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.”

~!~!~!~!~

Everything and the kitchen sink

Sorry for not posting sooner, folks.  I’m spinning a lot of plates at the moment, and I’m slower with updates on the blog than I am on FB.  Here’s the latest on the book side:

I haven’t posted Radiance yet because I’m not yet finished, and it’s hefty on the word count.  But that’s not all.  I blogged here on another post that I was participating in an anthology and contributing a short story.  That short story was why I had a 2-week delay in posting Radiance in the last part of April, first part of May.  That story was a contemporary romance written under the pseudonym Annabeth DenBoer.  Well, the story is done and I just got the cover art back.  In the interim, I decided to publish the story as a stand-alone and submit a fantasy romance short story for the anthology under Grace Draven.  Since I decided that at the LAST FREAKING MINUTE (because I’m an IDIOT with no sense of deadline and the idea that a 24-hour day is actually a lot longer than it really is), I’m scrambling to get that story completed and ready to go by the drop-dead date of 06/15/14.

I haven’t just set RADIANCE – part 11 aside; I’m just typing out 100 words here, 75 words there–whenever I’m not frantically pounding out this other story.  I know this all sounds like a bunch of bullshit excuses, but it’s really just me being honest-to-god crappy with my time management.  Y’all have been a patient bunch.  :)

If it helps, here’s where I stand on all three projects:

Snippet from Radiance – part 11:

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 land 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.”

The short that will replace my contemporary romance in the anthology is an outtake from MASTER OF CROWS.  The snippet is from the beginning and still in rough draft (thus, my panic):

Martise of Asher woke to the crack of a shutter slammed against the wall.  A rush of humid air, still thick with the day’s heat, purled into the room.  She slid out of bed and padded to the open window. In the distance, a tide of black clouds roiled toward Neith.  Lightning ruptured the darkness, illuminating swathes of rain that fell in sheets… on the dusty plains. 

Martise closed her eyes in a silent prayer of thanks.  A storm was coming–this time of its own accord instead of wrenched into submission by the heretic mage still asleep in the bed behind her.

THE LIGHTNING GOD’S WIFE – a story of Neith
by Grace Draven
copyright 2014 by Grace Draven
All rights reserved story

Last but not least, my artist turned over the final version of the cover for my contemporary romance short REMEMBER WHEN.  I still need to format for conversion and upload to the various sites.  Between all this and kids getting out of school for the summer this week, it will be batshit crazy here at Casa Draven.  :)  I can never say I’m bored.

I’m doing a phone interview with a bass player tonight while I wait for my kid at her fencing class and then hand-writing more on RADIANCE after that.  I promise it isn’t abandoned; it’s just hitting some road bumps at the moment with scheduling.

Best,

Grace

 

 

Update

I am STILL working on Part 11.  I actually had a good bit done last night but not completed and figured I’d get up in the morning, finish the rest and post.  Then I read what I wrote…gah!  I’ve learned my lesson.  When you have two glasses of wine and chase them two glasses of Vietnamese coffee, your brain goes into WTF! mode and anything you write is utter and complete gibberish.  I threw out at least a third of what I’d written and started over.

Between multiple interruptions – Memorial Day today, so kids and spouse were home.  That means the usual litany of “Mom, can I…?” and “Babe, do you have…”  Also, I’ve been completely distracted.  Any of you Meljean Brooks fans?  Well, that lovely woman sent me an ARC of the ENTIRE book THE KRAKEN KING (I’ll post my thoughts about it once I’m done).  So I microwaved leftovers for dinner, tossed kids into bed right at 9:00 and dove into the first part.  I couldn’t wait.  However, I’m back to writing and will reward myself with more TKK when this part of RADIANCE is completed.

I did post on my FB page a short snippet from Part 11:

Brishen lifted the dome with a flourish, revealing a dinner pie large enough to feed two.  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.

If you’re on Facebook, swing by sometimes.  I periodically post samples from each part prior to posting the full piece here and put up announcements there as well first so as not to clutter up my blog.

My FB page

Best,

Grace

RADIANCE – a serialized novella – Part 10

First of all, I have to say I have some amazing folks visiting here.  Thank you all for your well-wishes and understanding regarding the delay in posting.  Things have slowed down by a hair, for which I’m grateful.  One of these days I’d like to say “Gee, I’m bored.  What shall I do?”  However, I don’t see that opportunity appearing any time soon.  :-)  That’s okay.  Keeps life interesting.

I wish I could have posted Part 11, but I don’t have it quite fleshed out the way I want at the moment and didn’t want to post something half-assed just to put up two parts simultaneously.  So Part 10 is flying solo.  As always, the usual disclaimers/warnings:  this is a rough draft.  You’ll find all kinds of screw-ups, not limited to typos.  My editors haven’t seen it.  If they had, they’d probably want a stiff drink before wielding the red pen.  No guarantees that what’s posted here will be in the final version, etc. ad nauseum.  Since it’s in the wee hours of the morning here, and I need to hit the hay, I’ll leave the attachment of links to the previous chapters for later in the morning.

