A few quick things. A reader commented that she didn’t know about the box set I’m in or the short story I released. I didn’t announce it on my blog, though my awesome, amazing web guru Kathryn added them to my Books tab. Without her, this website would languish even more than it does now. So to rectify the oversight, a quick note. My story, THE LIGHTNING GOD’S WIFE, which was originally a contribution to an anthology, can now be purchased as a separate e-book via Amazon or Smashwords. It’s .99 cents. I’m also one of five authors with a novel-length story in a fantasy romance box set titled DARKLY DREAMING. All five contributions to the box set are novel-length, and I’m in there with Elizabeth Hunter, Kristen Painter, Cate Rowan and Danielle Monsch. My contribution is MASTER OF CROWS, which you may have already read. However, if you haven’t read the other four books by the other participating authors, it’s a steal. The set is out for a limited time (through 10/14/14) at .99 cents. So 5 full-length fantasy romance novels for less than a buck. Not bad. That box set is available at multiple vendors, including iBooks, Amazon, B&N, Kobo and Smashwords. Just click on my Books tab and you’ll see the links for both the short story and the box set.
And after 3 weeks, Part 18 of RADIANCE is completed and up. Standard caveats apply – editors haven’t seen it. Plenty of typos, stylistic hiccups and weird word choices in there. I try to catch as many as I can, but this late at night, and I’m going to miss more than a few. Thank God for my editors.
Fair warning – this chapter contains a fair amount of sexual content. Not as graphically described as what I usually put in a story but still there, and I’d personally consider it vanilla.
Many thanks for reading!
Good night, everyone.
by Grace Draven
Copyright 2014 by Grace Draven
All rights reserved
There were times when the day lasted forever and night never came. For Brishen, this was one of those times. He stared unblinking at the bolted door between his and Ildiko’s chambers until his eyes burned. He’d caught it—the brief flinch of hurt tightening the skin around her eyes before it disappeared, and her pale features eased into an expression of concern.
Brishen thanked the gods he and Ildiko had begun this marriage with such unadorned honesty between them. She’d taken his warning at face value and done exactly as he hoped by fleeing and bolting her door. No cajoling or long explanations for why he wasn’t fit—or even safe—company at the moment. She might not be able to discern emotion in his eyes, but she knew him well enough now to know his words weren’t empty ones.
Even through the thick walls and closed door, he heard her soft voice and Sinhue’s as they both prepared to sleep. The words were indecipherable, but he found their cadence soothing. They soon faded, leaving only a heavy quiet that leached from the walls to join the shadows that fled from the encroaching sunbeams and pooled at his feet.
Twenty-two years had passed since he witnessed his mother murder his sister, and the memory remained as clear as if it happened the previous night. Secmis’s hands cupping Anaknet’s head, fingers like spider legs that curved around the tiny skull until her claw tips touched. The baby’s fists curled in innocent sleep. Partially concealed behind the nursery door and made mute with horror, Brishen watched as the queen gently held Anaknet’s head for a moment and gave one quick twist.
He shook his head to clear it of the memory. He could block out the image but not the grotesque sound—a soft snick, barely more than a whisper that over time gained the volume of a thunderclap in his dreams and recollections.
Brishen never imagined he’d tell another person about Anaknet. Only two other people knew what he’d seen and done those many years ago. One died a decade earlier of old age; the other would cut out her own tongue before she surrendered her knowledge. Both had been pivotal in helping him abscond with Anaknet’s mortem light and release her fragile soul before Secmis claimed it, and he remained forever grateful to them. His old nursemaid and his cousin were braver than any ten Kai warriors combined. Had Secmis discovered their roles in his plan…he shuddered at the thought.
Now Ildiko knew as well. Brishen turned away from the door separating him from his wife. She was like a skein of raw silk, strong as steel with a luster woven into her blood and bones. She held him in her arms as he keened an old grief. Like all Kai, he didn’t shed tears. Ildiko; however, had shed them for him, and he’d caught the taste of salt and sorrow on his lips when she brushed her mouth across his in a gesture of comfort.
The need to embrace her, clasp her hard to every part of his body had almost overwhelmed him then. She was solace enrobed in smooth flesh and scented hair. He had kept his hands light on her back, knowing that to hold her the way he wanted, he might injure her in his enthusiasm. Her very human body was far weaker than her character.
Such knowledge hadn’t stopped the lust rising inside him. Warped by anger and hatred for the queen that simmered inside him, that lust poisoned the growing desire he had for his wife, turning it into an ugly thing.
When Ildiko appeared in his chamber, dressed in her nightrail and prepared to sleep with him as she did each night, he’d almost lunged at her, blinded by the desperation to sink into her, body and soul. Every part of him ached with the need. Brishen pummeled the temptation into submission, chilled to the core by images of a woman bloodied and broken by a husband possessed.
