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  1. lilansui

    Chapter 16

    Also in songs or folktales, but you are right, a lot of these myths are oral and others not translated into eng yet.
  2. lilansui

    Chapter 16

    Oooh, you're discovering my little secrets, hahaha. Okay, yes, I did spend a while reading about Egyptian/ Persian and Greek gods and goddesses in their different cultures. I felt Neith, Bast and Ha would work best for my story because I loved their backgrounds and their names were quite fun. I'm so grateful. Thank you too and this month I've made a deal to wrangle my crazy life and make time for what I love to do, which is writing. I'm looking forward to what I get out of this at the end of the month. Hopefully, The Reluctant Consort will have a few more chapters. Nisa has an ideal in her head that she is unwilling to let go, and in the end this clinging to the ideal will bring trouble for her, for those in the manor and the valley. Thank you for always reading and the support. I hope you're all okay and getting through. Can't believe it's already October 2020. Stay safe and healthy.
  3. Chapter Seventeen The ride to the Silver Meadow was full of instructions from Temu on how the Marriage Dance should run. “You can use the carriage to the meadow, but walking among the people will make you seem approachable. Once you reach the meadow, you’ll find soldiers who are stationed or on leave in the valley. They’ll make a path to the dais for you. Before your each the dais, you’ll meet the generals. We are six even though you’re supposed to meet seven. One of us fell in the war,” Temu said. “General Baiza,” Jihan said. “His replacement is on the way to the valley. He will be General Moran,” Temu said. “The generals get the tokens on your belt. Then, General Naveed will lead you to His Grace. There is a special guest who will officiate the ceremony with Rashan’s help.” “Special guest?” Jihan asked. “Do you mean one of the ancients like in the palace?” “No,” Temu shook his head. “His Grace asked me to keep this guest a secret.” Jihan nodded, though it felt like added pressure. When the carriage reached their destination, Temu got out and Jihan asked for a few minutes. He sat alone trying to catch a breath. He placed his fan on the bench and took in a deep gulp of air. Butterflies waged war in the depths of his stomach. Jihan tugged on the sleeves of his overcoat, adjusted the lapels and then the belt around his waist. He sat back and took another deep breath, letting it out slow. No matter how much Temu and Yasmin assured him, it still felt like he was meeting a mob who hated him. He had never met people who disliked him. Save for his father, who just expected everything from him and gave nothing. He was a merchant who knew nothing about noble titles and the ruling class. He only knew how to make deals. How would it be possible to make an entire valley of people like him over a dance? “What am I doing here?” Jihan whispered. He pressed his hand to his stomach, hoping to calm the butterflies. “Jihan,” Firuz said, peering into the carriage. “Everyone is waiting for you.” Jihan nodded, but made no effort to get up. Noting his unease, Firuz climbed into the carriage, taking the bench opposite Jihan. “What?” Firuz asked in a mild tone. Jihan bunched the fabric of his overcoat and opened his eyes to look at Firuz. “I will have married him three times now,” Jihan said, shaking his head. “Each time to stop some form of crisis,” Jihan scoffed. “How many more ceremonies will we have between us?” “Countless,” Firuz said with a short grin. “Still, you shouldn’t be nervous. He is clearly yours.” “That’s not the problem and you know it,” Jihan said, resting his head on the wall behind him. “The valley’s people worry you,” Firuz said. “After tonight, Temu promises you won’t face resistance.” “How can we be sure?” Jihan asked. “I’m-I’m not—” “I’m sure,” Firuz said. Jihan met his gaze again and the promise in Firuz’s eyes steadied him. He could only hope this path he continued to walk with Firuz led to better things. “You’re doing fine,” Firuz said, as though reading his thoughts. “Trust him too.” Jihan nodded, his hand flattening on his stomach. He touched the wide belt, his fingers skating over the red tokens. “The Commander of Armies leads hundreds of thousands of men into battle. You now become his greatest weakness and also his greatest strength,” Firuz murmured. “That’s what this night is about.” Jihan took in a steadying breath, this time the butterflies quieted. Yes, he was Duke Silver’s Consort. The one Kastan needed to back Rashan, and this valley, no matter what. “I never want to be his weakness,” Jihan said, sure of his emotions. “Then, let’s go to the meadow, Imperial Consort,” Firuz teased. “To be strong, you need all these people’s support.” Jihan got up and followed Firuz out of the carriage. The dirt road leading to the Silver Meadow was packed with people coming for the festivities, and vendors. Jihan’s carriage stood at the entrance of the road. Temu had explained that most partners walked the path, so Jihan had insisted he would too. The people would not expect it of him. He started walking on the dirt road with Firuz leading the way. Temu walked behind him. His heartbeat loud in his ears as people started to notice him. There were wary glances for Firuz. Thankfully, Firuz had hidden his sword under a long dark cloak. Jihan kept a moderate pace matching the men, women and children heading to the meadow. A young girl ran past him, and slid on a patch of grass. She fell on the ground right in front of him and froze in the shock. Jihan bent down to help her up. She started crying as he got her on steady feet. “Don’t cry,” Jihan said, his tone soothing. He wiped dust off her pink robes, and helped fix the pink flower pin in her hair. She stopped crying, when he wiped tears off her cheek with his palm. “A smile looks prettier,” Jihan said, smiling at her. She was a cute little thing with bright eyes, her lushes clumped by tears. She gave him a tentative smile and he grinned. Jihan wiped the remnants of her tears from her cheeks and straightened up. “Papa,” Rashan shouted, and Jihan looked up to see Rashan running, the crowd patting to give him way. “Your Grace,” an older woman said, reaching for the little girl’s hand. Her smile was kind when she looked at him. “I’ll take her now. Congratulations on your marriage dance.” Jihan nodded, eyes widening as everyone passing him repeated her words. “Congratulations, Your Grace.” “Be happy, Your Grace.” It was as though the older woman had broken the silence, and everyone who passed him now had the courage to talk to him. He had no time to examine this change. Rashan was racing toward him at full speed. “Slow down, Shan,” Jihan said, stopping so that he could brace for the impact. Rashan threw himself at Jihan, wrapping tight arms around Jihan’s waist. Jihan held him for a moment, and then smiled when Rashan looked up at him. “You’re late, Papa,” Rashan said. “Pa is worried. I told him I would come look for you.” Jihan smoothed Rashan’s hair, charmed and totally lost for this boy. “Well, you found me,” Jihan said, smiling because Rashan’s enthusiastic love had sent all his nerves dashing off. “Shall we go meet your Pa together?” “Okay,” Rashan said, letting go of Jihan’s waist, and moving to the side to take Jihan’s left hand. “Pa, you’re missing something,” Rashan said, as they started walking again. Rashan swung their clasped hands making Jihan smile. “What am I missing?” Jihan asked, nodding his thanks when a young man congratulated him on his marriage dance. “Every time there is a marriage dance, the bride is always holding flowers or wearing them,” Rashan said. This child, Jihan thought, biting back a chuckle. “I know you’re not a bride,” Rashan said, looking up at him, his gaze critical as he studied Jihan’s ceremonial robes. “But a consort should have flowers for their marriage dance.” Before Jihan could respond, Rashan let go of his hand and raced off into the trees. Jihan turned to Firuz. Firuz followed Rashan without hesitation. Jihan slowed to a stop, his gaze looking into the trees, a frown dancing on his forehead until he saw Rashan running back with Firuz. Rashan hurried to his side, and held out a yellow daffodil. It was one flower, but to Jihan it was yet another memorable gift. Jihan took the flower and kissed Rashan’s forehead in thanks. He held the flower in his right hand and took Rashan’s with his left. They kept walking the dirt road. The smiles from the villages they met were warm and genuine. Their words of congratulations full of promise. Jihan felt like it was a good start. When they reached the meadow, Jihan stopped to take in the festive red tents mounted around the meadow. There were red lanterns hanging on elegant posts, and colorful wild flowers growing in the grass. A group of talented musicians played