Radiance (Wraith Kings #1)(7) by Grace Draven

Ildiko pivoted on her heel to flee in the opposite direction.  She never got the chance.  A draft of air buffeted the side of her face and fluttered strands of her hair.  A dull crack sounded behind her, and she turned to watch her stalker fall to his knees, an axe blade sunk deep in his forehead.  His eyes were wide—fixed—as if he didn’t quite believe Death had found him so suddenly, before he fell backward and lay still in the dirt.

Ildiko whipped around to find Brishen running toward her.  He grabbed her one-armed around the waist and lifted her off her feet, never breaking stride as he ran for safety.  “Not the wedding present I intended for you, wife,” he said on shortened breaths.  “I’ll make it up to you later.”

CHAPTER SIX

They lost only three in the attack.  Brishen considered it three too many, and the sorrow over their deaths weighed heavily on his mind.  The first, Kroshag, had been the middle son of the royal family’s steward and one of the first to volunteer under Brishen’s command.  Neima, the second to fall beneath a fatal arrow shot, had obsessed all the way from Haradis to Pricid over the challenge of dowering twin daughters.  Her children would marry without their mother’s presence now.

Brishen grieved hardest for Talumey.  Young, eager to show his worth, loyal to a fault, he’d nearly turned himself inside out with excitement at being chosen as part of the prince’s personal escort to the Gauri capital.  Brishen promised himself he’d personally deliver Talumey’s mortem light to his mother.

He abandoned his melancholy thoughts when Anhuset approached him.  The spread of a blinding dawn backlit her form and bathed the dead behind her in citrine light.

Anhuset’s mouth was set in a tight line, and she stared at him with narrowed eyes.  Brishen leapt back, shocked when she fell to her knees before him.  The activity in the road camp ceased.  All fell silent.

She bowed her head and offered her sword to him with both hands.  “I have failed you, Your Highness.  My life is forfeit as is my mortem light.”  She spoke to the ground in a voice thick with shame.

Brishen gaped at her.  “What are you talking about?”

Anhuset’s head remained bowed, the sword still offered.  “I was tasked to protect the hercegesé.  I failed.  Were it not for you, she’d be dead.”

Brishen scowled.  His cousin had obviously tapped into the small cask of spirits stowed away on the supply wagon; otherwise he couldn’t fathom how she’d arrived at such a ridiculous conclusion.  He had been the one who saved Ildiko from her attacker, but through no fault of Anhuset’s.  She was a fighter of exceptional prowess, respected throughout their military forces for her bravery and her skill, but she was not the goddess of war.

She and the two Kai who guarded Ildiko at the wagon had been overwhelmed by the number of bandits attacking them.  They’d fought hard and fought well but were heavily outnumbered.  There was no way Anhuset could have spotted the man sneaking under the wagon without turning her back on her opponents and having her head separated from her shoulders for the effort.

He stared down at her, noting the way her silvery hair shimmered with the light of the sun instead of the moon.  He turned and found Ildiko a small distance from him, sitting on a tree stump, heavy-eyed and slumped with fatigue.  A guard of grim-faced Kai surrounded her, weapons drawn and at the ready.

“Ildiko.”  She raised her head wearily.  “Come here, please,” he said in Common tongue.

She rose, dusted off her skirts and joined him in front of the kneeling Anhuset.  She frowned as heavily at the sight as he had.  “What’s wrong?”

He gestured to Anhuset who still refused to look up from the ground.  “My lieutenant wishes for me to execute her for failing to protect you.”

“What?”

Brishen didn’t need to understand all the finer subtleties of Gauri expressions.  Ildiko’s exclamation was telling enough.  She was aghast at the idea.  He had no intention of killing his cousin, especially for a nonexistent offense, and his was the final word in the matter.  Still, Kai protocol demanded his role in Anhuset’s fate be a secondary, albeit final one.

Ildiko sputtered, her peculiar gaze flitting back and forth between him and the silent Anhuset.  “That’s just sil—”  She clamped her lips closed before she completed the word, for which Brishen was thankful.  He agreed with his wife that Anhuset’s request was silly, but his cousin’s pride was great, and he’d seen her shoulders stiffen at Ildiko’s shuttered remark.

“Anhuset believes she has failed in her duty to me by not protecting you from the man who found you beneath the wagon.”  Brishen kept his voice and expression bland.  “However, the alleged offense isn’t against me.  You are the one most affected by her actions.  What say you?  Do you perceive insult and wish for punishment?”

Ildiko’s eyebrows arched, and she tilted her head in such a way that he easily translated her silent Are you serious about this?  He nodded, and she rolled her eyes.  A mass shudder rippled through every Kai witnessing the exchange between them.

Ildiko paused for several moments before speaking.  “I find no offense.  She did her duty and protected me from those who meant us all harm.  There were many bandits; there was only one Anhuset.”  She flashed an equine smile.  “Who fought better than three Gauri.”

Murmurs of approval and agreement rose amongst the Kai.  Anhuset stood, her chin raised.  Brishen caught the glimmer of growing respect in his cousin’s eyes.  She nudged her sword toward Ildiko.  “I still offer you my sword, Your Highness.”

Ildiko waved it away.  “I’m honored, but that would be a waste of good steel.  You can certainly put it to better use than I could.  I’d likely slice off one of my fingers or toes.  Keep it for when you have to act my guard again.”

Brishen struggled not to grin or pull his wife into her arms.  Skilled as any seasoned diplomat with her words but better than one because she spoke them with sincerity.  She had just paid Anhuset the highest compliment by offering her trust in her ability to protect her in the future.

Anhuset’s haughty features flushed perse-blue with pleasure before she scowled into the distance.  She returned the sword to its sheath and bowed low to both Brishen and Ildiko.  “I’ll coordinate the rest of the camp set-up.  By your leave, Highnesses.”  At Brishen’s nod, she strode away, bellowing orders to get to work, remove the dead, raise tents and set up guard perimeters.

Brishen bent his head as Ildiko leaned close and whispered, “How badly did I muck that up?”

He turned to her fully.  Exhaustion had painted the skin around her eyes a lovely dusky shade.  Whether or not she was beautiful to humans and ugly to the Kai, she had a good mind and a spirit he was growing to admire with every passing second.  “I think you missed your calling, wife.  You would have made a fine ambassador.”

She blinked slowly.  “I’m surprised I didn’t speak pure gibberish.  I’m so sleepy, I can hardly talk.”

She gave a half-hearted protest when Brishen caught her at the back and knees and lifted her in his arms.  “Be quiet,” he admonished her gently.  “You’ve been awake too long.  As have I.”  He deposited her back on her tree stump and ordered a nearby soldier to bring a saddle and blanket.  They had a comfortable backrest set up in no time.  Ildiko reclined against it with an appreciative sigh.  She was sound asleep before Brishen covered her in another light blanket.

He was tired as well.  Except for a few minutes here and there, he hadn’t slept in Pricid since he arrived three days earlier.  Luckily, Mertok’s cavalry had arrived—not only to help them vanquish their foes but also to offer relief so Brishen and his entourage could rest for a few hours.

The rising sun half blinded him, and he squinted as the cavalry captain approached, hooded and cloaked against the daylight.  Mertok bowed.  “Your Highness, I thought we agreed to meet you near this spot tomorrow.  We didn’t think to find you this far down the road so soon.”

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