RADIANCE – Part 18

A few quick things.  A reader commented that she didn’t know about the box set I’m in or the short story I released.  I didn’t announce it on my blog, though my awesome, amazing web guru Kathryn added them to my Books tab.  Without her, this website would languish even more than it does now.  So to rectify the oversight, a quick note.  My story, THE LIGHTNING GOD’S WIFE, which was originally a contribution to an anthology, can now be purchased as a separate e-book via Amazon or Smashwords.  It’s .99 cents.  I’m also one of five authors with a novel-length story in a fantasy romance box set titled DARKLY DREAMING.  All five contributions to the box set are novel-length, and I’m in there with Elizabeth Hunter, Kristen Painter, Cate Rowan and Danielle Monsch.  My contribution is MASTER OF CROWS, which you may have already read.  However, if you haven’t read the other four books by the other participating authors, it’s a steal.  The set is out for a limited time (through 10/14/14) at .99 cents.  So 5 full-length fantasy romance novels for less than a buck.  Not bad.  That box set is available at multiple vendors, including iBooks, Amazon, B&N, Kobo and Smashwords.  Just click on my Books tab and you’ll see the links for both the short story and the box set.

And after 3 weeks, Part 18 of RADIANCE is completed and up.  Standard caveats apply – editors haven’t seen it.  Plenty of typos, stylistic hiccups and weird word choices in there.  I try to catch as many as I can, but this late at night, and I’m going to miss more than a few.  Thank God for my editors.

Fair warning – this chapter contains a fair amount of sexual content.  Not as graphically described as what I usually put in a story but still there, and I’d personally consider it vanilla. 

Many thanks for reading!

Good night, everyone.

Grace

RADIANCE

by Grace Draven

Copyright 2014 by Grace Draven

All rights reserved

 

Part Eighteen

 

There were times when the day lasted forever and night never came. For Brishen, this was one of those times. He stared unblinking at the bolted door between his and Ildiko’s chambers until his eyes burned. He’d caught it—the brief flinch of hurt tightening the skin around her eyes before it disappeared, and her pale features eased into an expression of concern.

Brishen thanked the gods he and Ildiko had begun this marriage with such unadorned honesty between them. She’d taken his warning at face value and done exactly as he hoped by fleeing and bolting her door. No cajoling or long explanations for why he wasn’t fit—or even safe—company at the moment. She might not be able to discern emotion in his eyes, but she knew him well enough now to know his words weren’t empty ones.

Even through the thick walls and closed door, he heard her soft voice and Sinhue’s as they both prepared to sleep. The words were indecipherable, but he found their cadence soothing. They soon faded, leaving only a heavy quiet that leached from the walls to join the shadows that fled from the encroaching sunbeams and pooled at his feet.

Twenty-two years had passed since he witnessed his mother murder his sister, and the memory remained as clear as if it happened the previous night. Secmis’s hands cupping Anaknet’s head, fingers like spider legs that curved around the tiny skull until her claw tips touched. The baby’s fists curled in innocent sleep. Partially concealed behind the nursery door and made mute with horror, Brishen watched as the queen gently held Anaknet’s head for a moment and gave one quick twist.

He shook his head to clear it of the memory. He could block out the image but not the grotesque sound—a soft snick, barely more than a whisper that over time gained the volume of a thunderclap in his dreams and recollections.

Brishen never imagined he’d tell another person about Anaknet. Only two other people knew what he’d seen and done those many years ago. One died a decade earlier of old age; the other would cut out her own tongue before she surrendered her knowledge. Both had been pivotal in helping him abscond with Anaknet’s mortem light and release her fragile soul before Secmis claimed it, and he remained forever grateful to them. His old nursemaid and his cousin were braver than any ten Kai warriors combined. Had Secmis discovered their roles in his plan…he shuddered at the thought.

Now Ildiko knew as well. Brishen turned away from the door separating him from his wife. She was like a skein of raw silk, strong as steel with a luster woven into her blood and bones. She held him in her arms as he keened an old grief. Like all Kai, he didn’t shed tears. Ildiko; however, had shed them for him, and he’d caught the taste of salt and sorrow on his lips when she brushed her mouth across his in a gesture of comfort.

The need to embrace her, clasp her hard to every part of his body had almost overwhelmed him then. She was solace enrobed in smooth flesh and scented hair. He had kept his hands light on her back, knowing that to hold her the way he wanted, he might injure her in his enthusiasm. Her very human body was far weaker than her character.

Such knowledge hadn’t stopped the lust rising inside him. Warped by anger and hatred for the queen that simmered inside him, that lust poisoned the growing desire he had for his wife, turning it into an ugly thing.

When Ildiko appeared in his chamber, dressed in her nightrail and prepared to sleep with him as she did each night, he’d almost lunged at her, blinded by the desperation to sink into her, body and soul. Every part of him ached with the need. Brishen pummeled the temptation into submission, chilled to the core by images of a woman bloodied and broken by a husband possessed.

He meant every bit of his thanks when she fled his chamber and bolted her door. Solitude did nothing to cool his rage or his desire. He paced. He drank wine. He called down every curse he knew on the queen and finally, he grabbed his cloak and quit the chamber where he was certain he could smell Ildiko’s flowery scent on his sheets.

Saggara was quiet. Most of its inhabitants slept except for a few hooded guards who saluted Brishen as he strode through the corridors and into the brutal morning daylight. The short walk to the redoubt and its deserted arena did little to soothe his restlessness. He stripped down to his breeches and eagerly took up one of the practice swords set in racks that lined the arena walls.

Swords were not his preferred weapons, and straw men made laughable opponents, but he hacked away at them in a sun-blinded frenzy until straw hazed the air, and body parts lay strewn across the dirt floor. Muscles quivering with fatigue, Brishen glanced up briefly; startled to see the sun had climbed directly overhead. He’d been training in full battle mode for two hours, and the sweat streamed off his arms and legs in rivulets. His lungs burned and his body ached, but his head was clear. Mock combat had done its job. The rage had subsided. The lust was still there but mellowed into a desire that pooled in his belly. He still wanted Ildiko—fiercely, but to savor instead of conquer.

“You’ll be blind for good if you don’t cover up, cousin.”

Brishen turned and squinted at Anhuset. She stood to one side, his discarded cloak draped over her arm. She unlaced the hood from the cloak and tossed it to him. “I’m amazed you can still see at all.”

He caught the hood but held off from pulling it over his head until he could rinse off the grime and bits of straw coating his skin. The cold water shock from the nearby well banished any exhaustion. Water from his dripping hair and breeches puddled at his feet. While the hood offered relief from the punishing light, it weighed hot and stifling on his head and shoulders.

“You look like a half-drowned magefinder,” Anhuset said.

He scowled at her. “Be glad I didn’t shake the water off, or you’d be as drenched as me.” He used his cloak to wipe down his arms. “What are you doing here?”

She shrugged. “You know I’ve never been a good sleeper. I thought I might come to the arena and train for a little while. Imagine my surprise at finding you here.” Her eyes narrowed to glowing slits within the shadows of her hood. “Where’s the hercegesé?”

Brishen smiled. Anhuset. Sharp, intuitive, she knew him better and longer than anyone. Something about his demeanor alarmed her. “Asleep in her bed, unlike either of us.” He withstood her silent scrutiny. She’d have her say, and his best course of action was to wait until she did.

“Unless your sword arm needs improving, there are better ways to spend a sleepless day. I know a dozen women who’d be happy to cool the fire for you.”

Brishen chuckled. He’d briefly entertained the thought. Ildiko had once hinted she didn’t mind if he took a mistress, yet he wondered if that still held true. Three days earlier they had lain together in his bed. He hadn’t imagined the delicate shiver that raced down her body as he nuzzled her temple, and that shiver had not been fear.

“I wouldn’t survive the affections of a dozen Kai women, cousin. Besides, only one can cool the fire.”

Anhuset’s lips twitched. “And that one isn’t Kai. What is Ildiko to you?”

“The fire.” He nodded once to her and made to leave the arena.

She called to him. “Don’t you want to bout with me?”

Brishen shook his head and kept walking. “No. I miss my wife.”

“Are you sure you’re not trying to avoid me beating you into one big bruise?”

He waved away her taunt. “That too.” If he didn’t dawdle, he’d have a few hours to bring Ildiko back to his bed where she belonged and sleep the last daylight hours away with her by his side.

Anhuset wasn’t finished with him yet. “Your Highness, Lord Pangion arrives at Saggara this evening. Do you wish for us to escort him from the main road or from the gates of the redoubt?”

He halted, cursing under his breath. Serovek. The dinner. He’d forgotten. He pinched the bridge of his nose between thumb and forefinger. The headache he suffered from the sun just grew worse. Brishen was tempted to tell Anhuset to kindly escort their guest back home the moment he arrived. Such an action though guaranteed a neighbor no longer amiable or forthcoming with information.

“Meet him and his party at the main road.” He was glad for the hood which hid his smirk. “Anhuset, you’ll attend the dinner and the dancing afterwards.” The low snarl that met his command widened his smirk to a grin. Brishen walked away, listening closely for the tell-tale snick of a sword unsheathed or the breath of air cleaved by a flying dagger.

He returned to the manor unscathed and found its occupants still deep in slumber. His personal servant slept in a small room adjacent to his. Brishen let him sleep, unwilling to rouse the man in the middle of the day just to bring him water for a bath. A face cloth and the water in his wash basin and pitcher would have to do. The sodden breeches were discarded and tossed in a heap in one corner. He scrubbed away the dirt the well water dousing missed, donned a pair of the linen breeches he was truly starting to despise and made his way to the door between his chamber and Ildiko’s.

Sleeping naked next to her that one time had been a mistake. Ildiko had caught him off guard by waking up before him. Luckily, neither of them was prone to cuddle in their sleep, or she would have discovered very quickly that his deep affection for her was changing into something far beyond the platonic. Trapped under the covers until she left to change in her room, Brishen had collapsed on the bed with a frustrated groan once he was alone and vowed they’d sleep separately after that. His vow lasted less than a day. He wanted her beside him.

Were he his father, Brishen could turn the door thin as parchment and walk through it to retrieve his wife. Were he his grandfather, he could pass through the solid wood, as ethereal as any wraith. But the magic was fading in the Kai with every generation born, and Brishen’s skills were limited to a few chanted words that slid the bolt free on the other side.

He eased around the door and discovered a bleary-eyed Sinhue rising from her bed in the shallow alcove in one corner of the room. He held a finger to his lips for silence. She nodded and lay down, her back to him.  

Ildiko sprawled in the middle of her bed. Asleep on her stomach with half her face buried in the pillows, she presented him with a profile that shone as pale as the sheets in the darkness. He once called her a hag of a woman. Leached of color except for the bitter mollusk pink that surged under her skin in uneven patches when she was angry or embarrassed, he’d found her both ugly and peculiar to behold. Had it only been a few months earlier that he bore such thoughts of her?

Looking at her now, Brishen wondered how he could have thought her unsightly. Her eyes still brought him up short on occasion, especially when she teased him by crossing them toward her nose, but he’d ceased comparing them to parasites. They were just eyes, different from his and fascinating in their own way with their colorful irises and black pupils that shrank or expanded depending on the light or her emotions.  

Her eyes were hidden from him now, behind closed lids edged in bronze lashes. Serovek had called her beautiful, and Brishen hadn’t missed the long stares cast upon her by the Gauri noblemen who attended her wedding. He tried to see her as a Gauri man might but failed in the endeavor. A sudden realization made him smile a little.

One of his wife’s greatest strengths, and a thing he most admired about her, was her ability to adapt to a situation and still remain steadfast in her own sense of worth and place. Brishen no longer viewed her with the eyes of a Kai and couldn’t view her with the eyes of a human male, but that held no consequence now. He saw her as she’d always seen herself—as simply Ildiko. For her, it was enough; for him, a gift beyond price.

He reached down to thread her loose hair through his fingers. She murmured in her sleep and rolled onto her back. Delicate collarbones, the outline of her breasts beneath her night rail, she lay before him, a study in shade and shadow-play.

She didn’t startle when he slid his arms beneath her and scooped her up from the bed. Her eyes opened slowly, and she nestled against his chest. “Is it evening already, Brishen?”

Brishen kissed the top of her head as he padded from her chamber to his and kicked the door closed behind him. “No. Still midday. Unlike you, I no longer sleep well without you next to me.”

Ildiko patted his chest with one hand. “Your fault. You told me to go.”

He tightened his embrace. “I did and was right to do so.” He climbed into his bed still holding her. The sheets were cool on his legs, Ildiko hot on his torso.

Her hand wandered along his shoulder and up his neck until she cupped his jaw. Her dark pupils nearly swallowed the blue in her eyes. “Secmis is a vile and evil woman, Brishen.”

He turned his face into her palm and planted a kiss in its curvature. “Don’t bother with lavish compliments, wife,” he said. “You’ll never endear my loathsome mother to me.”

Ildiko shook with sleepy laughter. Her amusement faded, and in the room’s tenebrous light her eyes glistened with sympathy and something else that ignited the desire simmering restlessly in Brishen’s veins. “My noble prince,” she said. “You are…” She frowned, searching for the words.

“A dead eel?” His hands tracked their own paths over her body, learning each curve beneath the thin night rail. He grinned at her chortle.

“No,” she said. “More like a raven. Dark and elegant.”

“A clever scavenger.”

Ildiko gave him a mock scowl. “A beautiful bird.” She thumped him on the arm. “Stop fishing for compliments, you vain creature.”

Brishen rolled, taking Ildiko with him until she lay fully under him. Her thighs opened, and he sank against her. They both gasped and stilled, all traces of humor gone. If she had no awareness of his body’s reaction to her before this—and Ildiko, by her own admission, was neither that innocent nor that foolish—she couldn’t mistake it now.

Forearms braced on either side of her head, he kept most of his weight off her, careful not to crush her into the bed. Ildiko’s eyes were wide, her breathing thin and quick, an accompaniment to his own labored breaths.

He played with the curling strands of her hair that caught on his fingers like spiderweb. “I am no poet possessing honeyed words,” he said. “But you have always known me to be forthright with you.” Gods, his muscles shook as if from cold in his effort to stay still and not thrust hard against her. “I want you, Ildiko. Want to sink so deep into you that neither of us will know where one ends and the other begins.” Only the darker blue rim of her irises still shone around her pupils. His voice had gone guttural, and he worked to soften it. “I’ve never forced a woman, Kai or human, and I never will. If you refuse me, this will stop, with no ill will between us.”

Please, he prayed—and he didn’t know if he prayed to Kai gods or to the statue-still woman pressed against him—don’t refuse me.

Ildiko’s black-eyed stare sharpened, and she peered into his gaze as if searching for something. Whatever she found transformed her expression. Her lids lowered, sinking to half-mast. Her breathing deepened, and her lips parted, revealing the edges of her upper front teeth. Hardly daring to hope and half dizzy with want, Brishen watched, fascinated, as the tip of her tongue darted out to swipe across her lower lip.

The silence yawned between them as she continued to stare at him. “What is it, Ildiko?” he asked. “What do you see?”

His question acted as a catalyst, breaking a spell that held him beguiled and her enthralled. She opened beneath him; not just her body. All of her. He sensed it in every part of him.

She twined her arms around his neck and tilted her head until her lips brushed the corner of his mouth. “My beautiful husband.” she said. “I see radiance.”

He groaned low in his throat as her mouth captured his. Ildiko buried her hands in his hair, pressing him closer to slide her tongue across the sensitive skin under his top lip and then his lower one. Brishen returned the caress, plying playful swipes at the edges of her lips and along the corners until she rocked in his arms, hips bumping against his in clumsy rhythm while he learned her taste and she learned his.

Ildiko didn’t kiss as a Kai woman did. Hers were forceful—a sucking, nipping dance along his lips with her tongue seeking entrance past the barrier of his teeth clamped tight against intrusion. It was if she’d forgotten the sharpness of his fangs or simply no longer cared.

Brishen pulled away, smiling at Ildiko’s protesting gasps. He pressed a finger to her lips, the tip of one black claw barely brushing the end of her nose. The air felt thin in his lungs. “I’ve seen humans kiss. You mate with your mouths.” Just the words sent a spear of heat straight to his groin. He was so hard, he ached. “I can’t do that, sweet wife. I’ll slice you bloody.”

Oh did he regret such a thing. For once, and probably the only time in his life, he wished for more human attributes. Horse teeth didn’t seem so bad or so ridiculous at the moment. He’d take Ildiko’s mouth the way he would take her body—deep and slow with hours spent dedicated on nothing more than savoring the taste and feel of her.

Undaunted by his warning, she tugged him back to her. “Maybe you can’t,” she said. “But I’m not limited by a mouthful of sword blades.” Her pupils glittered in the shadow he cast across her face and body. “Part your lips.” Spellbound, he did as she ordered. Ildiko rested her mouth lightly on his. Her lips tickled his when she spoke. “Slide your tongue out—just a little.”

She’d be the death of him before they ever consummated this marriage. Brishen’s body screamed to be done with it and slide inside her. His mind begged patience, delighted by this journey she took him on as the day waxed bright beyond the closed shutters.

Ildiko’s lips closed around the tip of Brishen’s tongue and sucked. He jerked in her arms, shivering at the new and pleasurable touch. Her tongue brushed his, a seductive caress that coaxed him to offer her more. He did and was rewarded by a longer suckling. Brishen moaned into her mouth, giving her more until his tongue twined with hers in the mating dance he’d so envied and coveted earlier.

She echoed his moan. Her arms, linked loosely behind his neck, fell away so that her hands could busy themselves with stroking him from shoulder to waist, pushing him to rise up so they could travel the hard planes of his abdomen.  

Her fingers traced the ridges of his ribs, wandering higher and closer until her thumbs glided across his nipples. Brishen ended their kiss with a one-word prayer, back arching like a drawn bow as a lightning bolt of sensation shot across his chest to encircle his back and rake down his spine.

Ildiko’s calves crossed over the back of his thighs and locked him in place. One hand splayed across his back, pressing him down so that she bore more of his weight. Her lips followed where her hands had played, teasing a trail from the hollow of his throat to the line of one collarbone and down planes of his chest.

Brishen’s claws gouged furrows into the pillows on either side of her head as she alternated between worrying his nipple with her tongue and blowing gently across the sensitive tip. His hips ignored the dictates of his mind to stay still. He thrust against her, enamored with the sleek feel of her thighs cradling him and the hot wetness that dampened both her nightrail and his linen breeches. Human women were obviously much like Kai women in that regard. Ildiko wanted him as much as he wanted her, and somewhere in his fogged brain, Brishen recognized that it was she who savored him at the moment and not the other way around as he originally planned.

He pulled himself out of reach, ignored her protests and captured her wrists in one hand. Her odd eyes were glassy, the blue of her irises completely surrendered to her pupils. A darker flush painted her pale skin. Brishen caught sight of the ragged amaranthine stain on the underside of her jaw from her earlier foray to the dye house. He bent and traced its outline, first with the tip of his nose and then his lips. Ildiko moaned softly in his ear.

Her eyebrows rose when he scooted them both down toward the foot of the bed and stretched her arms above her head, her wrists still manacled in his light grip. “You’ll be my undoing before I can take another breath, and I want this day to last far beyond a breath,” he said.

She frowned and wiggled teasingly beneath him. “But I’ve only had a taste.”  

“That’s more than I’ve had,” he countered. “Have you enjoyed me so far?” He grinned at her enthusiastic nod. “Then be fair, wife, and let me enjoy you.”

Ildiko unfurled along his length, a silk ribbon tipped from a spool to ripple and stroke him from chest to knees. “Oh, well then,” she breathed. “I don’t wish to be unjust.”

She stopped him before he could return the touches that so inflamed him. Her hand stroked his hair. “Close your eyes,” she said.

Brishen frowned. If Ildiko worried he’d find her the hag he first met in Pricid’s royal gardens, she had nothing to fear. His vision of her was irrevocably changed. “Why?” he asked, wary of her reasons.

“Because I’d have you see me with your touch.” Her mouth curved into a smile. “It’s how I see you in this blind darkness, Brishen, and it is a wondrous thing.”

He’d been the recipient of heady praise from mistresses as in lust with his title as they were with his body. No such honeyed words ever came close to these and their power over him.

She kept her arms above her head, even after he released her wrists. Brishen closed his eyes and let his other senses overtake his willing blindness. He took his time, exploring every hollow, swell and nook of Ildiko’s neck and shoulders. She smelled of flowers and the scented oils imported by the caravan peoples who traded such indulgences for spells and charms from Kai shaman. She tasted…human.

He could think of no comparison. Soft skin with a hint of spice and a sweetness he’d tasted nowhere else in either food or on the supple, muscular limbs of the Kai women he’d bedded before his marriage. Her differences intrigued him, seduced him.

He didn’t remember removing her nightrail or his breeches, but they somehow ended up in a discarded heap on the floor by the side of the bed. Free of any barrier between them, Brishen indulged himself by easing more of his weight onto her.

“Ooh,” Ildiko said on a sigh, her heavy-lidded eyes almost closed. “You feel good.” She drew swirls on his back. “We should have done this much sooner.”

Brishen’s chortle vibrated between them. His forthright wife. “I couldn’t agree more,” he whispered in her ear.

He set her to squirming in his arms, her soft moans a sensual cadence in his ear, while he kissed and licked a path from her shoulders to her belly, stopping for long moments to repay her torture of him by flicking his tongue back and forth across the tips of her breasts. That she didn’t pull away from fear of his teeth spoke of her faith in him and the sure knowledge he would never hurt her.

A subtle quiver of tension passed through her body under his hands as he kissed a path downward toward the juncture of her thighs. Brishen opened his eyes. His heightened senses warned him that delicate vibration had been one of unease instead of eagerness.

Ildiko gazed at him steadily, her features somber. She lowered arms to card her fingers through his hair. She didn’t try and wiggle out of his reach. This wasn’t a matter of trust so much as experience, or its lack. Brishen knew that while his wife wasn’t completely ignorant of bed play, her introduction to its many intimacies by her previous lover had been limited. Her statement that three romps in the bedroom or the hayloft had not made the effort of a fourth worth the trouble revealed a great deal.

He’d have to tamp down on his eagerness to explore every part of her in a single day. The knowledge that he had several days to draw out the anticipation of familiarizing himself with his wife’s lovely body evaporated any of his initial disappointment.

Brishen bent and traced the circumference of her navel before kissing a return path up her belly, to the valley between her breasts and finally to her chin. Ildiko gave him an abashed look. “I haven’t tried that yet,” she said.

He framed her face in his hands. “So I gathered.” He smoothed away the twin frown lines between her eyebrows with his lips. It’s not a failing, Ildiko.”

“I know, but—” She broke off to return the kiss he pressed to her mouth.

“Consider it your gift to me,” he said and smiled at her confusion. “I have the opportunity to be your teacher and show you the pleasure of that particular act, one of the finest between a man and a woman.”

She relaxed under him once more. Her knees clamped against his sides. He exhaled a surprised grunt that changed to a groan when her hips lifted to rub against the erection that was robbing the blood from every other part of his body. Her hands glided down his back to cup his buttocks and keep him in place.

Her heavy-lidded expression returned, one Brishen quickly recognized as her passion for him and one he found more seductive by the moment. “What will I teach you,” she asked, hips thrusting, pressing, tempting him toward madness.

“Patience,” he said in guttural tones that made a mockery of the word. His arm slid under her buttocks, lifted until her hips tilted toward him. “Endurance.” His limbs shook with the strain of holding back. Ildiko’s hands moved to his arms, clutched his biceps. The mollusk-pink of her skin deepened, blending with the amaranthine stain. His cock nudged the entrance to her body, slick and hot. “Ecstasy,” he whispered and slid deep.

They gasped in unison, and Ildiko arched in his embrace, her short nails digging into his arms. Drowning in the pleasure of being inside his wife, feeling slippery muscles gripping him, drawing him ever deeper, Brishen fought to breathe, to pause. Patience. Endurance. And oh gods, the ecstasy.

He settled them both and waited, even as the waiting killed him. “Ildiko?”

Ildiko gave him a quick smile. Her hands abandoned his arms for his lower back. She kissed him, tongue flicking over his lower lip. Brishen pulsed inside her, and her smile widened. “I’m fine, my lovely prince,” she said and kissed him a second time. “Don’t stop.” Her clasp on his back tightened, and a soft moan threaded her voice. “It feels too good to stop.”

Grateful and relieved, Brishen needed no further reassurance. She was fire in his arms, hot and sweet. Her moans and softly worded encouragements, the feel of her surround him as he thrust inside her—slow and deep, shallow and fast—destroyed any lingering coherent thought he possessed.

Every near withdrawal had her clawing at his back, every hard pump of his hips made her croon her pleasure in his ear. Brishen angled his hips, a minute change in his position. Ildiko’s eyes grew wide, and she emitted a strangled sound.

Brishen froze, horrified. He’d hurt her. He stared down at her, eyes equally as wide. “What’s wrong?”

She held his hips prisoner when he made to pull out of her. “No!” Her legs flexed on him. “Do it again.”

“Do what?” He gawked at her, bewildered. She didn’t act as if he hurt her.

“That thing with your hips,” she said and wriggled hers to coax him into action.

He tried to recall exactly what he did. The angle, a mere shift in his body that forced his pelvis down onto hers and stroked a different spot with each thrust. Brishen repeated the motion, and Ildiko did her best to climb up his body.

His jaw dropped. “That?”

She nodded frantically, her thighs clamping so tightly against his torso, his muscles protested. “Again,” she commanded him between pants. “Do it again.”

“Yes, Your Highness,” he teased, euphoric that he could make his wife burn the way she made him burn.

Whispered affections, drugging kisses and the steady rock of hips: Brishen balanced on the edge of release, struggling to read Ildiko’s ever-changing expressions as she met his thrusts and moaned her pleasures.