music, the tune upbeat, lending a jovial feel to the atmosphere. The sun sat on the horizon, casting a yellow hue that turned the world mystic. So many people filled the meadow. The men handsome in dark blue overcoats that Jihan assumed were their formal uniform. The women dressed in their finest clothes, and children moving from tent to tent, excitement clear on their faces. It was a warm community, their tight knit relationships clear. Jihan had never seen anything so beautiful and he wanted to be part of it. “Your Grace, please wait here,” Temu said, walking around Jihan. He took a few steps ahead, and called out, “Duke Silver’s Consort arrives.” Temu’s announcement drew everyone’s attention. The soldiers in their fine dark blue overcoats, wearing silver ceremonial swords at their waist, turned in their direction. When they moved, their families moved with them, as they crowded on two sides to make a path. The music faded in the background, the meadow growing quiet and full of excited chatter. Rashan squeezed Jihan’s hand. “I’ll be waiting for you with Pa,” Rashan said, as he let go of Jihan’s hand. For a moment, Jihan wanted to take Rashan’s hand again and hold on for courage to face the mob now looking toward him. Jihan nodded at Rashan, occupying his hands with the flower Rashan gave him. He watched Rashan run into the gathering crowd. Gentle hands patted Rashan’s shoulders as he passed them. Firuz moved behind Jihan, as Temu took the front this time. “The whole valley seems to have showed up,” Jihan said under his breath. “Don’t forget to breathe,” Firuz teased, squeezing Jihan’s left shoulder. Jihan took in air, and watched as hundreds of soldiers lined up in two rows, forming a wide path between them. They stood at attention with their families behind them, everyone trying to get a good vantage point. Jihan tried to see the end of the path, but he could only see the crowd on each side. “We’re ready, Your Grace,” Temu said, moving around Jihan to stand with Firuz. “You’re leading the way to the front. When you reach the Generals, stop. Okay?” Jihan nodded. He clutched the flower from Rashan tighter and held his breath as he took the first step into the path. He half expected to be pummeled with eggs. It was hard to hide the surprise when the first two soldiers he passed pulled out their swords and held them up in salute. His step faltered, and Temu took steps forward to explain. “They are officers directly under generals, their salute is to acknowledge your new rank among them,” Temu said. “Try to be confident on your walk.” Jihan nodded and straightened his shoulders, feigning confidence as he continued along the path. Silver swords came up in salute, and soon, his confidence grew. The walk to the generals took a quarter of an hour, maybe more. Each officer who raised his or her sword made Jihan realize that Kastan had too much responsibility. All these people looking to Kastan for guidance, it made Jihan want to be strong enough to help. He sighed in relief when he saw the small divide between the officers in deep blue and the Generals in their more eclectic formal wear. Jihan stopped as Temu had advised and looked down to see he had almost mangled Rashan’s flower. The petals looked abused under his nervous hands. He placed the flower in his left sleeve pocket not wanting to lose it. Wiping his hands on his overcoat, he looked up in time to see the five generals form a neat line before him. They blocked his path to the round wooden dais ahead. It was covered with a red carpet and colorful lanterns hang above. Kastan, handsome in his red robes and the light shining on his crown, stood at the center of the dais waiting with Rashan. Kastan smiled, his gaze on Jihan, never once moving away. Jihan had a sudden urge to run to him. “The Council of Generals stands before His Grace, Duke of Silver Shore. We welcome His Grace to the valley and accept his command. Your Grace, do you accept our service?” The stern voice interrupted his thoughts and he was suddenly staring at a General, unsure about his next move. He was surprised to see that Temu had joined the line of Generals. Jihan met Temu’s gaze and breathed in relief when Temu pointed to the red jade tokens at his belt. Jihan nodded and unclipped one from his belt. He held it out to the man who had spoken, hiding his surprise when the man dropped to his right knee. “I am General Condi at your service.” General Condi took the red jade token and pinned it to his belt before he stood up, with a short nod. He winked at Jihan and tilted his head to the man standing next to him. Jihan unclipped the second red jade token and stood before the second general. Jihan gave him one look and saw that this one wore his fine-tuned thirst for blood in his gaze. A shadow guard was sworn to protect. This one loved battle and the bloody art that was war, nothing about him spoke of protecting only conquering. He could not show any fear as he met that sharp gaze. Not an ounce, Jihan thought. He stilled the urge to shiver and met the unsettling gaze with a slight smile. It felt like an accomplishment when the dangerous man dropped to his right knee and held out his right hand. “I am General Faiza at your service, Your Grace.” Jihan held his relief and placed the red jade token in the steady palm. He waited until the token was clipped and General Faiza got up before he moved to the next man. This one was tall and thin, and his gaze was kind. He put Jihan at ease as he knelt on his right knee without hesitation. “General Kigaru is at your service, Your Grace.” Jihan smiled this time as he placed the red jade token on Kigaru’s palm. He nodded when Kigaru clipped the token on his belt and looked up with an inquiring gaze. Jihan returned the smile when Kigaru came up with grace. Jihan moved to the fourth general, working hard to contain his excitement when he realized it was a woman. She gave him a short nod before she dropped on her right knee. “I’m General Niku,” she said. “I am at your service, Your Grace.” Jihan gave her a red jade token and gave her a short nod when she stood up with a welcoming smile. The last two generals were familiar: Naveed and Temu. Both of them gave him teasing grins as they knelt and took their jade tokens. When he was done, Jihan stepped back and gave bowed his head a small fraction to show his respect. These men were responsible for keeping Kastan safe at battle. If possible, Jihan would make them invincible so that they could keep Kastan unharmed forever. “Your Grace, I’ll escort you to your husband,” Temu said. Jihan thanked the generals and followed Temu around them. He couldn’t wait to reach Kastan and Rashan. They were the reason why he was doing this, the reasons why he so badly wanted to belong to Silver Shore. *~*~*~* Kastan watched Jihan follow Temu to the dais. He took Rashan’s right hand and squeezed it a little too hard in excitement. Rashan gave him a look and he loosened his hold. Heart full of excitement, he took in his consort. There were times he didn’t quite believe he had managed to keep Jihan. He remembered meeting Jihan on the street in the Imperial Capital Akan. Jihan had saved Rashan without a thought for his own life. His heart so giving it was hard to ignore it. Kastan smiled thinking of their second meeting. He had found the Jihan who tied his hair so tight on his head and gave him a cold greeting intriguing. Then there was the charming, thrilling Jihan, facing off with a killer in a teahouse. Kastan had worried they would be too late that day. Just one misstep and Jihan would have been stabbed to death, and this day would not have come. The thought left Kastan shaken then. He had known from that moment that he never wanted to see Jihan in danger again in his life. Then there was the Jihan who had tried to start a fire in a kitchen and ended up smoking up the place. Kastan couldn’t help smiling at the memory. That night Jihan kissed him, that night, Jihan came to him. Kastan felt his nerves settle at the memory of their first time. He had fallen in love with Jihan that night, every night after felt like a dream. The torture of waiting that followed had almost swallowed him up, but they had found their way back. Jihan was now at Silver Shore. He was his and that was how Kastan wanted to keep it. Yes, this marriage dance was yet another way to tie Jihan to him in a way no one would be able to pull them apart. Beside him, Rashan let out a delighted chuckle as Jihan approached them. “What?” Kastan asked, his gaze on Jihan who was now walking a little faster. “I made a wish to the god of fate on my birthday,” Rashan said. “It seems he heard me, Pa. I’m so happy Papa is with us.” “A wish?” Kastan glanced at his son, thinking back to a day on the cliff, when Rashan was letting lanterns rise to the sky. “Ah, the wish you wouldn’t tell me about. What did you ask for?” “Someone to stay with you, like General Condi has his wife,” Rashan