Radiance (Wraith Kings #1)(17) by Grace Draven

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 banquet following their wedding.  She’d been unable to determine his expressions 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 echo 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 the dish and recognized some of the fruits used in the dish.  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 dish--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 artist as 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 focused as a hawk on a branch watching a mouse in the field below it.  The pie’s crust rippled, creating cracks across its smooth surface.  A black spine poked through the crust, 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 crust splattered in a black slime across the table.

This time Ildiko leapt over her chair to crouch 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 twitching 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 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 and offered her a glass of water to rinse her mouth.

Afterwards, she gazed at Brishen, bleary-eyed but resolved.  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.”

CHAPTER 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 wife 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 sat, 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 herceges and his hercegesé.  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 interactions.  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 sensed 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.

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