She suddenly stiffed, her arms tensing as her fingers carved tiny crescent moons into his skin. Her moans flattened to harsh gasps, and her eyes closed. “Brishen. Brishen.” She chanted his name, and whether it was a desperate prayer or affectionate curse, it didn’t matter to him. Ildiko came apart in his arms, her body flushed and heat, and arched until he thought he’d hear her spine crack.

The sleek muscles gripping his cock tightened and pulsed with her release. Brishen buried his face in her neck and surrendered his control. His groans chorused with her gasps as he came hard inside her.

His climax rolled through him, leaving him both blissful and utterly stripped of vigor. His heart pounded in his chest, and he sucked in sweet gulps of hair like a man saved from a drowning. Were Ildiko a Kai woman, he’d collapse on her, letting her take his full weight. He braced on his elbows instead and raised his head to regard his silent wife.

The flush to her skin had receded a little though her chest rose and fell in quick, shallow pants. She regarded at him with an expression in her eyes even he could read: stunned amazement. She opened her mouth, closed it and opened it again only to say nothing.

Brishen brushed the tip of his nose across hers. “Breath, Ildiko,” he said between his own short gasps. “Just breathe.”

She blew a strand of his hair away from her face. Her smile held the smug satisfaction of a cat that had caught a particularly juicy mouse. “That was neither awkward nor messy.”

His eyebrows climbed, and he tucked his hips even closer to hers to stay inside her. “Oh, it will get messy, wife, the moment we move.”

She dragged her heel up his calf to his knee. She traced his cheekbones with her fingertips. “I don’t mind,” she said softly.

“Nor do I.” He kissed her, and she kissed him back, her mouth working its magic so that his blood heated once more, and his cock hardened inside her.

He took her a second time as the sun marched west and then a third when they were both drowsy and exhausted from their lovemaking and lack of sleep. The third time was a slow melding of bodies and low sighs. When it was over, Brishen rolled to his back with Ildiko draped over him. She was asleep before he could cover them haphazardly with the bed linens.

He followed her into sleep only to be awakened what seemed like moments later by a brisk knock at his door. Those moments must have been more like hours. The candle he kept lit for Ildiko had melted into a pool of wax, the flame extinguished. Full darkness enveloped the room, and the air had grown colder. Ildiko was nowhere in sight, and he frowned.

The knock came again. Brishen rubbed at his scratchy eyes and sat up. “What?” he barked at his annoying visitor.

“Your Highness, you’re two hours past the gloaming. You can’t sleep anymore.” Anhuset’s admonishment was muffled by the door’s thick wood.

Brishen scowled and swung out of bed to pad naked across the room. The bolt on the door slid free. He yanked the door open and was greeted by his cousin’s smirk. “What are you doing here?”

Her gaze made a slow journey from the top of his head to his feet. “Cousin or not, you’re a fine figure of a man.” Her smirk deepened at his impatient growl. “Your servant fetched me. He said you didn’t respond to his calls or knocks. He thought you might be ill.” She looked past him to the bed and its rumpled sheets. “I’ll have to tell him not to worry. You’ve simply been conquered.”

Brishen bared his teeth at her. “Don’t you have something to do other than vex me?”

She shrugged, unconcerned by his forbidding mood. “Not nearly as much as you do and more time to do it. The Beladine lord is due to arrive in a few hours. The manor is in an uproar preparing for his visit.”

He groaned and raked his hands through his hair. “Poor timing,” he muttered to himself. He pointed a finger at Anhuset. “I’m not looking for your agreement.”   She followed him into the chamber when he trekked back to the bed and pulled on the thin trousers he’d discarded earlier. Ildiko’s nightrail was gone, vanished like its owner. “Where is Ildiko?”

“Unlike you, your hercegesé is awake, dressed and elbow-deep in supervising the preparations for your guest. And here I thought humans weaker than the Kai.” She flashed him a fanged grin, her eyes sparking bright with amusement.

Brishen growled. His cousin reveled in her chance to flense him with her mockery and draw a little blood—revenge for him ordering her to attend tonight’s dinner and the dancing that followed. He allowed her the indulgence, too tired and sated to do more than shoo her off with a flick of his hand and a sour “Go away before I have you flogged.”   Her laughter drifted to him, even after she left his room and closed the door behind her.

He wasn’t alone long. His long-time servant Etep arrived, leading a parade of servants carrying buckets of water to fill the bathing tub in the corner. One built the fire in the hearth. Etep bowed to his master. “A cold water bath tonight, Highness. We don’t have time to heat that much water.”

Brishen shrugged. He lost count of the number of dousings he’d had in the icy waters of a lake or mountain stream. He’d save the hot water bath for a more leisurely time when he didn’t have to rush and Ildiko could share with him. The images of such a scenario banished the sleepy fog shrouding his mind. He stripped and hopped into the tub, allowing himself one hard shiver before submerging in the cold water to scrub himself clean.

An hour later, he was dried, dressed and headed to the great hall. His chest swelled with pride at the sight. His servants had outdone themselves and brought Saggara’s great hall back to the days when it was the summer palace of a Kai king. More torches were lit for the benefit of their human guests and the trestle tables draped in embroidered cloths dyed in jeweled shades of cerulean and crimson, nettle-green and aubergine, and the coveted amaranthine that was the greatest source of his people’s wealth. The tables were set with the costly ceramics carried over the mountains via caravan and goblets made of silver mined out of the Serpent’s Teeth hills far to the south.

Not a speck of dust dared to collect in the corners, and the tapestries hanging on the walls had been taken down, beaten clean and rehung to tell their stories of an ancient past—Kai battles won and magic unleashed.

The scents drifting from the kitchens made Brishen’s empty stomach rumble and his mouth water. He had no idea what the cooks would serve. Though she was human in a Kai household, its maintenance and organization was her domain. He knew his place in the order of things, and in this, his only requirement was to praise her efforts and show up on time to eat the food she ordered prepared. He only prayed she didn’t order potatoes.

His steward approached him. Mesumenes was Saggara’s steward long before Djedor gave it to Brishen. He knew it better than anyone—every stone, every corner, every roof tile. Loyal to the estate more than to any of its owners, he had patiently mentored Brishen into becoming a capable overlord and did the same for Ildiko when she arrived as its new mistress. He bowed. “Does this meet with your approval, Your Highness?”    

Brishen nodded and clapped Mesumenes on the back. “Very much so. You and the servants have outdone yourselves.”

“Her Highness’s hand is in this as well. She knew what would please and impress humans.”

Brishen complimented Mesumenes a second time and continued his tour of the manor. There were many, many benefits to having a human wife, or at least his human wife. He would thank her for her insight when he saw her. If he managed not to lift her skirts while he did so, it would be a testament to his control. His need for her ran like molten streams just under his skin. His cold bath had dampened his ardor only so long. He missed her and wanted her in his bed once more—preferably now.

It wasn’t to be, and he distracted himself by inspecting the bailey and training yard and ignoring Anhuset’s snide comments when he came across her saddling her horse in preparation to ride out and meet the Beladine party at the entrance to the estate road.

She wore ceremonial military leathers and beneath those a pearl colored tunic over teal trousers spun of silk. Brishen wondered how many times she cursed him while dressed in the formal clothing reserved for court and which she hated.

He twisted the knife. “You look beautiful.”

Her lips thinned and her eyes narrowed. Brishen kept his gaze on her dagger which she toyed with at her waist. “I don’t understand why I have to attend this thing. It’s a dinner with a Beladine warlord. More court maneuverings and double talk with sly innuendo and hidden meaning. Ask me to meet him in battle, and I will happily comply. This though…I hate this.”

Brishen sympathized with his cousin’s sentiment. He wasn’t fond of such gatherings either, but they weren’t at court. And while Serovek’s loyalty lay with a kingdom displeased with the Kai at the moment, he had always been a friend to Brishen. Until they met on a battlefield—and he prayed that would never come to pass—they would invite each other to dinner, socialize and trade valuable information no spy could ever retrieve from bribed sources.

“This isn’t court,” he said. “And you need to be there because you are my second and an important member of my household. Your presence is expected.” He didn’t mention that Serovek had asked after her when they traveled to High Salure to dine with him. Sha-Anuset was his trusted lieutenant and a woman of exceptional martial skill and leadership abilities. Had she been human, Brishen had no doubt Serovek would have tried and lure her away to act as one of his commanders.

“I refuse to dance,” she proclaimed in a final show of rebellion and swung into the saddle.

Brishen shrugged. “That is your choice.” His lips twitched. “The last time I recall being forced to dance with you, you crushed every one of my toes. We’ll consider it a favor if you just watch this time.”

She glared at him and nudged her horse into a brisk trot toward the barracks where the rest of the escort awaited her.

Brishen returned to the house and made his way to Ildiko’s room. He could hear the gentle peaks and troughs of female conversation through the door. His knock was met with silence before a set of footsteps approached and the door swung open. Sinhue bowed and motioned him inside.

Ildiko sat on a stool before a looking glass. Dressed as a Kai noblewoman, she wore the split skirt-tunic and trousers in the dark colors she typically preferred—this time a combination of brown dark as tea steeped long in a pot and lustrous amber that shimmered in the candlelight.

She met his gaze in the mirror’s reflection. Her face was paler than usual, marred by lavender shadows under her eyes and the amaranthine splash edging her jaw. Her fiery hair was partially up, bound into intricate braids woven with tiny pearls. She was stunning, and Brishen’s breeches grew uncomfortably tight the longer he stared at her.

“I think we still have a little time, yes?” She indicated the servant with a tilt of her head. “Sinhue is almost finished with my hair.”

Sinhue offered another bow to Brishen before skirting around him to return to her mistress. Her nimble fingers worked magic with a comb, and in no time Ildiko’s hair was coiffed, beaded and pinned. The servant left them alone then, a knowing look on her face as eased out of the room, leaving the door open.

Ildiko rose from the stool to face Brishen and spread her arms. “What do you think? Presentable for our guests?”

Brishen narrowed the distance between them until they were toe to toe. He leaned in and placed a soft kiss on the tip of her earlobe. Even though he didn’t touch her beyond that small caress, he felt her shiver. “Beautiful, though even more so without clothes.” They smiled at each other. “Regrets?” he asked.

She shook her head. “Only that I fell asleep.”

He nuzzled the soft hairs at her temple. “Who cares about the guests. Come to my bed. Now.”

He knew she’d say no. It was a foregone conclusion, and the worst thing she could do was say no. But if she said yes…

She turned her head toward him until her cheek pressed against his. “You’ll destroy my hair,” she teased.

“And you’re destroying my peace,” he countered. He laid his hand on her slender waist. “What say you?”

“Later,” she replied. “We’re the hosts, Brishen. We can’t be late.”

He sighed, stepped away from temptation, and offered his arm. “Let’s get this over with then.”  He escorted her into the hall and toward one of the staircases that led to the great hall.

Ildiko squeezed his arm. “I don’t miss the Haradis court, but I do miss your court garb. You will be the handsomest man in the room.”

Brishen gave her a small smile. “You mean the handsomest Kai.” She had earlier complimented Serovek’s looks when asked. In her eyes, he would be the finer looking of them.

Her mouth turned down a little. “No,” she said. “The handsomest man.”

“Lord Pangion will be there.”

Ildiko shrugged. “So? My opinion remains unchanged.”

He halted abruptly and hauled Ildiko into his arms. She squeaked her surprise, then sighed when he kissed her. Her arms slid over his shoulders to play with the long tail of hair he’d queued at his neck.

Brishen forgot about time, about guests, about dinner, about the world around him. He cursed his inability to kiss her the way she kissed him—that soft mating of tongues and lips so sensual and alluring, she almost brought him to his knees.

He groaned when the warning peal of the gate bell rang throughout the estate, signaling the arrival of visitors. Ildiko’s blue eyes had darkened once more, and her lips were red. Her arms slid off his shoulders, and she put some much needed distance between them. “We’ll never make it to the hall if we keep doing this.”

“I don’t view that as a problem,” he groused.

“I don’t either, but others will.” She tugged on his arm. “Come, Your Highness. We need to make our grand entrance.”

Brishen schooled his features into a polite mask, placed his wife’s hand over his and escorted her toward the hall. A long, long night awaited him.

~!~!~!~!~

 

Quick Note

Most of my social interaction is confined to Facebook just because I want to keep this blog relatively uncluttered.  As such, I reserve it mostly for updates to RADIANCE or the occasional announcement.  That’s resulted in some unexpected issues.

I received an e-mail from a reader wondering if I’d abandoned the RADIANCE serial.  I’m assuming this is because the blog has been silent, and it’s been almost three weeks since the last update.  So I wanted to give readers an explanation, an update and a reassurance.

First, my day job is finance-related and significantly controlled by regulatory deadlines issued by the Internal Revenue Service and the Department of Labor.  I’m currently working on two projects–one for each of these government entities in which the regulatory deadlines for completion and reporting are scheduled for October.  As such, they’ve been eating my lunch since September and will continue to do so through November as I work on residual clean-up.  This means writing time gets sacrificed, because the IRS and the DOL wait for no one.  Unfortunately, my updates to RADIANCE have been coming in slower and slower.  Also, part of the delay for updating Chapter 18 is that this chapter has been a particularly difficult one to write, so I’m very slow with churning out the word count in a reasonable time span.

That being said, I will have Chapter 18 up on the blog by the end of this weekend–likely very late Sunday night/very early Monday morning CST.

I’m not abandoning the serial.  The end is in sight with this story.  Once it’s completed (and that’s only a few chapters away), I will take it down from the blog to have it edited, revised and readied for formal publishing.  One of my artists and I are currently in preliminary planning for the cover and will be full throttle on it by the middle of this month.  So money, time and teamwork are already invested in this story, not to mention the reader enthusiasm which has both amazed and delighted me.  I’m thrilled you all have taken this journey with me and grown to like Brishen and Ildiko.

Thank you for your readership, your enthusiasm, and your patience.

Best,

Grace

RADIANCE – Part 17

This chapter took me a long time to post–not necessarily to write but to think through.  That’s because it’s a bridge chapter that sets up stuff for upcoming chapters.  So I percolated and ruminated over it for a couple of weeks, wrote down a few snippets/excerpts and percolated some more.  I finally sat down today and swore I’d get it finished.  It’s now 3:37 a.m., and installment 17 is indeed finished.  Usual caveat about typos, misspellings, weird word usage, etc. all apply – especially this late in the evening/early in the morning.  Also, at the end of this installment, I’ve posted a second story by Aria M. Jones titled IVORIES.  I hope you like it as much as I do.

As always, a heartfelt thanks to everyone who reads and comments.  An apology to anyone whose comment I might have accidently deleted.  I get hammered with spam; it’s why comments are on moderation, and I sometimes get a little careless with clicking on the Spam/Trash button when I’m wiping out a ton of spam notices in one big group.

We’ll wrap this up as my eyelids have lead weights attached to them, and I have a 9:00 a.m. appointment in 5 hours.  :)  Have a great weekend, everyone!

 

RADIANCE
by Grace Draven
Copyright 2014 by Grace Draven
All rights reserved

Chapter 17

If there was anything fouler-smelling than an amaranthine dye house, Ildiko had yet to learn of it.  She covered her nose with a handkerchief and followed master dyer into the billowing clouds of choking steam that poured off the tops of open kettles suspended over fires.  The smells of salt, soda ash and shellfish combined to make her eyes water and her throat close.

Kai laborers worked in teams, taking turns at tending fires, dunking cloth in boiling vats of amaranthine, and setting the cloth to dry on wooden horses.  The house’s muddy floor looked like an emptied battlefield before all the blood washed away in a rainstorm.  Puddles of water in shades from palest pink to deep ruby splashed across her boots as she trudged through the muck.  She was far too busy trying to keep her balance to pay much attention to the stares her presence drew.

Anhuset muttered under her breath as she followed Ildiko.  “It would have been easier to have someone deliver samples of the cloth to the fortress.”

Ildiko chose not to answer her, preferring to keep her mouth closed and the odor of the dye off her palate as long as possible.  It would indeed have been much easier to order samples brought to the fortress, but Ildiko wanted to see the dye houses and learn how the Kai made the valuable commodity that made the human kingdoms covet the vivid amaranthine.

She listened closely as the master dyer, a weathered Kai with hands permanently painted reddish-purple, described the process of extracting the dye from the freshwater bitter mollusk they fished from the nearby lake and dying the stacks of bleached linen, wool, and silk stored in another room.  It was a messy, smelly, sometimes dangerous work involving boiling the mollusks, racking the slime and impurities from the top, straining the dyes and boiling them again with salt and soda ash.

Fabric dyed in the jewel-toned magenta was stretched on the wooden horses in various states of drying.  The master dyer had explained to her and Anhuset how the amaranthine didn’t fade after years in sunlight as other dyes did, but instead, grew more vibrant over time with the saturation of light.  Ildiko thought it ironic how a people who shunned the day were known for creating something that grew more beautiful with exposure to it.

Mollusk slime racked from the top of the boiling dye was pushed into a noxious pile near one of the middens.  The congealing heap glistened in the moonlight, glowing green from the thousands of buzzing flies that swarmed its surface.  The smell sent Ildiko’s stomach into an endless tumble, and she turned away before she lost her breakfast.

Anhuset stood beside her, hand over her nose, a thunderhead of disapproval darkening her brow.  “That bow-legged Beladine rooster isn’t worth this.”

Ildiko silently agreed, but she wasn’t here solely to handpick a gift of hospitality for Serovek’s visit.  This was one of four principal dye houses in the Kai kingdom and under Brishen’s guardianship.  Ildiko felt it her duty as his wife to learn some small thing about the product that had secured an alliance between her people and his and this marriage between them.

She inhaled a grateful breath of clean air when the dye master led them outside and away from both middens and pungent steam roiling out of the kettles.  He pointed to another set of vats, these planted on the ground with no fires beneath them.  Kai dyers used pulleys to raise and lower dripping cloth into more of the dye.

“This is the cold dye stage, Your Highness.  The color has been racked and strained and left to sit in the sun for eleven days.  We dye the silks in this amaranthine.”

Ildiko drew closer to one of the vats and peered into a contained sea of magenta colored liquid.  The dye shimmered under the glow of hanging lanterns strung from poles driven into the ground.  Her typical everyday garb reflected the colors she preferred – blacks and greens, dove grays, and the ambers and browns of autumn.  She had never before favored reds or pinks, but staring at the lustrous amaranthine tempted her to consider a scarf in that color at a later date.

She leaned farther into the vat.

“Be careful you don’t fall in, Your Highness.”

The dyer’s warning came too late.  While Ildiko didn’t pitch headlong into the vat, the necklace she wore slipped its clasped and fell into the color with a gentle plop.  Its onyx cabochon and chain sank, leaving behind an expanding pattern of circular waves to mark where it fell.

“Oh no!”  Ildiko didn’t hesitate and plunged her arms all the way in into the vat until the dye lapped at her collarbones.  Heedless of the dyer’s and Anhuset’s cries, she flailed in the dye, fingers clutching until she caught the tail end of the sinking chain on which the cabochon hung.  She jerked it out of the vat, splashing dye across her neck and the underside of her jaw.

The necklace hung from her dripping fingers, and she lifted it to show Anhuset.  “Got it!” she crowed triumphantly.

The master dyer stared at her silently, features pinched.  Anhuset also stared at her but with eyes narrowed and lips alternately twitching and compressing as she held back her laughter.

Ildiko glanced down at herself, soaked to the skin in dye.  Her green tunic had turned a muddy brown, and where the color had washed bare skin, she was painted an interesting plum shade.  She looked again to Anhuset whose sharp teeth flashed in a wide grin.  The master dyer didn’t share in her amusement.  The pinched look had been replaced by a wide-eyed stare and a face gone pale as old ash.  Even Ildiko couldn’t mistake his dread.

She hastened to assure him.  “No harm done, Master Soté.  Nothing a good scrubbing with soap and hot water won’t fix.”  Ildiko almost smiled but changed her mind at the last moment.  She might not possess the fangs the Kai sported, but that didn’t mean they found her smile any more reassuring than she found theirs.

Anhuset snorted.  “Don’t count on it, Highness.  Remember what Soté said earlier, and you’ve seen the dyers here.  The amaranthine holds fast.  Cloth, skin, hair.  You’ll be an even more unusual color for several days.

Brishen had once said her skin reminded him of the bitter mollusk the Kai boiled to release the dye.  Ildiko raised a bright pink arm, turning it one way and then the other.  Her clothing was ruined, but at least now she could brag she had color to her skin.  She shrugged and tucked the broken necklace into her bodice.  ““Might I borrow a dry cloth, please?” she asked the dyer.

Master Soté leapt to do her bidding as if shot from a crossbow.  In moments, she clutched two towels while Anhuset stood attendance, holding a spare set.

Her dip into the dye vat cut their tour short.  Once dried, Ildiko apologized for the trouble and promised a fearful Master Soté that His Highness would not be angry and skin him for saddle leather just because his wife managed to dye herself pink in his dye house.

Soté was all that was polite and accommodating as he escorted her and Anhuset to where their mounts waited, but Ildiko had the distinct impression he couldn’t get rid of them fast enough.  She mounted her horse, ignoring the raised eyebrows and gawking stares of the rest of their escort.

Anhuset handed her cloak to her.  “You’re still damp, Highness.  The cloak will keep you from getting cold.”  And keep her from distracting the Kai guardsmen who’d accompanied them from Saggara to the dye house and tried not to be too obvious in their gaping at her.

Ildiko sniffed and wrapped the cloak snugly around herself.  She didn’t regret her actions.  They had been instinctive and careless, true, but the necklace was precious—a last gift from her mother before she died.  Ildiko would have dove headfirst into a vat of boiling horse piss to retrieve it.  Still, she didn’t relish the idea of her neck and arms being stained the color of young plum for a fortnight.

They travelled the main road to the manor, the young Solaris oaks silent sentinels to their passing.  The trees gave way to a series of earthenworks and masonry walls that formed Saggara’s outer redoubt.  Behind the barriers perched one of two stables that housed the many horses kept at Saggara and a set of barracks that provided hearth and roof for those soldiers who’d chosen not to live on the lakeshore.

Cheers, whistles and catcalls sounded nearby.  Ildiko had heard them before when she’d ventured out onto one of the balconies to admire the landscape or the pattern of stars that wheeled above her.  She glanced at Anhuset.  “What is that?”

Anhuset called out a command, and their party turned as one toward the sounds.  She pointed to a low earthen wall on which several Kai either stood or sat and watched something beyond Ildiko’s line of sight.

They followed the curve of the wall and paused at a wide entrance that opened onto a makeshift training arena.  Archers’ targets shared space alongside one wall with straw men in various states of dismemberment.  Weapons of every type, from wood to steel, occupied another space.  There were other contraptions as well, items that looked like they were used for training from horseback, but in the dim torchlight flickering across the arena, Ildiko could only guess at their purpose.

The cheers and shouts that drew her here were for the combatants in the middle of the arena.  Nine pairs of Kai faced off against each other, each man or woman intent on grappling their opponent into submission.  The men were dressed down to simple linen cloths that girded the loins and were knotted at the waist.  The women wore similar clothing except for the addition of a sleeveless gambeson cut to above the navel.  Quilted and layered, it protected the breasts like a padded breastplate.

Lithe, sinuous, and muscular, the battling Kai reminded her of cats.  The light from the torches cast the combatants in high relief.  Their skin glistened with sweat as they crashed together, bent, twisted, and threw each other to the ground in multiple attempts to win the match.

Anhuset tapped Ildiko on the shoulder and pointed to one of the battling pair.  “There is Brishen, Your Highness.  He fights Nefiritsen.  A difficult opponent to wrestle.”

Ildiko guided her horse to a better spot so she could see.  Brishen and Nefiritsen were locked in a knot of arms and legs, muscles straining as they each tried to bring their opponent to the ground.

Not cats, she thought.  Eels, very much alive and aggressive.  They wound around each other, wavy and serpentine as if their bones had softened and stretched until they could bend and twist in a combat so supple it seemed more dance than fight and looked utterly inhuman.

Like the other Kai in the arena, Brishen wore only the linen loincloth.  He’d scraped his hair back and tied it at the nape.  The style highlighted the sloped almond shape of his eyes and the high curve of his cheekbones.    He was shiny with sweat and streaked with dirt.  A handsome man still, despite the grime.

The thought brought Ildiko up short.  This wasn’t the first time she’d noted her husband’s appearance in such a way.  She’d done so before three evenings past, and then she’d called him beautiful.

They had shared a bed, though they had done nothing more than sleep.  Ildiko had quickly grown used to Brishen’s presence beside her, the heat of his body beneath the covers.  He was a peaceful sleeper—no twitches or sighs, no snoring.  She sometimes wondered if he or any of the Kai dreamed as humans did.

After their return from High Salure and Serovek’s dinner, she’d fallen asleep as soon as Brishen ordered her under the covers.  Unlike every evening prior, she’d awakened before him and discovered a man sublime in slumber.

He stretched recumbent on one side, facing her, one arm tucked against his chest, the other extended toward her.  A few locks of black hair partially obscured his features, but Ildiko could still see the sharp line of his jaw and equally sharp bridge of his nose.  For a man who smiled and laughed so easily, his mouth had a distinct downturn, a gift of heritage from the cold-blooded mother he so despised.

His deep-set eyes were closed, the thick lashes fluttering with the occasional twitch of his eyelids.  A faint frown marred the stillness of his face for a moment, lowering the slant of his eyebrows.  It faded as quickly as it appeared, and he sighed softly in his sleep.  Ildiko reached out to smooth his brow.  She pulled back, unwilling to disturb him and end her chance to openly admire him.

He had rolled in the covers at some point.  They bunched at his waist and twisted around one leg, leaving the other exposed to the cool night air that drafted in thin streams into the room through the window shutters’ narrow slats.