said. “I figured if you had a partner to help with the manor and the valley, you would smile more. Fara said that I should ask the god of fate for help and my prayer came true.” Kastan gaped at his son, but he had no time to ask more, because Jihan had reached them. Seeing the tension on Jihan’s shoulders, he let go of Rashan’s hand, reached for Jihan and pulled him into his arms. Jihan trembled and wrapped his arms around Kastan’s waist, burying his face into Kastan’s chest. “You did good,” Kastan murmured. “You look so amazing. I can’t believe you’re mine.” Jihan bunched the fabric of his overcoat at his back and pulled back to look at him. “You too, Kas, I can’t believe you’re mine either.” “I’m here too,” Rashan said, making Jihan laugh, shifting to look at their son. “Am I yours too?” Kastan let Jihan go when he moved to hug Rashan and kiss the top of his head. “Yes, you are mine too, Shan,” Jihan said, then stood, turning as he swiped a palm over his right cheek. Kastan thought he caught the sheen of tears in the fading sunlight. He stole a kiss and shouts of excitement came from their audience. Jihan blushed making Kastan laugh. Rashan took a strip of red ribbon from Temu and stood to Jihan’s left. Kastan held Jihan’s right hand and moved to whisper in his ear. “Our promise guide is someone I should have introduced to you before,” Kastan said. “He insisted on attending before I got the chance to take you for a visit. It’s been a while since he joined a marriage dance. I couldn’t say no.” “Who is it?” Jihan asked. “My father,” Kastan said, tightening his hold on Jihan when he tried to step back. Jihan scowled at him and Kastan bit back a laugh. Jihan grumbled under his breath and adjusted his belt, bringing his free hand to touch the circlet on his forehead. “We’re already married. He can’t remove you from my house,” Kastan tease, earning himself another scowl and a hard poke to his belly. “This is not how I would have liked to meet my father in-law,” Jihan hissed, then bit back his next sentence when the previous Emperor stepped up onto the dais. Kaveh Miran had given his features to Kastan, Jihan decided. Just like Kastan had blessed Rashan with his. The only difference was that Kaveh’s hair was long down and his back and turned to silver. He wore white robes, the embroidery on them gold: a fig tree with three branches to symbolize his royal house. Jihan squeezed Kastan’s hand as he found the courage to meet keen eyes. Kaveh’s dark gaze on him was speculative. Jihan wondered what Kaveh thought of him. Rashan moved to his grandfather’s side, and got a pat on his left shoulder in greeting. Kastan winced as Jihan squeezed his hand tighter. He frowned when he noted that Jihan’s shoulders were tense. Jihan lowered his head in a bow as Kaveh Miran approached him. Kastan met his father’s amused gaze and tried to beg with his eyes, hoping that Kaveh be gentle with his consort. Kaveh had spent the hour before the marriage dance started lecturing Kastan about not having the marriage dance sooner. “Jihan,” Kaveh said, his voice warm and welcoming. Jihan looked up. “Welcome to the family,” Kaveh said, placing his hands on Jihan’s shoulders. “My son is lucky to have found someone to accompany him. I want us to get to know each other. I’d like it very much.” Jihan returned the smile, some of the tension draining away at Kaveh’s sincere words. Kaveh nodded and stepped back, raising his voice to start the ceremony. The field fell silent in attention. “This evening we celebrate a promise and a choice,” Kaveh Miran said. “We welcome a new soul to our beloved valley. Most importantly, my son finds a partner to walk along with him on this journey of life. At the heart of a marriage dance is a choice and a promise to be partners, to be family, to protect and to love each other.” Kaveh faced Jihan and Kastan. Jihan held his breath when Kaveh brought their clasped hands up. “For the warrior and his consort a promise is made to support their family when the inevitable comes,” Kaveh said. “Jihan, Duke Silver’s Consort, is this the path you choose?” Jihan squeezed Kastan’s hand, and met Kaveh’s gaze. “Yes, I choose this path,” Jihan said with no hesitation, no matter their situation, Kastan was his to keep, had been for a while. They were already walking their path together. He would just have to deal with the consequences when the Emperor came for his dues, just as he had in Kin Town. Their separation then was harsh, but this time… Jihan refused to think about parting when Kastan squeezed his fingers and replied to his father’s question. “I choose the path Jihan walks,” Kastan said. Jihan looked at Kastan then, intrigued by the note in Kastan’s voice. He missed Kaveh’s following words. The next moment, Rashan stood before them. Jihan bit his lip to stop his smile. Rashan looked so serious, as he tied the red ribbon he held around their clasped hands. “The god of fate let you meet,” Rashan said, talking slow, his words careful. He had taken time to memorize his part of the ceremony. “May the god of fate keep you together, now and in the next life.” Rashan then looked up with a wide smile, and Jihan fell in love with the young man who was now his son. He bent to press a kiss on Rashan’s cheek. Rashan grinned, and stepped back to stand next to his grandfather. Kastan wrapped an arm around Jihan’s waist, and pulled him closer. Jihan tried to move away, worried about what Kastan’s Pa would think of them. Kastan gave him no time to protest before he pulled him into his arms and kissed him. Jihan forgot where they stood, their massive audience disappeared, and even his wariness of Kaveh Miran’s watchful gaze faded away. All his thoughts centered on Kastan, and how tight he held him, how consuming their kiss felt, how lucky he felt this night. “Can you only think of kissing me tonight?” Kastan murmured against his lips when they broke apart. “You look too good to be smiling at other men.” Jihan chuckled, and shook his head, resting his free hand on Kastan’s shoulder. “What other men? I only kissed our son,” Jihan said, and got another kiss. Kaveh chuckled and waved his hand. Music started and Kastan drew Jihan into a dance. The stayed pressed to each other. Kastan dusting kisses on Jihan’s cheeks as they moved. Jihan let out a sigh of relief; the tension that had plagued him all day disappeared. He melted into Kastan’s embrace. “You were late. I worried that you wouldn’t make it on time,” Kastan said, whispering into Jihan’s ear. “I was scared you didn’t trust that I would fix your problem with the valley’s people.” “I’m sorry I was late,” Jihan said, resting his forehead on Kastan’s shoulder. “I was scared. I still am, but it’s easier now. I have you after all.” “Do you mean that?” Kastan asked, tightening his hold around Jihan. Jihan lifted his head from Kastan’s shoulder to look into hopeful eyes. The words of love remained lodged in his throat. Still, he could at least give Kastan his trust, and his loyalty. “You’re my rock, Kastan. I do trust you with my life,” Jihan said. “Thank you for bringing me to your valley.” A soft brush of silk on his cheek had him looking up in time to see red petals falling around them. Shades of red gracefully descended from the sky and surrounded them in a cloud of petals. Jihan smiled at the stunning sight. Trusting Kastan to hold him steady, he held out his hand to catch a few. Kastan lifted him up and spun around making Jihan laugh. It was a night like no other, Jihan thought, looking down at Kastan. Dropping the petals he had caught, he brought his hand to Kastan’s shoulder, struck by Kastan’s happy expression. It was a marriage dance to remember. *~*~*~* “They look happy,” Neith said, watching Jihan and Kastan dance, and murmur to each other, lost in their own world. “The last two people I saw so suited to each other were you and your wife dear wife, Your Majesty. Don’t you agree?” She turned to look at Kaveh Miran who stood leaning on a table sipping peach juice from his goblet. Rashan sat at the table eating a pie. He looked happy, enjoying his pastry to the fullest. Neith wished she had half the enthusiasm for life he had. Her gaze returned to Kaveh and her smile faltered when she found him watching her. She looked away fast, running a hand down the skirts of her violet dress. The fabric shimmered in the light. “You’re a beautiful woman, Neith,” Kaveh said, his tone thoughtful. “Why have you never allowed yourself to love?” “Life is so flitting,” Neith said, shrugging her slender shoulders. Her hair shifted over her shoulder and she glanced at Kaveh. “Love is even more fragile, it makes fools out of giants.” “Your years are cruel to your soul,” Kaveh said, his tone decisive. “I am without my dear love. I don’t regret having loved her. Without her, I would have never known the beauty of life.” “Her love has led to your eternal sadness,” Neith said, shifting in her chair so that