Radiance (Wraith Kings #1)(16) by Grace Draven

“From what I can tell, your Common is better than my bast-Kai, so why don’t we start with Common, and you can teach me words in your tongue as we converse.”

They nodded in unison, and the three began a stilted dialogue between them as they helped Ildiko unpack some of her trunks and instructed other servants for where to place the tub brought in for a bath.  Ildiko already knew Kirgipa’s name and learned the other woman was Sinhue.

During her journey from Pricid to Haradis, Ildiko had grown used to the stares of the Kai, sometimes curious, other times revolted.  Sinhue’s and Kirgipa’s didn’t bother her, and they would be nothing compared to what she’d face at the welcoming celebration later—where she’d likely feel anything but welcomed.

Except for a few smothered exclamations when Ildiko disrobed and stepped into her bath, the two servants were circumspect, civil and helpful.  Ildiko fancied she even heard a note of approval in Sinhue’s voice when she agreed that wearing Kai garb instead of Gauri to the celebration feast was a good idea.

During her preparations, she heard movement and rustlings next door.  Brishen must have returned from council with his father and, like her, prepared for the upcoming festivities.  He confirmed that assumption when he knocked on her door and entered at her bidding.

No longer dressed in riding leathers and light armor, Brishen had changed into garb even more formal than he’d worn at their wedding in Pricid.

A wide-sleeved tunic with a high collar covered most of a tight fitting shirt and trousers, all in varying shades of black and forest green embroidered silk.  Tiny beads threaded through twin braids were woven into his black hair.  Except for the braids, he wore his hair loose, and it spilled over his shoulders, dark as a crow’s wing.

Being in each other’s constant company during the journey to Haradis had changed the way Ildiko saw him—tempered her perception of his otherness.  His toothy smile still startled her as much as her eyes unnerved him, but she began to understand why Kai women found her husband attractive.

He hadn’t abandoned his martial adornment entirely.  A wide belt of thick leather decorated with brass studs cinched the tunic close to his narrow waist.  Anyone interested in sliding a knife under his ribs would find it a difficult task getting through the leather for a lethal thrust.  The belt sported a large ring sewn to the leather, and from that Brishen had tied his court sword.  It rested against his hip, companion to the daggers tucked into the tops of his boots.  Ildiko guessed he probably bristled with weaponry; these were just the ones she could see.

“Are we going to war or to a feast?” she teased.

“This is Djedor’s court, hercegesé,” he said.  “They’re often one and the same.”

While Ildiko knew he teased her in return, his remark sent her stomach into a nervous tumble.  She wasn’t one to partake heavily of wine or ale, but she hoped both ran freely during this meal, otherwise her hands might shake so badly she’d stab herself with her own eating dagger.

She quickly discovered her husband was learning to read her expressions just as she was learning to read his.  He stepped closer and bent to whisper in her ear.  “Peace, Ildiko.  It won’t be so bad.  And I’ll paint the walls with Kai blood if any dare threaten you.”

Brishen meant his declaration as an assurance, but Ildiko shuddered.  He was fiercely protective of her, and for that she was grateful.  Still, she hoped they could get through this dinner without a decapitation or dismemberment.

He stepped away and scrutinized her with a glowing gaze.  “I hadn’t expected this,” he said.

While Brishen met in council with the king, Ildiko had readied for the feast.  When her new servants laid out the gowns she’d brought from home across her bed, she’d given a disapproving cluck.  “I should have had the forethought to have clothing made that a Kai woman would wear.”  A new gown or headdress wouldn’t make her any more Kai or any less Gauri, but adopting their fashion might demonstrate her willingness to embrace Kai culture.

At her complaint, Sinhue had bowed and fled the room, startling both Ildiko and Kirgipa.  The servant returned with two Kai men who dragged a large chest through the door and shoved it against one wall.  When they left, Sinhue lifted the chest lid and motioned for Ildiko to come closer.

Ildiko gasped at the sight of lush fabrics stacked on top of each other—muted greens and golds mingled with bronzes and blacks as deep as serpent blood.  Splashes of jewel-toned amaranthine and cobalt shone amidst the darker colors.

She knelt beside Sinhue and plunged her hands into the treasure trove, pulling out scarves and silky trousers, embroidered tunics heavy with gold thread and jeweled girdles woven and draped with gold chains more delicate than spider webs.  “It’s all so beautiful.”

Sinhue’s wide grin spiked the fine hairs on Ildiko’s nape.  “His Highness ordered them before he left for your homeland, Hercegesé.  They’re for you.  We were instructed to leave them packed until you chose a time to wear them.”

Ildiko sputtered, still awestruck by the chest’s contents.  They were finer than anything even Queen Fantine wore during feasts held for affairs of state.  Her own wedding apparel had been beggars’ rags compared to these clothes.  “Now is a good time,” she said.

Two hours and the enthusiastic efforts of her maids to lace her, cinch her, and tame her hair, and Ildiko stood before Brishen dressed as Kai royalty.  Of the many times she wished she could easily read Kai expressions, she had never wished more fervently for that skill than now.

She was dressed similar to Brishen—long tunic with wide sleeves over a tighter fitting shirt.  Her tunic was longer than his and cut so that it gave the illusions of a skirt but with far greater freedom of movement than a skirt allowed.  She wore trousers as well beneath the tunic, their ankle cuffs tucked into laced boots that reached to her calves.  The girdle encircling her waist was as wide as his belt but made of fabric in which rubies no bigger than peppercorns had been stitched and gleamed like small demon eyes in the dim light.

Despite Sinhue’s and Kirgipa’s polite but insistent suggestions that another color might suit her better, Ildiko had chosen to dress all in black.  Everything she wore tonight, down to the combs in her hair, had to send a silent message.  Wearing the fashions favored by the Kai signaled her willingness to accept her adopted people.  Dressing in a color that starkly emphasized her skin and hair signaled she was still Gauri human and unashamed of the fact.

“What do you think,” she asked Brishen and pivoted in a slow circle.  “Will this do?”

He stood before her, silent for several long moments.  Ildiko’s palms grew damp, and behind Brishen the servant women crushed their skirts in their hands, apprehension plain in their pale-knuckled grips.

Brishen reached for her hand and tugged until she stood close enough to feel his body heat.  His hand rested lightly on her back, fingertips tracing the upper line of her girdle.  “You’re very clever, wife and have a talent for saying much while saying little.”  The lines at the corners of his eyes deepened, and the corners of his mouth turned up.  “This will more than do.”

Something flared between them, a sense of camaraderie, of belonging.  For a brief moment, Ildiko felt as if she and Brishen stood alone in this chamber, bound together not only by vows but by similarities far greater than their obvious differences.  Brishen of House Khaskhem was as fine a man as any born, whether he was human, Kai or any of the other Elder races that populated these lands, and Ildiko’s affection for him grew by leaps with every moment she came to know him better.

“You make a very handsome dead eel, my husband,” she said and winked.  Sinhue and Kirgipa both gasped.

“For a boiled mollusk, you wear black quite well, my wife,” Brishen shot back, and his smile stretched a little wider.

More gasps, and Ildiko caught sight of the two maids gaping at them slack-jawed at the exchange of insults.

The sudden knock at the door made both women jump.  Kirgipa was the first to answer and held the door open as a procession of servants carrying a small table and covered trays entered.  They set the table near the hearth and placed their burdens on its surface.  Plates, knives and linen sanaps were set on the smaller table between the two chairs facing the hearth, and one poured more wine into the goblets she and Brishen had drank from earlier.

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