Ildiko blinked, and a surge of heat climbed from her belly to her chest, making the breath catch in her throat.

He was naked under the sheets.  She’d seen him bare-chested before, but he usually came to bed partially dressed in loose breeches of parchment-thin linen.  That long leg, bared to the evening air from ankle to flank revealed he’d chosen to forego such modesty.

The Kai were a tall, graceful people, their willowy physiques deceptive.  It was known among the human nations that the Kai were immensely strong, with bones like iron and just as heavy.  The Beladine lord Serovek was a big man, powerfully built and looked like he could carry a draft horse on his shoulders.  Brishen, by contrast, had seemed almost delicate, yet Ildiko suspected his weight equaled if not surpassed Serovek’s, as did his strength.

Resting beside her, he seemed to Ildiko a living statue, carved from dark granite into a form of supple elegance and power.  He was beautiful, and the tremor change in her perception of him robbed her lungs of air.

He opened both eyes suddenly, making her jump.  Two shimmering gold coins stared at her unblinking.  “Good evening, wife,” he said in a voice raspy with the remnants of sleep.  A closed-lip smile curved his mouth upward and deepened the tiny lines that fanned from the corners of his eyes.  “You’re staring.  Do I have a fly on my nose?”

Fighting down a blush at being caught gawking at her own husband, Ildiko lightly tapped the tip of his nose with one finger.  “I was trying to find a way to kill it without punching you in the face.  Lucky for you, it flew away.”

He clasped her wrist and brought her palm to his mouth for a kiss.  Generous with his affections, he’d done this many times before, but this time was different.  This time the brush of his lips across the sensitive center of her palm sent hot shivers down her arms and back.  Ildiko freed her hand from his grasp and sat up to fluff the pillows behind her.  She avoided his gaze and smoothed the covers over her lap.  “I’m sorry to have woken you.”

She caught the faint narrowing of his gaze from the corner of her eye.  She was acting oddly, and he knew it.

He made to sit up and recline beside her but paused.  A gravid silence hovered between them before Brishen cursed softly in bast-Kai.  He yanked the covers over both legs and sat up.  His fingers on her chin were light as he turned her head to face him.

The firelight yellow of his eyes had paled, and the smile that greeted her when he awoke was gone.  “Forgive me, Ildiko.  It was too hot yesterday for bedclothes, and I usually sleep unclad.  I meant to be up and dressed before you.”  He dropped his hand and motioned for her to turn away.  “This will only take me a moment.”

He made to rise, halting when Ildiko grabbed his arm.  She heard it in his voice, threads of disappointment, embarrassment.  He thought her disgusted by the sight of him naked beside her and barely covered by the bed covers.  The opposite couldn’t be more true.

That persistent blush did a slow crawl up her neck.  This time Ildiko ignored it and grinned at her husband.  “Don’t be foolish, Brishen.  I should be the one embarrassed.  You caught me eyeing you like prized horseflesh.”  She chuckled as his eyes rounded.  “Don’t look so shocked.  I may be human, but I’m not blind.  I’ve come to appreciate Kai beauty.”  She raised her chin.  “And I refuse to apologize for indulging in that admiration of my own husband.”

Brishen’s wide grin matched her own, even if his teeth far outmatched hers in intimidation.  He tucked his pillows behind his back and recaptured her hand.  Ildiko didn’t pull away this time.  “And here I thought I’d married a shy, blushing maiden,” he teased.

Ildiko sniffed and tugged aside the collar of her night rail to reveal her neck, now feverish to the touch and certainly bright red.  “You’re partially right.  I’m blushing right now.”  She released the collar and gave him an arch stare.  “I am not, however, a maiden.”

To a Gauri nobleman intent on siring heirs of his blood, confirmation of a new bride’s innocence was paramount.  Ildiko’s cousins had been guarded like prisoners by an army of governesses and bodyguards as if their maidenheads were made of precious stones instead of flesh.  Any man deemed unworthy as suitor material by the royal family risked life and limb by so much as casting an admiring glance toward one of the prisoners.

Ildiko’s own virtue was far less prized and as such, her aunt didn’t act quite the zealot toward protecting it.  Brishen had never inquired, and she hoped it was from lack of interest more than an assumption that she was yet uninitiated into the physical intimacies between men and women.

Brishen wiggled his eyebrows at her and crossed his arms.  “Ah, a tale of your past.  You keep your secrets close, wife.  Tell me this one.  What lovers taught you the pleasures of the flesh?”

She squeezed his fingers, relieved that her admission incited only curiosity.  Maybe the Kai didn’t place the same value on such a silly notion as the Gauri did.

“Lover,” she said.  “Just one and I didn’t find it all that pleasurable.”  Brishen lost his slight smile but remained silent.  Ildiko shrugged.  “It was nice but certainly not worth drinking lorus flower tea beforehand.”  She shuddered at that memory.

“Did he force you?”  Brishen asked the question in a voice gone guttural.  Tiny white sparks flashed in his eyes.

Ildiko patted his arm and eased her hand out of his before he forgot he could crush her fingers with one squeeze.  “Of course not.  He was a pleasant lad, the youngest of a minor nobleman’s eight sons.  Neither one of us knew what we were doing really.  It was messy and awkward and not worth bothering with after the third time.”

Brishen’s mouth contorted into strange shapes as he struggled to hold back his laughter.  “Why didn’t you try someone else?  An experienced lover would have taught you much.  It’s called ‘pleasures of the flesh’ for a reason, Ildiko and goes far beyond clumsy fumblings under the covers.”

She waved a nonchalant hand.  “It still wouldn’t have been worth it in my opinion.  Lorus flower tea prevents a man’s seed from catching in the womb, but it tastes so foul even the memory of it makes my stomach turn.  Surely, there is nothing so pleasurable to make it worth drinking that swill.”

Her comment made Brishen laugh outright, his fangs gleaming white in the room’s semi-darkness.  He reached for her braid and wrapped it loosely around his forearm.  “Ah, my Ildiko, what a practical soul you have.”

“I consider it an attribute, not a fault.  More people could use a dose of practicality now and then.”

He tugged on her braid.  “I don’t disparage you.  I find such a trait one of your many charms.”

The color of his eyes had deepened once more to the lamplight gold he’d shown her when he first woke.  While Ildiko couldn’t track the movement of his eyes except for the slight jerk at the edges of his eye sockets, she had the sense his gaze touched long on her hair, her shoulders and neck, her bare arms.

The fine tingle dancing along her skin transformed to a sizzle.  Ildiko inhaled sharply as Brishen leaned close to nuzzle the sensitive spot at her temple with his nose.  His breath tickled her ear.  “One of many,” he whispered, and his words were a caress along her back.

Brishen’s lips fluttered along the edge of her ear to her earlobe.  Caught between the sensual beguilement of his light touch and the unconquerable fear that he might inadvertently snap off her earlobe with his teeth, Ildiko sat frozen, her breath riding through her mouth and nose in shallow pants.

As if he sensed her wariness more than her desire, he pulled away slowly, shoulders rigid, face wiped clean of expression.  He uncoiled her braid from his arm and smoothed it over her shoulder, his movements controlled and careful.  He drew away from her in both body and spirit.

Ildiko clutched his arm, unwilling to have him leave her side.  “I enjoy your touch, Brishen.”

The stiffness eased from his shoulders.  He gave her a wry look and pressed his palm to the pale expanse of skin just below her collarbones.  His hand rose and fell in quick time to her breathing.  “I believe you, but this tells me you fear it as well.”

She winced.  “Your teeth are so…sharp.”

“They are, but I’m not careless, wife.  And if for some unfathomable reason I accidently bite you, you’re welcome to bite me back.”

His attempt at humor worked, and Ildiko chuckled.  “Brishen—”  She offered him a toothy grin.  “These wouldn’t do much damage.”

He traced the line of her collarbones with the rough pads of his fingers, their dark claws a whisper of movement across her flesh.  “You have obviously never been badly bitten by a horse.”

Strange as the analogy was, she had no argument to rebut it.  Instead she contented herself with lifting strands of his hair from his shoulder and letting it slide between her fingers.  Brishen’s eyes drifted shut at the caress, and he shifted position so that he laid crossways in the bed, his head in her lap, his back to her.

Ildiko smiled.  If they both didn’t have a hundred tasks to complete once they rose, she’d be content to stroke his silky hair for hours.

A lock of hair snagged in her loose grip.  “Sorry,” she said.  “You’ve a few tangles back here.”

“You can brush it for me when we get up.”

Very clever, she thought.  “I’ll brush your hair if you tell me about your first lover.  Hopefully, the encounter was more memorable than mine.”

She felt the vibrations of his laughter against her leg and across her pelvis.  He stayed quiet, and she pulled on one of his tangles.  “I told you a past tale, Brishen.  Your turn.”

“Wouldn’t you rather hear about how my nurse caught me practicing how to write my name by pissing on my bedroom walls?”

Ildiko rolled her eyes.  “No, I don’t.  You just told me too much already.”

Another silent laugh shimmied down her leg.  Brishen turned onto his other side to face her.  His head pressed into her belly, warm and heavy.  He took her hand and placed it back on his head.  She took the hint and resumed carding his hair.

“My first lover was thirteen years older than me and the most famous courtesan in Haradis.  My father felt if anyone was to teach his sons the skills of the bedchamber, it should be someone well known for them.”  Ildiko halted, and Brishen tapped the back of her hand to continue.  “You asked,” he said.

Ildiko wasn’t shocked by his revelation and in many ways understood Djedor’s logic.  She twirled strands of Brishen’s hair around her finger, let it unspool and twirled it again.  Men, as well as women, sold their favors in Pricid’s flesh markets.  Though how she might have sneaked one into the palace was another subject altogether.  “I should have hired myself a courtesan,” she mused.

Brishen startled beneath her hand, and he sat up clumsily, half swaddled as he was in blankets and sheets.  He gaped at Ildiko.  “You are an odd creature,” he finally said.

She wished for a lit candle so she might better see him in the slowly darkening room.  “You’ll adjust,” she said in her sweetest voice and promptly swatted him with a stray pillow.

He toppled to the side only to spring up, a matching pillow in his hands.  “That is a declaration of war, Ildiko.”

“Of course it is.”  She took another swing at him with her pillow only to be interrupted by a pounding at the door.

Instead of his servant’s voice as she expected, Brishen’s steward called from the other side.  “Your Highness, the constable from Halmatus township has arrived and seeks an audience.”

Brishen’s shoulders drooped, and he dropped his pillow with a sigh.  “I’ve not wasted my hours here with you, wife, but I’ve matters to attend to, and no one waits at the leisure of a lowly prince who isn’t the heir apparent.”

Ildiko shared his disappointment.  She had a task list longer than her arm to take care of herself, but it didn’t lessen her regret at having to end these moments with Brishen.  She knee-walked across the bed to him and looped her arms around his neck.  “I owe you a hair-brushing,” she said.

He enclosed her in a loose embrace and smiled down at her.  “You do.  I’ll collect later.  Count on it.”  He kissed her forehead and lowered his arms.  “Off with you.  With any luck, we can share the mid-evening meal together.”

She left him for her room, giving him a last glance and nod as he watched her leave from his spot in the middle of the rumpled bed.  Her ear still tingled where he’d kissed her, and her back felt feverish at the memory of his touch.

Anhuset’s quick tap on her shoulder brought Ildiko back to the present and the reality of horses, torchlight and Kai fighters trying to kill each other on a dirty training field.

“Highness, do you want someone to summon him?”  Anhuset nodded at Brishen still locked in martial embrace with his opponent.

Ildiko flinched, barely able to watch.  Someone was going to end up with a broken neck or broken something before this was done.  “No,” she said.  “Let’s leave.  I don’t want to distract him, and I’ll see him soon enough at the house.”  She turned her horse amidst the soldiers who accompanied them to the dye house.  They made to follow her but stopped when she held up a hand.  “Stay if you wish.  We’re within the redoubt.  I don’t need an escort to the house.”

She nudged her mount into a trot, Anhuset riding beside her.  They weren’t far from the iron gates that opened to a manicured loggia and more orderly landscape.  A flash of motion teased the corner of her eye.  Ildiko turned in time to see Anhuset draw her sword, utter a swear word and resheathe the sword.

Brishen loped toward them, long legs flexing as he cut across their path.  Ildiko had barely slowed her horse when he caught up, grasped her saddle pommel and landed behind her in a smooth, running mount.

“That is the worst display of showing off I’ve ever seen,” Anhuset said in forbidding tones.

“Of course it is.”  Brishen wrapped an arm around Ildiko’s waist and pressed himself against her back.  “I’m trying to impress my wife after all.”

“I’m very impressed.”  Ildiko knew he could hear her smile in her voice

Brishen’s hands wandered over the folds of her cloak.  “Why are you damp?  And you smell like salt.  Did you fall into a dye vat?”

“Dove in is more like it,” Anhuset volunteered in cheery tones.

Ildiko narrowed her eyes.  “You can leave now, sha-Anhuset.  I’m sure Brishen makes a capable guard to get me safely to the front door in the next fifteen steps by himself.”

Anhuset’s unrepentant cackle echoed in the night air as she saluted and wheeled her horse back toward the outer redoubt.

Ildiko guided her horse to a waiting groom.  Brishen dismounted first and Ildiko waved away his offer to help her down.  She was perfectly capable of climbing off her own horse.

Hoping to delay her confession and avoid showing off her new skin color to Brishen, asked him about his wrestling bout.  “Did you win?”

“No.  Nefiritsen is my best wrestler.  He remains unbeaten in all matches so far.  If any of us must face an enemy in unarmed combat, we want him beside us.”

They passed through the great hall and climbed one of the two stairwells that flanked either side of the high-ceilinged chamber.  They navigated a long hallway dimly lit by candlelight.  Ildiko didn’t stumble around in the dark as often these days, but she was glad for the candles and their anemic luminescence.

She stopped in front of her door, turned to face Brishen, and adopted what she hoped was a nonchalant expression, especially when he was standing before her half naked.   She tried not to let her avid gaze linger on him too long.  “You’ll want a bath I’m sure.  I’ll meet you later for a meal or some wine?”

She made to open her door.  Brishen placed a hand over hers.  “You’ll not get rid of me that quickly, wife.  My cousin said you dove into a dye vat.  I’ll be on my way once you satisfy my curiosity.”

Resolved to the inevitable, she motioned him inside.  Sinhue was elsewhere, probably getting an earful from another servant or soldier about how Brishen’s homely wife tried to make herself more pleasing to the eye by dying herself pink.  If horses traveled as fast as gossip, they’d blow their riders clear off their backs.

Brishen laughed only a little when Ildiko removed her cloak, shrugged off her ruined tunic and revealed her arms, neck and shift dappled in varying shades of the summer rose.

“I look ridiculous,” she huffed.

“You look pink,” he replied.  He circled her slowly.  “And you chose to bathe in amaranthine why?”

Ildiko told him the story of her necklace.  “I didn’t want to lose it.  I know someone could have fished it out of the vat for me, but I panicked.”  She lifted the necklace from where it nestled under her bodice laces and handed it to Brishen.  “I think it’s worth very little in coin but is precious to me.  The clasp broke as I leaned over to get a closer look at the cold amaranthine.”

Brishen raised the chain for a better look.  “It’s a good piece.  Remember the constable from Halmatus?”  Ildiko nodded.  “A silversmith resides there.  He can repair the clasp or fashion a new chain for your necklace.”

Ildiko eyed the necklace longingly.  Her hand itched to snatch it out of Brishen’s grasp, but she squelched the urge.  He deserved her trust, even with those things precious and irreplaceable to her.  He’d certainly earned that trust though it was still hard for her to surrender—even for a brief time—the only thing personal and material of her mother’s.  Ildiko clasped her hands behind her back.  “Would it take long to fix the clasp?”

He must have heard something in her voice, something hesitant and fearful.  “Not long.  I can deliver it myself if you like.”

Ildiko clapped her hands.  “Oh yes, please, would you?”  Mortification rushed in hard on the heels of euphoria.  “I’m sorry, Brishen,” she said.  “You’re not a messenger boy.  Someone else can go.”

Brishen offered the necklace to her, his head cocked in a way that Ildiko was fast recognizing as a sign of his amusement.  “You misunderstand me, Ildiko.  I’m not going alone.  You’ll go with me.  I’ve no eye for the delicacies of a woman’s trinkets.  You can deal with the silversmith.  I’ll just be there to keep you company and cross the man’s palm with the coin he demands for his work.”

She scooped the necklace out of his palm and held it close.  “That is a wonderful idea.  I know you’re worried about the dangers of Beladine raiders, but I’d love to visit more of the towns and villages under Saggara’s protection.”

He’d been reluctant to let her venture to Lakeside, convinced only by Anhuset’s promise to bring a small army as escort and the fact the town was within walking distance of the estate and redoubt.

Brishen lifted her hand, turning it one way and then the other.  “At least it wasn’t nettle dye,” he said and kissed her knuckles before leaving her for a much-needed bath.

Ildiko frowned, puzzled, and then snickered.  Nettle dye was green.  There were worse colors to sport than pink.

They met again for their supper in the great hall and afterwards in his chamber for another game of Butcher’s Covenant in which Brishen out-maneuvered her and slaughtered every man on her side of the board without losing more than three on his side.

“You’re getting better,” he said as she lay the intricately carved pieces into a silk lined boxed and closed the lid.

Ildiko snorted.  “That’s a lie and you know it.  Just when I think I’ve outsmarted you, you kill off one of my men.”

Brishen poured them both a goblet of wine from a nearby pitcher.  “You’ve outsmarted me on several occasions in the game.  Your weakness is you over-think your strategy and question yourself until you react instead of plan.”  He handed her one of the goblets along with a comb.  “You are, however, far better with a comb than you are with Butcher’s Covenant.”

Ildiko took the comb.  “That doesn’t comfort me.  One is an exercise in strategy, the other carding wool.”

He dropped down onto his haunches in front of her chair and tilted his head back to gaze at her.  “I am no sheep.”

She gathered his hair into a waterfall that fell down his back and set to combing out the dark strands.  “Trust me, Brishen, no one with eyes will ever mistake you or any Kai for that matter for anything other a wolf.”

Brishen sat passive before her, his wide shoulders slumped, his breathing slow as Ildiko glided the comb through his hair in long strokes.

“Tell me a tale,” she said.

It was their bargain.  She groomed his hair, and he told her stories of his childhood in Pricid.  Some were funny, others grim though he told them a matter-of-fact voice as if it was quite commonplace for  mothers to lash their children with a horsewhip because they had a slight lisp and couldn’t quite master one of the simple spells all Kai children learned.
From what she gathered, Brishen had been rambunctious, resourceful and clever.  And he’d been born with a compassion and nobility of character neither of his parents possessed.

“What would you like to hear?” he asked.

Ildiko thought about it for a moment.  Her request was more for an answer to a question than a story of the past.  “Why are you nothing like the man who sired you and the woman who bore you?”

It was as if she touched with him a hot brand.  Brishen jerked forward, back stiff as a spear haft.  He gained his feet in one fluid motion and turned to Ildiko with his hand outstretched.  “Come with me,” he said.

She rose, abandoned the comb on the chair seat and took his hand without question.  He led her through the manor, down to the first floor and out a door that led from a buttery to the bristling thicket of brambles and wild oranges that hemmed in one side of the estate.

A new moon hung thin in the sky and did nothing to illuminate the earth below it.  Ildiko stumbled along behind Brishen, blind as a mole in daylight.  Her husband moved surefooted in the suffocating darkness, guiding Ildiko toward a destination she assumed would answer a question she was starting to regret asking.

They stopped before a patch of wall that surrounded part of the manor’s loggia.  Brishen uttered a word in a language Ildiko was certain couldn’t have been bast-Kai.  A shadow, paler than its siblings, parted from the stone, exposing a set of three indentions cut shallow in one of the masonry blocks.

Brishen placed the three fingers of his right hand into the depressions and whispered another arcane word.  Ildiko gasped as the block softened until it melted into the stones on either side of it, leaving an opening black and deep.

She almost batted his arm away when he reached inside the hollow.  For all she knew, something with teeth loner and sharper than a Kai’s lurked in that space.  Brishen didn’t hesitate and pulled out a small urn.  He faced Ildiko, gently cradling the urn.

“What is it?” she asked.

“The answer to your question.”

He lifted the lid.  For a moment nothing happened, then suddenly a feeble light no bigger than a dandelion puff and just as delicate floated upward until it hovered above its housing.

The glow of Brishen’s eyes provided the only illumination between them, but it was enough to gild the tiny light as it flickered and bobbed between them.  “My sister,” he said softly.  “Or her memory at least.”

Ildiko gasped softly.  His sister.  He’d never spoken of another sibling, only the indifferent brother she met briefly in Haradis.  Brishen’s revelation begged more questions, the first being why would his sibling’s mortem light be here at Saggara, hidden away by spellwork, instead of at Emlak where the Kai held the memories of their dead?

“She was never formally named, but I call her Anaknet.  I’d seen eleven seasons when she was born.”  The tiny mortem light floated toward him and balanced on the back of his hand.  “She was born with a club foot, an imperfect child and unacceptable to Secmis.  I thought her pretty.”

A sinking dread grew in Ildiko’s chest.  He would tell her something terrible, something to bind her insides into knots .  She was tempted to cover her ears, tell him to stop and apologize for asking her silly questions, but she stood silent before him and waited for this childhood tale to unfold.

“Secmis murdered her three days after her birth.  She broke her neck.  I saw her do it.”

Ildiko’s knees almost gave under her.  “My gods,” she breathed, horrified at Secmis’s monstrous cruelty and the knowledge that Brishen, a young boy, had witnessed that cruelty.

Brishen continued, his voice flat and distant.  “Secmis is a mage-leech.  She gains power and long life from forbidden spellwork and the consumption of souls and memories.  She was old when my father was a child, though now she goes by a different name and claims lineage from another clan.”  He smiled as Anaknet’s mortem light danced over his palm.

“I took Anaknet’s light and released her soul before my mother could steal both.  Anhuset and my old nurse Peret helped me with the lamentation and got me through the memory sickness.  Peret kept the light for me tucked away in the hollow of a birch tree in her sister’s garden.  When I was given Saggara, I brought Anaknet here.”

He coaxed the mortem light back into the urn, closed the lid and returned the urn to its hiding place.  Different spells reformed the masonry block until it hardened, leaving only an expanse of blank wall.

Brishen faced Ildiko fully, and even through a vision compromised by darkness and tears, she still saw the sparks of red that danced in his eyes.  “I hate my mother, Ildiko,” he said in that same flat voice.  “Down to the marrow of my bones.  One day I will kill her.  She knows this.”  He looked at the place where the urn rested.  “Anaknet is why I am who I am, wife.  Because I refuse to become like the monstrosities who bore us both.”

Ildiko sniffled and scraped her sleeve across her cheeks in the futile effort to staunch the flow of tears.  She reached out to Brishen, carefully, as if he were an injured animal caught in a trap.  He accepted her touch, and soon she was wrapped in his embrace.

“I’m sorry,” she sobbed into his shoulder.  “So very sorry.”  She stroked his hair, holding him for what seemed like hours, listening to the rapid hammer of his heartbeat and the shallow breaths that sometimes verged on sorrowful moans.  The Kai didn’t weep, but they mourned just as deeply as humans.

When he finally stepped away from her, his eyes had lost their red sparks and Ildiko’s had dried of their tears.  She grasped one of his hands in both of hers.  “I swear I will take this knowledge to my deathbed, Brishen.”

One corner of his mouth turned up, and he meshed his fingers with hers.  “I know.  It’s why I told you.”

They walked back to the manor in silence just as a thin line of crimson spread across the far horizon to announce the dawn.   Sinhue greeted Ildiko at her door.  “Your Highness, are you unwell?”  She ushered her charge inside and made her sit on the bed while she poured water into a cup and handed it to her.  “This might help.  Do you need a cloth for your eyes?  They’re swollen and red.”

Ildiko sought and found the a partial lie to tell.  “I was crying.”  She hiccupped a giggle at Sinhue’s bewildered look.  “Humans weep when they’re sad.  I was missing my family.  I’m fine now, though I’ll take that cloth.”

By the time she’d bathed her hot face and changed into her night rail, the sun had risen enough to turn the plains into a golden sea.  Ildiko slipped quietly into Brishen’s room and found him, still dressed, standing in a clot of shadows near the open window.  He stared eastward, into the blinding dawn and didn’t turn as she padded closer to him.

“Stop, Ildiko.”

Startled by the abrupt command, she halted.  “Brishen?”

A faint sigh, and his voice gentled.  “It will be best if you sleep in your bed alone today.”

An icy rush of hurt punched her in the gut.  She staggered inwardly for a moment, then righted herself.  This had nothing to do with her.  His recounting of his sister’s death had left her emotionally wrung out.  She suspected that for him it had torn open old wounds that had scabbed but never healed.  He wanted to tend them in isolation.

Solitude, however, wasn’t always the best comfort.  She eased another step forward.  “Are you sure you wish to be alone in your grief?”

His dry chuckle held no humor.  “If it were just grief, no.  I’d want you here.” He still refused to face her.  “I’m not only grieving, Ildiko.  I’m bitter; I’m angry and I’m lusting.”  His voice deepened on the last part of his declaration and sent Ildiko’s heartbeat into a gallop.  “Those three emotions together offer nothing but misery and violence for both human and Kai.  It’s dangerous for you to be in here with me.  Go to your room.  I’ll talk with you tomorrow.”

She fled, carrying with her his words before she shut and bolted the door between them.

“Thank you, sweet Ildiko.”

 ~!~!~!~!~!~

IVORIES

by Aria M. Jones

Copyright 2010 by Aria M. Jones

All rights reserved

IVORIES

Eleven year old Eleanor bit her fingernails not out of nervousness, but necessity.  There was a trick to it: you used your teeth like shears, snipping through the nail and following the curve from left to right.  Done properly, it felt good, even better than removing a splinter or peeling off a ripened scab.