she could watch Kastan and Jihan. Their love so obvious, she wondered how Jihan dared to doubt it. “He is afraid to tell your son that he loves him,” Neith said, nodding to Jihan. “His fear is crippling him. Yet, neither of us can do anything to help him. This is why I say love makes people fragile.” “At the least, he loves,” Kaveh said, grinning when Kastan lifted Jihan up. “Will you look at that? They have a solid start.” “Grand Pa,” Rashan said, getting up from the table. “Will you show me your boat? Pa says it’s the most majestic of all in Silver Shore Valley. Can I see it?” Kaveh’s smile widened at the prospect. For a moment, Neith was jealous of all the blessings Kaveh seemed to have in his children and grandchildren. He had accomplished so much in his life, forming a peaceful empire for his people. Even with all that, his heart remained with his beloved wife. Neith sighed and decided Kaveh Miran had a dash of madness in him, same as his son, Kastan. Kaveh placed his goblet on the table and straightened up. “Neith, take a chance on love,” Kaveh said, holding out his hand to Rashan. “It might surprise you.” Rashan took his grandfather’s hand and they headed in the direction of the lake. Neith watched them until they disappeared in the crowd. She wondered who would dare try to take a chance at love with her old soul. She was about to get up when she noticed Jihan’s shadow guard sitting on bench at the table opposite hers. He was alone, his cloak pushed back over his shoulders, his concealed swords visible, even as he tried to hide it. She smiled and got up to join him. “Is this what happens when your charge is occupied?” Neith asked as she sat next to Firuz. “You sit here watching him, while he dances?” Firuz spared her a short glance, and then returned his attention to Jihan who was helping Kastan untie the red ribbon at their wrists. The couple laughed, when Jihan had to use his teeth to get the ribbon untied. Firuz smiled and Neith’s brow rose. “Your care for Jihan makes me envious,” Neith decided, watching Firuz now out of interest. Shadow Guards had a peculiar role. To give ones life for another, meant you needed to love your charge enough to give your life for them. It was a selfless sacrifice. One she respected and refused to understand. She had argued with Bast over the sustainability of such a culture too many times to ever back down. “Lady Neith, why are you here without Lord Bast?” Firuz asked, when Neith kept staring at him. “Bast ditched me,” Neith said, unable to keep her annoyance out of her voice. She reached for the wine pitcher on the table and poured peach wine into a goblet. She drank deep and sat back in her chair. “He promised to come along when I met him in your Quadrum. Then, he heard Ha was going to meet the Blood Nation Prince and decided that was more interesting. How embarrassing. I made a show of finding a partner for this dance to His Imperial Highness, but in the end, I turned up alone. Will you dance with me, Firuz?” “My Lady, how would I dare?” Firuz asked, his tone nonchalant. Neith gave an exaggerated sigh. “Your charge is oblivious to your presence this night, Shadow Guard. He is thoroughly in the Imperial Prince’s clutches. He is as safe as can be. I promise nothing will happen to him through one dance.” “I think I should be more vigilant,” Firuz said. “It’s rare for an ancient to attend a marriage dance. If all was well, why would you be here?” Neith grumbled under her breath at Firuz’s insight. She could not shake the uneasiness clouding her thoughts when she looked at Jihan. He was clearly smiling at his husband in happiness, so where was the dark cloud coming from? The meadow was alive with celebration. Kastan and Jihan stopped dancing. The Generals immediately surrounded them, offering congratulations, and doing their best to get to know Jihan. Jihan stood in the middle of a circle of six fierce warriors, and a Commander of Armies. Neith is right, Firuz thought. Jihan was safe tonight. No one would dare harm him. Firuz glanced at Neith to find her still watching him. He narrowed his gaze at the slight frown on her forehead. “What aren’t you saying?” he asked, wanting to know what would make an Ancient frown. “A lot,” Neith said, tracing her finger over the rim of her goblet. “There’s a darkness growing in this valley. At first, I thought it was tied to the Iron Lands, but I’m starting to think not. All I can say is watch your charge, be cautious even when you don’t need to be. That’s all I can tell you, son of Bast.” “Lady Neith,” Firuz said, giving her a nod for her insight. He knew that she reserved such insight for His Imperial Majesty, the Emperor. “I’m honored you would share your thoughts with me.” “Now, if you were to decide to dance with me,” Neith said. “It would give you an excuse to move closer to that group of high powered warriors.” “You’re only asking me to dance with you because everyone is too afraid to ask you,” Firuz felt compelled to point out. “Well, you should know,” Neith said with a short grin, her beauty hard to ignore when she was smiling. “Everyone is too nervous to get close to you, Shadow Guard. Look at the wide circle they are making around us.” Firuz scowled, already aware of the people’s reaction to him. Neith’s insight had him getting up. If no one would offer to dance with him, then he would dare to dance with an ancient, he decided. He offered his hand to Neith. “One dance,” he said, adjusting his cloak so that his sword would stay hidden. Neith jumped up, placing her goblet on a table. She took his hand, vibrating with excitement as Firuz led her to the open space around the dais. They joined other couples and started dancing. Neith’s enthusiasm had Firuz smiling. Soon, more people joined them and the musicians had a renewed sense of excitement as they played lively music to celebrate Jihan and Kastan’s marriage dance. *~*~*~* “Prince Kastan has dealt you a huge blow with this one,” Ferino said, standing in the shadows of the trees around the silver meadow. “The valley is excited to have the merchant in their midst. Kamran Merchants are well known, their generosity to small farmers hard to ignore. His Imperial Highness has made sure everyone in the valley knows that his consort has not changed. I’ve only heard praise for the Imperial Consort tonight.” “Telling me the merits of the little merchant does terrible things for my mood, Ferino,” Nisa said. Bile filled her mouth at the sight of Kastan and Jihan, their love for each so obvious for anyone looking. Jihan’s walk among the officers had cemented his place in the valley. The men who worshipped the chain of command in Kastan’s army now understood that Jihan stood at the apex of their hierarchy. His words were as good as their Commander’s word. She had no idea how the little merchant managed to charm Kastan, but he had certainly won this battle. A marriage dance was not easy to reverse. To make matters even worse, the old emperor had emerged from his island to guide their promise. Nisa closed her eyes in defeat. “They have pushed me into a corner,” Nisa murmured. “I didn’t think it would be this hard to get rid of him. It’s lucky that Her Imperial Majesty, the Empress, offered help if I needed it. Reach out to the Burning Feather. Tell them they must be discrete. The Empress was right about one thing. Getting rid of the Imperial Consort would need finesse. There are too many eyes on him. Anything that happens to him must seem as natural as possible. Will you help me, Ferino?” “If I help you, will you release my family from your service?” Ferrino asked, his tone hopeful. “I’ll send your daughter to your house,” Nisa said, with a small smile. “Let’s take that as my show of good faith. Your wife and mother will remain in my home. Any mistakes and they’ll suffer the consequences.” “When do you want it done?” Ferino asked, his tone firm with determination. “The Imperial Consort is taking a trip to Vasia. While I stay here to run my father’s memorial,” Nisa said, the taste in her mouth bitter. “It would be nice if the handsome consort does not return from his trip. I’ll look forward to helping His Imperial Highness mourn his loss.” Ferino nodded and disappeared in the shadows. He did not need any more instruction. She knew he would do his best to accomplish her orders. Nisa remained standing on the edge of the meadow, hidden in the trees. She watched Kastan and Jihan mingle with the wives and children of the officers. Kastan looked happy, showing off his consort with pride. Jihan soaked in Kastan’s attention, and smiled at the people he met with genuine sincerity. He was a good man but he was in the wrong place. She was meant to be standing where Jihan stood. She was meant to laugh at whatever Kastan paused to murmur in Jihan’s ear that made him laugh. The merchant had taken her rightful place. She would make him pay for that fault. She would make sure to get it all back. *~*~*~*