He meant every bit of his thanks when she fled his chamber and bolted her door. Solitude did nothing to cool his rage or his desire. He paced. He drank wine. He called down every curse he knew on the queen and finally, he grabbed his cloak and quit the chamber where he was certain he could smell Ildiko’s flowery scent on his sheets.
Saggara was quiet. Most of its inhabitants slept except for a few hooded guards who saluted Brishen as he strode through the corridors and into the brutal morning daylight. The short walk to the redoubt and its deserted arena did little to soothe his restlessness. He stripped down to his breeches and eagerly took up one of the practice swords set in racks that lined the arena walls.
Swords were not his preferred weapons, and straw men made laughable opponents, but he hacked away at them in a sun-blinded frenzy until straw hazed the air, and body parts lay strewn across the dirt floor. Muscles quivering with fatigue, Brishen glanced up briefly; startled to see the sun had climbed directly overhead. He’d been training in full battle mode for two hours, and the sweat streamed off his arms and legs in rivulets. His lungs burned and his body ached, but his head was clear. Mock combat had done its job. The rage had subsided. The lust was still there but mellowed into a desire that pooled in his belly. He still wanted Ildiko—fiercely, but to savor instead of conquer.
“You’ll be blind for good if you don’t cover up, cousin.”
Brishen turned and squinted at Anhuset. She stood to one side, his discarded cloak draped over her arm. She unlaced the hood from the cloak and tossed it to him. “I’m amazed you can still see at all.”
He caught the hood but held off from pulling it over his head until he could rinse off the grime and bits of straw coating his skin. The cold water shock from the nearby well banished any exhaustion. Water from his dripping hair and breeches puddled at his feet. While the hood offered relief from the punishing light, it weighed hot and stifling on his head and shoulders.
“You look like a half-drowned magefinder,” Anhuset said.
He scowled at her. “Be glad I didn’t shake the water off, or you’d be as drenched as me.” He used his cloak to wipe down his arms. “What are you doing here?”
She shrugged. “You know I’ve never been a good sleeper. I thought I might come to the arena and train for a little while. Imagine my surprise at finding you here.” Her eyes narrowed to glowing slits within the shadows of her hood. “Where’s the hercegesé?”
Brishen smiled. Anhuset. Sharp, intuitive, she knew him better and longer than anyone. Something about his demeanor alarmed her. “Asleep in her bed, unlike either of us.” He withstood her silent scrutiny. She’d have her say, and his best course of action was to wait until she did.
“Unless your sword arm needs improving, there are better ways to spend a sleepless day. I know a dozen women who’d be happy to cool the fire for you.”
Brishen chuckled. He’d briefly entertained the thought. Ildiko had once hinted she didn’t mind if he took a mistress, yet he wondered if that still held true. Three days earlier they had lain together in his bed. He hadn’t imagined the delicate shiver that raced down her body as he nuzzled her temple, and that shiver had not been fear.
“I wouldn’t survive the affections of a dozen Kai women, cousin. Besides, only one can cool the fire.”
Anhuset’s lips twitched. “And that one isn’t Kai. What is Ildiko to you?”
“The fire.” He nodded once to her and made to leave the arena.
She called to him. “Don’t you want to bout with me?”
Brishen shook his head and kept walking. “No. I miss my wife.”
“Are you sure you’re not trying to avoid me beating you into one big bruise?”
He waved away her taunt. “That too.” If he didn’t dawdle, he’d have a few hours to bring Ildiko back to his bed where she belonged and sleep the last daylight hours away with her by his side.
Anhuset wasn’t finished with him yet. “Your Highness, Lord Pangion arrives at Saggara this evening. Do you wish for us to escort him from the main road or from the gates of the redoubt?”
He halted, cursing under his breath. Serovek. The dinner. He’d forgotten. He pinched the bridge of his nose between thumb and forefinger. The headache he suffered from the sun just grew worse. Brishen was tempted to tell Anhuset to kindly escort their guest back home the moment he arrived. Such an action though guaranteed a neighbor no longer amiable or forthcoming with information.
“Meet him and his party at the main road.” He was glad for the hood which hid his smirk. “Anhuset, you’ll attend the dinner and the dancing afterwards.” The low snarl that met his command widened his smirk to a grin. Brishen walked away, listening closely for the tell-tale snick of a sword unsheathed or the breath of air cleaved by a flying dagger.
He returned to the manor unscathed and found its occupants still deep in slumber. His personal servant slept in a small room adjacent to his. Brishen let him sleep, unwilling to rouse the man in the middle of the day just to bring him water for a bath. A face cloth and the water in his wash basin and pitcher would have to do. The sodden breeches were discarded and tossed in a heap in one corner. He scrubbed away the dirt the well water dousing missed, donned a pair of the linen breeches he was truly starting to despise and made his way to the door between his chamber and Ildiko’s.
