Today was Ildiko’s wedding day, and if she managed not to retch on herself or a guest, she’d consider the entire event a resounding success. Her maids refused to meet her gaze while they laced her into her gown and twitched the train into perfect folds, but she’d caught their looks of pity mixed with horror from the corner of her eye. Ildiko told herself to ignore them. Arranged marriages were the fate of nearly all aristocratic Gauri women, each one made for power, for trade, for good of country. His Majesty, Sangur the Lame, had married off both his daughters to princes of foreign lands as part of the negotiations for access to ports and allies in war. The Gauri king’s niece was no exception to the protocol, and Ildiko had always expected a similar fate. The only question was when—not if—it happened. But you never expected a Kai groom. The thought scraped across her mind. Saliva flooded her mouth as the nausea roiling in her belly threatened to surge into her throat. Ildiko closed her eyes and swayed where she stood on the tailoring stool. A hand gripped her leg to steady her, and she opened her eyes to stare down at the royal dressmaker. Worry lines gathered even more wrinkles into the woman’s face. She spat the pins clamped between her lips into her free hand. “Are you all right, my lady?” Ildiko nodded.
She wouldn’t shame herself or the Gauri court by falling apart before their Kai guests. She breathed deep to quell her fear. The time for tears and sickness had passed. She’d indulged in her terror earlier in the privacy of her bedroom. She might be chattel, but she would remain dignified. Her future husband faced the same fate. With the gift of privilege came the burden of expectation. As the younger son of the Kai king, his duty was to marry in a way most beneficial to his people. He’d meet Ildiko for the first time as they stood before a flock of bishops and pledged their troth to each other. A trickle of cold sweat slid down her back beneath the gown.
As his wife, she’d have to bed him. No one ever heard of any living children born to a Kai and human couple, but that didn’t matter. A consummated marriage acted as the blood seal on a contract, even if she never bore him children. If Sangur the Lame didn’t think it might offend his future in-laws, he’d insist on a contingent of witnesses standing in the bridal chamber to verify the consummation and assure everyone the alliance he’d wrought through this arranged marriage was complete. But the Kai were not human, their culture different and mostly unknown to those outside their borders. Ildiko was grateful for their mystery, which prevented such a public humiliation. The royal dressmaker tugged a few more times on her gown, snapped out orders to her assistant seamstresses to pick up pins, thread and needles and pronounced their work done. She helped Ildiko off the stool. “Come to the mirror and see, my lady. You look beautiful.
” Ildiko followed her to the full length mirror standing in one corner of her room. The pale reflection looking back at her did nothing to cheer her, and for a moment she fancied she stared at a stranger. The gown was a masterful creation of embroidered bronze silk that hugged her breasts, hips and thighs before flowing out into a skirt and train. The fabric followed the line of her shoulders but left her neck and collar bones bare. Long sleeves ended at points over her hands. Her hair was coiffed in an intricate style of braids woven together and fastened with jeweled pins. She wore the rich trappings of a woman of high station and great wealth. She frowned at her image. “What a waste.” Behind her, the dressmaker blanched.
“You don’t like the gown, my lady?” Ildiko reassured the woman she considered the gown perfect. “However, I think all this will be lost on my groom and his Kai entourage.” The other woman’s lip curled in disgust. “Ugly bastards. All of them. What would they know of beauty?” She realized the insult in her remark. “I’m sure your groom will be different and appreciate how lovely you are.” The likelihood of that happening was small. Were she marrying someone other than a Kai, the dressmaker might be right. She only hoped she and her intended managed not to bolt in opposite directions when they first sighted each other.
She requested an hour of privacy before she had to present herself at court and sent the group of dressmakers and maids from the room. The scent of spring flowers from the gardens drifted through the chamber’s open window, enticing her. Ildiko would miss very little when she left with her new husband for his home. She was the king’s niece, the orphaned child of his younger sister. Her place in the family insured a stately home, regular meals and fine clothes. It insured nothing else, and there was no love lost between her and her living relatives. This new marriage might offer nothing different, except a change in her place in court hierarchy. By marrying the prince, she became a duchess, a Kai hercegesé. The window opened onto a panoramic view of the manicured gardens with their rolling swards of green grass, fanciful topiaries, and colorful borders of flowers. She would miss the gardens.