  4. Oh yes, I'll add them too. Yes, so many people to keep track. Hahaha.
  5. Chapter 16 Jihan’s tears could start a war. Kastan had never seen Jihan cry, not even when the burning feather tried to murder him. To think his Silver Shore Valley had brought Jihan to tears made Kastan want to break something or…someone. Kastan felt as though he might murder anyone who made his consort upset enough to cry. Jihan let out a soft sigh and shifted in his arms. “Andiya needs my help,” he said, sounding tired. “I need to go to Vasia in three days.” Kastan closed his eyes, his talk with Neith filling his thoughts. It wouldn’t do for Jihan to leave this way. Not while he was upset with Silver Shore and its people. “I have a request,” Kastan said, stroking his fingers through Jihan’s hair. “What request?” Jihan asked. “Please leave after the full moon,” Kastan said. “I want to give you a gift in three days.” “What kind of gift?” Jihan asked. “Can’t you give it to me today?” Kastan tipped Jihan’s chin up so that he could look into eyes stained red with tears. He brushed away a teardrop. Jihan’s brown eyes looked sad. The trip to Vasia was an escape. Kastan could not let him leave this way. “No,” Kastan said, brushing his lips on Jihan’s cheek before he let go of him. He shifted on the bench and turned to find Firuz hovering a few feet away. “Firuz, will you bring us a pot of tea?” Jihan wiped his eyes one last time and took in a deep breath. “What gift needs two days to prepare?” Jihan asked, reaching for the box of letters. He made sure the lid was closed, as if he were guarding a treasure. Kastan wondered if Jihan would ever stop missing Kamran Estate and take Silver Shore Valley as his home. Would he have to move Andiya to Silver Shore Valley to achieve this wish? What would it do to Jihan? Andiya and Kamran Estate remained intertwined. There was no separating them. Bringing Andiya here and neglecting Kamran Estate would only hurt Jihan. “I’ll give you Silver Shore Valley,” Kastan said, thinking that the best outcome would be to make Jihan’s life easier at Silver Shore. Jihan chuckled, a soft seductive sound that sent sweet tingles traveling down Kastan’s spine. He was addicted to the sound of Jihan’s voice in any form. “We’re married, Kas. Everything you have is already mine, even your beloved Silver Shore Valley.” “As it should be,” Kastan said, oddly happy to hear Jihan say that. In the Capital City Akan, that truth was without question. The people there would recognize Jihan’s authority at first sight. Silver Shore Valley was different. The valley was home to armies of war-hardened men and their families. These men followed a strict chain of command. Their families deeply embedded into the army way of life. They believed in marriage dances because they thought marriage should be between lovers. A sacred vow taken between two people strong enough to face the ravages war brought to families. Wives and partners needed to be strong to face extended separation, severe wounds, attacks on the valley, and the worst of all, death. Kastan had brought Jihan to this valley and not made any effort to show them that Jihan was his lover. His chosen partner, the one person he would trust with his only son, Rashan. This oversight made the valley’s people think less of Jihan. Neith was right. Kastan was at fault. “I’m sorry, Jihan, for not thinking about your place in this valley,” Kastan continued, giving Jihan a small smile. “Yasmin told me what happened at the fabric workshop. Master Rabo is overly cautious. He was only doing what he thinks is best.” “It didn’t feel good,” Jihan said, clasping his hands on his lap. “It made me want to run away and I hated that. Then, I read Andiya’s letter, and I just felt lost. I can’t seem to find a balance, Kas. I keep clashing with everyone in this valley. I don’t know why and it’s going to drive me insane.” “I’m to blame,” Kastan said, reaching for Jihan’s left hand. He rubbed Jihan’s cool fingers between his hands. “I should have already done something to fix this rift. I’ve been pushing the situation aside hoping it will change on its own. I’m sorry. I’ll solve this for us. Do you believe me?” Jihan glanced at him. He gave a short nod, though it wasn’t enough to convince Kastan. Jihan still looked worried. Kastan decided then to find Master Rabo and give him a piece of his mind. Kastan looked to the manor in time to see Rashan carrying a tray from the kitchen. Firuz followed Rashan, close but not helping. Rashan walked slow, careful not to spill the contents on his tray. Jihan turned to see what he was looking at and started to get up to go help Rashan. Kastan stopped him. “Let him do it,” Kastan said, tightening his hold on Jihan’s hand when he started to protest. “He met me at the door, sad about upsetting you today. He wants to make it up to you.” Jihan sat back, his eyes widening in surprise. “What happened?” Kastan asked, curious, as he kept a watchful gaze on Rashan’s progress. “Rashan wanted to go out to play this morning and I wouldn’t let him. He threw a dagger at the dining table in frustration. We argued a bit.” “Did you chastise him?” Kastan asked, a frown creasing his forehead. Jihan hesitated, looking down at their clasped hands on the table. “I bargained with him,” Jihan said, his tone low. “I—,” “Jihan, you have every right to discipline him,” Kastan said, squeezing Jihan’s hand. “You’re his guardian. He should show respect to his elders and throwing daggers on the dining table is misbehaving. Don’t let him get away with these things. I’ll talk to him.” “No, don’t. I handled the matter and it’s over now,” Jihan said with a small shrug, closing the topic. Kastan shook his head. It wasn’t over. He would have to find time to talk to Rashan. If they had any hope of getting closer, the distance between Rashan and Jihan needed to disappear. He didn’t like it that Rashan still called Jihan uncle. “Jihan,” Kastan started, wondering what he could do to make things easier. “Here is Rashan,” Jihan said, smiling as Rashan reached them. Rashan stumbled at the last step, and Jihan took the tray from him, saving the tray’s contents. Kastan moved the letterbox to the side. Firuz moved to pick up the box and Jihan graced him with a wide smile. For a moment, Kastan envied Firuz and the trust Jihan gave him. “I’ll take this back,” Firuz said, giving Kastan a nod, and then turned to leave. The simple nod from Firuz sent the envy scattering. He had earned Firuz’s confidence. Firuz had to be sure that Kastan would protect his charge; otherwise, Firuz would never leave Jihan alone. The thought made Kastan smile, healing the sting of jealousy. He returned his attention to Jihan and Rashan. Rashan stood pressed close to Jihan’s left side. Jihan was studying the lemon tarts on the plate. Three round pieces looked misshapen with slices of lemon smudged on the top, almost falling off. Three more were in perfect circles and had neat slices of lemon. Kastan suspected Rashan had insisted on shaping the messy lemon tarts. He glanced at Jihan in time to see a quick smile that had his heart fluttering. Jihan had noticed too. Jihan studied the messy lemon tarts before he picked one. He brought it to his mouth and ate it with his eyes closed. Rashan watched Jihan, his gaze expectant. Jihan made a show of chewing, and then he opened his eyes wide as he swallowed. “Wow, this is so delicious,” Jihan said, reaching for another misshapen dessert. “Yasmin is really getting good at making them.” Kastan could only stare at Rashan’s answering grin. Jihan’s praise rolled over Rashan like an unrelenting fountain. His son looked pleased and happy. So happy, it took Kastan’s breath away. “You know, I’m going to have to find Yasmin—,” Jihan started. “I made those,” Rashan said, cutting in to point at the last misshapen piece. “Yasmin didn’t make them, I