Sleeping naked next to her that one time had been a mistake. Ildiko had caught him off guard by waking up before him. Luckily, neither of them was prone to cuddle in their sleep, or she would have discovered very quickly that his deep affection for her was changing into something far beyond the platonic. Trapped under the covers until she left to change in her room, Brishen had collapsed on the bed with a frustrated groan once he was alone and vowed they’d sleep separately after that. His vow lasted less than a day. He wanted her beside him.
Were he his father, Brishen could turn the door thin as parchment and walk through it to retrieve his wife. Were he his grandfather, he could pass through the solid wood, as ethereal as any wraith. But the magic was fading in the Kai with every generation born, and Brishen’s skills were limited to a few chanted words that slid the bolt free on the other side.
He eased around the door and discovered a bleary-eyed Sinhue rising from her bed in the shallow alcove in one corner of the room. He held a finger to his lips for silence. She nodded and lay down, her back to him.
Ildiko sprawled in the middle of her bed. Asleep on her stomach with half her face buried in the pillows, she presented him with a profile that shone as pale as the sheets in the darkness. He once called her a hag of a woman. Leached of color except for the bitter mollusk pink that surged under her skin in uneven patches when she was angry or embarrassed, he’d found her both ugly and peculiar to behold. Had it only been a few months earlier that he bore such thoughts of her?
Looking at her now, Brishen wondered how he could have thought her unsightly. Her eyes still brought him up short on occasion, especially when she teased him by crossing them toward her nose, but he’d ceased comparing them to parasites. They were just eyes, different from his and fascinating in their own way with their colorful irises and black pupils that shrank or expanded depending on the light or her emotions.
Her eyes were hidden from him now, behind closed lids edged in bronze lashes. Serovek had called her beautiful, and Brishen hadn’t missed the long stares cast upon her by the Gauri noblemen who attended her wedding. He tried to see her as a Gauri man might but failed in the endeavor. A sudden realization made him smile a little.
One of his wife’s greatest strengths, and a thing he most admired about her, was her ability to adapt to a situation and still remain steadfast in her own sense of worth and place. Brishen no longer viewed her with the eyes of a Kai and couldn’t view her with the eyes of a human male, but that held no consequence now. He saw her as she’d always seen herself—as simply Ildiko. For her, it was enough; for him, a gift beyond price.
He reached down to thread her loose hair through his fingers. She murmured in her sleep and rolled onto her back. Delicate collarbones, the outline of her breasts beneath her night rail, she lay before him, a study in shade and shadow-play.
She didn’t startle when he slid his arms beneath her and scooped her up from the bed. Her eyes opened slowly, and she nestled against his chest. “Is it evening already, Brishen?”
Brishen kissed the top of her head as he padded from her chamber to his and kicked the door closed behind him. “No. Still midday. Unlike you, I no longer sleep well without you next to me.”
Ildiko patted his chest with one hand. “Your fault. You told me to go.”
He tightened his embrace. “I did and was right to do so.” He climbed into his bed still holding her. The sheets were cool on his legs, Ildiko hot on his torso.
Her hand wandered along his shoulder and up his neck until she cupped his jaw. Her dark pupils nearly swallowed the blue in her eyes. “Secmis is a vile and evil woman, Brishen.”
He turned his face into her palm and planted a kiss in its curvature. “Don’t bother with lavish compliments, wife,” he said. “You’ll never endear my loathsome mother to me.”
Ildiko shook with sleepy laughter. Her amusement faded, and in the room’s tenebrous light her eyes glistened with sympathy and something else that ignited the desire simmering restlessly in Brishen’s veins. “My noble prince,” she said. “You are…” She frowned, searching for the words.
“A dead eel?” His hands tracked their own paths over her body, learning each curve beneath the thin night rail. He grinned at her chortle.
“No,” she said. “More like a raven. Dark and elegant.”
“A clever scavenger.”
Ildiko gave him a mock scowl. “A beautiful bird.” She thumped him on the arm. “Stop fishing for compliments, you vain creature.”
Brishen rolled, taking Ildiko with him until she lay fully under him. Her thighs opened, and he sank against her. They both gasped and stilled, all traces of humor gone. If she had no awareness of his body’s reaction to her before this—and Ildiko, by her own admission, was neither that innocent nor that foolish—she couldn’t mistake it now.
Forearms braced on either side of her head, he kept most of his weight off her, careful not to crush her into the bed. Ildiko’s eyes were wide, her breathing thin and quick, an accompaniment to his own labored breaths.
He played with the curling strands of her hair that caught on his fingers like spiderweb. “I am no poet possessing honeyed words,” he said. “But you have always known me to be forthright with you.” Gods, his muscles shook as if from cold in his effort to stay still and not thrust hard against her. “I want you, Ildiko. Want to sink so deep into you that neither of us will know where one ends and the other begins.” Only the darker blue rim of her irises still shone around her pupils. His voice had gone guttural, and he worked to soften it. “I’ve never forced a woman, Kai or human, and I never will. If you refuse me, this will stop, with no ill will between us.”