As her mother’s car pulled out of the driveway, she spat out the ragged crescent into her palm and flicked it onto Mrs. Lundemann’s manicured lawn.  Her piano teacher’s white and green house stood at the end of the block, with a pink crabapple tree out front. Clusters of yellow day-lilies grew by the front door, but all the windows had their curtains tightly drawn against the light.

The September heat left the dark tangle of Eleanor’s hair damp with sweat. She lifted it off the back of her neck and bit off another nail.  The curtain in the front window twitched, then settled as if stilled by an invisible hand.  Swinging the canvas bag that contained her sheet music, she took the long way around the garage to the back door, past the bird feeders and painted wooden lumberjacks windmilling their arms in the afternoon sun.  She walked slowly, stepping on each crack in the sidewalk, fingertips pressed hard against her lower lip.

Her piano teacher always insisted upon short fingernails for all her students.  If they were too long, Mrs. Lundemann required they be trimmed back to their proper length, right then and there as they sat at the piano.  Eleanor dreaded this, a hushed performance punctuated by the staccato snick of a nail trimming flying off and burying itself in the blue shag carpet.

“You cannot play with nails like that, dear– always clicking, clicking on the keyboard.  What will your audience think?”

The last remark was always delivered in a mocking trill, as though Mrs. Lundemann gloated over her pupil’s carelessness– one more black mark against Eleanor’s record, along with her creased and dog-eared sheet music.  Just a few months ago, her teacher seized her wrist in mock threat, brandished the clippers playfully and announced that she’d cut them herself if necessary.  Eleanor barely repressed a shudder at the thought.  Her teacher’s nails were always trimmed to the quick with no white showing. Her hands had a slippery, hairless quality to them, veins like milky blue creeper-vines spidering across her wrists and up her arms.  Eleanor did not like them touching her.

In spite of all that, she had forgotten again.  On the car ride from school, she’d begun on her left hand, gnawing furiously and hoping she would finish before the lesson started.  Eleanor glanced down at her watch.  She was five minutes late.   Still chewing, she scattered the rest of the clippings in the petunia bed.  The thumbnail went last, but in her haste she bit off too much.  The flesh beneath was pink and tender, a sliver of red now unprotected.  Eleanor scowled.  It would hurt each time she hit the D key during the Bach prelude, and because it was Bach, she would need to hit it often.
****

The house smelled like Mrs. Lundemann herself, of talcum powder laced with lilac. With the curtains closed– to prevent fading of the carpets, her teacher had explained– only a small lamp shed a weak pool of light over the piano. The relative darkness made the living room look cave-like and mysterious, and at the far end crouched the piano like a three-legged beast, lid agape and the pedals thrust foward like a single heavy arm.

The kitchen rang with a hollow echo when Eleanor shut the door.  By the entrance was a low counter with a chair and a squat little bookshelf full of childrens’ games and books.  She hadn’t always been the first student of the afternoon; on some days while she waited for her turn, she’d paged through the yellowed copies of Garfield comics, ignoring the wooden tic-tac-toe set with its one missing black peg.  Once, she’d opened the set of pick-up sticks and spilled them out over the cool formica counter, only to have Mrs. Lundemann scold her from the living room for making noise.  Eleanor didn’t see the point of having games that weren’t  meant to be played.

“Come in, dear.  Have you washed your hands?”

Her teacher’s voice drifted from another room, disembodied in the quiet house.  Eleanor let the faucet run for a full minute, soaping her hands twice and stretching on her tiptoes to reach the paper towels.  When she walked back to the living room, her teacher was already seated beside the piano in her low-backed chair, legs crossed at the ankle.

“Shall we start with the prelude?”

Mrs. Lundemann had been a concert pianist in her day and still dressed the part.  Her grey hair lay in even curls across her forehead, and around her neck she wore a pale green scarf with blue roses, fastened at the shoulder with a coral pin.  Eleanor took her time adjusting the piano bench so that her feet rested flat upon the floor. She spread out her sheet music, moving as slowly as she dared.

Mrs. Lundemann was not fooled.  She picked up the long bamboo back scratcher she used to tap the back of her students’ wrists as a reminder to keep them straight, and a small smile played around her lips.  “Begin.”

After the warm-up scales, Eleanor’s playing went remarkably well.  She liked this piece, and she liked how the notes danced up and down the length of the piano in rapid succession.  Here came a rippling arpeggio, played hand over hand with graceful ornaments, there went a melodic third, golden and even in its harmony.  The old piano sang, strings vibrating deep its in dark frame like the thrum of a beating heart.  From the corner of her eye, she saw Mrs. Lundemann nod in approval.  Eleanor even made it past the difficult bits she stumbled on last week.  It seemed almost effortless, her fingers flowing over the black and white keys without conscious thought.

Presto, prestissimo, molto vivace, she thought, liking the way the words rolled around her mouth like melted chocolate.

The bamboo back scratcher descended upon Eleanor’s wrist in a stinging slap.  “Don’t speed up, dear.  You must never rush Bach.”

Forceful taps emphasized the last three words, and a wave of heat rose past Eleanor’s cheeks to the tips of her ears.  She bit down hard on her lower lip.

The bamboo back scratcher retreated.  “From the beginning, please.”

Mrs. Lundemann’s metronome sat atop the piano in a black, triangular case.  She set its metal arm swinging, the clacking sound like the opening and closing of a tiny steel trap.  Eleanor gritted her teeth and began again.  This time the music lumbered along, chained to the metronome’s steady beat.  That it kept perfect time she did not doubt– that was its job.  But it didn’t feel right; the piano no longer sang.  To her dismay, tinny notes skittered off into the ether or were swallowed by the ponderous left-hand harmony.  Sometimes the metronome’s count forged crazily ahead, dragging the melody behind it.  Other times it lagged, dogging her notes with a half-beat delay, all the vivace dissipated by its mathematical precision.

Mrs. Lundemann called for many more stops and starts, occasionally leaning forward to demonstrate a difficult measure, her hand nimble as a crab.  Her lilac perfume grew stifling in the closed room.  The entire lesson crept by this way, the hall clock chiming each quarter hour with agonizing slowness.  When only fifteen minutes remained, Mrs. Lundemann interrupted her own lecture about dynamics to fan herself.

“My, it’s stuffy in here,” she remarked breathlessly, “Be a good girl and open the window.  We’ll make an exception just this once.”

Shoving back the piano bench with a squeak, Eleanor swept back the dull brocade curtains. The window latch was sticky and she struggled with it, wrenching it this way and that with both hands until it gave.  Dusty shafts of sunlight flooded the living room.  On the coffee table, Mrs. Lundemann’s collection of glass paperweights refracted the light, casting dozens of smeary rainbows on the walls and ceiling.

Her teacher blinked against the glare of the afternoon sun.  “There, isn’t that–”

A gust of wind blew a stack of sheet music off the top of the piano and pages went flying.  The metronome toppled over, pinning the swinging arm beneath it.  Gears clicking and grinding, it twitched across the piano top like a dying insect before landing on the carpet with a muffled crunch.  Mrs. Lundemann’s hand flew to her throat, her long face quivering above her ridiculous flowered scarf.  Eleanor couldn’t hold back a giggle.

“Don’t just sit there gawking, girl,” snapped her teacher, “Pick them up at once.  The manners they teach children nowadays…”

Mrs. Lundemann’s voice trailed off, and she sat with her hands folded tightly in her lap while Eleanor crawled beneath the piano to retrieve the runaway sheet music.  It wasn’t hers– she didn’t recognize the piece at all, and the notes seemed so crowded onto the page that they leapt out like angry bees.  Arpeggios in running sixteenth notes, the occasional sforzando marked out in dark ink.  Across the top of one page was a bold scrawl quite unlike her teacher’s handwriting.

Con spirito, it read, like an invocation.

The paper was yellowed and brittle, and it crackled angrily when Mrs. Lundemann snatched it out of Eleanor’s hands.  Eleanor looked up to find her teacher looming over her, mouth set in a thin line.  The older woman’s bifocals had slipped down to the tip of her nose, and through them, her watery blue eyes looked enormous, narrowed with disapproval.

“Don’t waste time.  These,” she clutched the sheet music protectively to her bosom, “Are far beyond your abilities.” After a pause, her clipped tones softened grudgingly.  “Perhaps when you are older.”

There was an ever so slight emphasis on “perhaps”, as though Mrs. Lundemann couldn’t quite expunge the note of doubt from her voice.  She seated herself and adjusted her scarf, patting the wispy fabric back into place.

Eleanor crawled out from beneath the piano.  She picked up where she’d left off, but the notes were hesitant, resonating from the piano in wobbly plinks and plonks.  Mrs. Lundemann waved a dismissive hand.

“That’s quite enough, dear.  Your time is nearly up and I shall have to inform your mother that more practice is required if you are to– child!”

The last word rose a sharp octave, startling Eleanor so that the bench creaked when she jerked her hands away from the keyboard.

Across three white keys was a small smear of crimson.

Eleanor didn’t know how she’d missed the paper cut.  It was on her first finger, a neat red slit like a mouth nestled in the crease between one joint and the next.  She flexed it experimentally.  It hadn’t hurt before, when she didn’t know it was there.  It hurt now.

Mrs. Lundemann swabbed the keys with a tissue, short, angry puffs of breath whistling from between her pursed lips.  “So unsanitary… for pity’s sake!  Wash your hands before you make a mess everywhere.  No, dear, use the bathroom.  You’ll find band-aids in the lower right drawer.”

The bathroom door stood slightly ajar, the light already on.  Eleanor shut it behind her and clicked the lock for privacy.  It was, she thought, the ugliest room in the house.  The sink was shaped like a seashell with scalloped edges and gold-plated faucets, and the wallpaper was a repeating pattern of silver and turquoise ocean waves.  A bar of scented soap sat in a pink porcelain dish, still wet with suds clinging to the edges.

Eleanor twisted the cold water tap, then held her finger beneath the flowing stream until it felt numb and the water ran clear.  She hadn’t expected such a fuss.  The piano was old, to be sure.  It had belonged to Mrs. Lundemann’s great-grandfather’s mother, smuggled out of their homeland before the war and shipped to America piece by piece.  The ivory had taken on a yellowish sheen in places, and the wood was dark and with a fine, swirling grain.  Eleanor supposed that the trees the piano had been carved from were older yet.

When she looked again, the paper cut was bloodless, her waterlogged skin white and curling at the edges.  Eleanor dried her hands on the pristine guest towel and left it crumpled by the sink.

****

The living room was empty, and Mrs. Lundemann’s chair sat slightly askew.  All the sheet music had been neatly stacked upon the seat, and on top of the pile were the pieces of the broken metronome.  Out in the back yard, sparrows splashed in the stone bath, their wings a furious blur as they sent water droplets out in every direction.  An empty bird feeder swung from a tree on a cord, swaying gently in the wind.

Eleanor noticed a strange thing.  The piano lid had been propped open; now it was shut.  She ran her hand down along the keys in a gentle glissando, expecting the notes to be muted and soft.  Instead, they did not sound at all, as though something kept the little felt-covered hammers from striking each string.  She looked closer.  A narrow triangle of gauzy blue and green fabric was caught beneath the lid, fluttering in the breeze from the window.  The edge of it was ragged, as though it had been torn to pieces.   Nearly lost in the shag carpet at her feet were Mrs. Lundemann’s bifocals.  Eleanor retrieved them, then daringly perched them on her own small nose for a moment.  The room was neatly bisected in two: blurry furniture like colorful blobs lined up against the wall, the polished wood of the baby grand coming into sharp focus.  She took them off.

I could lift the lid, thought Eleanor.  I could check. Mrs. Lundemann never permitted it of her students, fearing they would be careless and let it drop, smashing small fingers or perhaps more importantly, cracking the lid itself.  But Eleanor was certain she could lift it, if she wanted to.  If she cared to look and see what lay inside.

She knocked firmly on the piano three times, but it sounded as hollow as it ever did.  Outside, the birds had fallen silent.  There was no answering cry from Mrs. Lundemann demanding to know what was being done to her precious instrument.  Even the cloying scent of lilac was fading, replaced by the clean smell of wood overlaid with a faint coppery tang.  Eleanor stood with one hand resting lightly on the piano lid, and then–

The hallway clock chimed five o’clock.  The lesson was over.

~!~!~!~!~!~!~

RADIANCE – Part 16

I actually had a good portion of this chapter completed last week.  However, after a lot of mental percolating and figuring out where I want this story to go in future installments, I ended up wiping out all of it except the first 4 four paragraphs and starting over.  So, this time the delay wasn’t due to an inefficient use of time (like it usually is) but was me changing my mind.  This also ended up being a fairly long installment–almost five thousand words.  I’m now in novel-length territory if I go by industry standards which puts novel-length starting at minimum 40k words.

The usual caveats apply.  You’ll see mistakes of every stripe here.  This is a rough draft, or as I like to call it, the bed hair version.  Editors haven’t seen it or put in correction.  I’ve given it a fast once-over with Word’s spelling/grammar check, but that’s it.  Hard edits, rewrites and revisions will take place once it’s complete and turned over to my editors who’ll do a bang-up job of butchering it and making it better.

So many sincere and heartfelt thanks to you intrepid readers who’ve stuck with this story these many months, commented and encouraged me to continue.  You are AWESOME.

And now, on with the show:

RADIANCE

by Grace Draven

Copyright 2014 by Grace Draven

All rights reserved

Part 16

 

High Salure perched on a steep-sided plateau that erupted from the middle of the plains surrounding it. Endrisi oaks marched up the slopes, enrobing the plateau’s sides in a caesious green cloak. These trees were different from the Solaris oaks that fronted Saggara. Shorter, with thick trunks and small leaves shaped like pendants, the Endrisi oaks grew low and wide instead of tall. The encroaching twilight cast their shadows long, and Brishen pointed out the shapes of red-shouldered hawks perched in their canopies to sleep while the silent owls took their place in the hunt.

A narrow path snaked up the windward slope with multiple switchbacks that made it easier for horses to navigate the slope’s pitch. Trees lined the path on either side with an understory of thorny bramble thicker than a hair mat and guaranteed to rip anything bigger than a fox to shreds. A rider wanting to reach High Salure with his and horse’s hides intact had to stay on the road—and the road was observed.

Twilight had given way to night by the time Brishen, Ildiko and their escort reached the plateau’s tabletop summit and the fortress that crowned it. High Salure’s battlements and graceful towers rose above them, dark silhouettes against the evening sky. Lanterns and torches blazed along the walls and lined the cobbled path that led to the main gate. Brishen squinted against the light and announced himself and Ildiko to the guards at the gate.

Once inside, they crossed a pomerium to another high wall and heavily guarded gate. Brishen didn’t have to announce himself a second time. The gates swung wide, and he guided his party into a courtyard edged by workshops, a stable, a smithy and a small temple.

Brishen relaxed in the saddle. So far, the Kai remained peaceable neighbors with the kingdom of Belawat. The raiders who attacked him and Ildiko on the trade road had worn the coat of arms of the Beladine royal house under their armor. Whatever hostility the Belawat king held for Brishen’s marriage to a Gauri royal, that hostility had not yet made it to these borders or this Beladine lord. No one had yet demanded Brishen and his Kai guard disarm. It was a display of trust, and one Brishen reciprocated by bringing his wife to this dinner.

A steward greeted them at the great doors that opened to High Salure’s interior. Brishen dismounted and helped Ildiko off her horse. He gave instructions to the soldiers who’d accompanied them on their journey, and they followed another livery servant to a stone building jutting from the inner wall and occupied by Beladine soldiers who watched their Kai guests with wary but curious gazes.

For all that High Salure was unmistakably a fort, much like Saggara, its interior was luxuriously appointed. The servant left Brishen and Ildiko in a receiving room fit for royalty. Heavy tapestries, free of moth holes and layers of dust, lined the walls, and numerous chairs and benches had been set around the chamber, inviting large numbers of guests to sit. Tiny ceramic pots rested on iron tripods. Stunted candles placed beneath them heated the oils inside, perfuming the air with the scent of herbs that overrode the reek of tallow from the lit torches lining the wall.

Brishen glanced at Ildiko. “What do you think?”

She scraped her hood back, revealing the intricate braiding and beads Sinhue had woven into her hair. Her eyes moved back and forth as she surveyed their surroundings. “I suspect it’s well defended and likely well stocked with provisions and a heavily guarded water source.”

Startled, Brishen blinked and then laughed.

Ildiko gave him a look he could actually interpret now. He was growing used to his wife’s face. “What’s so funny?”

“You.” He traced the embroidery on her cloak’s edge with one claw. “You never fail to surprise me. I thought you’d remark on the architecture or the furnishings. Serovek is well-heeled, and it shows. Instead, you note the defenses and conjecture about High Salure’s ability to withstand a siege. Plans of conquest, wife?”

She snorted delicately and raised her chin. “Hardly. I’m as much an admirer of a fine garden, fancy windows, and a tufted couch as the next woman, but there’s also beauty in purpose. An enemy would lose many men trying to conquer this place.”

Brishen couldn’t argue that observation.   Saggara possessed strengths that High Salure lacked, and the opposite could be said of High Salure. They were equally matched in their abilities to launch attacks and defend against them. Such equality kept him and Serovek on friendly terms.  Brishen hoped it stayed that way.

The doors separating the receiving room from the rest of the interior were thrown open, and a man dressed in brown leather and silks the color of fresh blood strode through them. Brishen caught Ildiko’s soft gasp as Serovek, Lord Pangion of Belawat grasped Brishen’s arm and yanked him into a brief, crushing embrace. Had Brishen been human instead of Kai, he was sure Serovek would have cracked a few of his ribs.

Serovek grinned, flashing the square human teeth that were often a source of amusement among the Kai. Brishen had the instant realization that it was Serovek himself who had made him think of Ildiko’s smile as equine. Lord Pangion was a big human—a little taller than Brishen—with massive shoulders and a slight bow to his stance that indicated he’d been tossed onto a horse’s back at a young age and rarely left it.

Brishen’s greatest exposure to humans had been mostly isolated to Serovek and his cavalry, with its horse culture as strong as the Kai’s. The humans even rolled their eyes in that bizarre way that horses did when frightened. They sometimes flashed their square teeth in laughter that reminded him of a whinny.

Serovek slammed a hand between Brishen’s shoulder blades hard enough to make a weaker man stagger. “Brishen, welcome!”

Brishen bowed briefly. “Serovek. We appreciate the invitation.” He glanced at his silent, wide-eyed wife. “My wife and hercegesé, Ildiko.”

Ildiko smiled, her smile widening as Serovek executed a courtly bow with flourish. “A pleasure, Your Highness.” His gaze passed swiftly over Ildiko, and his voice softened and deepened even more. “Word reached us of your marriage. Your husband is a fortunate man. Welcome to High Salure.”

Brishen felt his smile stiffen. He pressed his hand against Ildiko’s back. He might not be able to discern the subtle emotions in a human’s gaze, but he wasn’t deaf. Blatant male interest saturated Serovek’s voice.

Ildiko bowed. “Lord Pangion, Brishen has spoken most favorably about you. Thank you for inviting us to your lovely home.”

Serovek motioned for them to accompany him through the doors and into a brightly lit hall crowded with humans and bisected by a long trestle table set for dinner. The other dinner guests were low-ranking noblemen and squires from the Beladine towns that received protection from High Salure. They gawked at both Brishen and Ildiko. As the only Kai in the crowd, Brishen had an idea of what Ildiko had dealt with at the palace and the circumstances she lived in at Saggara. His admiration for her unflappable aplomb grew. It wasn’t an easy thing being an object of such focused curiosity, especially when that curiosity was mixed with distrust and revulsion.

Serovek made the necessary introductions, and soon Ildiko was whisked away to another part of the hall by a flock of wives and daughters eager to hear how the niece of the Gauri king ended up the wife of a Kai prince.

Brishen found himself alone with Serovek, the other men reluctant to interact with him beyond the initial introductions. They were of no concern to him beyond the fact they might be future military targets.

Serovek lifted two goblets of wine from a tray presented by a servant and passed one to Brishen. “I won a sizeable wager thanks to you.” They toasted each other in Common and drank.

Brishen peered into his cup. The wine was exceptional. “How so?”

He caught Serovek’s smirk. “Bets were placed that a certain Kai prince would balk at the last minute and refuse to take a human woman to wife.”

Bets were placed throughout the Kai kingdom on the same thing except it was whether or not the Gauri bride would balk. “The odds?”

“Sixty to one.”

Brishen whistled. “Those are plump winnings.”

Another servant passed with a tray. Serovek drained his cup and replaced it with another full one from the tray. His entire demeanor oozed satisfaction. “They are. I used the winnings to buy a young stallion from Nadiza’s lightning herd as breeding stock.”

Brishen made a note to himself that should another wedding between a Kai and a human take place any time soon, he wanted in on Serovek’s betting pool. “You’ll get fast ponies from that one.”

“I’m counting on it.” Serovek’s expression turned grim. “Rumor has it you encountered trouble on your return to Haradis.”

Unease rippled up Brishen’s back. He trusted Serovek as much as he trusted any human, except for Ildiko. “Rumor is correct in this instance. You’ve those among your kinsmen who don’t approve of the marriage and the alliance it forges, though I think the king of Belawat worries for nothing. We sell our amaranthine to any willing to pay. Gauri or Beladine, you are all simply humans to the Kai.”

Serovek snorted. “I think we both know it has nothing to do with the dye. Your father’s kingdom is the barrier between Belawat and Pricid. The Kai were neutral until this marriage.”

Brishen snagged a second goblet of wine but this time only sipped at it. “Our deaths would be useless. The marriage is simply a gesture of good faith.” He didn’t say aloud what both he and Serovek knew—many a war had started over gestures of good faith.

He watched, intrigued, as his host pasted on a false smile. “Any warning I might give you would be seen as treason, and I don’t fancy having my head mounted on a gate spike outside the palace walls,” Serovek said between his teeth. He nodded to a cluster of guests who watched them from across the hall. “But as one comrade to another, I would tell you to watch your back. Belawat disapproves of this alliance and will try again to make that disapproval known in the most obvious way it can.”

Brishen’s eyes narrowed. “And it won’t stop with me and Ildiko.”

“No. Your deaths are simply the warning trumpet.”

It was a simplistic but effective plan, one employed by any of the criminal gangs that fought with each other over control of the alleys, backstreets and closes of any city’s poorer boroughs. Alliances between a greater and lesser house could be broken by another great house if the family of the lesser house was destroyed—starting with the least important person and moving up the hierarchy in a trail of bloody assassinations. The lesser house usually broke the alliance or was wiped out and replaced by another house that chose to remain neutral or was overrun by one of the greater warring houses.

Serovek continued. “The Beladine and the Gauri were equally matched in martial prowess until this latest trade alliance. The pendulum had swung in Pricid’s favor when the Kai agreed to come to their aid in case of attack.

Removed from court machinations and political negotiations by both distance and disinterest, Brishen hadn’t thought much of their neighbor’s sudden enthusiasm for offering access to their ports and moving Kai goods–especially the valuable amaranthine dye–on their ships without heavy tariffs and fees.

“The Gauri must have received information that Belawat was planning an offensive against them. My father would have considered the promise of assistance a fair trade for moving the dye without tariff. Both countries could fatten their coffers in no time. But to the Gauri, the military alliance is far more important than the trade one.”

The false smile slowly slipped from Serovek’s face. “Indeed. Djedor is known throughout the kingdoms as a stubborn, wily king. Wipe out the heir and spares to this throne, and he’ll break.”

Brishen remained silent. What the kingdoms believe was partially true. Djedor was a stubborn, wily bastard, and the continuation of his line meant everything to him. They, however, had not taken Secmis into account, and the Kai king’s weaknesses didn’t mirror those of his formidable queen.

“Why are you telling me this?” he asked Serovek. “You could kill me and Ildiko now and earn the gratitude of your king.”

Serovek snorted. “King Rodan’s gratitude doesn’t manifest as coin, lands or favor. The most I’d get from it is a parade.” Disdain curled his upper lip. “As if I crave such a thing—crowds throwing laurels at me and scaring my horses.” The lip curl transformed to a sly smile. “You, on the other hand, make me rich with your dyes and your friendship. You’re far more valuable to me alive than dead.”

Brishen chuckled. The first time he’d met Serovek, he liked him. He was as odd as any other human in both appearance and expression, but he was a soldier with a mind for strategy and a penchant for honesty that was sometimes noble, sometimes opportunistic, sometimes both. It was these that Brishen related to and admired.

He clinked his cup against Serovek’s. “To the value of living.” He drank the wine, the fear coating his tongue giving it a metallic taste. Brishen didn’t fear for his safety. He could handle himself in a fight and would be difficult to kill, but he wasn’t the only target. While Ildiko had the heart of a warrior, she was untrained, untried, and unprepared to fend off an attack from a determined assassin. He’d lay down his life for her, protect her with sword and axe, teeth and claws if necessary. Still, he was only mortal and there was a chink in even the best made armor.

Serovek pulled him from his grim musings with a tap on the shoulder. “We’ll speak of more pleasing things.” He turned his gaze to Ildiko nearby, laughing in the company of other human women. “Your wife is a stunning creature. How is it such a woman, with ties to the royal house of Pricid, remained unmarried until now?”

Brishen shrugged, unsure if listening to his host wax enthusiastic about Ildiko’s beauty was a pleasanter turn of the conversation. “She occupies the same role in the pecking order that I do. We are of no importance to the royal line, but we’re useful in political maneuvering and kept in reserve for just the right moment.” He had never resented the notion. In fact, his relative unimportance had offered him far more freedom than any given to his brother and bestowed on him an exceptional wife. Unfortunately, someone now considered him and Ildiko of great importance in the worst possible way.

