Radiance (Wraith Kings #1)(8) by Grace Draven

Brishen accepted the mild criticism.  The trade road was a dangerous one.  He had been sure the size of their party would deter any ragtag band of thieves intent on stealing trade goods.  The odds grew even higher in the Kai’s favor now that Mertok’s horsemen had joined them to travel the rest of the journey together, swelling their numbers to a small army.

But Brishen had been eager to leave Pricid, and with Ildiko’s encouragement, they’d set out a day earlier than planned.  “My wife wanted to see her new home as soon as possible, so we left right after the banquet.”

He glanced beyond Mertok’s shoulder, watching as the Kai dragged the dead bandits to a spot beyond the camp and piled them into a haphazard heap.  Every one of their attackers had been human, but Brishen suspected none had been Gauri.   He returned his attention to Mertok.  “That was no flock of thieves who attacked us.  Too many and too well armed and organized.”

Mertok reached into the depths of his cloak.  “We started tracking them to the border two days ago.  A raiding party with a message.”  He held out a bauble, its metal flashing in the sun.

Brishen took it and growled.  The royal insignia of Belawat.  He wasn’t surprised; he was infuriated.  The kingdom of Gaur had skirmished with the kingdom of Belawat since Brishen had been a child.  The Beladine wanted the profitable Gauri seaports, and the Gauri had no intention of giving them up.  Full scale war had seemed inevitable, but there was an obstacle—one that made the alliance with the Kai valuable to both sides.

The fastest way to move armies and avoid the treacherous mountains that divided the Gauri from the Beladine was through a narrow passage in Kai territory.  Both human kingdoms knew better than to try and annex the heavily defended tract for themselves.  The Kai had turned a blind eye at first to the smaller skirmishes between the two combatants.  It was no concern of theirs if the humans slaughtered each other as long as they did so on their side of the border.

But Brishen’s father had grown alarmed when scouts reported an amassing of Beladine troops and whispered secrets of a large force preparing to invade Gaur, take its ports, and conquer the Bast-Haradis borderlands along the way.

The trade treaty and war alliance between the Kai and the Gauri had destroyed Belawat’s plans.  They weren’t strong enough to fight two kingdoms allied together.  The Beladine king had promised retribution for the Kai’s interference in human matters.  This raiding party had been the first volley fired.  Kill the younger Kai prince and his Gauri bride.  Send the message that revenge was swift and merciless.

Brishen flipped the insignia in his hand before dropping it into the pouch at his belt.  He eyed the mound of the dead.  “Burn the bodies and all their gear.  Save a jar of the ash.  The Kai will send Belawat a response.”

Mertok gave a short bow.  “Do you wish to perform a consecrative tonight for our dead?”

Brishen nodded.  “Find out who’ll volunteer to serve as Neima’s and Kroshag’s mortem vessels.  I’ll act as Talumey’s.”

Anhuset joined them, and the three made additional plans for the remainder of the journey, agreeing to double the guards during the day and increase their pace if at all possible so they cut their road time by a third.  When they finished, Brishen discovered the tent reserved for him and Ildiko had been erected.

He carried the still sleeping Ildiko inside and laid her down on one of the two prepared pallets.  She murmured softly but didn’t waken when he removed her shoes and unbuckled her out of Anhuset’s extra breastplate.  Brishen didn’t think she’d appreciate him stripping off her clothes while she slept.  He was too tired anyway to figure out the various lacings and knots complex enough to put a pit trap to shame.

She turned on her side away from him and snuggled beneath the blankets he pulled over her shoulder.  Unlike her, Brishen couldn’t sleep in his clothes.  Splattered in both human and Kai blood, he itched to get out of the armor and the gambeson beneath it.

Ildiko didn’t move when he stretched out on the pallet next to her.  His eyelids felt as if someone had attached weights to them, and he soon fell asleep beside her, lulled into repose by his wife’s soft breathing and peaceful form next to him.

He awakened hours later to twilight’s dim haze and the touch of fingertips across his cheek.  He opened one eye to discover Ildiko’s homely face close to his.  She traced the bridge of his nose and the line of one cheekbone.

“You know, except for the gray skin, black nails and the one glowing eye looking at me, I could almost mistake you for Gauri.”  He gave her a sleepy grin.  She paled and frowned at him.  “And then you smile,” she said.  “Bursin’s wings, but that’s a blood-curdling sight to wake up to at any time of the day.”

Brishen chuckled between her fingers as she tried to press his lips closed.  He grabbed her hand and kissed her knuckles.  “You won’t exactly be honored as the greatest beauty in all of Bast-Haradis, wife.”  Her red hair haloed her head in a corona of tangles, and her eyes were even more grotesque—the whites threaded with thread-thin filaments of blood.

Her mouth curved upward.  “Thank Bursin for that.  I’ll happily pass the title onto someone else.  Now, if you all want to name me the ugliest woman in the entire Kai kingdom, then I might have to preen a little.”

Brishen attempted to tame her hair by patting it down with one hand.  “You’re considered a beauty by your people.  Why weren’t you married sooner?”

She shrugged.  “You were the most advantageous for a woman of my rank.  My mother was Sangur’s sister.  Had it been my father who was related to him, then I would have been a princess.  But since I was born to the female line of the royal family, I was simply a noblewoman—too high-ranking to marry off to just anyone but not important enough to pawn off to an heir.”

“So they gave you to a spare.”  Brishen said it without rancor.  He was the younger of two sons, and his brother had insured the royal succession six times over and counting with his heirs.  Brishen’s importance for carrying the line had long ago been diminished.  There wasn’t even any requirement that he beget children of his own.  His Gauri bride had simply been a good faith exchange between kingdoms—the post script to a document of alliance.

Ildiko continued her exploration of the contours of his face.  “There’s a lot to be said for a spare.”  She drew a circle on his chin with her fingertip.  “Your skin color reminds me of a dead eel I once saw on the beach.”

Brishen arched an eyebrow.  “Flattering, I’m sure.  I thought yours looked like a mollusk we boil to make amaranthine dye.”

She paused in touching him and stared at her hand.  “I am very pink compared to you.”

“Just so, since I’m not pink at all.”

Ildiko’s eyebrows drew together.  “Do you eat those mollusks?”

“No.  They’ve a bitter taste, and their dye is too valuable to waste them in the kitchens.”

Her relieved exhalation caressed his throat.  “That’s good to know.  I’m not sure I’d like to be compared to something you ate for dinner.”

Brishen opened his mouth to retort but changed his mind.  He hadn’t been completely truthful with her when he told her his people weren’t interested in eating the Gauri.  The Kai were an ancient race; the humans a young one.  Long ago, on the edges of ancestral memory, when the Kai were more feral and humans less savage, his kind had once hunted hers for food.

He hurried to change the subject.  “Why are your eyes bloodied?”

Ildiko started and pressed her hands to her eyes.  When her fingers came away unstained with blood, she frowned, obviously puzzled.  Her expression cleared.  “I think most humans suffer that when they first wake up.  Our eyes feel dry and scratchy.  It’s temporary.”

She cocked her head.  “You and your people are bothered most by human eyes, aren’t you?  I can see it in the way you react to some of our expressions.  It’s equal to how frightening the Gauri find your teeth.”

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