Please, he prayed—and he didn’t know if he prayed to Kai gods or to the statue-still woman pressed against him—don’t refuse me.
Ildiko’s black-eyed stare sharpened, and she peered into his gaze as if searching for something. Whatever she found transformed her expression. Her lids lowered, sinking to half-mast. Her breathing deepened, and her lips parted, revealing the edges of her upper front teeth. Hardly daring to hope and half dizzy with want, Brishen watched, fascinated, as the tip of her tongue darted out to swipe across her lower lip.
The silence yawned between them as she continued to stare at him. “What is it, Ildiko?” he asked. “What do you see?”
His question acted as a catalyst, breaking a spell that held him beguiled and her enthralled. She opened beneath him; not just her body. All of her. He sensed it in every part of him.
She twined her arms around his neck and tilted her head until her lips brushed the corner of his mouth. “My beautiful husband.” she said. “I see radiance.”
He groaned low in his throat as her mouth captured his. Ildiko buried her hands in his hair, pressing him closer to slide her tongue across the sensitive skin under his top lip and then his lower one. Brishen returned the caress, plying playful swipes at the edges of her lips and along the corners until she rocked in his arms, hips bumping against his in clumsy rhythm while he learned her taste and she learned his.
Ildiko didn’t kiss as a Kai woman did. Hers were forceful—a sucking, nipping dance along his lips with her tongue seeking entrance past the barrier of his teeth clamped tight against intrusion. It was if she’d forgotten the sharpness of his fangs or simply no longer cared.
Brishen pulled away, smiling at Ildiko’s protesting gasps. He pressed a finger to her lips, the tip of one black claw barely brushing the end of her nose. The air felt thin in his lungs. “I’ve seen humans kiss. You mate with your mouths.” Just the words sent a spear of heat straight to his groin. He was so hard, he ached. “I can’t do that, sweet wife. I’ll slice you bloody.”
Oh did he regret such a thing. For once, and probably the only time in his life, he wished for more human attributes. Horse teeth didn’t seem so bad or so ridiculous at the moment. He’d take Ildiko’s mouth the way he would take her body—deep and slow with hours spent dedicated on nothing more than savoring the taste and feel of her.
Undaunted by his warning, she tugged him back to her. “Maybe you can’t,” she said. “But I’m not limited by a mouthful of sword blades.” Her pupils glittered in the shadow he cast across her face and body. “Part your lips.” Spellbound, he did as she ordered. Ildiko rested her mouth lightly on his. Her lips tickled his when she spoke. “Slide your tongue out—just a little.”
She’d be the death of him before they ever consummated this marriage. Brishen’s body screamed to be done with it and slide inside her. His mind begged patience, delighted by this journey she took him on as the day waxed bright beyond the closed shutters.
Ildiko’s lips closed around the tip of Brishen’s tongue and sucked. He jerked in her arms, shivering at the new and pleasurable touch. Her tongue brushed his, a seductive caress that coaxed him to offer her more. He did and was rewarded by a longer suckling. Brishen moaned into her mouth, giving her more until his tongue twined with hers in the mating dance he’d so envied and coveted earlier.
She echoed his moan. Her arms, linked loosely behind his neck, fell away so that her hands could busy themselves with stroking him from shoulder to waist, pushing him to rise up so they could travel the hard planes of his abdomen.
Her fingers traced the ridges of his ribs, wandering higher and closer until her thumbs glided across his nipples. Brishen ended their kiss with a one-word prayer, back arching like a drawn bow as a lightning bolt of sensation shot across his chest to encircle his back and rake down his spine.
Ildiko’s calves crossed over the back of his thighs and locked him in place. One hand splayed across his back, pressing him down so that she bore more of his weight. Her lips followed where her hands had played, teasing a trail from the hollow of his throat to the line of one collarbone and down planes of his chest.
Brishen’s claws gouged furrows into the pillows on either side of her head as she alternated between worrying his nipple with her tongue and blowing gently across the sensitive tip. His hips ignored the dictates of his mind to stay still. He thrust against her, enamored with the sleek feel of her thighs cradling him and the hot wetness that dampened both her nightrail and his linen breeches. Human women were obviously much like Kai women in that regard. Ildiko wanted him as much as he wanted her, and somewhere in his fogged brain, Brishen recognized that it was she who savored him at the moment and not the other way around as he originally planned.
He pulled himself out of reach, ignored her protests and captured her wrists in one hand. Her odd eyes were glassy, the blue of her irises completely surrendered to her pupils. A darker flush painted her pale skin. Brishen caught sight of the ragged amaranthine stain on the underside of her jaw from her earlier foray to the dye house. He bent and traced its outline, first with the tip of his nose and then his lips. Ildiko moaned softly in his ear.