His conversation with Serovek remained light-hearted until the dinner announcement. Serovek sat at the head of the table with Ildiko and Brishen on either side of him as guests of honor. Brishen split his attention between the mayor of one of the Beladine towns who doggedly engaged him in conversation despite his obvious unease at being seated next to a Kai and Ildiko, whose laughter and animated responses to Serovek’s bantering soured the wine in his belly.

She was comfortable here, in her element amongst humans like her. The differences between them never seemed so obvious as now, and they went far deeper than appearance. Brishen had told himself that as she grew used to him and his people, she’d adopt their ways, understand their culture and slowly become more Kai herself. Watching Ildiko interact now with the Beladine guests made him realize he’d fooled himself into thinking such a thing. She displayed a natural ease he never saw at Saggara though the relationship between her and his household was both peaceful and respectful.

Her ability to speedily adapt to new people and circumstances had lured him into a false sense of contentment. His own sense of isolation amongst Serovek’s guests made him wonder if Ildiko was lonely.

It was close to dawn before the gathering broke up, and guests gathered their cloaks in preparation to leave. Ildiko hid a yawn behind her hand as Brishen helped her with her cloak.

“Did you enjoy yourself?” he asked.

She rested her hand in the crook of his elbow and leaned her head on his arm. “Thoroughly,” she said. “And your luck held. No potatoes at dinner.”

He nuzzled the top of her head with his nose. “Proof that there are merciful gods. Or at least a merciful cook.”

Serovek approached them after bidding farewell to another couple. “It’s been a long time since I’ve visited Saggara. Has your wife had much time to put a woman’s mark on it yet?”

Brishen recognized a hint when he heard one, and Serovek’s was less than subtle. “A little. Let me return the favor and invite you to share a meal with us.”

Serovek’s reply came as no surprise. “I heartily accept. Name the day and time. I’ll be there. I look forward to meeting your lieutenant again. A fascinating woman, that Anhuset.”

By the time they’d descended the plateau and cut a path through the tall dropseed grass toward Saggara, it was early morning, and the sun cut a blinding swath of light across the plains. While the entire Kai troop retreated into the depths of their cloaks and hoods, Ildiko scraped her hood back and turned her face to the sun. Eyes closed, she bathed in its rays with a smile.

Brishen watched her silently for a moment before speaking. “Do you miss human companionship, Ildiko?”

She opened one eye to stare at him. “Sometimes. Your people, however, have been very welcoming to me.”

“Except for my mother.”

“Your words, not mine,” she said with a wry smile. “But it would be nice not to flounder so often or listen so closely to voices because I can’t read always read Kai expressions.

“It’s been a trial for you.” The words felt heavy on his tongue. He wanted her to deny them.

Ildiko shook her head. “No, simply a challenge. There’s an easiness to being amongst familiar things and people. You don’t have to try as hard.”

Though he agreed with her about the difficulty in reading expressions—he dealt with the same when interacting with humans—he offered a counter argument. “We smile as you do. Frown as you do. Laugh and joke as you do.”

This time she opened both eyes and sat straighter in the saddle. “True, but I think a lot of human expression comes from the eyes—how they move, blink, change color with emotion. From birth we learn to read such signs. It becomes second nature. I have a difficult time with the Kai because your eyes don’t change. If they move, I can’t tell. If they change color, I don’t notice it. Do the Kai weep when they grieve?”

It was if she’d cracked the lock on a chest he’d been trying to pick for years. The eyes. The key to understanding humans was learning to read their dreadful eyes. The same could be said of the Kai, and Brishen grinned, eager to learn from Ildiko and teach her as well.

“You have that mysterious smile again, husband.” She arched an eyebrow.

“You’ve given me an idea. Let me think on it a little more, then I’ll tell you the details. We will be each other’s teacher.”

Ildiko stared at him for a moment before pulling her hood back over her head. “I like the idea of that very much.”

“As do I,” he said.

By the time they made it through Saggara’s inner gates, Ildiko was asleep in the saddle, kept upright purely by her body’s instinctive memory of how to ride. Brishen carried her upstairs to her chambers and left her with an equally sleepy Sinhue to prepare for bed.

He didn’t expect her to join him later, so she surprised him by appearing before him as he sat on the edge of his bed mulling over the information Serovek had given him.

Dressed in one of her white nightrails, she nudged his knees apart until she stood between his legs. Her scent—cloves and the green of dropseed—seeped into his nostrils. Brishen tilted his head up. “I thought you’d be asleep in your bed.”

Her hands were soft on his cheeks, fingertips stroking delicate lines and swirls across his cheekbones and temples. He closed his eyes as she threaded his hair through her fingers. “Am I no longer welcomed in your bed?”

Brishen sighed his pleasure as her hands tracked paths down his neck to his shoulders and began to knead. “Don’t be foolish, wife.”

“What troubles you, Brishen?” Ildiko’s magical hands traveled into his scalp, massaging gently. Brishen moaned. “You’ve been acting strangely, ever since the dinner at High Salure. What did Lord Pangion tell you?”

It was hard to think while Ildiko caressed him into a stupor. Who knew that something so simple as a scalp massage would reduce him to a clod-pated idiot? He wrestled his thoughts together. At some point he’d have to tell her of Belawat’s plans. While he disliked the idea of scaring her, ignorance had killed more than its fair share of people, and he wanted her aware of the danger.

Still, there was time enough to disturb her sleep tomorrow. For now, he’d offer something else—something that would disturb his sleep for many nights to come.

“Serovek called you stunning.”

For a moment the massaging stopped, only starting again when Brishen clasped her wrists and nudged her to continue. Ildiko smiled, and even in the feeble light cast by the single candle on the nearby table, Brishen caught the faint shadow of a blush on her cheeks.

“Did he? That was very kind of him.”

His homely wife—beautiful, yet not. Stunning to a man whose gaze had caressed her from head to toe and whose voice had proclaimed both approval and interest. “Or simply very truthful.”

Ildiko laughed and tugged teasingly on a few strands of his hair. “Ah, my husband, what a smooth tongue you have.” Her fingers traced the curves of his ears, sending gooseflesh across his back and down his arms. His eyes closed as he sank into the sensation.

A question that lingered in the back of his mind since Serovek had first come through the doors to greet them rushed to the forefront. Brishen opened his eyes to meet Ildiko’s smiling gaze. “And Serovek, Ildiko? Would human women think him handsome?”

Twin frown lines marred her brow before fading. Her eyebrows rose and lowered as she pondered his question. “Honestly? Extremely handsome.” A seeping cold settled into Brishen’s blood at her words. “That he’s wealthy and intelligent as well doesn’t hurt. That he’s also unmarried puts a target on his back for every Beladine matchmaker in a two-league radius.” She gave Brishen a lighthearted grin. Such a human smile. So much like Serovek’s. “Why do you ask?”

He couldn’t answer her. The impetus for his question had been sparked by a jumble of emotions and thoughts. He needed time to sort them out, make sense of them to himself before he could make sense of them to her. The clearest emotions he had now were regret—regret that he’d returned the offer of dinner to the Beladine lord—and the unshakeable certainty he’d just invited a wolf among them.

“Brishen?” Ildiko’s smile had vanished. She worried her lower lip between her teeth. Brishen had the stray thought that if a Kai had done such a thing, they’d turn their mouth into a bloody mess.

He shrugged. “Just curious. I’ve had had little interest in humans until now. With a human wife, it will do me good to learn more about them.”

She made to answer him but was stopped by another yawn which she hid behind her hand. Brishen rose, folded back the bedcovers and motioned for her to climb in bed. “In with you,” he said. “You’re asleep on your feet, and my head aches from all the sunlight.”

Ildiko scooted across the bed to the side she claimed. She was asleep the moment she snuggled into her pillows. Brishen used that boon to strip naked. Unsure of how she might react and not wishing to scare her back to her chamber, he’d slept half clothed beside her. It was hot and uncomfortable but worth it to have her beside him. This time he’d sleep as he usually did when he was alone.

He slipped under the covers and pulled her against him. Her braid slid across his arm, a colorful serpent. He captured it and wound its length around his forearm before letting it unwind and fall away to shelter behind Ildiko’s slender back.

“I’m not human, wife,” he whispered into the darkness.

Shock rounded his eyes at Ildiko’s response, slurred with sleep and nearly incoherent. “But you’re still mine, husband.”

 

~!~!~!~

RADIANCE – Part 15 and a short story by a guest author

Thanks everyone for your patience while I work on the RADIANCE installments.  I appreciate you reading and commenting and enjoy reading your remarks.  As I mentioned in my last update, I’ll be posting two stories by a favorite unpublished author of mine.  Her name is Aria M. Jones, and I’ve been a fan of her writing for a long time.  She’s graciously agreed to let me post these two short tales in separate updates–probably in the hopes I’ll stop nagging her to publish her work (Ha!  Sooo not gonna happen; I’ll just nag harder).  RADIANCE is posted first.  Afer the end, you’ll find Aria’s story.  I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

As far as RADIANCE, the standard caveat is again repeated here:  Rough draft.  Stylistic and grammatical hiccups.  Yes, I’m aware.  No, I’m not changing anything until my editors wrench it into shape.  As I mentioned on an earlier Facebook post, this is the bed hair version of the story.  And bless your hardy souls for reading it in all its messy glory!!

On with the show:

RADIANCE

by

Grace Draven

Copyright 2014 by Grace Draven

All rights reserved

 

Part Fifteen

 

Saggara – One month later

Ildiko almost fell down the stairs from the shock of seeing a human traverse the halls of Saggara. Weeks had passed since she’d last seen a human face that wasn’t her own reflection in the mirror.

From her place on the steps, she watch as a man dressed in livery sporting an osprey with a fish in its talons was led past the stairwell and down the hallway where he disappeared beneath the ornately carved arch of a tympanum.

Ildiko flew down the stairs, thankful she’d adopted the Kai dress of tunic and trousers that allowed her quick movement without the tangle of long skirts. A servant met her as she followed the visitor and his escort.

The Kai bowed low. “Your Highness, I’ve been asked to fetch you.”

Ildiko motioned for the servant to follow as she strode by, keeping her quarry in sight as they headed to the manor’s great hall. “Who’s our visitor?”

“A messenger from High Salure.”

She paused to stare at the servant. In the month she’d resided with Brishen at Saggara, Ildiko had taken pains to expand her knowledge not only of her adopted culture but of its geography.

Brishen’s estate consisted of a summer palace turned fortress and a garrison town that supported the fortress with a body of Kai troops and their families. Saggara perched on a strip of the plains that bordered Belawat territory and protected a small population of Kai who farmed fresh-water mussels from a nearby lake and produced the highly prized amaranthine dye coveted by both the Gauri and the Beladine.

After the attack on the trade road by Belawat mercenaries, Ildiko had shuddered at the idea of being so close and this vulnerable to an enemy’s borders. Brishen had been quick to reassure her.

“We’re quite safe, wife. Despite Belawat’s attempt to break our alliance, there are factions friendly to us within its ranks. Serovek of House Pandion is one of those. His lands border mine, and his people benefit richly from us selling amaranthine to him for a good price. They resell it for a tidy profit to the aristocrats residing in the capital.”

Ildiko still wasn’t quite convinced of their safety. “What’s to stop them from just invading and seizing control of the lake?”

Brishen’s gold-coin eyes had glittered in the solar’s semi-darkness. “Because the loss of life and spilling of Beladine blood would be a lot more expensive than just buying the dye from us. That, and we’d poison the lake if necessary. I admire Serovek. He was a master of the horse to a Beladine general before he inherited his father’s lands. He understands strategy on both the battlefield and in trade negotiations. He won’t jeopardize his holdings unless forced to by a declaration of war from his king on mine.”

“Your Highness, the margrave awaits.”

The servant’s remark broke Ildiko’s recollection of that conversation, and this time it was she who followed him to the great hall where Brishen waited with the messenger from High Salure.

She found him standing by the enormous hearth, holding an unrolled scroll. Candlelight lent a glossy blue sheen to his dark hair and highlighted the teal and coral undertones in his gray skin. He glanced up from reading and smiled as Ildiko drew near. Ildiko hid her own smile at the messenger’s wide-eyed stare as Brishen grasped her hands and pressed a kiss to her knuckles.

“I’m glad you’re here, Ildiko,” he said. “We’ve received an invitation from Lord Serovek to take supper with him tomorrow night at High Salure. Would you like to go?”

Coming from any other man the question would be rhetorical. In the game of diplomacy, of which this invitation was, her wishes were not a consideration. Protocol demanded her presence. But Brishen was like no man Ildiko had ever know—Gauri or Kai. His question was meant sincerely, and he’d accept her answer even if she chose to decline.

“I’d be happy to attend,” she said. It would be the first time since her marriage to Brishen that she’d actually had supper instead of breakfast or lunch at night or eaten with another person who wasn’t Kai. She hoped they might serve dishes familiar to her. She’d grown used to most of the Kai cuisine she tried, but she missed those dishes she’d grown up with in the Gauri court.

Brishen took the scroll to a nearby writing table covered in maps and books.   He signed the scroll and returned it to the Beladine messenger. “Tell his lordship we will see him shortly after Gloming.”

The messenger bowed, glanced briefly at Ildiko a second time and followed the Kai servants out of the hall.

“I’ll wager this isn’t just a night to be spent between comrades catching up on the latest events.” Ildiko joined Brishen at the table and accepted the goblet of wine he poured for her.

“I think it is partly.” Brishen tapped his goblet against hers in a toast. “Believe it or not, there has been the occasional union between a Kai soldier and a Beladine merchant’s daughter, but the marriage of Kai royalty to either Gauri or Beladine royalty has never occurred until now. We are an odd couple. People will be curious.”

Ildiko sighed inwardly. Another long evening of even longer stares and furious whispers from those attending the dinner. Their roles would be reversed, with many wondering how Ildiko could stomach the sight of her feral looking spouse. She knew to expect it, but the knowing didn’t make it any easier.

“Serovek is a curious sort then?”

Brishen led her to one of the comfortable couches set near the fireplace and sat down beside her. “Curious in that he believes knowledge is power. The more he knows the less likely he is to be unpleasantly surprised.”

“A cautious man.”

“An intelligent one.”

Ildiko tilted her head to the side. “You like him.”

Brishen nodded. “I do. He would make a valuable ally and a formidable enemy. Luckily for us both, we are amicable neighbors—for now.”

They remained in the hall chatting of inconsequential things until Ildiko excused herself and rose. “I’m told two trade wagons have arrived from Haradis carrying food supplies. Your cook has stated one merchant’s scales are suspiciously inaccurate. I’m off to resolve the problem.”

Brishen abandoned his seat as well and escorted her to the doors. “And I’m riding with a guard to the southeast perimeters. For all that Serovek is friendly to me, others are not. There have been raids into the pasture lands. Horses and cattle stolen. It could just be thieves, but I have my doubts.”

A frisson of worry tightened Ildiko’s chest. She clasped Brishen’s arm. “You’ll be careful?” It was a silly thing to say. Brishen was an experienced soldier, as adept at fighting as any of the Kai under his command. She’d seen that for herself when he’d saved her from one of Belawat’s raiders. Still, she worried over him. He had become precious to her.

Brishen twined a lock of her hair around his claws, letting it slide over his knuckles. “You would come to my rescue if I needed it?”

She arched an eyebrow. “I’d be a terrible rescuer, but yes, I wouldn’t hesitate to come to your aid.”

“Don’t sell yourself short, wife. I’ve seen you wield an axe.” He grinned, his sharp teeth gleaming ivory in the hall’s semi-darkness.

Ildiko stepped closer and slid her arms over his broad shoulders in a loose embrace. His hair tickled her nose where she laid her head against his neck. “I’m serious, Brishen. Promise me you’ll not get yourself killed or maimed out there.”

His hands rested hot on her lower back, and he breathed gently against her before stepping away. He’d lost the smile, but there was a gentleness to his hard features. “I can’t make that promise, Ildiko, but I can swear to do my best to come back with all arms and legs attached.”

She frowned. “Your head too, if you please.”

Brishen laughed then. “My head too.”

“When will you return?”

“Midmorning if I leave now. Plenty of time to sleep before we must ready ourselves to attend Serovek’s supper.”

Ildiko couldn’t care less about some Beladine noble’s supper gathering. She just wanted to make sure she was awake when Brishen returned home.

They parted ways outside the great hall, she to the bailey and he to the barracks and stables. She ate lunch and dinner alone, seated on the balcony that led from her room and overlooked the wild orange grove that spread from the back of the estate’s main house to the edge of a bramble field.

Brishen had given her a brief tour of the grove, or at least as much of a tour as the tangled undergrowth and a pair of slashing sickles allowed. The trees hung heavy with unpicked fruit and swarmed with wasps still flitting about in the encroaching twilight.

Her husband had graciously braved a branch spiny with thorns and picked an orange for her. It was juicy and sour enough to make the back of her jaw clench and her eyes squinch closed. She loved it.

Brishen had eyed her with a look of disgust. “Humans eat the most repulsive things.”

Ildiko chose not to point out the many revolting aspects of baked scarpatine. Instead, she spat an orange seed in her hand and gave Brishen a sweet smile. “I’m guessing the Kai don’t like oranges.”

“No, not at all.”

Ildiko had surveyed the wild grove with a measuring eye. “We like oranges, even the sour ones; and the flowers make a lovely perfume and water coveted by women. While not as valuable as your amaranthine, oranges are a currency crop for farmers. It might be worth putting the labor into this grove and selling the produce.”

He’d shown interest in her idea but hadn’t yet been convinced. Saggara’s labor force was split between its military presence and the civilians who made the amaranthine. He didn’t think he had enough population to spare for the grove, but he’d consider it.

Ildiko admired the orange trees, their dark silhouettes gilded in silver from the moon’s light. Now and then a crow would shoot up from the canopy of leaves, circle the treetops only to disappear once more into the branches’ hidden sanctuary. The shadow of an owl flew past on silent wings, its eyes as bright as Brishen’s when he laughed at something she said.

This was the first time they’d been parted from each other for more than an hour or two that wasn’t reserved for sleeping. She missed his presence—the smooth cadence of his voice, the graceful movement of his narrow hands with their lethal black claws, even the scent of his hair when he held her close and she breathed him into her nostrils.

She’d sensed the anger simmering inside him from the moment he’d witness her kill the scarpatine until they’d reached Saggara. He’d said nothing to her about the incident other than to inquire about her well-being, but it wasn’t a stretch to assume Secmis had something to do with the nasty insect hiding among Ildiko’s bed sheets. Pride had made her offer up a half-hearted argument against leaving for Saggara right away, but she’d been more than happy to acquiesce to Brishen’s insistence they leave that evening.

Saggara was an austere place compared to Haradis and lacked many of its creature comforts. It also lacked Secmis which, for Ildiko, made it a place far superior to the Kai royal palace.

When Sinhue came to help her undress and get ready for bed, Ildiko waved her away and sent her to her own room. She was neither tired nor sleepy, but she did miss her husband. His chambers adjoined hers, and he’d told her more than once she was welcome to enter any time she wished. She did so now, pausing at the doorway to admire the space.

The furniture was plain but comfortable, the bed large with a thick mattress and piles of blankets and furs. As with his bedroom in the royal palace, this one had a hearth with a table and two chairs set before it. A half finished game of Butcher’s Covenant lay on the table. Brishen was a far better strategist than Ildiko and had won every game so far except one. She suspected he’d let her win that one.

Ildiko returned to her room to strip out of her clothes and slip on her nightrail. She retrieved from the foot of her bed one of the three precious books she’d brought with her from Pricid—a tome of psalms and poems. She’d read it so many times, she’d memorized most of them, but they were no less enjoyable with each reading. She’d read in her husband’s bedroom until he came back from the border.

The linens on Brishen’s bed were cool and crisp, the furs soft as she tucked herself in and piled the pillows behind her back so she could read. She left the doors leading to his balcony open. His bedroom faced east, and early morning sunlight spread across the plains until it spilled over the balcony and into the room. Ildiko blew out the single candle by the bed and settled in to read by the light of the sun.

She was halfway through the book, her eyes heavy with sleep, when the bedroom door opened. Brishen stood at the threshold, dressed down to undertunic and trousers, his feet bare and his hair damp. He leaned against the door frame and crossed his arms. “Woman of day, you waited for me.”

Ildiko closed her book and offered him a drowsy smile. Relief and happiness coursed through her. “Prince of night, you’ve come back to me—your head intact.”

Brishen chuckled. “I promised I’d try.” He motioned her to stop when she made to swing out of bed and strode across the room. “Move over.”

Surprised, she did as he said and made room for him on the side of the bed she’d previously occupied. He slid in next to her and covered them both with the blankets. Ildiko turned on her side and sighed her approval when he tucked her into his body and nuzzled his face against the slope where her shoulder met her neck. They’d slept like this during their travels to both Haradis and then Saggara, his lithe body both a comfort and a pleasure to lie against during her slumber.

Ildiko was halfway to a dead sleep when Brishen’s soft words in her ear brought her awake.

“Sleep here each day, Ildiko.”

A sweet warmth suffused her. She entangled her legs with his and hugged his arm to her waist. “I’d love to.  Just don’t steal the blankets.”

~!~!~!~!~

MIDNIGHT FEAST

by Aria M. Jones

Copyright 2013 by Aria M. Jones

All rights reserved

Midnight Feast cover

Midnight Feast

The word “curse” was an exaggeration, thought Colin.

He eased back on his haunches, taking cover in the shadow of a concrete pillar. The building was half-finished and its steel framework still radiated a comfortable warmth from the day’s sun. Colin extended a wiry, muscled leg and splayed his toes against the metal. The heat felt good on his aching footpads, unaccustomed as he was to going without shoes. To pass the time, he practiced flexing one clawed hand, then the other. Each talon gleaming in the moonlight, scissoring together with a malevolent speed that still startled him.

That, too, had taken some getting used to– it was like having a full set of boxcutter blades for fingers. Remastering the art of elevator buttons took days, and Colin had ruined half a dozen pairs of shoelaces already. Thank goodness, he thought, for opposable thumbs. Ten stories up, the wind gusted through the exposed beams, carrying with it all the enticing smells of the riverfront. He inhaled deeply, savoring the nuanced odors like a breathable feast. The transformation was a moderate inconvenience at worst, and on nights like this…

Colin grunted his appreciation of the cityscape and the full moon that rose above it, mellow orange-gold and hanging low in the night sky. On the radio, they’d called it a supermoon, something to do with the earth’s orbit and its relative proximity to earth. Colin didn’t much care. To him it was a hunter’s moon, and he was a hunter. He was lean and fierce, eager relish the crack of bones between his teeth before sucking out the rich marrow inside it as his victim died twitching and gurgling and–

He shook his head fiercely, as though a flea had settled deep in his ear. Dammit, get over yourself.

Beneath his fur, Colin blushed at how easy it had been to lapse into that way of thinking. Sterne was right. Older and infuriatingly suave in his sleek designer suits, his mentor had always warned him not to stay in werewolf form for longer than necessary. The more we transform, the easier it becomes, he’d said. And the longer you lived as a beast, the more beast-like your thoughts. Stay human, Sterne had told him, and he would stay safe.

Colin snorted, an action that was even more satisfying when done through several additional inches of snout. It was all very well for Sterne. Sterne came from old money. He had a chauffeur, a well-appointed townhouse on the Upper West Side and a six bedroom cottage in the Hamptons with a tennis court and pool. That smug bastard was probably there now, kicking back on a moonlit beach after snacking on some hapless daytripper from New Jersey. What did Colin have to go home to? A cramped studio apartment in Queens and a soul-sucking job in middle management. He snapped his jaws together in irritation, and his newly elongated canines clicked with a wet finality that echoed in the still night air.

Seriously, fuck being human.

The breeze ruffled the coarse fur across his shoulders. This was way better, thought Colin. In this body, he could scale the elevator shaft bare-handed, leaping from one crossbeam to the next with acrobatic ease. His reflexes were quicker too, something that served him well when it came to hunting. The hunt. Now there was a unique and previously unknown pleasure all its own. Even at its worst, it was satisfying at a visceral level but at its best it was euphoric, a bacchanalian orgy of blood and desire. Hunting was better than sex, or so Colin reasoned. He couldn’t be entirely sure, since he usually experienced both pursuits as a purely solo endeavor. Certainly the urgency to hunt drove him more these days than any other need. In his previous life, Colin had frequently been horny. In this life, he was always, always hungry. Which brought him back to the present…

A portly pigeon came to a fluttering rest on a nearby ledge, pecking at the breadcrumbs Colin scattered earlier. He eased down on all fours, back legs tensed for action.

That’s right, you greedy little shit. Just a little closer…

It wasn’t dignified. He would be the first to admit it, even as his salivary glands began working overtime and he had to stifle the whine of eagerness rising in the back of his throat. Pigeons were an easy meal, fat and plentiful. You could eat a dozen a day (Colin found they were like potato chips, difficult to stop at one) and nobody missed them. Hell, the city should thank him for keeping the vermin population in check.

Colin inched a little closer. The pigeon pecked away, bobbing its head and peering left and right.

He didn’t always require live prey. There were nights when the hunger could be appeased by locking himself in his apartment and doing unspeakable things to a family-size bucket of KFC. But there was really no substitute for a fresh kill, devoured beak, feathers and all.

Sterne had particularly recommended pigeons as a tastier alternative to rats. Humans, he’d said, were strictly verboten for an apprentice and only an occasional treat for a master. Even in a big city, disemboweled corpses and mangled limbs tend to draw attention, and that was the last thing they needed. Colin had grudgingly agreed, though he was rather disappointed that even for something as glorious and primal as this, there were still Rules.