did.” “Really!” Jihan reached for the last piece. “Are you sure, these are amazing.” Jihan studied the small lemon tart, as Rashan leaned into him, smiling so hard Kastan thought he might light up the sky. “Wow, our Rashan’s talents keep growing,” Jihan said, nodding with pride. “If this keeps up, Yasmin’s going to need to learn from you.” Rashan laughed and Kastan’s heart sank deeper into the warmth Jihan wove into their family. “Kas, you want a taste?” Jihan asked, holding up the last lemon tart made by Rashan. “Or, should I keep this delicious morsel to myself?” Kastan reached out to take the lemon tart but then Rashan grabbed Jihan’s hand and pulled it out of his reach. “Pa, the other ones are yours. I made sure Yasmin gave you her best ones,” Rashan said, urging Jihan to eat the tart he held. “I made these ones for my Papa.” Jihan gaped. The tart he held stuck in midair, as he stared at Rashan. Kastan grinned, feeling his heart swell with relief and love at the sound of Rashan calling Jihan Papa. It looked he hadn’t needed to worry after all. It was wonderful to see Rashan accept Jihan this way. This was a gift at a time Jihan really needed it. “Shan, what did you just call me?” Jihan asked, his voice soft and shaking with emotion. “Papa,” Rashan said, his next words coming out in a wild rush. “I’m sorry I yelled this morning. I just wanted to go outside. I heard Yasmin and Master Safan talking when you were sitting out here alone. They said you might end up leaving the valley if everyone keeps giving you a hard time. And-and I don’t want you to leave. Please, don’t leave us.” Jihan blinked, a tear rolling down his left cheek at Rashan’s worried speech. “Why would I want to leave you?” Jihan asked. “Because you’re sad,” Rashan said, pleading now. “I don’t want you to leave even if you’re sad. I’ll make you happy. I like you here and you make Pa so happy. He’s even coming home early now. You even made it to my academy event day. I like how you take care of us. Please—” “Rashan,” Jihan reached for the boy and pulled him into a tight hug. “I will not leave you just because we had a bad day. You don’t have to worry about that.” “Promise?” Rashan asked, burying his face into Jihan’s shoulder. “I promise,” Jihan said, placing the messy lemon tart on the plate so that he could rub Rashan’s back. He met Kastan’s gaze over Rashan’s shoulder with a small shaken smile. “I love taking care of you too, Shan. Why would I leave you?” Kastan felt hope bloom at the sound of the word love on Jihan’s lips. “Papa, you’ve made a promise to stay with us,” Rashan said, his voice muffled in Jihan’s shoulder. Tears filled Jihan’s brown eyes. It seemed like an afternoon to be filled with Jihan’s tears. Kastan was just grateful that these tears looked like happy ones. “I promise not to leave you,” Jihan murmured, shifting Rashan in his arms so that he could kiss Rashan’s cheek. Kastan picked up the teapot and busied himself with pouring a cup of tea for Jihan. His consort held Rashan, both of them unwilling to let go. They sat like that for a period, and then Jihan shifted on the bench and urged Rashan to sit next to him. Jihan sipped his tea with an arm around Rashan’s shoulders. “Shan,” Jihan said, his tone gentle. “I know I’ve promised to stay, but I have to go on a short trip to Vasia.” Rashan looked at Jihan, his gaze hopeful, as he asked, “Can I come along?” “We’ll have to ask your Pa,” Jihan said, turning to Kastan. Kastan frowned, wondering what he would do with both of them gone from Silver Shore. It was hard enough having Jihan gone. “What about your studies, Shan?” Kastan asked, sipping his tea, hoping to distract his son from this new adventure. “I can catch up,” Rashan said. “Plus, Master Safan says I should gain as much as experience as I can. I want to see what being a merchant is like. Papa can show me.” “Are you sure you won’t get in your Papa’s way?” Kastan asked, stealing a glance at Jihan. Jihan hid a smile and reached for the teapot. He refilled Kastan’s cup and placed the pot on the tray. His left brow rose when Rashan squeezed his arm. He met Kastan’s gaze and cleared his throat. “I wouldn’t mind Shan’s company in Vasia,” Jihan said, suddenly shy. “I bet he’ll help us all out.” “Are you sure?” Kastan asked, knowing this was an important moment for all of them. He trusted Jihan with Rashan. He knew Jihan would not let anything happen to their son. However, letting them both out of his sight would be torture. So, he hoped Jihan would help him try to keep Rashan at Silver Shore. “Yes, it will be an adventure,” Jihan said, giving Kastan a small knowing smile when Kastan’s gaze widened. “It will be nice having Shan with me.” “Okay,” Kastan murmured, grinning when Rashan gave an excited shout and squeezed Jihan’s arm. “You must promise to behave, Shan. Don’t make trouble for your Papa.” “I’ll be on my best behavior,” Rashan promised, grinning wide. Kastan sighed, sipping his tea, he met Jihan’s amused gaze. “We’ll be fine,” Jihan soothed. “It’s a small meeting. We’ll stay at the Eagle’s Claw, which is safe. Shan and I will watch a play together. It will be fun.” Kastan nodded, suddenly thankful that his generals would be attending the marriage dance. They would leave the valley knowing they needed to fortify Vasia before they even thought of returning to their posts. He was not taking chances with his family. *~*~*~*~* Jihan sent a letter to Andiya through Yoru late in the evening. In the letter, he promised to be in Vasia Town the day after the full moon. He had delayed his departure for Kastan and a ceremony called the Marriage Dance. Jihan wondered what the ceremony would do to help him win the trust of the men and women in this valley. After their evening meal, he excused himself to take a long bath. He needed a deep soak in hot water. It was the only way to wash away the stress of the day. When he was done, it was late, so he changed into his sleeping clothes. Jihan stopped by Rashan’s room to wish him a good night. Firuz met him in the hallway outside Rashan’s room after. “Where is Kas?” Jihan asked, heading to the master’s chambers. “Duke Silver is talking to Naveed, Temu and Safan in the receiving room downstairs,” Firuz said, stopping at the door. “They are anticipating the Generals in your husband’s army. This marriage dance sounds important.” Jihan winced. He already had one marriage ceremony under his belt. It was funny to think a second ceremony would help his status. Now he would even have to meet Kastan’s Generals, it felt like added stress. “Trust His Grace,” Firuz said, as though reading his thoughts. “Whatever the marriage dance is about, it is for your benefit.” Jihan nodded and pushed a damp lock of hair out of his eyes. He opened the door into the master’s chamber. “Firuz, go take a bath and rest,” Jihan said, stopping Firuz from following him. “I’m safe enough in here.” “Won’t you be lonely?” Firuz asked. “I need time alone,” Jihan said, reaching up to touch Firuz’s jaw. He scratched at the dark stubble on Firuz’s cheek. “You need time alone too.” Firuz chuckled and nodded. “Then, sleep well, Jihan.” Jihan entered the master’s chamber and closed the door with a sigh. He ended up standing by the windows at the sitting area, watching a young man from the Hidden Keepers light the lanterns in the gardens. His thoughts lingered on Rashan’s priceless gift. His heart still fluttered in excitement at the sound of Rashan calling him Papa. It was unexpected after the day he had had. Rashan’s words filled him with hope. Maybe, just maybe, this place might become home. Jihan rubbed his right shoulder with a sigh and started to turn. A strong arm wrapped around his waist and he closed his eyes at the pleasant shiver that raced down his back when Kastan pressed behind him. “What are you thinking about?” Kastan asked, holding him tight. Jihan smiled, and leaned