Radiance (Wraith Kings #1)(5) by Grace Draven

She was right, and he wracked his brain for a way to defuse the tense situation.  The air thickened to a simmering broth of hostility when the Gauri bishops proclaimed their union blessed and final.  Brishen took both of Ildiko’s hands, leaned forward and pressed a soft kiss to her cheek.  She might have mollusk-pink skin, but she was warm and smelled of temple incense.  He stepped back and flashed a quick grin.

Her hands jerked in his grasp before she arched an eyebrow.  “Wolf,” she said softly.

“Horse,” he replied just as quietly.

Ildiko’s lips twitched before she finally gave in and let loose a peal of laughter.  The sound was magic, more powerful than any sorcerer’s spell, more startling than the roll of a Gauri’s eyes.  Both the Gauri court and the much smaller Kai contingent visibly relaxed.  Hands dropped from pommels, stiff shoulders relaxed and nearly everyone stared at the newly wedded couple as if they were mad.

Brishen took her in his arms and squeezed her until she squeaked.   “Well done, princess,” he whispered in her ear.  “Well done.”

The threat of a brawl still lingered, despite the obvious mutual acceptance between bride and groom.  Brishen shuddered in the saddle as he recalled the banquet.

Until then, he and his fellow Kai had eaten dishes prepared by a Kai cook Brishen’s mother insisted they take with them.  The Gauri royal family had willingly offered a portion of the sprawling kitchens so the Kai chef could prepare meals for his people.  Brishen had thought it a wagonload of pretentious nonsense and the complaints from his people about Gauri food juvenile rants until he caught his first whiff of a Gauri dinner being prepared and almost retched.  His cousin, Anhuset, had cast him a self-satisfied smirk.  “I told you,” she said in a smug voice.

Oh, how right she had been.  At the banquet, he’d sat beside Ildiko through interminable and insincere toasts of happiness to the couple.  The wine and ale at least had been exceptional.  The food was another matter.

There had been a moment prior to the wedding when he’d feared a revolt from his kinsmen and a possible hericide.  He’d gathered the members of his entourage in his guest chambers for an impromptu meeting.

“We need to show good faith toward our hosts.  We’ll eat what they prepare at the dinner following the wedding.”

There had been hisses and cries of protest from every Kai.  Anhuset’s lip curled in disgust.  “Have you seen the food these people eat?  If it isn’t already refuse, the way they prepare it turns it into refuse.  I wouldn’t feed it to a starved mongrel.”

Brishen didn’t budge.  “Someone rip out your backbones while you waited for me to arrive?” he snapped.  That had silenced them all.  “It’s one meal.  You’re Kai warriors, war-trained and battle-tested.  You can choke down a bowl of their soup and smile.”

“The first time I smiled at a Gauri nobleman, I think he pissed himself.”  Anhuset’s comment heralded muffled laughter.  She inclined her head toward Brishen.  “You are our lord and prince.  We follow you.”

Brishen had narrowed his eyes at her.  A challenge cloaked in obeisance.  They followed him.  That meant they expected him to be the first to try every dish before they did.  As their leader, it was a foregone conclusion.  The role of leadership carried the burden of setting an example; he’d never turned away from that expectation.

He heartily regretted the idea the moment a servant placed a steaming plate of brown ooze accompanied by something that reminded him of a small frozen horse dropping.  Ildiko sat next to him at the high table.  She leaned close to whisper in his ear.

“It’s a stew made with the king’s own herd of cattle.”  She pointed to the brown thing.  “That is a potato.  Watch.”

Ildiko split her own potato thing lengthwise, revealing two smoking slabs of pale inner flesh.  The smell wafting to his nostrils made him think of wet dirt.  She used her fork to eviscerate it into a heap of glistening mush.  He was sure he just witnessed the brutal mutilation of a giant cooked larva.  Brishen made a low choking sound and gripped the arms of his chair when she forked a small mound into her mouth.

His kinsmen watched him from their places at the lower tables, their plates untouched as they waited for him to follow his own edict.  He took several shallow breaths, followed Ildiko’s lead, butchered the larva-potato and took a hesitant bite.

Grainy, soft and tasteless, it sat on his tongue, swelling in his mouth until he thought he’d gag.  Once more Ildiko leaned close.

“Brishen, there will be a riot if you spit it out.”

He clamped his lips tightly closed and swallowed.  There wasn’t enough wine or ale in the world to kill the revolting smear coating his tongue, but he drained his goblet and Ildiko’s before signaling a servant for more.  The Kai continued to watch him, and he glared at every one of them until they picked up their own utensils and braved their potatoes.

Their reactions mirrored his.  He’d have to sleep with one eye open and his hand wrapped around a dagger for the next fortnight or find one rammed between his shoulders in revenge.  A tug on his sleeve made him turn his attention back to Ildiko.

“I’m sorry, Brishen.  Is it that bad?”  He heard the sympathy in her voice and patted her hand to reassure her.  Bad was an understatement, but he shook his head and lied through his fangs.  “No.  I’ve dealt with worse.”

He’d eat those words as well over the next three torturous hours.  The stew had been as vile as the potato, but neither compared to the following courses of perfectly good eels ruined as they curled in a gelatinous mold studded green with herbs, guinea fowl roasted and seasoned with some concoction that convinced him the royal cook wasn’t a cook but a necromancer who ground the bones of the dead and mixed them with the pepper.  The cheese plate almost did him in, and he had to ask Ildiko twice if the ones speckled a greenish-blue weren’t actually bits and pieces of fermented corpse.  Her explanation of how the cheese was made had him wishing they’d served fermented corpse instead.

He persevered and choked down some of everything, each bite followed by a generous swallow of wine.  His kinsmen did as Anhuset promised and ate their servings, murder in their eyes as they glared at him over the rims of their goblets.

His fervent prayers to every god who might listen were answered when King Sangur declared the banquet finished and made a final toast.  There was no dancing to follow.  Any other time, and Brishen would have been disappointed.  The Kai loved to dance.  Every celebration had dancing, and it wasn’t at all unusual for the celebrants to dance until they collapsed from exhaustion.

Now he was just thankful he didn’t have to do more than rise and escort his new wife out of the room to the bridal chamber prepared for them.  His stomach roiled, hating him as much as his fellow Kai did at the moment.

Ildiko squeezed his hand as the Gauri maids waited to divest her of her gown.  She waved them off and turned to him.  “There’s no reason to stay any longer in Pricid, Brishen.  I have no quarrel if you wish to leave tonight.”

His ugly, great-hearted bride could obviously read his thoughts.  He cupped her face with his hands and kissed her forehead.  “Are you sure, Ildiko?  Don’t you wish to tell your family goodbye?”

She plucked at his sleeve, and her mouth curved down.  Grief.  An old grief.  Brishen was learning to read his wife’s expressions the way she read his thoughts.  “I said goodbye to my family when I prayed at my parents’ tombs.  There’s no reason for me to linger here.”

With that, he left her to have the servants gather those things she’d already packed and load them into the wagon that would accompany them to Haradis.  He found the rest of the Kai gathered in a small courtyard, sharing pitchers of wine between them.

They rose together at his entrance and bowed.  Anhuset approached him.

“I hate you,” she said.

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