Most important – a heartfelt thankyou to everyone who’s been on this writing trip with me.  Glad to have you along.  And now, on to RADIANCE.

Best,

Grace

RADIANCE

by

Grace Draven

 

© 2014 by Grace Draven

All rights reserved

 

Part Ten

Brishen escorted Ildiko down the long corridor that lead to the throne room.  She held onto his arm, her fingers digging furrows into his skin, even through his gauntlet.  It was the only sign of her anxiety, besides the ashen cast to her skin.   She wore a serene expression, and her steps were sure and steady in the hallway’s darkness.

Ildiko had grown quieter the closer they got to Haradis and gone completely silent when they topped the ridge that looked down on the dimly lit city nestled in a small valley ringed by gently rolling hills.  She’d answered his questions with nods or shakes of her head, and every once in a while a short yes or no.  He could smell the fear rolling off her.

“You’re not alone in this, Ildiko,” he reassured her for the dozenth time.  Before their trek to the throne room, she simply nodded.  This time she turned to him, her face wiped clean of expression.

“This is Haradis, Brishen.  I’m human.  Here, I am alone.”

He halted and she with him.  Brishen gazed at his human wife, touching on the colorful hair and strange eyes, the pale skin with its ever-changing shades that were subject to her moods.  His soldiers’ reactions to her would be nothing compared to those of the Kai court.  Insular for so long, most of the nobility had never seen a human.  Those who had, barely remembered.  They’d stare and whisper amongst themselves and do so, so much worse than that.

Brishen wanted to protect her, shield her from the inevitable trial of meeting not only the vipers amongst court but those who ruled them—his parents.  He was powerless to do so.  She’d have to face them all, one human amongst a people who once considered all her kind food.  But she wouldn’t do it alone.

He reached for her free hand.  “You are also a princess of the blood through marriage, a member of the royal family.  My wife.  Every Kai in that room owes you their allegiance and respect.  I will cut out any tongue that would try and besmirch you, Ildiko.”  He pressed his lips to her palm.

The tiniest crack appeared in her serene composure.  Her mouth twitched with the hint of a smile.  “Or put an axe blade in their heads?”

His guilt over his inability to rescue her from his own family eased a little at her humor.  “I’m adept with spear and sword as well.  Just name who you want me to skewer for you.”

Ildiko’s smile widened.  “Not the best approach I think to winning supporters.”  She inhaled a long breath before slowly letting it out.  “I can do this, but you must promise not to let go of my hand, even if I’m breaking your fingers.”

Brishen gently pulled her into his embrace.  She felt fragile in his arms—barely more than shadow wrapped around slender bones and clothed in Gauri silks.  “I promise.”

“I will not shame you with my fear, Brishen,” she whispered against his neck.

He sighed into her hair.  “But I might shame you with mine, wife.”  He stroked her back and offered a last bit of advice before they made their introductions to the court.  “They are only serpents, Ildiko.  Crush them beneath your heel.”

He led her the rest of the way to the ornately carved double doors guarded by a pair of soldiers.  They bowed, their faces as closed and expressionless as Ildiko’s was now.  The doors swung open, revealing a cavernous chamber with tall ceilings, walls decorated in tapestry and weaponry and lined by statues of ancient Kai kings and queens—all lit by wavering torchlight.

Brishen barely registered its grandeur.  He’d grown up in this palace.  The hall had looked like this since before his grandfather was born and probably long before that.  Instead, he focused on the pair of figures watching them from the thrones elevated on a platform reached by a set of nine steps.

The silence greeting him and Ildiko broke gradually under a rising murmur of voices, a steady buzzing that grew in volume like the approach of a locust swarm.  There were shocked gasps, comments about the Gauri woman’s terrifying eyes and strange face, sentiments of pity for him.

Ildiko might not understand most of what was said, but it didn’t take a fluency in the Kai language to know her appearance was causing a stir.  Like him, she kept her gaze trained on the king and queen.  Her fingers were icicles on his.

“Steady,” he said under his breath.

At the first step leading to the thrones they stopped.  Brishen tugged lightly on Ildiko’s hand and they both genuflected.

Brishen addressed the floor.  “Your Majesties, I am your humble servant.  I present my bride, Ildiko, felesé of the Gauri king, Sangur the Lame.  Now Hercegesé to me.”

The throne room had grown silent once more, pulsing with anticipation as Brishen and Ildiko waited on their knees.

“You may rise.”  King Djedor’s sepulchral voice echoed throughout the chamber.  His eyes were nearly white with advanced age, and the gray skin hung on his facial bones like sodden garments clipped to strung line.  “I’m told the powers in Belawat tried to have you killed to show their disapproval of this marriage.”

Brishen knew his father well enough to know that as soon as this introduction was concluded, he’d be summoned to his father’s private stateroom for a full accounting of the attack.  He shrugged.  “We killed them all but lost three of our own.  They fought bravely.  I carry the mortem light of one.”