his head back on Kastan’s shoulder. “Nothing much with you holding me like this,” Jihan said. “Hmm,” Kastan brushed his lips on Jihan’s left cheek. “You smell really good.” “Took a bath,” Jihan murmured, placing his hands over Kastan’s hands at his waist. “Rashan called you, Papa,” Kastan said, trailing kisses from his cheek to his left ear. “Are you happy?” “Ecstatic,” Jihan said, breathing out the words. “I love him, you know that, right?” “I do,” Kastan said, tightening his arms around Jihan. Silence fell between them. Jihan closed his eyes, sinking into the pleasure of Kastan holding him. These moments made the rest of this valley worth it. In Kastan’s arms, it didn’t matter whether Master Rabo’s workers chased sixty rabbits or one. He could forget the problems and only focus on the pleasure. Jihan turned in Kastan’s arms and met dark eyes. The words he should say to Kastan lodged in his throat. His heart beat too fast, and he wondered if Kastan knew what he felt. Could he see how much Jihan wanted to declare his love for this fierce duke? How afraid he was that the love he gave would not be enough. That it wouldn’t be enough for him to win over Silver Shore Valley and remain within the halls of Sun-filled Manor. How afraid he was that Kastan might turn him away at the end of it all. After all, if Jihan failed the Emperor’s ambitions, there was no telling what would happen. Would Kastan ever choose him over his Emperor? The answer scared Jihan, terrified him because he was starting to want to keep this manor and the family he was making in it. Jihan reached up to trace the scar on Kastan’s right eyebrow. He rubbed the slight frown on Kastan’s forehead, filled with love for this man. Jihan leaned up on his toes to press a kiss on the scar and Kastan tightened his arms around him. Kastan took Jihan’s lips in a long thorough kiss, moving to press him against the window. Their kiss full, open mouthed, drugging. Jihan returned it with a desperation he could not define, sinking all his unsaid words into their igniting passion. He almost cried in protest when Kastan broke their kiss, opening his eyes he met a knowing dark gaze. His heart squeezed tight when Kastan breathed out. “What about me?” Kastan asked, brushing his lips over Jihan’s, but not giving them both the kiss they needed. Jihan sighed, his gaze on Kastan’s lips. “Do you have words for me?” Jihan closed his eyes at that question, feeling cornered. He took in a breath and opened his eyes to answer only to have Kastan kiss him again. Kastan pushed the gown he wore off his shoulders and Jihan let it drop to the floor. He moaned when Kastan untied the white robe he wore inside, and in mere seconds, he was naked. Bare, Kastan’s rough hands traveled over his skin, sending delicious shivers, igniting a raging desire. Their kiss turning hungry now, he was hard with want. Kastan held him with possessive heat, as though he never wanted to let him go. ‘Yes, I have words for you,’ Jihan wanted to say. ‘My heart is always yours.’ Yet, when Kastan broke their kiss with a moan and Jihan shook with need for Kastan, he still couldn’t make the words leave his mouth. So, he reached for Kastan’s leather belt, and decided giving himself to Kastan would have to do for now. At least he didn’t have to hold back in their shared passion. He gasped when Kastan leaned in and sucked that most sensitive spot on his neck that left his cock weeping with need. *~*~*~* A day later, Nisa stood on an arched pedestrian bridge a mile away from her home. The bridge was built over a river that flowed around the Silver Meadow, and into Silver Lake in the horizon. She liked watching the sunrise here when she needed to think. Her intentions to have a restful morning had disappeared when she caught sight of the scenes unfolding in the meadow. Her frown deepened as she watched tents come up in the Silver Meadow. The lantern stands decorated with red silk and tables and chairs moved into the festive tents. There was excitement among the workers as they put up the tents and decorated the meadow. Their pace so fast, she wondered what they were getting out of this exercise. The longer she watched, the harder it was to walk away. It looked like the meadow was going to host a marriage dance. She watched a basket filled with red petals go up on a string that would be cut during the ceremony. The basket would then scatter the petals over the dancers below. The flower petals were a blessing that despite the bitterness of life, the married couple would always find happiness if their bond was true. The dance was the highlight of the marriage dance. She had always loved watching the lucky couple dancing on the red carpet under the basket. Red petals would cascade around them, turning it magical. She could not believe Prince Kastan was giving that merchant a marriage dance. It would ruin all her plans. Hissing, she turned away from the site below and started the walk back to her courtyard. “Lady Baiza, we have news,” Muge, her longtime nursemaid, said keeping up with her. “Yasmin was talking to the washing ladies. She says Imperial Consort hopes to leave Silver Shore Valley on the full moon or the day after.” “That’s two days after the marriage dance,” Nisa said, stopping to look at Muge. “How long will he be gone?” “No one knows, but it’s a trip to Vasia Town,” Muge said. “He is a merchant. It might take two or three days to return to the valley.” “How lucky we are,” Nisa said, continuing her walk back to her courtyard gates. Her home was built against a backdrop of a mountain cliff. The soldiers opened the gates and she entered her courtyard, taking in a deep breath of relief. Black flags flew above the turrets of her home. She wore white, still in mourning for her father. His memorial date was still waiting. With this news, she smiled; surely, the gods were on her side. “Set the date for my father’s memorial date to the day after the full moon,” Nisa said. “Make sure all the Generals know the date. General Baiza deserves the respect of the Council of Generals. His Imperial Highness will not dare to interfere if the generals attend the memorial.” “Yes, my lady,” Muge said. “Your idea will force Imperial Prince to enter our courtyard gates.” “This is my only chance,” Nisa said, rubbing her hands together in anticipation. “The valley will turn soft on the merchant after the marriage dance. The Generals will swear fealty to him, and there will be no doubt that he is now part of the valley. My plans cannot delay longer. Get the remaining details for the memorial ceremony arranged quickly and keep it quiet. It won’t do if Imperial Consort discovers my plans.” “Yes, my lady,” Muge said, breaking into a run to get to the main house first. Nisa stopped in the middle of her courtyard. Her gaze settled over the turrets to the high cliff behind her home. The cliffs guarded by the Hidden Keepers with a lifetime pact. No one could influence them. She had tried and failed. They kept her from climbing the cliff and crossing the bridge into the back gardens of Sun-filled Manor. The only person Prince Kastan had given that privilege to was her father, General Baiza. If Kastan gave that honor to someone else, Nisa shuddered, her gaze returning to the house. She would have to move. Give up a place she had called home all her life in order to make way for the new general. The thought made her want to scream. The life of a General’s family was not easy on his loved ones. “My Lady,” a gruff voice said, and she turned to find Ferino, the butcher, standing behind her. It surprised her that even with all the training she had gone through, and a stint at war, she still could not hear him approach her. This was the problem with working with war merchants. Added to this surprise was irritation. Straightening her shoulders, and clearing her face of any emotions, she faced