Her eyebrows rose when he scooted them both down toward the foot of the bed and stretched her arms above her head, her wrists still manacled in his light grip. “You’ll be my undoing before I can take another breath, and I want this day to last far beyond a breath,” he said.
She frowned and wiggled teasingly beneath him. “But I’ve only had a taste.”
“That’s more than I’ve had,” he countered. “Have you enjoyed me so far?” He grinned at her enthusiastic nod. “Then be fair, wife, and let me enjoy you.”
Ildiko unfurled along his length, a silk ribbon tipped from a spool to ripple and stroke him from chest to knees. “Oh, well then,” she breathed. “I don’t wish to be unjust.”
She stopped him before he could return the touches that so inflamed him. Her hand stroked his hair. “Close your eyes,” she said.
Brishen frowned. If Ildiko worried he’d find her the hag he first met in Pricid’s royal gardens, she had nothing to fear. His vision of her was irrevocably changed. “Why?” he asked, wary of her reasons.
“Because I’d have you see me with your touch.” Her mouth curved into a smile. “It’s how I see you in this blind darkness, Brishen, and it is a wondrous thing.”
He’d been the recipient of heady praise from mistresses as in lust with his title as they were with his body. No such honeyed words ever came close to these and their power over him.
She kept her arms above her head, even after he released her wrists. Brishen closed his eyes and let his other senses overtake his willing blindness. He took his time, exploring every hollow, swell and nook of Ildiko’s neck and shoulders. She smelled of flowers and the scented oils imported by the caravan peoples who traded such indulgences for spells and charms from Kai shaman. She tasted…human.
He could think of no comparison. Soft skin with a hint of spice and a sweetness he’d tasted nowhere else in either food or on the supple, muscular limbs of the Kai women he’d bedded before his marriage. Her differences intrigued him, seduced him.
He didn’t remember removing her nightrail or his breeches, but they somehow ended up in a discarded heap on the floor by the side of the bed. Free of any barrier between them, Brishen indulged himself by easing more of his weight onto her.
“Ooh,” Ildiko said on a sigh, her heavy-lidded eyes almost closed. “You feel good.” She drew swirls on his back. “We should have done this much sooner.”
Brishen’s chortle vibrated between them. His forthright wife. “I couldn’t agree more,” he whispered in her ear.
He set her to squirming in his arms, her soft moans a sensual cadence in his ear, while he kissed and licked a path from her shoulders to her belly, stopping for long moments to repay her torture of him by flicking his tongue back and forth across the tips of her breasts. That she didn’t pull away from fear of his teeth spoke of her faith in him and the sure knowledge he would never hurt her.
A subtle quiver of tension passed through her body under his hands as he kissed a path downward toward the juncture of her thighs. Brishen opened his eyes. His heightened senses warned him that delicate vibration had been one of unease instead of eagerness.
Ildiko gazed at him steadily, her features somber. She lowered arms to card her fingers through his hair. She didn’t try and wiggle out of his reach. This wasn’t a matter of trust so much as experience, or its lack. Brishen knew that while his wife wasn’t completely ignorant of bed play, her introduction to its many intimacies by her previous lover had been limited. Her statement that three romps in the bedroom or the hayloft had not made the effort of a fourth worth the trouble revealed a great deal.
He’d have to tamp down on his eagerness to explore every part of her in a single day. The knowledge that he had several days to draw out the anticipation of familiarizing himself with his wife’s lovely body evaporated any of his initial disappointment.
Brishen bent and traced the circumference of her navel before kissing a return path up her belly, to the valley between her breasts and finally to her chin. Ildiko gave him an abashed look. “I haven’t tried that yet,” she said.
He framed her face in his hands. “So I gathered.” He smoothed away the twin frown lines between her eyebrows with his lips. It’s not a failing, Ildiko.”
“I know, but—” She broke off to return the kiss he pressed to her mouth.
“Consider it your gift to me,” he said and smiled at her confusion. “I have the opportunity to be your teacher and show you the pleasure of that particular act, one of the finest between a man and a woman.”
She relaxed under him once more. Her knees clamped against his sides. He exhaled a surprised grunt that changed to a groan when her hips lifted to rub against the erection that was robbing the blood from every other part of his body. Her hands glided down his back to cup his buttocks and keep him in place.
Her heavy-lidded expression returned, one Brishen quickly recognized as her passion for him and one he found more seductive by the moment. “What will I teach you,” she asked, hips thrusting, pressing, tempting him toward madness.
“Patience,” he said in guttural tones that made a mockery of the word. His arm slid under her buttocks, lifted until her hips tilted toward him. “Endurance.” His limbs shook with the strain of holding back. Ildiko’s hands moved to his arms, clutched his biceps. The mollusk-pink of her skin deepened, blending with the amaranthine stain. His cock nudged the entrance to her body, slick and hot. “Ecstasy,” he whispered and slid deep.