Another murmuring buzz passed through the crowd of courtiers lining either side of the throne room.  Brishen had done the family of the fallen soldier a great honor.  The king’s expression didn’t alter at the revelation.  Brishen had expected nothing more.  His father had never expressed either approval or disapproval of his younger son’s actions.  They had no bearing on the throne or line of succession; therefore they were of no importance.

He did turn a curious gaze to Ildiko.  “I remember the first time I saw a human.  A man.  The women are even uglier.”

A titter of laughter passed through the crowd and just as quickly died when Brishen turned to note who laughed.  Ildiko’s fingers twitched in his grasp.

Djedor’s wrinkled lips stretched into a grin, revealing teeth that had gone as black with age as his eyes had gone white.  Brishen braced his shoulder against Ildiko’s to keep her from lurching backwards.  The king turned to his silent wife.  “What think you of your new daughter, Secmis?”

The queen, beautiful and as youthful as the day she married her husband, stared first at her son and then at her Gauri daughter.  Unlike her husband, she spoke the Common tongue so Ildiko would understand everything she said.  “Welcome to Haradis, Ildiko Hercegesé.  I hope you can find your place here.  My son has sacrificed a great deal to marry a human woman and seal our alliance with the Gauri.”

Her lip had curled as she spoke, and though her voice was even, Secmis didn’t bother hiding her contempt for Brishen’s wife.

Brishen fancied he heard Ildiko’s spine crack as she stiffened next to him.  She yanked her fingers out of his grasp and advanced to the second step, shoulders back, chin raised in a haughty manner that challenged the queen’s own arrogance.  A collective gasp echoed amongst the nobility.

Brishen dropped his hand to his sword pommel.  Gods forbid he’d have to slash his way out of the throne room to prevent his mother from killing his wife, but he’d do so if necessary.  He balanced on the balls of his feet, ready to grab Ildiko and run.

Her own voice was calm, lacking disdain but sure and uncowed.  “What sacrifices would those be, Your Majesty?  I see only a groom returned home with a bride after an admittedly dangerous trip.  He bears no wounds, no scars and possesses all his limbs.  I haven’t yet had the time to henpeck him to death.”

This time the crowd’s laughter was disguised by splutters and bouts of coughing.  Brishen didn’t know whether to groan or applaud.  Ildiko’s wit would gain her respect or a writ of execution.

Secmis’s golden eyes narrowed.  “You mock me?”

“No, Your Majesty.  That would not only be rude but idiotic of me.”  Ildiko gave a brief bow.  “I wish merely to understand my husband’s sacrifice.  He will live among his own people.  I cannot bear him children, but the line of succession is secured many times over.  He cannot marry a Kai woman, but if the Kai court is anything like the Gauri court, his union with me won’t prevent him from having a mistress.  Several if he wishes.  If he can’t bear the sight of me, we can talk in the daylight when he doesn’t see so well.  Then I can argue the sacrifice is mine, not his.”

Secmis’s skin, the color of unpolished steel, darkened even more.  Her eyes blazed brighter than all the torches in the throne room combined.  She half rose from her seat, long fingers curled.  Had Ildiko stood in front of her, she would have been disemboweled.

Brishen had partially drawn his sword from its sheath when the king let out a bellowing laugh.  Secmis turned a glare on him hot enough to set his robes alight.  He ignored her and slapped his hand on the arm of his chair.  “She’s ugly, my boy, but fearless too.  You could have done worse.”  He motioned to the doors.  “Get her out of here before your mother orders her beheading.”  He flashed black fangs at Ildiko.  “You’ll do, Gauri woman.  I look forward to our next meeting.”

The return trek to the doors seemed a thousand miles and as many days away.  Brishen strangled the urge to sprint for safety with Ildiko in his arms and kept them both to a stately walk.  Once the doors closed behind them, they maintained their pace until they were out of sight and earshot of the guards.

Brishen pivoted to stand in front of Ildiko.  Even the ashen color to her skin had bled away, leaving her pale as bleached bone.  Her eyes were wide and black with terror.  She took a step toward him before her knees gave out.  He caught her in his arms and held her close.

“Well done, hercegesé!  You’ve faced down my mother and pleased my father.  Not a Kai in that room will cross you now.”

She shuddered against him, her body as icy as her fingers had been.  He heard the rapid chatter of her teeth before she clenched her jaw and drew steady breaths.  Once she calmed, she leaned far enough away from him to meet his gaze.

“I’ve made an enemy of your mother,” she said in a mournful voice.

Brishen grinned.  “Everyone is Secmis’s enemy, wife.  You’ve just made yourself a worthy one in her eyes.”

“I’m going to die, aren’t I?”

He kissed her forehead.  “No, you’re going to eat.  We still have a formal dinner to suffer through in a few hours.”

“Gods help me,” she muttered.

“You’ll need it,” he cheerfully replied.

~!~!~!~!~!~