Radiance (Wraith Kings #1)(9) by Grace Draven

No one could accuse his new wife of not being observant.  Brishen carefully traced the outline of her cheekbone just below her left eye.  “It’s the white part that makes them ghastly.  It’s as if they’re attached on strings plucked by unseen hands or some kind of strange leeches that live as pairs inside your skulls.”

Ildiko’s expression pinched in disgust.  “That’s horrible!  No wonder no Kai will meet my gaze for more than a moment.”

“I meet it all the time.  I’m meeting it now,” Brishen countered.

She acceded his point.  “True, but I bet it takes the same effort it takes me not to jump every time you smile.”

“We’re growing used to each other.  My kin will grow used to you and you to them as well.”

Ildiko sighed.  “I hope so.  An ugly stranger in a far land with people not of my blood or my kind.”  She wrapped a strand of his hair around her finger and tugged gently.  “I’ll need your guidance, husband.”

Brishen cupped one side of her face.  “You have it, Ildiko.  Along with my protection and my patience.  I didn’t lie when I said we would manage together.”

Ildiko pressed her cheek into his palm for a moment.  She pulled away, and her smile turned impish.  “It’ll be hard not to tease your folk sometimes.”

Brishen couldn’t imagine how she might go about such a thing.  He had no idea if the Kai and the Gauri even knew the same jokes or found the same things funny.  “What do you mean?”

He almost leapt out of his skin when Ildiko stared at him as both of her eyes drifted slowly down and over until they seemed to meet together, separated only by the elegant bridge of her nose.

“Lover of thorns and holy gods!” he yelped and clapped one hand across her eyes to shut out the sight.  “Stop that,” he ordered.

Ildiko laughed and pushed his hand away.  She laughed even harder when she caught sight of his expression.  “Wait,” she gasped on a giggle.  “I can do better.  Want to see me make one eye cross and have the other stay still?”

Brishen reared back.  “No!”  He grimaced.  “Nightmarish.  I’ll thank you to keep that particular talent to yourself, wife.”

She was still chuckling when he helped her rise from her pallet and left the tent to give her privacy to change and ready herself.

It was dark, and the moon hung low when he exited the tent and discovered several Kai staring curiously at him from their places around camp fires.  No doubt they wondered how he’d found the courage to bed his hideous wife.  No doubt bets had been placed and wagers exchanged over whether he took the easy way and bedded her when the sun was high and the light blinding or the more challenging and swived her as the gloaming rose.

They could wonder until they rotted.  Brishen had no intention of revealing anything between him and Ildiko.  Theirs was an agreement based on the beginnings of friendship, respect and an intuitive understanding of each other that still left him slack-jawed with amazement.  He refused to taint that accord by inviting vulgar conjecture.

He made arrangements to have the travel rations packed by a Gauri cook delivered to the tent and met with Anhuset and Mertok to discuss the upcoming consecrative.

Ildiko found him a half hour later.  She’d changed her clothes and tamed her hair into a braid.  Anhuset’s breastplate hung across one arm.  “Can you help me buckle this on again?”

He took it from her and set it against a nearby tree.  “We’re not riding out just yet.  We have three of our dead to attend to.”

Her features saddened.  “I’m sorry for your loss, Brishen.”

Brishen squeezed her hand.  “As am I.  We’ll cleanse the bodies during the consecrative and return their mortem lights to their families to store in a sacred house.”

“What is a mortem light?  And a consecrative?”

He stilled, wondering how best to explain Kai funerary rites or that to properly honor their fallen comrades, he and two other Kai would literally breathe in the memories of the dead to carry them home—hosts themselves to other entities.

With that realization, Brishen no longer saw Ildiko’s eyes as before, otherworldly and separate from her.  They were human and still strange, but just eyes.

CHAPTER SEVEN

The physical differences between human and Kai were obvious and in some ways, extreme.  Ildiko had accepted that fact before she married Brishen.  Her acceptance helped her look beyond his startling appearance to the man himself.  She’d held tight to that philosophy:  see past the surface to the tides below.  In her very short time amongst his people, she observed many similarities to hers—a love of family, comradeship, loyalty to each other, grief over lost friends.  Ildiko had no doubt there were many more she’d discover as she took her place amongst the Kai as wife to one of their princes.

The Gauri might share several of the same behaviors as the Kai when it came to the living, but in the matter of the dead, the two parted company.

Brishen retrieved a flask of wine and a blanket from their tent and made a place for her to sit at the entrance.  He sat down beside her and passed the flask.  “With every generation, the Kai lose a little of their magic.  We are an Elder race, but we are fading.  We hoard the sorcery we still possess until forced to use it.  Though I’m as knowledgeable as my father in family spells and protections, his power is greater than mine and my brother’s.  And my brother’s is greater than his children’s.  However, the Kai are old, with long memories.  The spirits of our dead leave this world but gift the living with their memories—what we call mortem lights.  We keep those memories alive in a place called Emlek.  They are our history, what defines us beyond how we look or the sorcery we’re losing.”

“Is Emlek a temple?”  She passed him the flask after taking a swallow of sweet wine.

Brishen drank as well and let the flask dangle from his fingers.  “Not really.  It’s sacred, but we don’t worship there.  Those who visit come to gain knowledge of past days or to find comfort in revisiting memories of those they lost.”

Ildiko’s heart contracted in her chest.  Oh, what she would have given to have her parents’ memories with her.  She refused his second offer of the flask.  “I wish the Gauri had something like that.”

Brishen wrapped an arm around her shoulder and squeezed.  “It’s a comfort to the living, especially when death is sudden, as for those who die in battle or childbirth, which I’m told is its own hard-fought war.”  He kept his arm around her, and Ildiko savored his strength.  “A dead Kai’s mortem light is a last gift to their loved ones.”

She envied this gift with a fervor that made her wish she’d been born Kai, teeth and all.  “How do you bring them home?  The mortem lights?”

Brishen took another drink from the flask.  Ildiko was still learning the flickers of expression on his features, their nuances harder to capture without the ability to read his eyes, but she sensed an odd hesitation.  He stiffened a little next to her and removed his arm from her shoulder.  She missed its weight.

He paused for so long; Ildiko didn’t think he’d answer her.  “Tonight we’ll perform a consecrative—a ritual to release the spirit and spark the mortem light.”    He lifted one of her hands and laced his fingers through hers.  The contrast of gray skin and black nails against hers emphasized their physical differences, yet sorrow was sorrow.  The grief in his voice was the same as any Gauri who’d ever knelt at a grave and mourned.  “I can explain the ritual and how we transport the mortem lights, but you’ll better understand it when you witness it.”

“May I participate?”

Brishen’s mouth curved upward.  In a gesture growing more familiar to her and one she liked, he kissed her knuckles before rising to his feet and helping her stand.  “I wish you could, but a consecrative can only be performed by the Kai.  You’re welcome to watch; I’d be honored if you did.”

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