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