Radiance (Wraith Kings #1)(19) by Grace Draven

They didn’t have to wait long.  The queen fired her first volley just as the servants set down bowls of soup.  “You humans are very pale,” she said in Common.  “Only our diseased sport that shade.”

Those sitting closest to the high table to hear the remark tittered amongst themselves 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 restricted 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.  Too distracted by the interactions between Secmis and Ildiko, she picked at her food, her expression wavering between fascination and horror as she listened to their conversation.

Brishen imagined whatever bits and pieces 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.  He 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 inside 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 to silence your mother, 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 the numerous oohs and aahs over the delicacy served, she didn’t flinch 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 hercegesé, 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.  Your mother hates 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 his arms 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 feat with her retelling of our wedding celebration in Pricid.  She’s still threatening to split my gullet over having to eat one of those noxious potatoes.”

CHAPTER THIRTEEN

A week after their arrival in Haradis, Ildiko sat on one of the benches in the palace gardens.  Eyes closed and face turned up to the sun, she soaked in the late morning light that spilled into the palace garden.  Sunbeams lanced through the spaces left open by climbing vines on lattice work and transformed the various fish ponds dotting the landscape into pools of reflective glass.

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 and left her to find his bed.

Ildiko thought she’d fall into oblivion the moment she pulled the covers over her shoulders.  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 apparent, 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.

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