They gasped in unison, and Ildiko arched in his embrace, her short nails digging into his arms. Drowning in the pleasure of being inside his wife, feeling slippery muscles gripping him, drawing him ever deeper, Brishen fought to breathe, to pause. Patience. Endurance. And oh gods, the ecstasy.
He settled them both and waited, even as the waiting killed him. “Ildiko?”
Ildiko gave him a quick smile. Her hands abandoned his arms for his lower back. She kissed him, tongue flicking over his lower lip. Brishen pulsed inside her, and her smile widened. “I’m fine, my lovely prince,” she said and kissed him a second time. “Don’t stop.” Her clasp on his back tightened, and a soft moan threaded her voice. “It feels too good to stop.”
Grateful and relieved, Brishen needed no further reassurance. She was fire in his arms, hot and sweet. Her moans and softly worded encouragements, the feel of her surround him as he thrust inside her—slow and deep, shallow and fast—destroyed any lingering coherent thought he possessed.
Every near withdrawal had her clawing at his back, every hard pump of his hips made her croon her pleasure in his ear. Brishen angled his hips, a minute change in his position. Ildiko’s eyes grew wide, and she emitted a strangled sound.
Brishen froze, horrified. He’d hurt her. He stared down at her, eyes equally as wide. “What’s wrong?”
She held his hips prisoner when he made to pull out of her. “No!” Her legs flexed on him. “Do it again.”
“Do what?” He gawked at her, bewildered. She didn’t act as if he hurt her.
“That thing with your hips,” she said and wriggled hers to coax him into action.
He tried to recall exactly what he did. The angle, a mere shift in his body that forced his pelvis down onto hers and stroked a different spot with each thrust. Brishen repeated the motion, and Ildiko did her best to climb up his body.
His jaw dropped. “That?”
She nodded frantically, her thighs clamping so tightly against his torso, his muscles protested. “Again,” she commanded him between pants. “Do it again.”
“Yes, Your Highness,” he teased, euphoric that he could make his wife burn the way she made him burn.
Whispered affections, drugging kisses and the steady rock of hips: Brishen balanced on the edge of release, struggling to read Ildiko’s ever-changing expressions as she met his thrusts and moaned her pleasures.
She suddenly stiffed, her arms tensing as her fingers carved tiny crescent moons into his skin. Her moans flattened to harsh gasps, and her eyes closed. “Brishen. Brishen.” She chanted his name, and whether it was a desperate prayer or affectionate curse, it didn’t matter to him. Ildiko came apart in his arms, her body flushed and heat, and arched until he thought he’d hear her spine crack.
The sleek muscles gripping his cock tightened and pulsed with her release. Brishen buried his face in her neck and surrendered his control. His groans chorused with her gasps as he came hard inside her.
His climax rolled through him, leaving him both blissful and utterly stripped of vigor. His heart pounded in his chest, and he sucked in sweet gulps of hair like a man saved from a drowning. Were Ildiko a Kai woman, he’d collapse on her, letting her take his full weight. He braced on his elbows instead and raised his head to regard his silent wife.
The flush to her skin had receded a little though her chest rose and fell in quick, shallow pants. She regarded at him with an expression in her eyes even he could read: stunned amazement. She opened her mouth, closed it and opened it again only to say nothing.
Brishen brushed the tip of his nose across hers. “Breath, Ildiko,” he said between his own short gasps. “Just breathe.”
She blew a strand of his hair away from her face. Her smile held the smug satisfaction of a cat that had caught a particularly juicy mouse. “That was neither awkward nor messy.”
His eyebrows climbed, and he tucked his hips even closer to hers to stay inside her. “Oh, it will get messy, wife, the moment we move.”
She dragged her heel up his calf to his knee. She traced his cheekbones with her fingertips. “I don’t mind,” she said softly.
“Nor do I.” He kissed her, and she kissed him back, her mouth working its magic so that his blood heated once more, and his cock hardened inside her.
He took her a second time as the sun marched west and then a third when they were both drowsy and exhausted from their lovemaking and lack of sleep. The third time was a slow melding of bodies and low sighs. When it was over, Brishen rolled to his back with Ildiko draped over him. She was asleep before he could cover them haphazardly with the bed linens.
He followed her into sleep only to be awakened what seemed like moments later by a brisk knock at his door. Those moments must have been more like hours. The candle he kept lit for Ildiko had melted into a pool of wax, the flame extinguished. Full darkness enveloped the room, and the air had grown colder. Ildiko was nowhere in sight, and he frowned.
The knock came again. Brishen rubbed at his scratchy eyes and sat up. “What?” he barked at his annoying visitor.
“Your Highness, you’re two hours past the gloaming. You can’t sleep anymore.” Anhuset’s admonishment was muffled by the door’s thick wood.
Brishen scowled and swung out of bed to pad naked across the room. The bolt on the door slid free. He yanked the door open and was greeted by his cousin’s smirk. “What are you doing here?”
