Radiance (Wraith Kings #1)(3) by Grace Draven

Brishen scoffed at the idea.  “Hardly.”  He’d never lacked female company, and his people thought him well-favored.  Certainly nothing as wretched as a sun spirit.  He slid the hood back to his shoulders.

The woman’s eyes rounded.  She inhaled a harsh breath and clasped one hand to her chest.  Her mollusk skin went a far more attractive shade of ash.  She remained silent and stared at him until he raised a hand in question.  “Well?”

She exhaled slowly.  The space between her eyebrows stitched into a single vertical frown line.  “Had you crawled out from under my bed when I was a child, I would have bludgeoned you to death with my father’s mace.”

Brishen rocked back on the bench and howled.  When he finished and wiped the tears from his eyes, the woman was staring at him with her horse-toothed smile in place.  He cleared his throat.  “I don’t know whether that’s a testament to my looks or to your penchant for violence.”

“The first.  If you visited me, I’d have to cover all the mirrors in my house or replace a lot of cracked glass.  You could put a pack of wolves to shame with those teeth.”

He snapped his teeth together in a feral grin.  She didn’t draw away from him.  “At least I have all my teeth, which is more than I can say for a lot of the Gauri men—and women.  Besides, I’d rather look like I can bay instead of whinny.”

They laughed together then until the woman’s features turned somber.  “Thank you for not lying about what you thought of my appearance.  You might have a face to turn my hair white, but your honesty is handsome.”

She charmed and fascinated him, and Brishen wished he had the leisure to know her better.  But there was no time.  He married at dusk when both human and Kai eyes could see each other clearly and recoil at the sight.

Voices in the distance carried across the green lawn and into the oak’s shaded sanctuary.  The woman rose and scraped her hands across the imaginary wrinkles in her skirts.  “I have to go.  I am missed.”

Brishen rose as well and captured her hand, surprised at its warmth when he had expected cold, flaccid flesh.  She didn’t try to break free of his clasp as he lifted her fingers and brushed his lips over her knuckles.  “I have enjoyed our chance meeting, madam.”  He released her and bowed.

She returned a brief curtsey and a last smile.  “As have I, sir.  You have lessened my worries.  We’ll meet again.”  She turned and hurried toward the voices growing ever closer.

He might glimpse her at the wedding, but there would be no chance for a second conversation.  Brishen called after her.  “What is your name?”

Her voice drifted back on a hot breeze, raising his suspicions and his hope.  “Ildiko.  I am Ildiko.”  She disappeared behind a hedgerow.

Brishen stared at the path she’d taken, her figure no longer visible.  Surely, his luck did not run this true.  His Gauri bride was named Ildiko.

CHAPTER THREE

“You make a passable bride, Ildiko and will adequately fulfill your duty to the kingdom and our family.”  Queen Fantine sniffed as she cast a critical eye over her niece’s appearance.  “And don’t forget that duty extends to the bedchamber.  It doesn’t matter that he’s practically a hobgoblin.  You’re not to jeopardize this alliance by denying your new husband.”

Ildiko clenched her jaw so hard her temples throbbed.  Her aunt had repeated this same admonishment so many times, Ildiko could recite it in her sleep.  If she said it one more time, Fantine would find herself chewing on a mouthful of one of Ildiko’s beaded slippers.

A soft rap on the receiving room door drew the queen’s attention away from her.  “Enter,” she called out.

The door cracked open, admitting a wide-eyed court page.  To Ildiko, he looked as if he’d eaten a dozen lemons whole.  He bowed to Fantine.  “Your Majesty, His Royal Highness, Brishen Khaskhem of Bast-Haradis wishes to speak with the Lady Ildiko.”  He paused.  “Alone.”

Ildiko’s annoyance became trepidation.  She laced her fingers together to hide their trembling and turned to fully face the door.  Beside her, Fantine bristled in outrage.

“I think not.  It violates all customs and proper conduct.  He can speak to her after the marriage is proclaimed official.  The wedding is in less than half an hour anyway.  He can wait.”

A gray hand tipped with pointed nails curled over the page’s shoulder.  The man gave a yelp and leapt to the side, leaving space for a cloaked figure to stride through the opening.  The queen and the attendants gasped as one.  All but Fantine dropped into curtsies as the Kai prince bowed respectfully before her.

“Your Majesty, I beg your indulgence.  A private moment with my bride, please.”

Ildiko wobbled in her curtsey.  That voice!  She recognized that voice.  The cloak was different than the one he’d worn in the garden—still muted tones of black and gray but lavishly embroidered and cut more for ceremonial use than everyday wear.  Amongst the vibrant roses, he’d been a shadow.  Here in the receiving room, backlit by the western sun’s fiery descent, he was a featureless silhouette.

She straightened to stand silent and impassive next to Fantine.  The queen scowled, her expression carving meandering rills into the pale mask of her face paint.  “This is improper, sir, prince or not.  Can’t it wait?”

Ildiko slid a surprised glance to her aunt.  That Fantine wouldn’t just order the Kai prince to leave at once spoke volumes.  She might counsel her niece to death on duty and the importance of this alliance, but she was no hypocrite.  She wouldn’t jeopardize it either and afforded Brishen an unusual leniency with her question.

The prince obviously knew he held the upper hand.  “No, Your Majesty; it cannot.  I ask only a little of her ladyship’s time.”

“You will be late for your own wedding,” Fantine cautioned.

“I assure you, we will not.”  Brishen remained exquisitely polite and steadfastly determined.

The queen’s eyes narrowed.  She shot a warning look at Ildiko who had no trouble interpreting its message.  Watch your tongue.  Ildiko nodded.  Fantine motioned to the maids who lined up behind her like infantry.  “You have a quarter hour.  No more.”

She swept out of the room on a tide of dignified annoyance.  The maid last in line turned, gave Ildiko a pitying glance, and closed the door behind her.

As soon as they were gone, Ildiko broke into a smile.  “It’s you.”  She didn’t bother hiding the relief in her voice.

The prince closed the distance between them and pulled back his hood, once more revealing lamplight yellow eyes set deep in their sockets, sharp-boned features cast in shades of slate, and a toothy smile that made her lock her knees against the urge to leap away from him.  He reached for her hand.  Ildiko didn’t hesitate and placed her palm in his, still startled by the unexpected warmth of his skin.  If she closed her eyes, she could easily imagine his touch as that of a Gauri suitor’s.  He brushed his lips lightly across her knuckles a second time and released her.

“Are you disappointed?”  That lambent gaze gave nothing away other than a hard squint as a shaft of sunlight speared a window and glanced along his profile.

Ildiko led him to a dimmer part of the chamber where candles provided a gentler light.  “Relieved, not disappointed.”  She gestured to a nearby table holding glasses and a decanter of wine.  “Can I offer you a drink?”

Brishen shook his head, the tiny braids woven into his long black hair swinging with the movement.  He shrugged his cloak off his shoulders so that it draped down his back.  The motion revealed ceremonial armor of blued plate over layers of rust and brown silk.  A sheathed sword hung at his hip.  Like those of his kin who guested in the castle, he was tall and lithe, every movement an exercise in grace and economy.

Ildiko tilted her head to one side.  “You knew I was your intended before you came here, didn’t you?  How?”

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