Radiance (Wraith Kings #1)(4) by Grace Draven

His eyebrows arched.  “You gave me your name when I asked.  Remember?”

“There are several Ildikos living here.  It’s a common enough name.  I could have easily been a servant.”

Brishen chuckled and pointed at her.  “In that fine gown?  Hardly.”  He flashed his fanged smile.  Ildiko didn’t lock her knees this time.  “I just knew.  Call it instinct.”  He snapped his fingers with a click of nails.  “Or Kai magic.  We’re all born with a touch of it, you know.”

She shook her head, her own lightheartedness giving way to worry.  “No, I didn’t know.  I know very little about those who will become my people once we’re married.”

He stared at her for a silent moment.  Owl’s eyes, she thought.  He and his folk had the eyes of nocturnal hunters, but without pupils, just the glowing luminosity that mesmerized her like a mouse.

“I will teach you,” he said.

She blinked, startled out of her stupor by his reply and completely forgetting the thread of conversation.  “Teach me what?”

He had thin lips with a natural downturn emphasized by diagonal grooves on either side of his mouth.  It gave him a grim look, except when he smiled, which he did now.  “About the Kai.  If you wish to learn, I will teach you.  Far better than any wrong-headed Gauri book written about us.”

A wash of relief poured through her, along with a kindling of hope.  Her bridegroom wasn’t Gauri; he wasn’t even human.  He was, however, congenial and gracious.  She had proclaimed his appearance ghastly and his honesty handsome.  Ildiko still stood by both opinions.  She could have done infinitely worse.  More than a few Gauri women had the misfortune to marry human men with handsome faces and ghastly souls.

“That’s generous of you.  I intend to hold you to your offer,” she said.  Her curiosity about his visit remained.  “I’ve led you astray from your purpose.  What did you wish to speak with me about?”

Brishen clasped his hands behind his back, and Ildiko had the distinct impression he braced himself to approach an uncomfortable subject.  “My question is a delicate one, and I mean no insult by its bluntness.  Have you thought of the consummation?”

Ildiko’s stomach undulated against her ribs.  She fought down a mortified blush and sought to disguise it by a disdainful rolling of her eyes.  Brishen took a quick step back.  “Everyone has been thinking of the consummation,” she said.  “I can hardly escape all the well-meaning advice, sympathetic pats on the arm, and suggestions for various tricks to employ for how to lie back and think of duty to king and country.”  She gave him a wry smile.  “The most popular advice is to make sure the room is so dark I won’t be able to see my hand—or yours for that matter—in front of my face.”

Brishen’s shout of laughter echoed throughout the room before he clamped down on his mirth and settled for a wide grin and luminous eyes that glistened.  “I’ve been told something similar, only we should consummate at noon, when I’ll be virtually blind.”

Ildiko’s muffled her own laughter behind her hand.  “May the winged god Bursin save us from so much helpful guidance.”

The laughter faded but their smiles remained.  Brishen’s thinned a little.  “What do you want to do, Ildiko?”

He had asked a question Ildiko thought she’d never hear in her lifetime.  No one ever asked her what she wanted; they only told her what she was to do and say.  For a moment she was struck dumb.  He waited patiently as she gathered her thoughts.  “May I be honest, Your Highness?”

He snorted.  “In private, call me Brishen.  It’s a decent enough name.”

“It’s a fine name.  Were you actually born during a rainstorm?”  Though he didn’t seem as volatile or violent as a storm, his name fit him.  Ildiko suspected his easy nature cloaked a character as strong as crucible steel.

Brishen nodded.  “You’re leading me astray again, Ildiko.  To answer your first question, yes.  I not only desire your honesty, I demand it.”  He shrugged.  “Besides, I think it a little late to tiptoe around each other, don’t you?  I’ve called you hideous, and you’ve expressed your opinion of my looks by declaring them worthy of a skull-crushing.  I doubt we’ll offend each other’s vanity at this point.  Speak your mind.”

Ildiko placed her faith in his reasoning and said “I like you, Brishen, but can we delay the bedding?  It’s not even necessary, really.  I can’t bear you children, and I’m told the Kai royal line is secure.  You have how many nephews?”  She clasped her hands so tightly together that the beds of her fingernails went white.

“A veritable litter.  Six at last count.”  Brishen bowed.  “I accede to your wishes, madam.”

Ildiko forgot propriety, dignity and all reserve.  She lunged at Brishen and wrapped her arms around his neck in a tight embrace.  He went rigid in her hold; she didn’t care.  “Thank you!”  She gave him a quick peck on the cheek and let him go before he could either free himself or hold her to him.

He inclined his head as another small smile curved his mouth.  “Believe me when I say it is I who should be thanking you.”

Ildiko returned his smile, then followed his gaze as it drifted past her shoulder and caught.  She turned and saw the full length mirror standing in the last rays of afternoon sun.  Brishen came to stand beside her and the two stared at their reflections amidst a fine shimmer of golden dust—red-haired Gauri woman and glowing-eyed Kai prince.

Brishen addressed their images.  “We’ll manage well enough together, Ildiko of Gaur.”

She briefly touched his shoulder.  “I believe you, Brishen of Bast-Haradis.”

A hard pounding on the door warned them their private meeting was over.  Brishen presented his arm to Ildiko.  “Ready to get shackled, madam?”

She rested her hand in the crook of his elbow.  “Try not to smile too widely, Your Highness.  You’ll scare the children in the crowd.”

CHAPTER FOUR

Brishen glanced at his new wife who slouched in the saddle as she rode beside him.   They traveled with a party of two dozen Kai toward Bast-Haradis’s eastern borders and the capital of Haradis.  A half moon, scudded by fast-moving clouds, glimmered above them.  Ildiko’s hair shone gray instead of red in the moonlight, her face wan and drawn from lack of sleep.

He’d tried to coax her into the small wagon that held a pallet and supplies so she could sleep during the journey.  She flatly refused.  “Your days are to be mine now.  I need to adjust as soon as possible.”  She’d punctuated that declaration with a successive trio of yawns.

Brishen wagered she wouldn’t make it to dawn but had a horse readied for her anyway.  He, his bride, and his fellow Kai had taken to the road right after the wedding banquet ended.

Of the many weddings Brishen had attended during his lifetime, his had been the most ridiculous.  The ceremony itself had been a proclamation of unification.  Judging by the crowd’s reaction—both Gauri and Kai—it might as well been a declaration of war.  Hands had gone to sword pommels on both sides, and each group watched the other, at the ready to hurl themselves across the flower-strewn aisle and cross blades.  His kin were easily outnumbered by Gauri court warriors twenty to one.  Numbers alone guaranteed that if such a fight broke out, it would be bloody but also brief.

Considering the Gauri had pursued this alliance with zeal, and the Kai had accepted with enthusiasm, he could only guess that such an acrimonious response to his union with Ildiko had been the gut reaction of two peoples who knew very little of each other and resented giving up one of their own to those they found loathsome.

He might not be able to read expression in her ghoulish eyes, but he had no trouble interpreting the worry lines creasing his bride’s brow.  He didn’t automatically flinch this time when she glanced at him.  “Bursin’s wings, Brishen.  We’ll never get through the banquet without the spilling of blood.”

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