Radiance (Wraith Kings #1)(15) by Grace Draven

“I’ll take two,” she replied and offered a feeble smile at his chuckle.  She took the goblet from him with shaking hands and searched for the right words that wouldn’t excoriate Secmis too badly.  She was Brishen’s parent after all.  “Your mother is...”

“A soulless creature with a thirst for murder and an intellect greater than any other in the kingdom.”  Brishen poured wine for himself in another goblet.  “It makes her a ruler unmatched in both malice and strategy.  My father would have been overthrown decades ago without her by his side.”

Ildiko blinked at him.  Her husband continued to flummox her with his matter-of-fact acceptance of his parents’ less than admirable traits as well as his own good nature.  She could only surmise that like the children of most royal households, he’d been raised by a troop of nannies, tutors and mentors, at least some possessing a compassionate character.

She wanted to ask him more, but talking about the Kai king and queen soured the wine in her stomach.  Instead, she focused on her surroundings.  “Where are we?”

He took the chair next to her.  “Your bedchamber.  At least during your stay here in the palace.  What do you think?”

Distracted by his second remark, Ildiko gave her surroundings no more than a quick glance.  “It’s very nice.  What do you mean my stay in the palace?”  A second knot of apprehension twisted in her gut, taking up residence next to the one slowly unwinding itself from her encounter with Secmis.

It wasn’t at all unusual among the Gauri for noblemen to sequester their wives on distant estates, isolated from court life, while their husbands lived separate existences with a few conjugal visits each year to assure the hereditary line continued.

While Ildiko liked the idea of putting as much distance as possible between herself and Secmis, she didn’t relish a future in which she withered away in some forgotten castle, kept company only by Kai servants as resentful of their exile as she was.

Brishen  brushed her knee with a gray hand.  One black nail caught on the fabric of her skirt, creating a pleat.  “Don’t worry, Ildiko.  I’ll be exiled with you.  I have a house on the far western borders of the kingdom.  We’ll stay here for a few weeks so you can become familiar with the Kai court and then journey home.”

Brishen said “home” in such a voice that he might as well have said “sanctuary” instead.  It was obvious to Ildiko that while he tolerated the Kai court, his heart resided elsewhere.

She recalled a map spread across a table in King Sangur’s study—a cartographical masterpiece of the many kingdoms that shared the great expanse of lands this side of the Apteran Ocean.  She frowned.  “Your estate nestles against Beladine lands.”

He nodded, his yellow eyes flaring brighter for a moment.  “It does.  But I’m not defenseless, and I suspect our human neighbors will either wait before trying another stunt like the one on the trade road or consider another way to foil this alliance.”

Ildiko hoped those neighbors would choose the second option or just accept the reality of trade and alliance between the Kai and the Gauri.  While she’d enjoy self-imposed banishment with Brishen at her side, she didn’t fancy doing so while under siege by the Beladine kingdom.

She finished her wine and rose to set the empty goblet on the table.  “Will Anhuset accompany us?”  She smiled at his nod.  “Good.  I very much like her.”

A knock at the door halted any further conversation.  Brishen bade their visitor enter.  A Kai man dressed in livery, hovered just inside the doorway, shadowed by two women.  All three bowed, and the man spoke.

“Your Highness, His Majesty wishes for you to meet him in the council chamber.”  He said more, but Ildiko’s understanding of the Kai language was not extensive enough to parse out everything.

Brishen nodded and stood.  “Speaking of Belawat, my father will want to know more about the attack on the trade road.”  He reached for her hand and kissed her fingertips, his touch cool and soft on her skin.

The king’s messenger stood to the side so the women behind him could enter the room.  Ildiko rose from her chair to stand by Brishen.  The women were also dressed in the garb of palace servants.  One looked older than the other by a decade, and both were young.  While the elder one tried not to gawk at Ildiko, the younger servant ignored her, her lamplight eyes trained solely on Brishen who returned her stare with a like intensity.

“I’ve seen you in memory,” he said gently in the Common tongue.  “Are you Talumey’s kin?”

The girl’s still features crumpled.  She fell to her knees before Brishen who frowned.  “His sister, Your Highness.  Kirgipa.  Sha-Anhuset sent word of the fallen.  You have honored our family.  That a prince would carry Talumey’s mortem light...”

Brishen interrupted her with a hand on her arm.  “Stand up, Kirgipa.”  He coaxed her to her feet.  His frown had eased but not the sorrow in the downturn of his mouth.  “It would have been a better thing had I returned him to your mother alive and unharmed.  It’s he who honors your family.  He was a good soldier and fought bravely.”

Kirgipa’s chin quivered and Ildiko wondered if the Kai shed tears as humans did when they mourned.  The servant bowed to Brishen and then to her before returning to her place next to the older woman.

Brishen turned to the king’s messenger waiting patiently by the door.  “Send another message to Kirgipa’s mother.  I’ll arrive tomorrow with her son’s mortem light.”  He turned to Ildiko.  “Do you wish to accompany me?  We’d go tonight, but there’s no escaping the celebration feast without unleashing the queen’s wrath on everyone involved in our absence.”

Ildiko gave an involuntary shiver at the thought of Secmis’s retribution.  She glanced at Kirgipa before easing closer to Brishen so only he could hear her.  “Are you certain?  I’m an outlander here, Brishen, and this is Kai business in both flesh and spirit.”

His black eyebrows snapped together in a scowl, surprising Ildiko.  “You are first and foremost of the royal house of Khaskhem.  There is no place barred to you except by the will of Djedor and Secmis.”

Were they alone, she might have smoothed the line bisecting the space between his eyebrows.  Instead, Ildiko limited her touch to a brief caress of his arm.  She didn’t miss the watchful stares of the nearby servants or the looks exchanged between them.

“This isn’t a matter of rank and access, Brishen, but of discretion.  Would a woman mourning the loss of her son welcome a stranger to witness it, especially one who’d draw the attention I will?”

Brishen still scowled, and his eyes glowed a little brighter.  “What would you do in her place?”

She shrugged.  “When I lost my parents, I found no comfort in the sympathies of strangers, but each person is different.  And I am neither Kai nor a mother—two roles in which I have no experience.”

He eyed her for a moment.  “Will you go for my sake?”

“Yes,” she said without hesitation.

Obviously pleased with her answer, Brishen bowed and turned back to the messenger.  “Let’s get this over with so I may return to my wife.”  He paused and turned back to Ildiko before stepping into the hallway.  “The chamber next door is mine.  You’re welcome to explore it.”  He winked at her.  “Much to my family’s disgust, I’m a man of few secrets.”

He disappeared into the corridor, closing the door behind him and leaving Ildiko alone with the two Kai women.

The silence grew awkward as Ildiko considered what to say.  “I am still learning your language,” she said.  Both women shifted in place, and Ildiko congratulated herself on learning how to better read her adopted people’s expressions.  She’d definitely seen surprise cross the servants’ features at her uttering Kai words.

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