do so if necessary.  He balanced on the balls of his feet, ready to grab Ildiko and run.

Her own voice was calm, lacking disdain but sure and uncowed.  “What sacrifices would those be, Your Majesty?  I see only a groom returned home with a bride after an admittedly dangerous trip.  He bears no wounds, no scars, and possesses all his limbs.  I haven’t yet had the time to henpeck him to death.”

This time the crowd’s laughter was disguised by splutters and bouts of coughing.  Brishen didn’t know whether to groan or applaud.  Ildiko’s wit would gain her either respect or a writ of execution.

Secmis’s golden eyes narrowed.  “You mock me?”

“No, Your Majesty.  That would be rude.”  Ildiko gave a brief bow.  “I wish merely to understand my husband’s sacrifice.  He will live among his own people.  I cannot bear him children, but the line of succession is secured many times over.  He cannot marry a Kai woman, but if the Kai court is anything like the Gauri court, his union with me won’t prevent him from having a mistress.  Several if he wishes.  If he can’t bear the sight of me, we can talk in the daylight when he doesn’t see so well.  Then I can argue the sacrifice is mine, not his.”

Secmis’s skin, the color of unpolished steel, darkened even more.  Her eyes blazed brighter than all the torches in the throne room combined.  She half rose from her seat, long fingers curled.  Had Ildiko stood in front of her, she would have been disemboweled.

Brishen had partially drawn his sword from its sheath when the king let out a bellowing laugh.  Secmis turned a glare on him hot enough to set his robes alight.  He ignored her and slapped his hand on the arm of his chair.  “She’s ugly, my boy, but fearless too.  You could have done worse.”  He motioned to the doors.  “Get her out of here before your mother orders her beheading.”  He flashed black fangs at Ildiko.  “You’ll manage well enough, Gauri woman.  I look forward to our next meeting.”

The return trek to the doors seemed a thousand miles and as many years away.  Brishen strangled the urge to sprint for safety with Ildiko in his arms and kept them both to a stately walk.  Once the doors closed behind them, they maintained their pace until they were out of sight and earshot of the guards.

Brishen pivoted to stand in front of Ildiko.  Even the ashen color to her skin had bled away, leaving her pale as bleached bone.  Her eyes were wide and black with terror.  She took a step toward him before her knees gave out.  He caught her in his arms and held her close.

“Well done, Hercegesé!  You’ve faced down my mother and pleased my father.  Not a Kai in that room will cross you now.”

She shuddered against him, her body as icy as her fingers had been.  He heard the rapid chatter of her teeth before she clenched her jaw and drew steady breaths.  Once she calmed, she leaned far enough away from him to meet his gaze.

“I’ve made an enemy of your mother,” she said in a mournful voice.

“Everyone is Secmis’s enemy, wife.  You’ve just made yourself a worthy one in her eyes.”

“I’m going to die, aren’t I?”

He kissed her forehead.  “No, you’re going to eat.  We still have a formal dinner to suffer through in a few hours.”

“Gods help me,” she muttered.

“You’ll need it,” he cheerfully replied.


If she disregarded their physical appearances, Ildiko determined that the Kai courtiers were much like the Gauri ones—ambitious, gossip-mongering, and highly skilled at surviving the savage intrigues of court life.

She’d known the moment the doors to the throne room opened and she and Brishen crossed the threshold, they’d pass through a gauntlet of curious hounds eager for the scent of new blood.  Anhuset’s armored breastplate would offer Ildiko no protection on that battleground.

Familiarity with court etiquette and strategy offered some comfort as she knelt at the lowest step before her new husband’s parents.  King Djedor was a man stitched of nightmares, a lich not yet completely rotted to bones.  Brishen’s body against her back had been the only thing that kept her from bolting out of the throne room when the king flashed his black-fanged smile at her.

Her fluency in the Kai speech was adequate enough that she understood a portion of his remarks regarding the ugliness of human women.  His insults had done a fine job of eroding her fear and replacing it with indignation.  That indignation bubbled into a seething anger when Secmis addressed her in the Common tongue.

The queen had stared at her with eyes that gleamed red at the rims and a mouth that curled into a sneer.  She sat on the throne, slender and garbed in a heavily embroidered gown that cascaded over the chair and pooled at her feet.  Her silver hair was coiffed and decorated with jewels that winked dully in the low light.

In her rebuttal of the queen’s comments, Ildiko had been tempted to ask if Secmis might find it more comfortable if she were coiled around her throne instead of perched upon it.  The horrified gasps from the Kai nobles and Brishen’s hand on his sword as she challenged Secmis’s contempt alerted Ildiko that she already antagonized his malevolent mother to a dangerous point without insults to enflame the confrontation.

Only after they’d escaped the throne room had her courage, fueled by anger, deserted her.  Ildiko had collapsed in Brishen’s arm, lightheaded at her recklessness.

He’d held her close, his praise of her bravery the only thing that kept her upright as he led her up a flight of stairs and down two corridors to a door decorated with fanciful strap hinges.  He opened the door, revealing a spacious chamber, lavishly furnished with a large bed, wardrobe, chests and a table and chairs set near a hearth in which a low-burning fire flickered.

Brishen led her to one of the chairs.  Ildiko dropped into it gratefully.  She was truly part of the family now.  Just like the rest, she’d have to sleep with one eye open, in fear of Secmis.

“Do you want a dram of wine?”  Brishen held a goblet in one hand and a pitcher in the other.

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