They had been her sanctuary over the years, an escape from her harassing cousins and a means to assuage her loneliness. If the Kai royal family had gardens, Ildiko suspected they were nothing like these. She imagined all manner of strange, macabre plants twisting and swaying as they grew out of exotic soil by moonlight and bloomed with menacing flowers that hid fangs amongst the petals. One didn’t walk amongst such flora without armor. She shivered. Her thoughts propelled her out of her room and down a short flight of stairs to a back hall leading to the gardens. Warm sunshine caressed her shoulders. Ildiko raised her face to the light and breathed deeply of honeysuckle and jasmine. The dressmaker would have a fit of the vapors when she saw the ruin done to her creation’s hem, but the thought didn’t stop Ildiko from journeying into the depths of her favorite place in all of Gaur. Besides, no one at the wedding would be looking at her hem.
They’d be too busy gawking in horror at either the groom or the bride. She strolled leisurely along a winding path that meandered past bubbling ponds filled with large goldfish as tame as dogs, regiments of poisonous foxglove in every color and hue, and clusters of orange butterfly vine draped over trellises and swarmed by hummingbirds. Willow trees hugged the shores of the larger ponds, creating canopies of green shade that sheltered ferns and silver-leafed lungwort. Ildiko had spent many a quiet hour as a child hidden behind a willow’s drape, reading a pilfered book in the dappled light that spilled through the branches. Stately oaks dotted the landscape, their great branches of rutted bark thick with leaves. She followed the path leading to one of the giants. She didn’t visit this part of the garden often. The queen’s roses grew here, and Ildiko avoided those places the queen favored. She felt safe enough visiting today. Fantine was too busy playing hostess to her guests or counting the treasure they’d brought as bride gift.
Ildiko could admire the hundreds of rose bushes planted in clusters and lines in solitude. Or so she thought. She turned a corner and halted. A figure, cloaked and hooded in black, stood motionless next to a dense patch of thorny roses the color of blood. It turned at the sound of Ildiko’s steps. She inhaled a harsh breath. A pair of nacreous eyes, without iris or pupil, stared at her from the hood’s shadowed depth. A long-fingered hand, gray-skinned as a corpse’s and tipped with dark nails, lifted in silent greeting. Ildiko balanced on the balls of her feet, poised to flee. If she didn’t know better, she’d believe she stumbled across a demon amidst the roses.
This was no demon —despite appearances—but one of the Kai. And it would be the height of rudeness for her to run screaming from a future relative by marriage. CHAPTER TWO Brishen braced for an ear-pinning scream from his unexpected visitor or, if he was lucky, a quieter gasp and mad dash through the hedgerow to escape him. The Gauri woman who stared at him wide-eyed with her strange gaze did neither. He’d obviously startled her with his presence in the garden. She flinched away when he raised a hand in cautious greeting, but she didn’t run. “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 BastHaradis 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.” Brishen scoffed at the idea. “Hardly.” He’d never lacked female company, and his people thought him well-favored. Certainly nothing as wretched as a sun spirit. He slid the hood back to his shoulders. The woman’s eyes rounded. She inhaled a harsh breath and clasped one hand to her chest.
Her mollusk skin went a far more attractive shade of ash. She remained silent and stared at him until he raised a hand in question. “Well?” She exhaled slowly. The space between her eyebrows stitched into a single vertical frown line. “Had you crawled out from under my bed when I was a child, I would have bludgeoned you to death with my father’s mace.” Brishen rocked back on the bench and howled. When he finished and wiped the tears from his eyes, the woman was staring at him with her horse-toothed smile in place. He cleared his throat. “I don’t know whether that’s a testament to my looks or to your penchant for violence.” “The first.
If you visited me, I’d have to cover all the mirrors in my house or replace a lot of cracked glass. You could put a pack of wolves to shame with those teeth.” He snapped his teeth together in a feral grin. She didn’t draw away from him. “At least I have all my teeth, which is more than I can say for a lot of the Gauri men—and women. Besides, I’d rather look like I can bay instead of whinny.” They laughed together then until the woman’s features turned somber. “Thank you for not lying about what you thought of my appearance. You might have a face to turn my hair white, but your honesty is handsome.”