The pigeon was only a few feet away now, still vapidly following the trail of crumbs along the ledge. Gathering his hind legs beneath him, Colin poised to spring. This would be his forty-second pigeon this week, and it was only Tuesday. Even his mentor would be impressed. Why, Sterne might even crack a smile, invite him out to the Hamptons for the weekend, or–

He leapt with a snarl and the pigeon exploded into a squawking whirlwind of feathers and indignation. Colin’s claws closed on empty air.

The moon lit the skyline in a soft haze of gold that mirrored the thousands of twinkling lights below. His improved eyesight didn’t deal so well with the harsh glare of electric light now, but Colin could just make out the dark outline of his prey, fleeing from what had been the closest call of its life. He gazed after it in hungry resignation. Another would come along, of course. They always did.

Ignoring the rumbling of his stomach, he squelched the urge to hightail it back to his apartment to wallow in self-pity for the remainder of the night.   It was unbecoming to sulk when you were at the top of the food chain. He filled his lungs with a deep, cleaning breath. The river had a muddy, brackish tang to it, but tonight there was something more– a rank, meaty odor, like an unwashed armpit. Padding to the edge, Colin peered down at the wharf below.

A young man, weaving slightly as he walked and humming off-key. Drunk, most likely. Colin could detect a whiff of cheap vodka on the breeze, and a cologne so putrid that it sent the fur on the back of his neck bristling. The young man stopped to lean against the railing overlooking the river, fumbling a bit with something waist level. Colin sniffed again: the odor of urine rose faintly to his nostrils.

That’s disgusting.

But a long strand of drool hung from his gaping jaws, growing longer until it snapped and sent a blob of saliva hurtling down ten stories. Colin tapped one claw contemplatively against the steel beam. It was half past midnight. Surely no one would miss just one drunk college student– and this one had so much more meat on him than a lousy pigeon. Sterne would be angry, but… Sterne didn’t have to find out, now did he?

No. I couldn’t possibly…

Far below, the college student let fly a reverberating belch and nearly toppled into the river. The pent-up whine of hunger wouldn’t be stifled this time and before he could think twice, Colin was shimmying down the elevator cable hand over hand. He was a keen and lonely hunter, the night was young, the full moon sang its seductive siren song, and… and…

He hated to see good food go to waste.

~!~!~!~!~!~!

***Posted with permission from the author***

 

 

 

 

 

RADIANCE – part 14

Before I get started, I wanted to give a quick heads-up.  When I post next week, I’ll be including a short story (posted with permission) by one of the most talented writers I’ve ever met.  She is not yet officially published, and I’m guilty of nagging the crap out of her to share her work with a wider audience.  She’s agreed to let me host two of her short stories on my blog.  I’ll be posting each one alongside a Radiance update.  If you’d like to read about a flesh-eating piano or a werewolf snacking on tourists in the Hamptons, I think you’ll enjoy these tales.  Even if the premise isn’t usually your thing, the authorial voice is exquisite and not to be missed.

Until then…

Standard caveat lector applies – this is a rough draft with all the attendant problems that come with it and will make my editors want to rip their hair out when they finally see it.  I trust them implicitly, not only to correct my screw-ups and improve the story but to also not try and run me over in their cars when they get a first look at the editing job awaiting them.  :)

My sincerest thanks for reading and commenting and joining me on this journey through Brishen’s and Ildiko’s world.

On with the show:

 

RADIANCE

by Grace Draven

Copyright 2014 by Grace Draven

All rights reserved

Part Fourteen

 

“What’s the fastest we can load supplies and gather men for the journey home?” Brishen glanced over his shoulder as he brushed down his favorite horse. Anhuset leaned against the stall door, her arms draped casually over the top bar. She straightened abruptly at Brishen’s question, the perpetual frown line between her pale eyebrows smoothing.

“As fast as you want them. I’ll see to it.” She rubbed her palms together. “Does this mean you’ve grown tired of trotting yourself and her Highness out before the royal court like prized horseflesh?”

Brishen tossed the brush into a nearby bucket and patted the mare’s shoulder. “I was sick of it before we even got here. Ildiko has been more patient about the whole thing than I have, but she’s done as well.”

Anhuset swung the stall door open to let him out and closed it behind him. “She adapts easily.”

“One of her many strengths.”

She followed him to the pump by the well where he levered water into his hands for washing. Stable hands and soldiers milled around them, leading to and from the royal stables. They bowed or saluted as they passed Brishen and his trusted lieutenant.

Anhuset handed him a towel from a nearby rack. “Did you tell her Saggara is more fortress than palace?”

Brishen motioned for her to follow him as they made their way back to the private palace gates used by the royal family. “She knows we perch near the border with Belawat. I don’t think I’ll need to explain why that requires a garrison close by.”

“She’s palace born and bred, commander.   Saggara lacks the comforts of Haradis and from what I saw at your wedding, it most definitely lacks the finer things of Pricid.”

He shrugged and strode through the gates, acknowledging the bowing guards with a quick nod. “As you say, she adapts easily.”

It was true that Ildiko had a particular talent for adjusting quickly, not only to new surroundings but to circumstance and situation as well. She’d never uttered a word of complaint about sleeping on the ground in a tent or spending hours on horseback when they traveled from Pricid to Haradis. She’d changed her sleeping habits to match those of the Kai and choked down food even some of the Kai found challenging. He had every faith she would take yet another change of scenery with the same equanimity she’d shown so far.

Still, he wanted Ildiko to like Saggara, not simply adjust. The estate had been his since the king had given it to him more than a decade earlier on the promise Brishen would hold it in the role of margrave and defend Kai borders against an increasingly hostile Belawat. A three-night ride from Haradis, Saggara was his refuge from court intrigue and the queen’s malevolent presence.

Secmis had declared her disapproval of his move to Saggara by calling the old estate a filthy midden not fit for beggars and declared she’d never grace him with her presence while he resided there. It was only one of a handful of times Brishen could recall in his life where he’d been even remotely tempted to embrace his mother.

He and Anhuset discussed their plans for moving supplies and additional troops to Saggara as they passed through the palace’s labyrinthine hallways. They’d reached the floor where his and Ildiko’s chambers were located when a scream split the air and bounced off the stone walls. Another followed after it.   Brishen felt the bottom drop out from his stomach as he recognized Ildiko’s voice.

“What in the gods’ names…” Anhuset stared at him wide-eyed before they both sprinted down hall, swords drawn.

Brishen shoved aside a guard who’d joined in the chase, frantic to reach his wife. He rounded the corner and halted abruptly. Anhuset narrowly missed careening into him, her curses salting the air. He ignored her.

Ildiko stood in the hall, motioning frantically to her maid. “Hurry, Sinhue. It’s getting away!”

The maid yanked a small axe from the weapons fan that decorated a patch of wall near Ildiko’s door. She raced to her mistress and handed her the weapon. Neither woman noticed their would-be rescuers.

“Do you see it?”

“It’s gone up the wall. If it gets too high, I won’t be able to reach it.”

Anhuset thumped Brishen on the shoulder. “What is ‘it’?”

He wasn’t waiting to find out and chased after the two women as they disappeared around another curve in the hallway. His heart wedged into his throat at the sight that greeted him.

Ildiko and Sinhue jumped about as if they walked barefoot on hot coals, their gazes frozen on the wall in front of them. Ildiko held the axe in front of her, swatting at a large shadow clinging to the stones.

The “it” was a scarpatine—a big female with venom sacs swollen to the size of plums beneath her arching tail. The stinger claw glistened in the half-light, droplets of yellow venom splashing across her armored back onto the floor where they sizzled and birthed tendrils of black smoke.

Before Brishen could yell at Ildiko to back away, the scarpatine scuttled toward her, its many legs flexing as it prepared to leap on its victim and sink the venomous barb into flesh. Sinhue shrieked, as did Ildiko before she swung the axe. The flat of the blade caught the insect broadside, and Brishen heard bells as metal slammed against stone. The ringing sound was muted by the wet crack of crushed insect shell and innards.

Brishen caught the axe just as it fell from Ildiko’s fingers. He handed the weapon to Anhuset and spun Ildiko one way and then the other. Her hair, half out of its braid, flew into her face.  She tucked the strands behind her ear and stared at him wide-eyed.

“Did you get any of the venom on you, Ildiko?” He ran his hands over her face, her neck, across hers shoulders and breasts, hunting for any tell-tale patches of burnt cloth or the reactive sting on his own skin if he brushed against venom splatters. The wall sporting a mural of dead, smeared scarpatine smoked black in the dim light, and the hall reeked with a foul smell.

Ildiko pushed his hands away. “I’m fine, Brishen.” She scowled. “I can’t believe the Kai eat those disgusting creatures. I can’t believe I ate one.”

Anhuset spoke up, and Brishen didn’t imagine the amusement in her voice. “We eat the males. The females are too venomous.” She glanced at Brishen and spoke in a dialect of bast-Kai Ildiko wouldn’t understand. “She’s handy with a blade. Should you no longer want her as a wife, give her to me. With enough training, she’d make a decent shield mate.”

Brishen found nothing humorous about the situation. He glanced at the remains of the scarpatine as bits and pieces oozed down the wall and signaled to a guard. “Send someone to clean this up.” He nodded to Sinhue who hovered nearby. “I need you to tend to your mistress.”

The maid nodded and bowed. Brishen ushered Ildiko to her chamber, peppering her and Sinhue with questions the entire way.

Ildiko made straight for her wash basin, unlaced the sleeves of her tunic and set to scrubbing her hands and arms. “I don’t know how it got in here, Brishen. Sinhue was helping me dress for dinner. Thank the gods she had the foresight to fold down the bedding early.” She smiled at her servant who handed her a towel to dry her arms. The smile faded. “The thing was hiding under the covers. It jumped at Sinhue before squeezing under the door to escape.”

Brishen and Anhuset inspected the chamber, shaking curtains, crawling under the bed and flipping the mattress off the ropes to check for another hidden menace.

Satisfied that the room was safe and no other scarpatine hid in the wardrobes or chests, Brishen scraped a hand over his face. “You should have let it go, wife. The females are aggressive and their venom strong enough to kill a horse.”

Ildiko gave him a look that spoke of her doubt regarding his intelligence. “And let it lurk in the shadows waiting to ambush some poor unsuspecting soul? You perhaps? Or Anhuset? And what if no one managed to catch it?” She shuddered. “I’d never sleep knowing that thing was creeping about somewhere in the palace.”

He growled low in his throat. “You aren’t a warrior, Ildiko.”

She scowled at him. “No, but I can certainly kill an insect.”

“You sure can,” Anhuset said from her place by the door.

Brishen snapped his teeth at his cousin. “Not another word.” His mind raced. Scarpatines liked warm, dark places, but they disliked the smell of Kai and tended to avoid areas where they gathered, such as houses. They were more a danger to hunters and trackers who might stumble across them in the wild.  Stable hands had learned to be handy with pitchforks when they discovered scarpatines hiding in straw piles.

The scarpatine that found a haven in Ildiko’s bed had been put there purposefully. A cold knot settled under Brishen’s ribs, spreading until he was sure ice water, not blood, flowed in his veins. He reached for Ildiko, tugging on her hand until she stood within the circle of his arms. He still had difficulty discerning her expressions beyond the more obvious smiles and frowns, but he could smell the fear pouring off her in waves. The ice water coursed ever colder through his body.

“I need to do something but will return soon,” he said softly. “I’ll leave Anhuset here with you and your servant. She’ll guard you until I return.”

Ildiko went rigid in his arms, and her mouth turned down. Her eyes narrowed. “That is a waste of your lieutenant’s time, Brishen. I don’t need a nursemaid; I can step on my own bug.” He made to argue but stopped at the feel of her finger pressed against his lips. She flashed her small square teeth in a smile. “Just leave the axe before you go.”

Brishen kissed her fingertip, relenting. “The room’s clear but keep a sharp eye.”

“No worries there,” she assured him. Her gaze flickered to every corner of the room before settling on him once more. “I think I’ll wear all black again tonight,” she said.

He gave her a deep bow. “It suits you.” He signaled to Anhuset who opened the door. “I’ll return in time to escort you to the hall.”

The door had barely clicked behind him before Brishen hurtled down the long corridor toward the staircase leading up to the queen’s suite of chambers, Anhuset in pursuit.

“Brishen, stop!”

He ignored her, sprinting ever faster toward his quarry where she waited in the center of her web. He grunted as a heavy weight slammed into his back, driving him to the floor. He tumbled with his attacker in a tangle of arms and legs until they crashed against the wall. In seconds he was crouched with Anhuset between his knees, his forearm against her throat until she wheezed.

He eased the pressure, and she gasped a mouthful of air. “Be glad of my affection for you, sha-Anhuset.” He bit out each syllable between hard breaths. His arm lowered, and his hand slid over her collarbones to rest between her breasts. “Or I would have ripped your heart out by now and fed it back to you.”

Anhuset grasped Brishen’s wrist. “You’re my commander and my cousin, Highness. I’d be no friend to you if I didn’t try and stop you from running to your own beheading.”

“That viper deserves death.” Brishen’s rage threatened to choke him.

“Maybe, but you don’t, and her power is greater than yours. Greater than your father’s.” White sparks flared in Anhuset’s eyes, and faint humor softened her mouth. “Have faith in your hercegesé, Highness. She did a fine job with the axe. She can hold her own. If you must die to defend her, don’t do it over something this petty.”

He almost snapped Anhuset’s neck in that moment. “Petty?”

Her nostrils flared, and her eyes blazed almost white. The gray of her skin had leached out to a mottled ivory, yet she persevered. “Yes. Petty. This is Secmis we speak of, Brishen. She probably cuddles with scarpatine when she grows lonely, then eats them whole when she grows hungry. This little stunt is a joke to her.”

Anhuset’s words didn’t lessen the killing urge roaring through Brishen at the moment, but the sensible voice inside him grew louder and agreed with her. He stood and helped her up. “Do what’s needed to prepare. We leave tonight, even if that means only a handful of us goes, and Ildiko travels in her sleeping gown.”

Anhuset saluted him but hesitated. “Promise me, cousin, you won’t make off for the queen’s chambers the second my back is turned.”

Brishen shook his head. “I make no such promises.” He chuckled at her scowl, the rage inside him subsiding a little. “You’ve always been faster than all of us. You’d catch me again.”

Her frown didn’t ease. “Yes I would.” She didn’t give ground until he turned away from the staircase and strode back to Ildiko’s chamber.

He found Ildiko in the midst of dressing for dinner. She peeked around the concealing screen in one corner of the room. “That was quick.”

Brishen chose not to reveal that his more rational cousin had thwarted his plans to spit his mother on the point of his sword like the scarpatine she was. He glanced at the black silk tunic and trousers laid across Ildiko’s bed—utterly unsuitable for hard riding.

“What do you think,” he said, “if we take supper on the road?”

Her eyebrows lifted. “Brishen, you worry too much. I’m quite recovered from my scare with the scarpatine.”

“Humor me, Ildiko.”   She might be fine; he was not and itched to quit the palace, the city and most definitely his dangerous family for the relative peace and safety of Saggara.

Her eyes narrowed for a moment. “As you wish,” she said. “I’ll have Sinhue pull out my riding leathers.”

He nodded and instructed the servant to pack as many of Ildiko’s things as she could and have the chests delivered to the stable.

This time when he stormed through the palace corridors, he sought out his father in the council chambers. The king sat at the head of the council table, a conclave of ministers on either side of him as they reviewed and discussed the sea of documents spread across the table surface.

Brishen genuflected. “Your Majesty, may I have a moment of your time?”

Djedor waved his son to his feet and eyed him with a milky gaze. “Make it quick.”

“I request permission to leave Haradis and return to Saggara in the next hour.”

The king scowled. “Have you heard something about Belawat that I haven’t?”

Brishen shook his head. “No, but I wish to return to my estate as soon as possible.” He offered no more explanation. Djedor might be old, but he was crafty and always informed about the goings-on in his castle. The place was stuffed to the rafter with spies who reported back to him on every detail.

“You don’t wish to bid your mother good-bye?”

They played this game every time Brishen approached his father. Djedor usually came away disappointed by his younger son’s lack of reaction to his needling about Secmis. This time, still lightheaded with the urge to commit matricide, Brishen didn’t bother hiding his anger.

“Unless I can skewer her with impunity, I don’t want anywhere near the bitch,” he stated shortly. As one, the ministers gasped, but the king only laughed. “She tried to kill my wife.”

Djedor twirled a writing quill between his clawed fingers. “Is the Gauri girl still alive?”

“Yes.”

“Then Secmis didn’t try very hard.” He waved the quill at Brishen, his interest in his son’s actions quickly waning. “Go if you want. I’ll send a messenger with copies of the final shipping agreements. Thanks to your marriage, we’ve secured four ships dedicated to the transport of amaranthine to three kingdoms, not including the Gauri. Try to keep your ugly wife alive long enough for us to obtain the last document sealing the agreement. After that, she’s welcome to drop dead any time.”

Seething at his father’s indifference, though he expected nothing more, Brishen bowed and left the council chamber. In all honesty, he was grateful for his father’s willing permission. He could have denied Brishen’s request and kept him and Ildiko trapped in Haradis indefinitely from sheer perversity. He wasn’t above such behavior.

By the time Brishen secured arrangements for horses, wagons and a contingent of guards, midnight had waxed and waned. He found Ildiko outside the stable gates next to the saddled mount she’d ridden from Pricid to Haradis. Anhuset stood next to her, alongside Sinhue also dressed for travel.

Brishen bowed over Ildiko’s hand. “One handmaiden only?”

She nodded toward Sinhue. “She wanted to come, and I only need one. Besides, Kirgipa’s mother needs her more than I do, especially now that Talumey is gone.”

“Have you eaten?”

This time he caught the slyness in her smile. “I did. A potato. It was delicious. We didn’t save you one.”

Her teasing lightened his heart. Though she wasn’t easy on the eyes, she was easy on his soul. He kissed her forehead. “You’re a good wife, Ildiko.”

“Yes I am,” she agreed. Her eyes slid toward their inner corners in a cross-eyed stare.

He shuddered and heard both Anhuset and Sinhue inhale. “Ildiko…”

She uncrossed her eyes and winked. “Sorry. I couldn’t resist.”

Their party was a league out of the city before a messenger tracked them down. Brishen recognized his mother’s coat of arms on the rider’s livery. He passed a rolled scroll to Anhuset who delivered it to Brishen.

Brishen barely glanced at it. He recognized his mother’s handwriting as well as her demands he return to Haradis at once. Ink blots marred the writing, and there were holes in the parchment where she’d obviously jabbed the quill tip through the paper as she wrote.

He fished a document of his own out of one of the packs tied to his saddle. His father had only mumbled his irritation at Brishen’s insistence on written authorization of departure from court, stamped with the royal seal—in anticipation of Secmis doing exactly what he expected.

“Give this to Her Majesty,” he instructed the messenger. “Then make yourself scarce afterwards if you want to live.” He watched the rider spur his horse in the direction of Haradis.

“What did her message say?”

Brishen glanced at Ildiko next to him. The moonlight had a way of changing her. It didn’t make her pretty by Kai standards, but the shadows it cast across her features hollowed her cheeks, bled the pink from her skin and the red from her hair. He liked the colors of night on her.

“She commanded I return home.”

Her puzzled expression grew easier to read each time she revealed it. “But why? I have a hard time believing she misses you.”

Nearby, Anhuset snorted on choked laughter. Brishen turned to stare at the rider’s diminishing figure. “Hardly. That wasn’t a display of affection but of outrage. I didn’t ask her leave to depart Haradis.” He motioned to Anhuset. “Keep moving. Milling about in the middle of the road won’t get us to Saggara any faster.”

They traveled for three nights after that without incident, riding across a wide plain covered in a sea of dropseed grass. Tall as a horse’s flanks, the grass stems swayed and caressed as they passed, whispering ghostly endearments in the darkness. In the distance, tussocks rose like static swales on the dropseed ocean, and Brishen pointed out a tor crowned by slender menhirs gleaming white in the moonlight.

“Built by one of the Elder races—the Gullperi, or so the legend goes. The last clan vanished from these lands five hundred years ago.”

“The Kai are one of the Elder races, aren’t they?” Ildiko’s blue eyes were silver in the night’s gloom.

“Yes, though our magic is but a fraction of what the Gullperi’s was. I’ve been to the crown on the tor. Power still breathes there.”

He’d gone only once and returned home with the scent of magery heavy in his nostrils and strong on his skin. Anhuset still swore he glowed in the dark for a fortnight following that foray.

Brishen’s excitement grew as the miles flew behind them, and they drew closer to Saggara. A gentle slope on the plain rose and the estate came into view. Fronted by young Solaris oaks planted by Kai gardeners a hundred years earlier and flanked by an orchard of sour oranges gone wild, the sprawling fortress shone as pale under the moon as the menhirs on the tor. Once his grandfather’s summer palace, Saggara had passed to Brishen by Djedor’s edict, and he’d embraced it as his own.

A pair of crows fluttered skyward out of the trees, cawing their protests at being woken by the sound of horse’s hooves.

Their party paused on the highest point of the low rise. Brishen turned to Ildiko whose gaze remained frozen on the fortress. “Welcome to Saggara, wife; my home. And now yours.”

 

~!~!~!~

 

 

RADIANCE – Part Thirteen

Thank you for your patience, and I apologize for the continued delays.  Summer has been hell on my writing schedule.

I did want to mention that if you’re interested in obtaining a print copy of MASTER OF CROWS, it’s currently available on sale at Amazon for $12.89.  You can find it here:  MASTER OF CROWS Dead Tree edition

I read and appreciate all your comments.  If I don’t answer all of them in a timely fashion, it’s because I suck at keeping an efficient schedule; my memory is crap and my to-do list not nearly long enough to use it as an excuse.  :)

Anyway, enough bitching and moaning from me.  Below is the 13th installment of RADIANCE.  Standard caveat lector still applies – this is a rough draft bursting with typos and stylistic hiccups.  I’m aware of them but depend on my editors to help me clean it all up once we get ready to put this story through the wash.

Many thanks for reading!

RADIANCE

Copyright 2014 by Grace Draven

All rights reserved

Part Thirteen

Morning sunlight spilled into the palace gardens, lancing through the spaces left open by climbing vines on lattice work and transforming the various fish ponds dotting the landscape into pools of reflective glass.  Ildiko sat on one of the benches with her eyes closed and bathed in the bright rays.

Except for the hooded guardsman a discreet distance away, she was alone in the gardens.  The palace denizens slept, including her husband who’d wished her a peaceful sleep an hour earlier.

Ildiko thought she’d fall into oblivion the moment her head hit the pillow.  She was wrong.  She’d lain awake in the graying dark, listening to Kirgipa’s restless sleep and Sinhue’s gentle snores.  They slept on pallets on the floor at the foot of her bed.  As her personal servants, both women spent a lot of time with her, helping her dress in the evening, undress at morning and change for the various gatherings the monarchs, the heir or the higher status nobles held each night.  Besides Brishen and Anhuset, they were Ildiko’s greatest source of information regarding the Kai court and its many customs.

She was grateful to them and for their quick adjustment to her  appearance-something that still elicited numerous fixed stares and not-so subtle whispers each time she made an appearance at one of the endless social functions she attended with Brishen.

Ildiko was well-versed in the rhythm and madness of court life in general.  No function was held simply for chit-chat or the pleasure of another’s company.  Whether they were Kai or Gauri, the nobility used such meetings to plan, to strategize, to negotiate, and to manipulate each other.  Sometimes there were threats; other times there were bribes, all executed in the politest terms.  Outright hostility was saved for the literal battlefields where the warfare was bloodier but more honest.

She pretended not to see the sympathetic back pats and shoulder squeezes the Kai men gave Brishen or hear the low-voiced offers of a Kai mistress for the evening.  Taking offense made no sense to her.  In Pricid, she’d been hailed as a beauty-too pretty for the likes of a repulsive, gray-skinned, fanged Kai prince.  The Gauri and the Kai were two peoples with far more similarities than differences, but the differences stood out most, and each found the other hard on the eyes, whether they were glowing or not.

While the Kai men were civil and guarded with her, the women fell into three camps.  A few were friendly and curious, asking Ildiko questions about her life in Pricid and what she thought of the Kai palace and its court.  Most were as reserved as the men, offering polite congratulations on her marriage and nothing more.  The last few practically vibrated resentment and jealousy, and Ildiko surmised these women had been Brishen’s lovers at some point.

Until then, Ildiko had chastised herself repeatedly for antagonizing the queen.  So far, Secmis had done nothing more than hurl insults at her, but Ildiko trusted Brishen’s warnings regarding his mother, and she remained wary.  Facing these Kai women who likely considered each other rivals until her appearance at court made her glad she’d publically faced down the formidable Secmis.  They might glare and scowl at her, but they hesitated to engage her in an unfriendly verbal exchange.

Ildiko lay on her back and stared at the ceiling of her bed hangings.  A solid week of this kind of combat had left her exhausted, but she couldn’t sleep.  Sinhue and Kirgipa didn’t waken when she slid out of bed, pulled on a robe and slipper and sneaked out of her chambers.  A Kai guard bowed as she passed him in the corridor.  He said nothing but fell into step behind her and followed her as she made her way to the palace gardens.

She found a bench in an alcove sheltered by a half dome of tree branches and sat to face a sunrise she hadn’t seen in almost a fortnight.

The gardens, like the Kai, had fallen asleep with the coming of day.  Brishen had shown her the gardens shortly after his return of Talumey’s mortem light to his family.  Ildiko had gasped and clapped her hands at its beauty.  Pale flower bloomed in lush profusion, glowing softly under the moon’s light in shades of iridescent pearl and ivory.  The leaves on the trees were plated silver, and the entire garden shimmered in the black night like the surface landscape of a fallen star.

In the daylight, it was a far bleaker sight.  The flowers had closed up behind dark, protective husks, and the leaves crackled black and spiny in the cool breeze.  Morning had transformed the garden into an otherworldly space straight out of a nightmare.  Sitting beneath the skeletal branches of the angular trees, Ildiko had never felt so alone or out of place.