Her gaze made a slow journey from the top of his head to his feet. “Cousin or not, you’re a fine figure of a man.” Her smirk deepened at his impatient growl. “Your servant fetched me. He said you didn’t respond to his calls or knocks. He thought you might be ill.” She looked past him to the bed and its rumpled sheets. “I’ll have to tell him not to worry. You’ve simply been conquered.”
Brishen bared his teeth at her. “Don’t you have something to do other than vex me?”
She shrugged, unconcerned by his forbidding mood. “Not nearly as much as you do and more time to do it. The Beladine lord is due to arrive in a few hours. The manor is in an uproar preparing for his visit.”
He groaned and raked his hands through his hair. “Poor timing,” he muttered to himself. He pointed a finger at Anhuset. “I’m not looking for your agreement.” She followed him into the chamber when he trekked back to the bed and pulled on the thin trousers he’d discarded earlier. Ildiko’s nightrail was gone, vanished like its owner. “Where is Ildiko?”
“Unlike you, your hercegesé is awake, dressed and elbow-deep in supervising the preparations for your guest. And here I thought humans weaker than the Kai.” She flashed him a fanged grin, her eyes sparking bright with amusement.
Brishen growled. His cousin reveled in her chance to flense him with her mockery and draw a little blood—revenge for him ordering her to attend tonight’s dinner and the dancing that followed. He allowed her the indulgence, too tired and sated to do more than shoo her off with a flick of his hand and a sour “Go away before I have you flogged.” Her laughter drifted to him, even after she left his room and closed the door behind her.
He wasn’t alone long. His long-time servant Etep arrived, leading a parade of servants carrying buckets of water to fill the bathing tub in the corner. One built the fire in the hearth. Etep bowed to his master. “A cold water bath tonight, Highness. We don’t have time to heat that much water.”
Brishen shrugged. He lost count of the number of dousings he’d had in the icy waters of a lake or mountain stream. He’d save the hot water bath for a more leisurely time when he didn’t have to rush and Ildiko could share with him. The images of such a scenario banished the sleepy fog shrouding his mind. He stripped and hopped into the tub, allowing himself one hard shiver before submerging in the cold water to scrub himself clean.
An hour later, he was dried, dressed and headed to the great hall. His chest swelled with pride at the sight. His servants had outdone themselves and brought Saggara’s great hall back to the days when it was the summer palace of a Kai king. More torches were lit for the benefit of their human guests and the trestle tables draped in embroidered cloths dyed in jeweled shades of cerulean and crimson, nettle-green and aubergine, and the coveted amaranthine that was the greatest source of his people’s wealth. The tables were set with the costly ceramics carried over the mountains via caravan and goblets made of silver mined out of the Serpent’s Teeth hills far to the south.
Not a speck of dust dared to collect in the corners, and the tapestries hanging on the walls had been taken down, beaten clean and rehung to tell their stories of an ancient past—Kai battles won and magic unleashed.
The scents drifting from the kitchens made Brishen’s empty stomach rumble and his mouth water. He had no idea what the cooks would serve. Though she was human in a Kai household, its maintenance and organization was her domain. He knew his place in the order of things, and in this, his only requirement was to praise her efforts and show up on time to eat the food she ordered prepared. He only prayed she didn’t order potatoes.
His steward approached him. Mesumenes was Saggara’s steward long before Djedor gave it to Brishen. He knew it better than anyone—every stone, every corner, every roof tile. Loyal to the estate more than to any of its owners, he had patiently mentored Brishen into becoming a capable overlord and did the same for Ildiko when she arrived as its new mistress. He bowed. “Does this meet with your approval, Your Highness?”
Brishen nodded and clapped Mesumenes on the back. “Very much so. You and the servants have outdone yourselves.”
“Her Highness’s hand is in this as well. She knew what would please and impress humans.”
Brishen complimented Mesumenes a second time and continued his tour of the manor. There were many, many benefits to having a human wife, or at least his human wife. He would thank her for her insight when he saw her. If he managed not to lift her skirts while he did so, it would be a testament to his control. His need for her ran like molten streams just under his skin. His cold bath had dampened his ardor only so long. He missed her and wanted her in his bed once more—preferably now.
It wasn’t to be, and he distracted himself by inspecting the bailey and training yard and ignoring Anhuset’s snide comments when he came across her saddling her horse in preparation to ride out and meet the Beladine party at the entrance to the estate road.
She wore ceremonial military leathers and beneath those a pearl colored tunic over teal trousers spun of silk. Brishen wondered how many times she cursed him while dressed in the formal clothing reserved for court and which she hated.
He twisted the knife. “You look beautiful.”
Her lips thinned and her eyes narrowed. Brishen kept his gaze on her dagger which she toyed with at her waist. “I don’t understand why I have to attend this thing. It’s a dinner with a Beladine warlord. More court maneuverings and double talk with sly innuendo and hidden meaning. Ask me to meet him in battle, and I will happily comply. This though…I hate this.”
