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:
by Grace Draven
Copyright 2014 by Grace Draven
All rights reserved
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.”