Tears stung her eyes.  She blinked them away.  They welled again, stubbornly refusing to dry up even as the rising sun made her squint before its brilliant rays.  She breathed slowly-in, out-and refused to succumb to the suffocating tightness in her chest or the sobs rising in her throat.

“I’m tired,” she whispered to herself.  “Just tired.”  There was no good reason to cry.  Her husband would never win any Gauri beauty contests, but he was an exceptional man of good character and compassionate nature.  Ildiko liked him very much.  Many wives were not so lucky with the mates chosen for them or even ones they chose themselves.

His people, with the exception of his mother, had been civil and welcoming to her in the reserved way of the Kai.  While they may never see her as Kai or accept her on her own merit, their respect for Brishen ensured they would always give the respect due to her as his wife.  She expected nothing more.

Still, she eagerly awaited Brishen’s announcement that they’d leave Haradis and travel to his estate.  It might hug the borders with hostile Belawat, but it was solely Brishen’s domain, one she hoped she could make hers as well.

She recalled their visit to Talumey’s mother, Tarawin.  They’d traveled through Haradis’s narrow streets on horseback instead of in a carriage.  Brishen had offered a choice.

“We can ride in a carriage, or you can ride pillion with me.  You’ll have more privacy in the carriage if you wish, but you’ll be able to see Haradis better from horseback.”

Ildiko had chosen horseback and was glad she did.  The capital city was a bustling place in the middle of the night, and she had to remind herself that for the Kai, this was the middle of their day.  Except for the darkness and the heavy foot traffic of gray-skinned people with firefly eyes, Haradis might have been like any other city-alive with vendors hawking their wares, children chasing dogs and chickens through the narrow alleyways, mothers shouting at them to return or be careful and pickpockets slinking about to relieve the unwary of their coin.  Prostitutes peddled their bodies next to merchants selling wine and various foods roasted on spits or steamed in pots.

The crowds parted as she rode with Brishen through the streets, accompanied by a small contingent of palace guards.  Some pointed; others waved, and many stretched their necks for a glimpse of the prince’s new wife.  The deep hood she wore concealed her for the most part.  Brishen had not initially approved.

“You shouldn’t have to cover yourself.  I’m not ashamed of my bride, Ildiko.”

She patted his hand.  “It’s a matter of convenience, not shame, Brishen.  If I go out there bareheaded and barefaced, we’ll never get to Tarawin’s home before dawn.  And when we do, we’ll have a mob behind us, all wanting to gawk at me.  In her place, I’d find our arrival unpleasant at best.”

He’d reluctantly agreed with her reasoning, and they arrived at Tarawin’s house with only a small crowd of curious neighbors watching from their doorways.  As soon as the woman opened the door and ushered them inside, the palace guard closed ranks outside, a solid barrier between them and any would-be visitors.

Like all the Kai women Ildiko had met so far, Talumey’s mother was a tall, lithe creature with silvery hair.  She lacked Anhuset’s muscular athleticism and Secmis’s haughty grace, but Ildiko thought her lovely in the Kai fashion. There was a softness to her features as well as a deep sadness that bracketed her mouth.

She knelt before Brishen.  “You honor my house with your presence, Your Highness.  You and your wife.”

Brishen helped her rise and held her hand.  “I wish I brought a more joyful offering than this.”

Tarawin brought their clasped hands to her forehead.  “It is still treasured.  My son would have never dreamed of such a privilege.  I’m thankful you brought him home to us.”  She glanced at the silent Ildiko, and the lines at the corners of her eyes deepened with her faint smile.  “A blessing on your marriage, Your Highness.  Welcome to Haradis.  Welcome to my humble home.”

It was a humble home, spotlessly clean, inviting to any who entered.  A young girl hovered behind her mother, and Ildiko immediately caught the resemblance between her and Kirgipa.

Brishen had offered to bring Kirgipa with them when he returned Talumey’s mortem light.  The servant had refused.  “I’ll be with my mother when she brings his mortem light to Emlek and comfort her there.  I don’t think I can bear to see my brother reduced to just light and memory.”

They’d taken tea but refused the food Tarawin offered, for which Ildiko was glad.  Her stomach was in knots.  This was a house in mourning and carried within it a hushed waiting, as if the very walls and floor held a breath as it waited for Talumey’s return.

When they finished their tea, Brishen pushed his cup aside.  “Are you ready, Mistress Tarawin?”

She inhaled a slow breath, nodded, and rose from the table to retrieve a small crystal globe resting on a three-pronged stand on the mantel above the hearth.  Brishen joined her in the middle of the room and motioned for Ildiko to remain in her seat.

Tarawin hesitated.  “Are you certain you wish to do this, Your Highness?  I can summon a priestess who will take the light and bring it to me.”

Ildiko’s eyebrows climbed as Brishen shook his head and sank to his knees in front of her.  “This is audience enough, mistress.  Your son fought and died in my service.  It’s my privilege to do this.”

The globe wobbled in Tarawin’s shaking hands at his answer.  She held it out to Brishen who curved his hands over hers, slender fingers and black claws covering the pale orb.

All the fine hairs on Ildiko’s arms stood up at the first line of the chant the two recited in unison.  She recognized its cant and rhythm-the lamentation the Kai had used when the mortem lights had first filled their willing vessels.

She gasped and leapt to her feet as black lines like thorny vines sprouted under the skin of Brishen’s neck, crawling over his cheeks and across his forehead where they disappeared into his hairline.  His closed eyelids twitched, cobwebbed with the same hideous lines, and his lips thinned back against his teeth.

Ildiko didn’t possess a drop of magery, but she knew enough about spellwork to understand the dangers and lethality of interrupting it.  This was powerful magic, painful magic, and all she could do was stand aside and wring her hands as her husband clutched the orb and convulsed on his knees, his speech stuttered and clumsy.

A dot of light illuminated the center of his chest, growing until it threatened to consume him and Tarawin whole.  Ildiko turned her face away and shielded her eyes as a burst of blinding luminescence filled the room.  When she could see again, Brishen had slumped before Tarawin like a puppet with its strings cut.

Tarawin held the orb gingerly, its interior lit with the transferred mortem light until it resembled a small, glowing sun in her hands.  She handed it to her daughter who took it, kissed it and wrapped it in a silk cloth before setting it in a small chest set on the table where they’d taken their tea.

Assured, the transfer of the mortem light was finished, Ildiko rushed to Brishen’s side.  The jagged black tracery under his skin had disappeared, but he still needed help to stand.  She and Tarawin led him to the chair he’d vacated earlier.  After several more cups of tea and assurances to a worried Tarawin and equally concerned Ildiko, Brishen announced he was ready to leave.

He was a paler shade of gray when they left the house and leaned against his patient mount for support.

“Brishen?”  Ildiko clasped his elbow, frightened by the dullness of his eyes and the way his shoulders drooped.

“I’m fine, Ildiko.  Just give me a moment.  Giving up a mortem light leaves an emptiness at first.”  Brishen swiped a hand across his brow and offered Ildiko a feeble smile.  “I grew used to Talumey’s memories.  Did you know his mother often admonished him when he was little for constantly picking his nose?”

Ildiko’s nose twitched at the idea.  With the set of claws the Kai sported on the ends of their fingers, it was a wonder Talumey still had his nose as an adult if he indulged in such a habit.  “You did a fine thing bringing his mortem light back to her, though I’d imagine your parents would thrash you for kneeling before a merchant’s wife.”

As proud as any prince of a royal house should be, her new husband was also amiable and seemingly unaware of his status.  No prince, duke, or baron she ever met would ever bend a knee to someone below them, even if it was a mandatory part of a religious ritual.

Brishen chuckled.  “When I met with my father last evening to discuss the Belawat attack, he opened the conversation by pinning my ears back for lowering myself and shaming my house’s name.”

Having been a recipient of similar diatribes from her aunt, Ildiko sympathized.  “I’m guessing you lost no sleep over his displeasure?”

He shrugged.  “None whatsoever.  If a simple genuflection of gratitude compromises my character and shames my house, then we are both less than shadow. There is more to royalty than blood and birthright, wife.”

They rode back to the palace, Ildiko’s grip tight around Brishen’s waist.He was too heavy for her to stop him from falling off his horse if he fainted, but at least she could slow the fall.  He patted her hands occasionally as if to reassure her.  She wished she’d chosen the carriage.

A small army of servants had greeted him in his chambers.  Brishen hugged Ildiko, promised he’d check in on her later, collapsed across his bed and promptly fell asleep.  She instructed the servants to leave him dressed and tossed a blanket over him.  His personal servant, a Kai named Huarat, promised he’d keep watch and let Ildiko know if any problem arose.

Ildiko had kept to her room the remainder of the evening and stayed awake until almost dawn, her ears straining to hear any sound from the chamber next door.  She fell asleep to the silence and awakened the next evening to Brishen at the door, none the worse for wear and with the offer to show her the royal gardens.

He continued to amaze her, this Kai prince with his wolf smile and radiant soul.

“I have a fine husband indeed,” she said aloud as she soaked up the sun’s warm light.

“I wholeheartedly agree,” the subject of her thoughts replied.

Ildiko jumped as a heavily cloaked and hooded Brishen sat down beside her.”What are you doing up?” she said.

Brishen’s eyes were yellow slits in his dark face.  “I might ask the same of you.”

“I miss the sun,” she said.  She didn’t resent changing her sleep schedule to mimic the Kai’s, but her body craved a bit of daylight.  “And I couldn’t sleep anyway, so I thought I’d come out here.  It’s peaceful.”

“With no one around?”  His smile had taken on a wry quality.

Ildiko shrugged.  “Yes.  While the Gauri court was just as crowded and busy, I was often left to my own devices and not so closely…”

“Watched?”  Brishen sighed at her nod.  “It can be suffocating if you’re not used to it.”

“Are you used to it?”

“Not anymore.”

Ildiko wondered what had changed for him.  He answered her unspoken question.

“Since I spend most of my time on my estate, the palace feels like an overcrowded nest of angry wasps.”  He traced a line down her arm.  “What think you if we quit this place and travel home?  I’m eager to show you what I call sanctuary.”

Ildiko captured his hand and kissed his knuckles.  She grinned and then laughed outright when he only flinched a little.  “Do I have to bid your mother goodbye?”

“If you feel up to a little self torture, certainly.  I avoid her whenever possible.”  Brishen grinned in return, and this time Ildiko only flinched a little.  “When do you want to leave?”

“Now?”

He laughed and leaned forward to press a kiss to her forehead.  “I’ll bargain for tonight.  You need sleep and so do I.  And I need out of this hideous sun before I go completely blind.”

 

~!~!~!~

 

 

 

 

RADIANCE – a serialized novella – part 12

Sorry for the wait, folks.  I suspect with summer in place, kids at home and other writing project glitches popping up, my weekly schedule won’t be weekly.  You’ve probably already sussed that with the latest erratic updates.  My apologies, and thank you for your patience.

Unfortunately, due to a bunch of unexpected spam coming through on the comments despite safeguards, I’ve had to implement comment moderation.  It sucks, but until I we can come up with a better fix (if there is one), I’ll have to keep moderation on.  I’ll check in multiple times and approve your comments as fast as possible, but I wanted to let you know why it’s suddenly on lock-down.  I doubt you want to read about how I can solve my erectile dysfunction or how I won a contest for a million dollars if I just send my bank information to some place in Nigeria.

Anyway, back to better stuff.  As with all RADIANCE updates, this one has not been seen or vetted by my editors.  Because it’s the “unwashed” version, expect typos, stylistic hiccups, etc.  What you’re reading is a rough draft.  I won’t revise 99% of it until the story is complete and I do first-pass revisions before sending it on to my editors.

Thank you for your continued support.  I’ve enjoyed writing and posting this story and hearing from those who’ve stopped in to read.  And now, on with the show:

RADIANCE

by Grace Draven

© 2014 by Grace Draven

All rights reserved

Part Twelve

 

Though his mother might be planning Ildiko’s murder for her unforgiveable refusal to be cowed, Brishen couldn’t fault the queen for the feast she ordered prepared to officially welcome him and his bride home.

The dining hall was lavishly decorated.  Flowers from the royal gardens hung in garlands over the windows and spilled in lush bouquets on the tables, their opalescent petals glowing beneath the flickering light of candles and hanging lamps.  The tables were covered in cloths of finely woven linen and silk, the benches upon which the nobility would sit, lined with velvet cushions.

The high table was even more appointed, set to emphasize the royal house’s wealth and power.  An army of liveried servants lined the walls behind the tables, ready to serve.

It was all grand, even majestic—fit for a royal prince and his new bride.  Brishen wished fiercely he could grab Ildiko’s hand and escape back to her chamber—or his—and share a meal in relative solitude.  If not there, then with the soldiers under his command.  Even road rations tasted delectable when shared with good company.  Ildiko could avoid another serving of scarpatine and he, his parents’ poisonous company.  As it was, escape was not an option, and he prayed for a quick end to the celebration.

He approached the high table, Ildiko by his side and the recipient of countless curious stares from the nobles gathered in the hall.  She bore their scrutiny proudly.  Attired in her crow-black finery, she was the picture of serenity and confidence—shoulders and back straight, chin raised at a haughty angle—equal to any member of the Kai royal household.

She wore her mask well, but Brishen knew of her fear.  Her hand rested in the crook of his elbow, fingers buried in the folds of his sleeve.  Were she Kai instead of human and possessed the same sharp nails, she would have sliced through the fabric and scored his forearm bloody.  Luckily, her tight grip only managed to slow the flow of blood to his fingers.

Ildiko might not reciprocate the feeling, but Brishen considered himself fortunate to have such a wife.  She was shrewd and insightful.  Raised amidst another royal court, she understood its machinations and manipulations; its subtle messages conveyed in something as innocuous as the cut of a tunic or its color.  He’d shield her as much as possible from the criticisms of the Kai, which would focus on her homely appearance and spread from there, but he suspected she’d manage to hold her own with even the most acerbic Kai aristocrat.  They’d witnessed Ildiko stand against Secmis’s barbed comments and the implied threat in her pointed questions.  Only a few dimwitted Kai would still assume that she was weak because she was human.

The nobles bowed as he and Ildiko passed them.  Brishen ignored their stares as he always did and leaned closer to Ildiko.  “How is your stomach?”

She stared straight ahead, but her fingers flexed on his arm.  “It’s there,” she said softly.

He smothered a smile at her noncommittal answer.  The idea to introduce her to the delicacy of baked scarpatine before the dinner had been a strategic one.  Even some of the Kai found the dish revolting, and it represented much more of a challenge to serve as well as eat than the passive, if foul-tasting, potato.

Her reaction hadn’t surprised him.  Her determination to eat the gray flesh still squirming on her plate did.  Ildiko had rinsed her mouth with wine and water while he set the basin outside her door.  “Are you sure you don’t want to keep this in here for now?”  Guilt rode him hard at the memory of holding her while she emptied her belly of its contents.

She shook her head.  “I’m sure.”

“What if you’re sick again?”  It was entirely possible.  Cutting the pie and butchering the scarpatine wasn’t the worst part.

Ildiko’s chin rose and she marched back to her chair.  “I won’t be.”  Before Brishen said anything else, she sat down, grabbed her dagger, sliced off a piece of scarpatine and popped it in her mouth.

Brishen’s eyebrows arched.  He hovered by the door, ready to snatch the basin back and race to his wife’s side.  Ildiko chewed slowly, her brow furrowed in concentration.  She swallowed and drank her wine.

“Well?” he said.

She glanced at him from the corner of her eye before slicing off another piece.  The gray mass twitched between her fingers, and she slapped it against the edge of her plate to subdue it.  “It doesn’t taste like chicken.”  She bit and chewed again.

Brishen laughed, delighted and relieved.  “No, it doesn’t.”  Assured he wouldn’t have to grab the basin, he joined her at the table.  His portion of scarpatine had grown cold; he suspected hers had as well.  “What does it taste like to you?” he said between bites.

Ildiko studied the small portion impaled on her dagger’s tip.  “A little muddy.  A little briny.  Mostly like someone took a fish, packed it in dirt and let it cook inside a sweaty boot.”

He choked mid-swallow and grabbed for his sanap.  When he could breathe, he took a careful sip of wine.  “You’d reduce the royal cook to fits of melancholy if he heard you say that.”

She shrugged.  “He’s reduced me to retching with his repulsive pie.  I suffer no pangs of guilt.”  She lowered her dagger with the scarpatine still on it and pushed her plate away, a shudder wracking her slim frame.  “I won’t lie, Brishen.  It’s beyond foul, but I’m glad we did this now.  I would have humiliated us both at the feast.”

Brishen shoved his half-eaten portion away and reached for Ildiko’s hand.  Her fingers notched with his, so pale he could trace the filigree of blue veins that ran beneath her skin with his thumb.  “I don’t think that’s possible, wife.”

Her cheeks flushed an unsightly red.  Three days earlier her response would have alarmed him into thinking she was ill.  He’d since learned such coloration was similar to a Kai’s own darkening blush—an expression of anger, embarrassment or pleasure.  The tightening of her hand on his assured him hers was one of pleasure at his words.

“You’ve a stronger stomach than I credited you with if you could eat the scarpatine without gagging.”  It still surprised him.  She’d been violently ill after watching him carve up the creature; he’d had no hope of her being able to eat it without growing sick a second time.

Ildiko untangled her fingers from his and patted his hand.  “I doubt the Gauri court is that much different from the Kai one.  If the nobility isn’t spying on each other, they’re maligning each other.  Everything is fodder for gossip and ridicule.  Unless you want to be the topic of conversation among bored lords and ladies waiting to sink their claws into you, you eat what’s served and act as if it pleases you.  I learned early to hold my breath when I chewed and breathe through my nose when I swallowed.  And I always made sure my goblet was full.”

She winked at him and lifted her dagger to poke at the now still slab of scarpatine.  “This is one of the most horrendous things I’ve ever eaten, but it’s nothing compared to King Sangur’s favorite dish—a pea soup I will swear until I’m dead was made of and prepared by packs of rotting demons.  The kitchens served it to us once a week without fail, though I don’t ever recall anyone having to battle a vicious pod of attacking peas just to gulp down the soup.”

With her words, the lingering concerns Brishen had about her ability to withstand another round of Kai food vanished completely, along with any doubts he harbored about her adjusting to this new life.  She stood beside him now in the dining hall, frightened but resolved.  Not only would this Gauri woman survive in the Kai world, she’d thrive.

A herald announced the king and queen’s arrival.  The chatter in the hall ceased abruptly, and as one, the guests bowed.  Ildiko pressed against Brishen’s side.

“I hope the queen doesn’t decide to roast me for a pie.”  Amusement colored her voice, but Brishen heard the thread of fear as well.

He pressed her hand to his side with his elbow.  “I’ll skewer her if she tries, wife.”

A soft giggle teased his ear.  “You can’t skewer her.  She’s your mother, Brishen.”

“And a deadlier adversary I have yet to face,” he replied.

They straightened as the monarchs passed, and Brishen’s skin prickled under the weight of Secmis’s stare as she leveled a narrow look on him and then Ildiko before taking her place next to her husband at the high table.  Brishen’s brother Harkuf and his wife Tiye followed, taking their places to the right of the king.

Brishen nudged Ildiko into step behind the heir apparent.  “We sit on the queen’s side,” he said.

Ildiko’s grip tightened on his arm.  “Lovely,” she muttered.

The feast began as most feasts like it did—bloated with ritual and artifice.  The nobility maneuvered amongst themselves for the choicest seats, arguing over whose rank and family ties entitled them a spot closest to the high table.  Brishen sighed and fiddled with his eating dagger.  This happened at every state dinner and celebration and was one of the things he didn’t miss when he escaped court to his isolated estate.

Ildiko sat on one side of him, rigid and silent, staring straight ahead.  Secmis sat on his other side, her claws drumming a beat on the tabletop as everyone waited for Djedor to start the feast with an official welcome of Brishen’s wife.

This time Djedor omitted any insults regarding Ildiko’s appearance, and his formal acceptance of her into the Kai royal family was mercifully brief.  Brishen guessed his father was hungry and didn’t want to waste any more time on the niceties when there was hot food waiting to be served.

His formal declaration of recognition, however abbreviated, bequeathed power to Ildiko she didn’t previously possess.  She might be Gauri human in appearance, but she’d just become Kai where it truly counted—court ranking.  Brishen relaxed in his seat, relieved.  Now they just had to get through the interminable dinner and whatever nastiness Secmis decided to throw at them.

They didn’t have to wait long.  The queen fired her first volley just as the servants set down bowls of soup.  “You Gauri are very pale.  Only our diseased sport that shade.”

Those sitting closest to the high table to hear the remark tittered and passed the comment down to those seated out of earshot.  Brishen opened his mouth to snarl at his mother.  Ildiko’s hand on his leg under the table stopped him.

She sipped soup from her spoon, offering no indication that either the soup’s taste or Secmis’s comment bothered her.  She dabbed at her lips with her sanap before answering.  “You’re right, your Majesty; we are quite pale by comparison.  The Kai are very gray.  Only our dead are that color.”

Secmis’s lips thinned until they drew back, exposing the tips of her fangs.  More whispers and a few muffled snorts of amusement drifted up from the lower tables.  The queen’s hand curled around her eating dagger.  Brishen shifted sideways in his chair toward her, prepared to act as shield for Ildiko in case Secmis decided to attack.

The glow of her eyes flared hot.  She changed tactics.  “Your bast-Kai is very clumsy,” she said in the same tongue.

“My Common is far more proficient,” Ildiko agreed in smooth, flawless bast-Kai.

Brishen hid a smile and started on his own soup.  He was intuitive enough to know any interference on his part would not be welcomed by either woman.  He suffered the sudden, uncomfortable sensation of sitting between two large cats, both protracting and retracting their claws as they faced off against each other.

The queen continued with her barrage of acerbic observations that touched on everything from the way Ildiko wore her hair to how she held her spoon.  She was limited on what insults she threw out.  Ildiko’s lineage was off-limits since Brishen’s parents considered it acceptable enough for their younger son, but she didn’t spare her contempt in other matters.  Ildiko remained polite and utterly indomitable in the face of Secmis’s obvious disdain.

Brishen leaned forward for a quick glimpse of his brother at the other end of the table.  Harkuf either didn’t hear the exchange between the queen and Ildiko or he didn’t care.  His attention remained solely on the food in front of him, with occasional glances at his latest mistress seated at one of the lower tables.  His wife Tiye was a different story.  She hadn’t touched anything to served to her, and her expression wavered between fascination and horror.  Brishen imagined whatever bits and pieces of the conversation she heard shocked her.  Secmis terrified Tiye as much as she terrified Ildiko.  Unlike Ildiko, Tiye never stood against her formidable mother-in-law in either word or action.  Brishen remained undecided if she was weaker than Ildiko or simply possessed a better sense of self-preservation.

The exchange between the Kai queen and her newly acquired Gauri daughter-in-law continued through most of the meal, with the dinner guests perched on their seats to catch every word and expression.  Their scrutiny intensified when the last course was delivered—scarpatine pies with their golden crusts and the contents writhing beneath them.

Brishen leaned closer to Ildiko.  “Are you ready?”

She surprised him with a soft exhalation of relief.  “Yes,” she whispered.  “If this is what it takes for your mother to finally shut up, I’ll eat this vile pie all day long.”

A howl of laughter threatened to escape his throat.  Ildiko jumped in her seat when Brishen turned and pressed his cheek to hers so that his face was turned away from the audience, and his lips brushed her ear.  It was a stunning display of public affection—one he knew his mother would fume over for days and the court would gossip about for weeks.

He allowed himself a small chuckle then.  “I will conquer kingdoms for you if you but ask it of me, Ildiko.”

She pulled away enough to meet his smiling gaze, her own mouth turning up.  “Just defeat the pie without either of us getting stung, husband.  I’ll be satisfied.”

While Ildiko didn’t join in on the numerous oohs and aahs over the delicacy served, she didn’t so much as twitch when Brishen repeated the process of cutting into the pie and butchering the scarpatine.  He could almost feel the wave of disappointment from the guests roll over him as she ate her portion without hesitation or fanfare.  Only he heard the measured rhythm of her breathing—when she held her breath, when she exhaled—and made sure her goblet remained filled.

Beside him, Secmis fairly quivered with frustration.  She’d been given a pie of her own and vented her wrath on the scarpatine by puncturing the shell and slicing out the flesh with her claws instead of her knife.  Oily black blood oozed off her claw tips as she smirked at Ildiko who steadfastly ignored her and Brishen who glared.

When the feast finally concluded and the king and queen quit the hall—Secmis gifting Ildiko with a final scowl—Brishen felt as if he’d just walked off a battlefield.  Ildiko stood next to him, her hand once more resting in the crook of his elbow as the two faced the horde of nobles who descended on them to offer their congratulations and satisfy their curiosity.

It was more of an interrogation than a social gathering, and like the feast before it, Ildiko suffered through it with stoic aplomb.  It was Brishen who called a halt and refused offers of more drink and food in the various palace chambers occupied by the more powerful aristocrats.

He and Ildiko bowed and made their escape into the hallway.  “How fast can you walk?” he said.

For the first time that evening, she offered him a wide smile, flashing her small square teeth.  “I can run if you want me to.”

“Excellent.”  He grabbed her hand and they dashed together through the corridors and up a flight of stairs until they stood outside the doors to his chamber and hers.

“How did I do, husband?”  Ildiko said when she caught her breath.

Brishen reached for her hand and brought it to his mouth for a kiss, then bowed before her.  “You make a magnificent Kai princess, my wife.”

She trailed her fingertips down his arm.  “I think we both caught the message the queen delivered when she gutted that scarpatine, Brishen.  Yet again I’ve turned your mother against me.  I’m sorry.”