Brishen sympathized with his cousin’s sentiment. He wasn’t fond of such gatherings either, but they weren’t at court. And while Serovek’s loyalty lay with a kingdom displeased with the Kai at the moment, he had always been a friend to Brishen. Until they met on a battlefield—and he prayed that would never come to pass—they would invite each other to dinner, socialize and trade valuable information no spy could ever retrieve from bribed sources.
“This isn’t court,” he said. “And you need to be there because you are my second and an important member of my household. Your presence is expected.” He didn’t mention that Serovek had asked after her when they traveled to High Salure to dine with him. Sha-Anuset was his trusted lieutenant and a woman of exceptional martial skill and leadership abilities. Had she been human, Brishen had no doubt Serovek would have tried and lure her away to act as one of his commanders.
“I refuse to dance,” she proclaimed in a final show of rebellion and swung into the saddle.
Brishen shrugged. “That is your choice.” His lips twitched. “The last time I recall being forced to dance with you, you crushed every one of my toes. We’ll consider it a favor if you just watch this time.”
She glared at him and nudged her horse into a brisk trot toward the barracks where the rest of the escort awaited her.
Brishen returned to the house and made his way to Ildiko’s room. He could hear the gentle peaks and troughs of female conversation through the door. His knock was met with silence before a set of footsteps approached and the door swung open. Sinhue bowed and motioned him inside.
Ildiko sat on a stool before a looking glass. Dressed as a Kai noblewoman, she wore the split skirt-tunic and trousers in the dark colors she typically preferred—this time a combination of brown dark as tea steeped long in a pot and lustrous amber that shimmered in the candlelight.
She met his gaze in the mirror’s reflection. Her face was paler than usual, marred by lavender shadows under her eyes and the amaranthine splash edging her jaw. Her fiery hair was partially up, bound into intricate braids woven with tiny pearls. She was stunning, and Brishen’s breeches grew uncomfortably tight the longer he stared at her.
“I think we still have a little time, yes?” She indicated the servant with a tilt of her head. “Sinhue is almost finished with my hair.”
Sinhue offered another bow to Brishen before skirting around him to return to her mistress. Her nimble fingers worked magic with a comb, and in no time Ildiko’s hair was coiffed, beaded and pinned. The servant left them alone then, a knowing look on her face as eased out of the room, leaving the door open.
Ildiko rose from the stool to face Brishen and spread her arms. “What do you think? Presentable for our guests?”
Brishen narrowed the distance between them until they were toe to toe. He leaned in and placed a soft kiss on the tip of her earlobe. Even though he didn’t touch her beyond that small caress, he felt her shiver. “Beautiful, though even more so without clothes.” They smiled at each other. “Regrets?” he asked.
She shook her head. “Only that I fell asleep.”
He nuzzled the soft hairs at her temple. “Who cares about the guests. Come to my bed. Now.”
He knew she’d say no. It was a foregone conclusion, and the worst thing she could do was say no. But if she said yes…
She turned her head toward him until her cheek pressed against his. “You’ll destroy my hair,” she teased.
“And you’re destroying my peace,” he countered. He laid his hand on her slender waist. “What say you?”
“Later,” she replied. “We’re the hosts, Brishen. We can’t be late.”
He sighed, stepped away from temptation, and offered his arm. “Let’s get this over with then.” He escorted her into the hall and toward one of the staircases that led to the great hall.
Ildiko squeezed his arm. “I don’t miss the Haradis court, but I do miss your court garb. You will be the handsomest man in the room.”
Brishen gave her a small smile. “You mean the handsomest Kai.” She had earlier complimented Serovek’s looks when asked. In her eyes, he would be the finer looking of them.
Her mouth turned down a little. “No,” she said. “The handsomest man.”
“Lord Pangion will be there.”
Ildiko shrugged. “So? My opinion remains unchanged.”
He halted abruptly and hauled Ildiko into his arms. She squeaked her surprise, then sighed when he kissed her. Her arms slid over his shoulders to play with the long tail of hair he’d queued at his neck.
Brishen forgot about time, about guests, about dinner, about the world around him. He cursed his inability to kiss her the way she kissed him—that soft mating of tongues and lips so sensual and alluring, she almost brought him to his knees.
He groaned when the warning peal of the gate bell rang throughout the estate, signaling the arrival of visitors. Ildiko’s blue eyes had darkened once more, and her lips were red. Her arms slid off his shoulders, and she put some much needed distance between them. “We’ll never make it to the hall if we keep doing this.”
“I don’t view that as a problem,” he groused.
“I don’t either, but others will.” She tugged on his arm. “Come, Your Highness. We need to make our grand entrance.”
Brishen schooled his features into a polite mask, placed his wife’s hand over his and escorted her toward the hall. A long, long night awaited him.