Radiance (Wraith Kings #1)(2) by Grace Draven

“Forgive me, madam,” he said softly.  “I didn’t mean to frighten you.”

Most of the Kai party sent to witness the wedding and accompany the bride and groom on their return journey to Haradis had traveled to Pricid, the Gauri kingdom’s capital, a fortnight earlier.  They’d had time to adjust to the Gauris’ appearances.  Brishen and his personal escort had arrived only the previous day.  Though he and some of his troop dealt with the Beladine humans neighboring his territorial borders, he didn’t think he’d ever seen so many repellent-looking people gathered in one place.

Thank the gods he wore a hood that hid his expression; otherwise he might inadvertently give insult to his unintended companion.  She was young—that much he could tell.  To the human Gauri she might be beautiful or banal; to him she was profoundly homely.  His upper lip curled in distaste at the sight of her skin.  Pale with pink undertones, it reminded him of the flesh of the bitter mollusk Kai dyers boiled to render amaranthine dye.  Her bound hair burned red in the punishing sunlight, so harsh and so different compared to the Kai women with their silvery locks.

Her eyes bothered him most.  Unlike the Kai, hers were layers of opaque white, blue ringed in gray and black pinpoint centers that expanded or contracted with the light.  The first time he’d witnessed that reaction in a human, all the hairs on his nape stood straight up.  That, and the way the contrasting colors made it easy to see the eyes move in their sockets gave the impression they weren’t body parts but entities unto themselves living as parasites inside their hosts’ skulls.

He was used to seeing the frantic eye-rolling in a frightened horse but not a person.  If the parasite impression didn’t repulse him so much, he’d think humans lived in a constant state of hysterical terror.

The woman crossed slender arms.  Despite the odd skin and grotesque eyes, she had a lovely shape and regular facial features.  Brishen began to bow, eager to take his leave of this awkward situation.

“What do you think of the royal gardens?”

Her question made him pause.  She had a pleasant voice—even yet not toneless, low but not hoarse.  Brishen cocked his head and studied her another moment before speaking.  She’d lost the frightened hare look, and while he still had difficulty correctly reading the more subtle emotions in human faces, he could tell she watched him now with curiosity instead of fear.

Had she asked him what he thought of Sangur’s armory, he might have waxed more eloquent.  He shrugged.  “There are plants and flowers and trees.”  He paused and offered her a pained smile she surely couldn’t see within the depths of his hood.  “And a lot of sunshine.”

She motioned to him to follow her.  He hesitated before falling into step beside her until she led him to a stone bench cast in the shade of an oak’s thick branches.  She sat and indicated he do the same.  It was Brishen’s turn to startle.  During his short time in Pricid, his Gauri hosts had been civil, accommodating, and almost obsequiously polite.  They were never friendly.  This woman’s affable manner surprised him.  He sat, grateful for the relief from the bright summer light.

She turned to face him, her parasitic gaze scrutinizing every part of him from his booted feet to his hands resting on his knees to his eyes he knew glowed back at her from the hood’s shadows.  “Does the sunlight truly bother your eyes?”

He blinked.  He’d expected her to ask his name or offer hers.  He liked that she didn’t.  This brief anonymity offered a certain respite from formality.  He was a prince of the blood, and the Gauri stepped lightly amongst Kai royalty.  “We are a people of night.  We see better in the dark.  The moon is the sun to us; we live by her light.”

“Yet you walk our gardens in midafternoon.”

Brishen chuckled.  “A guarantee that no other Kai will be about.”

Her serious features relaxed into a wide smile.  She possessed the teeth of a tiny horse--white and square except for two pairs of pathetic canines.  He’d seen Kai toddlers with milk teeth sharper than those.  He tried to focus on her words.

“Nor Gauri either.  The royal household is far too occupied at the moment with its guests and the wedding.”

The way she said “wedding”—in the same way someone might have said “execution” or “torture session”—made him sputter with laughter.  He had no doubt he’d uttered the same word in the exact same tone recently.

She was a challenge to look upon without wincing, but he very much liked her wry humor.  Until now, he’d wondered if most Gauri were only capable of speaking in monosyllabic sentences.  His kin who’d come here before him had little good to say about them, finding fault in everything from their manner of dress to their food preferences.  Brishen had no expectations about his bride, but he hoped she might possess a small amount of the same pleasant demeanor this woman exhibited.

He gave an exaggerated sigh.  “A more tiresome affair of state I’ve yet to attend.  Gauri and Kai each wondering who might eat the other first.”

His companion’s eyebrows rose.  Her lips closed over her teeth, and she smiled archly.  She pointed to his face and then to his hands.  “I think the Kai, with their teeth and claws, have the advantage over the Gauri in that contest.”

Brishen snorted.  “True, but you can rest assured we don’t find humans particularly appealing as a dinner item.”

“Well then, that’s good to know.  I’m sure I taste awful.”  She lowered her gaze and smoothed the heavily embroidered silk of her gown over her knees.  Brishen swore he heard a whisper of true relief in her gentle sarcasm.

She lifted her gaze once more.  He twitched.  Lover of thorns, but those eyes disconcerted him.  “You don’t have to answer of course, but do you think the Kai prince will hate his wife?”

She stunned him with the question.  Brishen had always considered himself an agreeable man.  He didn’t envy his older brother’s place as heir to the throne, understood his duty to his kingdom and never balked at the fact he was merely a pawn in the endless power machinations between empires.  He assumed his future wife had no choice in the matter either.  They were duty-bound by their stations.

“I think the prince expected to marry a Kai noblewoman and father children one day.  He never imagined an arranged marriage with a human woman to seal a war and trade alliance between Bast-Haradis and Gaur.  He might resent the circumstances thrust upon him, but I doubt he’ll bear any ill will toward his future wife.  She’s as much a pawn in this as he is.”  Brishen frowned.  “Unless the bride is a foul-tempered harpy.”

He liked her laughter, a throaty chortle as if she found some additional secret mirth in the moment.  She braced an elbow on the bench’s back and rested her cheek in her palm, the pose striking in its casualness.  “I’m sure her mother called her that a time or two, but she tries very hard to be pleasant.”

They gazed at each other before she knocked him flat with another question.  “You find me ugly, don’t you?”

Brishen had faced abominations on the battlefield without flinching, leapt into the thick of the fighting against creatures born from the nightmares of lesser demons.  Not once had he been tempted to run away in fear.  Now, his leg muscles rippled with the urge to flee.  He clenched his teeth instead, prayed he wouldn’t start a war with their newest ally and answered honestly.

“Hideous,” he said.  “A hag of a woman.”

Another peal of laughter met his words.  Brishen wilted, relieved she took no insult in him so bluntly validating her assumption.  He didn’t even know her name, but he liked her and didn’t wish to hurt her.  Assured she wasn’t planning to flounce off and send a pack of offended relatives after him, he turned the same question on her.

“And you,” he said.  “You don’t think me a handsome man?”

She shrugged.  “I’ve only seen your hands and eyes.  For all I know, you’re hiding the face of a sun spirit in that hood.”

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