He stepped closer and wrapped an arm around her narrow waist.  “If Secmis is smart, and she is, she’ll find a way to overcome her dislike and make an ally of you.”  He kissed her forehead.  “I’ve had enough of playing the puppet on display.  I crave good company and good wine.  Will you join me?”

Ildiko nodded and slid her hands up to his shoulders.  “May we invite your cousin?  I didn’t see Anhuset at the feast, and I imagine she’d enjoy your retelling of the event.”

Brishen nodded.  “Despite her family’s disapproval, Anhuset isn’t one for these gatherings and avoids them at all costs.”

Ildiko worried at a thread on his sleeve with her fingers.  “I envy her.”

“So do I,” he said.  “I’ll send a message to have her meet us in my chamber.  She’ll match my story of this feast with a retelling of our wedding celebration in Pricid.  She’s still threatening to split my gullet over having to eat one of those noxious potatoes.”

~!~!~!~

 

A little history on MASTER OF CROWS and THE KING OF HEL

A commenter on the previous post brought up a great question regarding the exorbitant price of the print version of MASTER OF CROWS on Amazon.   It made me think now would be a good time to give a little history about this title that explains why that is such a crazy-sauce price (that changes day to day from what I’ve observed).

In 2009 MASTER OF CROWS was published with a publisher called Amber Quill.  I still have a few titles with them.  Because the story was novel-length, they published it in both digital and print format.  In 2011, distribution rights to MoC reverted back to me.  As soon as they did, I reformatted the story for upload, put Louisa Gallie’s awesome cover on it and re-priced it at $2.99 for the digital version (I think it was $5.50 – $6.50 when it was with AQP).  Due to time constraints, the need for  the CreateSpace learning curve and the fact that the Book Designer’s awesome templates for print weren’t yet available, I didn’t get around to re-doing the print version.  I still haven’t gotten around to formatting for print (for other reasons now).

If you see a print version available on Amazon (usually for an obscene amount of money), it will have the old publisher’s cover (ick!).  This version is being sold by a third party vendor like a used bookstore with an on-line presence.  They got a hold of a copy somewhere and are reselling it.  Why they’d think anyone would pay such a crazy price is beyond me, but that’s why you see such a difference between the price of the ebook, which I control, and the price of the old print edition, which I don’t.  If things ever calm down enough for me to get into the file, do another copyedit pass to catch glitches (means reading it backwards) and have Louisa design the spine and back cover for a cover flat, I’ll format it for print and put a 2nd edition with the new cover for a MUCH more reasonable price.  I’ll probably see a definite drop in price on the old edition.

Regarding THE KING OF HEL – this was the first story I ever published professionally and was a little less than 12k words long.  It was only available in digital format due to length.  Like MoC, rights reverted to me in 2011.  That story is on hold for me self publishing it as I intend to extend it to a novel-length story.  Right now though, it’s in a queue behind other projects.  Believe it or not, it’s a lot more difficult (at least for me) to revamp an existing story than to write something brand new (sort of like old house reno vs. new house build).  There are multiple sites on the net where TKoH is pirated and accessible.  Book pirating is part of the publishing landscape with folks often arguing over why it’s a bad thing/good thing.  I stay out of that argument.  I will say though that if you visit one of these sites to obtain a copy, please be careful of malware that may be lurking on the sites.  I’m technologically illiterate, but I’ve heard there are many risks to downloading from some of these sites.  This isn’t a scare tactic from me.  My readers are an awesome bunch of folks, and I’d hate to see anyone having to clean crap off their computer just because they wanted to read a book.

Best,

Grace

 

RADIANCE – a serialized novella – Part 11

Sincere apologies for the delay, but Part 11 is now posted.  Thank you for your patience.

Many thanks to the lovely Kathryn Pope who took the time to help me out and put Radiance in a nice tidy section all to itself to make it easier for you folks to read the updates and to keep me from adding a bunch of links with every post.  THANK YOU, Kathryn!!!

So without further ado, here’s RADIANCE – part 11.  Thank you for reading.

RADIANCE

by

Grace Draven

copyright 2014 by Grace Draven

All rights reserved

Part 11

If she disregarded their physical appearances, Ildiko determined that the Kai courtiers were much like the Gauri ones—ambitious, gossip-mongering and highly skilled at surviving the savage intrigues of court life.

She’d known the moment the doors to the throne opened and she and Brishen crossed the threshold, they’d pass through a gauntlet of curious hounds eager for the scent of new blood.  Anhuset’s armored breastplate wouldn’t protect Ildiko on that battleground.

Familiarity with court etiquette and strategy offered some comfort as she knelt at the lowest step before her new husband’s parents.  King Djedor was a man stitched of nightmares, a lich not yet completed rotted to bones.  Brishen’s body against her back had been the only thing that kept her from fleeing the throne room when the king flashed his black-fanged smile at her.

Her fluency in the Kai speech was adequate enough that she understood most of his remarks regarding the ugliness of human women.  His insults had done a fine job of eroding her fear and replacing it with indignation.  That indignation bubbled into a seething anger when Secmis addressed her in the Common tongue.

The queen had stared at her with eyes that gleamed red at the rims and a mouth that curled into a sneer.  She sat on the throne, slender and garbed in a heavily embroidered gown that cascaded over the chair and pooled at her feet.  Her silver hair was dressed in braids and decorated with jeweled pins that winked dully in the low light.

In her rebuttal of the queen’s comments, Ildiko had been tempted to ask if Secmis might find it more comfortable if she were coiled around her throne instead of perched upon it.  The horrified gasps from the Kai nobles and Brishen’s hand on his sword as she challenged Secmis’s contempt alerted Ildiko that she already antagonized his malevolent mother to a dangerous point without insults to enflame the confrontation.

Only after they’d escaped the throne room had her courage, fueled by anger, deserted her.  Ildiko had collapsed in Brishen’s arm, lightheaded at her recklessness.

He’d held her close, his praise of her bravery the only thing that kept her upright as he led her up a flight of stairs and down two corridors to a door decorated with fanciful strap hinges.  He opened the door, revealing a spacious chamber lavishly furnished with a large bed, wardrobe, chests and a table and chairs set near a hearth in which a low-burning fire flickered.

Brishen led her to one of the chairs.  Ildiko dropped into it gratefully.  She was truly part of the family now.  Just like the rest, she’d have to sleep with one eye open, in fear of Secmis.

“Do you want a dram of wine?”  Brishen held a goblet in one hand and a pitcher in the other.

“I’ll take two,” she replied and offered a feeble smile at his chuckle.  She took the goblet from him with shaking hands and searched for the right words that wouldn’t excoriate Secmis too badly.  She was Brishen’s parent after all.  “Your mother is…”

“A soulless creature with a thirst for murder and an intellect greater than any other in the kingdom.”  Brishen poured wine for himself in another goblet.  “It makes her a ruler unmatched in both malice and strategy.  My father would have been overthrown decades ago without her by his side.”

Ildiko blinked at him.  Her husband continued to flummox her with his matter-of-fact acceptance of his parents’ less than amiable traits as well as his own good nature.  She could only surmise that like the children of most royal households, he’d been raised by a troop of nannies, tutors and mentors, at least some possessing a more compassionate character.

She wanted to ask him more, but talking about the Kai king and queen soured the wine in her belly.  Instead, she focused on her surroundings.  “Where are we?”

He took the next to her.  “Your bedchamber.  At least during your stay here in the palace.  What do you think?”

Distracted by his second remark, Ildiko gave her surroundings no more than a quick glance.  “It’s very nice.  What do you mean my stay in the palace?”  A second knot of apprehension twisted in her gut, taking up residence next to the one slowly unwinding itself from her encounter with Secmis.

It wasn’t at all unusual among the Gauri for noblemen to sequester their wives on distant estates, isolated from court life, while their husbands lived separate existences with a few conjugal visits each year to assure the hereditary line continued.

While Ildiko liked the idea of putting as much distance as possible between herself and Secmis, she didn’t relish a future in which she withered away on some forgotten estate, kept company only by Kai servants as resentful of their exile as she was.

Brishen  brushed her knee with a gray hand.  One black nail caught on the fabric of her skirt, creating a pleat.  “Don’t worry, Ildiko.  I’ll be exiled with you.  I have a house on the far western borders of the kingdom.  We’ll stay here for a few weeks so you can become familiar with the Kai court and then journey home.”

Brishen said “home” in such a voice that he might as well have said “sanctuary” instead.  It was obvious to Ildiko that while he tolerated the Haradis court, his heart resided elsewhere.

She recalled a map spread across a table in King Sangur’s study—a cartographical masterpiece of the many kingdoms that shared the great expanse of lands this side of the Apteran Ocean.  She frowned.  “Your estate nestles against Belawat lands.”

He nodded, his yellow eyes flaring brighter for a moment.  “It does.  But I’m not defenseless, and I suspect our human neighbors will either wait before trying another stunt like the one on the trade road or consider another way to foil this allegiance.”

Ildiko hoped those neighbors would choose the second option or just accept the reality of trade between the Kai and the Gauri.  While she’d enjoy self-imposed banishment with Brishen at her side, she didn’t fancy doing so while under siege by the Belawat kingdom.

She finished her wine and rose to set the empty goblet on the table.  “Will Anhuset accompany us?”  She smiled at his nod.  “Good.  I very much like her.”

A knock at the door halted any further conversation.  Brishen bade their visitor enter.  A Kai man dressed in livery hovered just inside the doorway, shadowed by two women.  All three bowed, and the man spoke.

“Your Highness, His Majesty wishes for you to meet him in the council chamber.”  He said more, but Ildiko’s understanding of the Kai language was not extensive enough to make out every word.

Brishen nodded and stood.  He bowed to Ildiko with a smile.  “Speaking of Belawat, my father will want to know more about the attack on the trade road.”  He reached for her hand and kissed her fingertips, his touch cool and soft on her skin.

The king’s messenger stood to the side so the women behind him could enter the room.  Ildiko rose from her chair to stand by Brishen.  The women were also dressed in the garb of palace servants.  One looked older than the other by a decade, and both were young.  While the elder one tried not to gawk at Ildiko, the younger servant ignored her, her lamplight eyes trained solely on Brishen who returned her stare with a like intensity.

“I’ve seen you in memory,” he said gently in the Common tongue.  “Are you Talumey’s kin?”

The girl’s still features crumpled.  She fell to her knees before Brishen, who frowned.  “His sister, Your Highness.  Kirgipa.  Sha-Anhuset sent word of the fallen.  You have honored our family.  That a prince would carry Talumey’s mortem light…”

Brishen interrupted her with a hand on her arm.  “Stand up, Kirgipa.”  He coaxed her to her feet.  His frown had eased but not the sorrow in the downturn of his mouth.  “It would have been a better thing had I returned him to your mother alive and unharmed.  It’s he who honors your family.  He was a good soldier and fought bravely.”

Kirgipa’s chin quivered and Ildiko wondered if the Kai shed tears as humans did when they mourned.  The servant bowed to Brishen and then to her before returning to her place next to the older woman.

Brishen turned to the king’s messenger waiting patiently by the door.  “Send another message to Kirgipa’s mother.  I’ll arrive tomorrow with her son’s mortem light.”  He turned to Ildiko.  “Do you wish to accompany me?  We’d go tonight, but there’s no escaping the celebration feast without unleashing the queen’s wrath on everyone involved in our absence.”

Ildiko gave an involuntary shiver at the thought of Secmis’s retribution.  She glanced at Kirgipa before easing closer to Brishen so only he could hear her.  “Are you certain?  I’m an outlander here, Brishen, and this is Kai business in both flesh and spirit.”

His black eyebrows snapped together in a scowl, surprising Ildiko.  “You are first and foremost of the royal house of Khaskhem.  There is no place barred to you except by the will of Djedor and Secmis.”

Were they alone, she might have smoothed the line bisecting the space between his eyebrows.  Instead, Ildiko limited her touch to a brief caress of his arm.  She didn’t miss the watchful stares of the nearby servants or the looks exchanged between them.

“This isn’t a matter of rank and access, Brishen, but of discretion.  Would a woman mourning the loss of her son welcome a stranger to witness it, especially one who’d draw the attention I will?”

Brishen still scowled, and his eyes glowed a little brighter.  “What would you do in her place?”

She shrugged.  “When I lost my parents, I found no comfort in the sympathies of strangers, but each person is different.  And I am neither Kai nor a mother—two roles of which I have no experience.”

He eyed her for a moment.  “Will you go for my sake?”

“Yes,” she said without hesitation.

Obviously pleased with her answer, Brishen bowed and turned back to the messenger.  “Let’s get this over with so I may return to my wife.”  He paused and turned back to Ildiko before stepping into the hallway.  “The chamber next door is mine.  You’re welcome to explore it.”  He winked at her.  “Much to my family’s disgust, I’m a man of few secrets.”

He disappeared into the corridor, closing the door behind him and leaving Ildiko alone with the two Kai women.

The silence grew awkward as Ildiko considered what to say.  “I am still learning your language,” she said.  Both women shifted in place, and Ildiko congratulated herself on learning how to better read her adopted people’s expressions.  She’d definitely seen surprise cross the servants’ features at her uttering Kai words.

“From what I can tell, your Common is better than my bast-Kai, so why don’t we start with Common, and you can teach me words in your tongue as we converse.”

They nodded in unison, and the three began a stilted dialogue between them as they helped Ildiko unpack some of her trunks and instructed other servants for where to place the tub brought in for a bath.  Ildiko already knew Kirgipa’s name and learned the other woman was Sinhue.

During her journey from Pricid to Haradis, Ildiko had grown used to the stares of the Kai, sometimes curious, other times repulsed.  Sinhue’s and Kirgipa’s didn’t bother her, and they would be nothing compared to what she’d face at the welcoming celebration later—where she’d likely feel anything but welcomed.

Except for a few smothered exclamations when Ildiko disrobed and stepped into her bath, the two servants were circumspect, civil and helpful.  Ildiko fancied she even heard a note of approval in Sinhue’s voice when she agreed that wearing Kai garb instead of Gauri to the celebration feast was a good idea.

During her preparations, she heard movement and rustlings next door.  Brishen must have returned from council with his father and, like her, prepared for the upcoming festivities.  He confirmed that assumption when he knocked on her door and entered at her bidding.

No longer dressed in riding leathers and light armor, Brishen had changed into garb even more formal than what he’d worn at their wedding in Pricid.

A wide-sleeved tunic with a high collar covered most of a tight fitting shirt and trousers, all in varying shades of black and forest green embroidered silk.  Tiny beads threaded through twin braids woven into his black hair.  Except for the braids, he wore his hair loose, and it spilled over his shoulders, dark as a crow’s wing.

Being in each other’s constant company during the journey to Haradis had changed the way Ildiko saw him—tempered her perception of his otherness.  His toothsome smile still startled her as much as her eyes unnerved him, but she began to understand why Kai women found her husband attractive.

He hadn’t abandoned his martial adornment entirely.  A wide belt of thick leather decorated with brass studs cinched the tunic close to his narrow waist.  Anyone interested in sliding a knife under his ribs would find it a difficult task getting through the leather for a lethal thrust.  The belt sported a large ring sewn to the leather, and from that Brishen had tied his sword.  It rested against his hip, companion to the daggers tucked into the tops of his boots.  Ildiko guessed he probably bristled with weaponry; these were just the ones she could see.

“Are we going to war or to a feast?” she teased.

“This is Djedor’s court, hercegesé,” he said.  “They’re often one and the same.”

While Ildiko knew he teased her in return, his remark sent her stomach into a nervous tumble.  She wasn’t one to partake heavily of wine or ale, but she hoped both ran freely during this meal, otherwise her hands might shake so badly she’d stab herself with her own eating dagger.

She quickly discovered her husband was learning to read her expressions just as she was learning to read his.  He stepped closer and bent to whisper in her ear.  “Peace, Ildiko.  It won’t be so bad.  And I’ll paint the walls with Kai blood if any dare threaten you.”

Brishen meant his declaration as an assurance, but Ildiko shuddered.  He was fiercely protective of her, and for that she was grateful.  Still, she hoped they could get through this dinner without a decapitation or dismemberment.

He stepped away and scrutinized her with a glowing gaze.  “I hadn’t expected this,” he said.

While Brishen had met in council with the king, Ildiko had readied for the feast.  When her new servants had laid out the gowns she’d brought from home across her bed, she’d given a disapproving cluck.  “I should have had the forethought to have clothing made that a Kai woman would wear.”  A new gown or headdress wouldn’t make her any more Kai or any less Gauri, but at least her adopting their fashion might demonstrate her willingness to embrace the Kai culture.

At her complaint, Sinhue had bowed and fled the room, startling both Ildiko and Kirgipa.  The servant returned with two Kai men who dragged a large chest through the door and shoved it against one wall.  When they left, Sinhue lifted the chest lid and motioned for Ildiko to come closer.

Ildiko had gasped at the sight of lush fabrics stacked on top of each other—muted greens and golds mingled with bronzes and blacks as deep as scarpatine blood.  Splashes of jewel-toned amaranthine and cobalt shone amidst the darker colors.

She knelt beside Sinhue and plunged her hands into the treasure trove, pulling out scarves and silky trousers, embroidered tunics heavy with gold thread and jeweled girdles woven and draped with gold chains more delicate than spider webs.  “It’s all so beautiful.”

Sinhue’s wide grin spiked the fine hairs on Ildiko’s nape.  “His Highness ordered them before he left for your homeland, Hercegesé.  They’re for you.  We were instructed to leave them packed until you chose a time to wear them.”

Ildiko sputtered, still awestruck by the chest’s contents.  They were finer than anything even Queen Fantine wore during feasts held for affairs of state.  Her own wedding apparel had been beggars’ rags compared to these clothes.  “Now is a good time,” she said.

Two hours later and the enthusiastic efforts of her maids to lace her, cinch her and tame her hair, and she stood before Brishen dressed as Kai royalty.  Of the many times she wished she could easily read Kai expressions, Ildiko had never wished more fervently for that skill than now.

She was dressed similar to Brishen—long tunic with wide sleeves over a tighter fitting shirt.  Her tunic was longer than his and cut so that it gave the illusions of a skirt but with far greater freedom of movement.  She wore trousers as well beneath the tunic, their ankle cuffs tucked into laced boots that reached to her calves.  The girdle encircling her waist was as wide as his belt but made of fabric in which rubies no bigger than peppercorns had been stitched and gleamed like small demon eyes in the dim light.

Despite Sinhue’s and Kirgipa’s polite but insistent suggestions that another color might suit her better, Ildiko had chosen to dress all in black.  Everything she wore tonight, down to the combs in her hair, had to send a silent message.  Wearing the fashions favored by the Kai signaled her willingness to accept her adopted people.  Dressing in a color that starkly emphasized her skin and hair signaled she was still Gauri human and unashamed of the fact.

“What do you think,” she asked Brishen and pivoted in a slow circle.  “Will this do?”

He stood before her, silent for several long moments.  Ildiko’s palms grew damp, and behind Brishen the servant women crushed their skirts in their hands, apprehension plain in their pale-knuckled grips.

Brishen reached for her hand and tugged until she stood close enough to feel his body heat.  His hand rested lightly on her back, fingertips tracing the upper line of her girdle.  “You’re very clever, wife, and have a talent for saying much while saying little.”  The lines at the corners of his eyes deepened, and the corners of his mouth turned up.  “This will more than do.”

Something flared between them, a sense of camaraderie, of belonging.  For a brief moment, Ildiko felt as if she and Brishen stood alone in this chamber, bound together not only by vows but by similarities far greater than their obvious differences.  Brishen of House Khaskhem was as fine a man as any born, whether he was human, Kai or any of the other Elder races that populated these lands, and Ildiko’s affection for him grew by leaps with every moment she came to know him better.

“You make a very handsome dead eel, my husband,” she said and winked.  Sinhue and Kirgipa both gasped.

“For a boiled mollusk, you wear black quite well, my wife,” Brishen shot back, and his smile stretched a little wider.

More gasps, and Ildiko caught sight of the two maids gaping at them slack-jawed at the exchange of insults.

The sudden knock at the door made both women jump.  Kirgipa was the first to answer and held the door open as a procession of servants carrying a small table and covered trays entered.  They set the table near the hearth and placed their burdens on its surface.  Plates, knives and linen sanaps were set on the smaller table between the two chairs facing the hearth, and one poured more wine into the goblets she and Brishen had drank from earlier.

The servants filed out as quickly and quietly as they entered, leaving Ildiko glancing first at the trays from which savory smells wafted into the room and then at Brishen who dismissed Sinhue and Kirgipa with a nod.

Ildiko peered at the various trays.  “What is this?  I thought we were to attend the feast?”  She rather liked the idea of skipping that trial and eating in here with just Brishen for company, even if they were terribly overdressed for a quiet dinner between them.

Brishen gestured to one of the chairs.  “Take a seat.  This is a practice try beforehand.”  He spread one of the linen sanaps in her lap when she sat.  “You’ll have the weight of every stare on you at the feast, Ildiko, and you’ll be served things you’ve never eaten before.  I’d rather you weren’t surprised by what’s put on your plate.”

Ildiko flinched a little with guilt.  Brishen had bravely eaten everything served to him at the Gauri reception following their wedding.  She’d been unable to determine his thoughts as he spooned his food into his mouth and chewed, but the tension quivering throughout his body had told her enough to know that dinner had been its own particular torture.

“I’m sorry about the potato, Brishen,” she said.

His lips thinned and he took a swallow of wine from his goblet before taking a seat next to her.  “No need to apologize, though I’ll never understand how the Gauri willingly eat such foul, disgusting food.”

Ildiko feared she’d soon repeat that sentiment.

Brishen slid the first tray onto the table and removed the lid.  The dish was a medley of fresh fruit and herbs drizzled in a sweet sauce.  Brishen cautioned her to take only a small portion so she wouldn’t be too full to eat later.

Ildiko liked it and recognized some of the fruits used.  While prepared a little differently than what she was used to, it tasted good, and she looked forward to the next dish with less trepidation.

By the fourth course–slivers of guinea fowl roasted and then stewed in spicy gravy—she was thoroughly confused.  From what she could tell so far, the Kai royal chefs were superior cooks and the food outstanding.  She could grow fat on such tasty meals.

The fifth and final tray proved how terribly wrong her assumptions were.  Brishen lifted the lid with a flourish, revealing a dinner pie large enough to feed two people.  The savory smoke rising from its top teased Ildiko’s nose with the scents of herbs and pepper.  The crust was perfectly golden and buttery with a braided edge and fanciful dough cut-outs that revealed the cook was as much an artist as a baker.  Her mouth watered in anticipation of cutting into it.

And then the pie breathed.

Ildiko gasped and half rose from her seat, her sanap tumbling to the floor.  “My gods, did you see that?”

Brishen’s stoic expression didn’t change, and he motioned for her to sit down.  “You can’t run from this one, Ildiko.  It’s served at every high feast and celebration.  A delicacy among the Kai.  It’s a surety we’ll be served one later.  Newly married couples share it as a symbol of fortune and prosperity in the marriage.”

Ildiko did as he bid and sat but scooted her chair a little further away from the table.  “What is in that pie?”  Whatever it was, it was still alive.  Fortune and prosperity be damned.  Her throat closed up in protest at the thought of having to swallow something alive and still wriggling.

Brishen picked up his dagger.  “Watch closely because at some point, you’ll have to do this yourself.”  He stared at the pie, as watchful as a hawk on a branch tracking a mouse in the field below it.  The pie’s crust rippled, creating cracks across its smooth surface.  A black spine poked through the dough, and Brishen pounced.

He slammed the knifepoint into the pie hard enough to make the plates bounce on the table and splash wine from the goblets.  An insectile screech pierced the quiet.  Brishen twisted the knife.  It made a cracking noise, and the pie abruptly ruptured, sending pieces of dough splattered in a black slime across the table.

This time Ildiko leapt over her chair and crouched behind it, wide-eyed and horrified as Brishen pried his knife out of the destroyed pie.  It came free with a sucking sound, revealing a writhing scarpatine impaled on the knife’s point.  Ildiko clapped a hand over her mouth and prayed she wouldn’t be sick.

Brishen placed the scarpatine on his plate, careful to avoid the venomous barb on the end of its lashing tail.  The knife had pierced the creature’s hard shell to hold it in place.  Brishen lifted a second knife and made short work of chopping off the lethal tail and then the head with its multiple eye stalks and curved fangs.  What remained were the claws and the thick body of the carcass.

Brishen cracked the rest of the shell in the same way Ildiko had watched sailors split the shells of lobsters.  He peeled back the segments, exposing gray flesh.  He sliced that away from the main body, leaving a layer of thick, yellow fat and a mottled black vein that ran down its center.  Below that, another layer of the gray flesh.

Ildiko slowly stood and watched as Brishen placed the first layer of scarpatine meat on her plate and spooned some of the oily dark liquid over it.  He scraped away the fat layer and the vein and carved out the rest of the flesh from the shell to put on his plate.

He started and completed the process without once looking at her.  Brishen’s focus shifted to Ildiko finally, and his voice held both sympathy and a kind of dark humor.  “I’m glad you wore black, wife.  No one will see the stains.”

She stared at him, sitting calmly amongst the ruin of exploded pie and the remains of dead and gutted scarpatine.  Her serving of the Kai delicacy sat on her plate, a pale gray slab glossy with a black ooze that dribbled down the sides.  It twitched once.

Ildiko’s stomach went into open revolt, and she bolted for the basin on the table at her bedside.  A strong arm soon slid around her waist, supporting her as she retched into the bowl.  Brishen’s hand smoothed her hair.  He held her until she emptied her stomach, then offered her a goblet of water to rinse her mouth.

Afterwards, she gazed at Brishen with bleary-eyed resolve.  Ildiko had faced down a woman far more venomous than a scarpatine.  She would not be defeated by dinner.  “At least tell me it tastes like chicken.”

~!~!~!~!~