Ferino. “It’s dangerous of you to come here,” Nisa warned, wondering why the butcher could not think for himself. They were facing dangerous times. “Why would you visit me here?” “It’s getting harder to hide our business from Sun-filled Manor,” Ferino said, his tone low, his gaze roaming their surroundings. He was wary of people noting that he visited her. “Duke Silver’s Consort is not an easy man. His shadow guard is also too observant.” “I’ve heard you tangled with his shadow guard,” Nisa said, that bit did not amuse her. “What did the merchant want?” “His Grace wanted to know why my shop is not paying rent,” Ferino said. “We’ve gotten by before because Yasmin was in charge of accounts. She had no power to dig deeper into the ledgers. She listened to the stories we gave of debt due to the war. It was easy to claim families on welfare owe me. These stories will not work on His Grace.” “How so?” Nisa asked, wondering how a simple merchant would play the role of a detective. She had worked to cover her tracks. Still the butcher was half-right. Duke Silver’s Consort controlled the manor’s finances. Someone smart in that position would be deadly. Which meant she needed that power. Her plan to become Duke Silver’s consort was important because she wanted to escape scrutiny. Wanted to hide the wrongs she had started. “I can’t explain how he is different,” Ferino said, shaking his head, a deep frown on his forehead. His uneasiness struck an alarm in Nisa. “I just know it.” She had never known Ferino to be wary. “Alright,” Nisa said. “Let’s stop our dealings until I have found a way to manage the Imperial Consort. Ask the Welfare Office to slow down too. I’ll send a message through our usual channels to let you know when we can start again.” “Yes, My Lady,” Ferino said, giving her a short nod, he turned and walked out of her courtyard. Nisa watched him disappear, a strange knot forming in the pit of her stomach. Everything she had done in this valley was for the sake of Prince Kastan and his well-being. It was too bad that an interloper had appeared to ruin her plans. She had not meant for her meddling with the welfare office to go on for so long. She had hoped her father would help her marry Prince Kastan and then, everything would be fine. She was eternally wounded that her father was not here to help her. Still, it wasn’t as if she could not help herself. General Baiza’s daughter was no weakling. Shaking her head, her lips tightened in resolve. If she could not marry the Imperial Prince, she would at least get him to take her on as a concubine. She was willing to take that role, even bow her head to a merchant to win a part of Prince Kastan. Once in that manor, she would find a way to make it all hers. *~*~*~* On the day of the marriage dance, Jihan woke up too early. Leaving Kastan in bed, he dressed for a full day of work surprising Firuz. They arrived at the farms without having their morning meal. Firuz watched Jihan move from one farm to the next in a state of frenzy. Firuz managed to wrangle them some food from the farm manager, which Jihan barely touched. He continued working until Firuz worried his little master was trying to escape the important ceremony happening later that evening. As the hours progressed, Firuz started receiving messages from Yasmin. Each message sounded more urgent, as the afternoon came and the sun started lowering. “You’re supposed to be getting ready,” Firuz said, watching Jihan kneel on the edge of the pond in the middle of Antac farm. Weeds had overrun the pond. Jihan wanted to find a way to clean it up and start a fish farm. Firuz grimaced watching Jihan kneel on mud and reach deep into the pond to tug out bunches of hyacinth. Jihan sat back on his haunches and studied the mud on the roots. “This is a great pond,” Jihan said, taking the mud from the roots to rub it between his fingers, studying it with interest. “It’s just neglected.” Firuz grabbed Jihan’s hand before he brought the mud on his fingers to his mouth to taste it. “You’re not eating dirt in front of me,” Firuz said, when Jihan scowled at him. He wrapped gentle fingers around Jihan’s left wrist and took the weeds out of Jihan’s other hand. Sometimes, he needed to protect Jihan from himself. It was late in the afternoon. Yasmin’s last messenger had sounded like an angry demand, insisting that Jihan get back to the manor. She wanted to make sure he was ready in time for the marriage dance. An occasion Jihan was doing his best to ignore. Firuz thought it was because Jihan was wary of the town’s people. Maybe, Jihan was afraid of making yet another commitment that would cement his place in the valley. Once Jihan met Kastan’s Generals, it would be difficult to walk away from this place. Not that he could right now. Firuz shook his head. He couldn’t figure out why Jihan was so anxious. Jihan had worked nonstop these past two days to escape thinking or even talking about the marriage dance. “You’re needed back at the manor,” Firuz said, urging Jihan to stand up. “Leave the farm in your manager’s hands. It’s his job to check the state of the pond and make sure it’s good enough for fish farming. He is willing to work. You made sure of that with the amount of money you’re paying him. You have an occasion to prepare for.” Jihan sighed and allowed Firuz to drag him to the muddy path leading up the slope to the top of the farm and the main gate. Every worker they met greeted Jihan with warmth. Halfway there the farm manager met them, running to intercept them from the herb patches. Jihan launched into instructions on getting the pond clean. “Do you know how to set up a fish farm, Aleka?” Jihan asked, clinging to Firuz’s back when he slipped on a slick spot. Firuz steadied Jihan and helped him keep walking up the muddy path. Both their boots were heavy with mud. The farm needed steadier paths. Firuz did not mention it, lest Jihan stop their progress to start on another project. “I know the basics,” Aleka answered Jihan’s question, following them to the front of the farm and drier ground. “Although, I don’t have experience making it work.” “Ask Set to connect you with Vion from Kamran Estate,” Jihan said. “His methods work using a small river running through the estate there. You have a large pond. I’m sure Vion’s ideas will excel here too.” “Yes, Your Grace,” Aleka said. “Get three new people to tend to the pond and the fish project,” Jihan said. “The rest need to keep working on the herbs and vegetables. We also need to build a workshop for the herbs. Send messages to the manor if you have any pressing issues on building the workshop.” “Okay, enough instructions,” Firuz said, leading Jihan to their horses. “Master Aleka, we’re leaving you to it. Tell His Grace you have the farm under control.” “I do, Your Grace,” Aleka said, amused when Jihan turned to look at Aleka. He must have read confidence in Aleka, because Jihan nodded and mounted his horse without fuss. “Keep your pressing issues until after this marriage dance,” Firuz said to Aleka, who grinned and nodded. Firuz waved at Aleka, and mounted his own horse. He was glad when Jihan led the way out of the compound, heading to Sun-filled Manor. *~*~*~*~* Yasmin finished pressing the rich red brocade overcoat. She traced her fingers over the delicate gold designs and nodded in satisfaction. She hurried from the kitchens, breaking into a short run until she reached the stairs. Fara was coming from her room adjusting a pin in her hair as she turned the corner. “Has Prince Jihan returned?” Fara asked, her tone anxious. “It’s almost evening. He won’t get to meet the Generals before the ceremony.” “He is not back yet,” Yasmin said, matching Fara’s worry. “The Generals are already waiting in the receiving room. They’ll have to meet His Grace during the ceremony. I’m afraid Duke Silver will have to occupy them so that we compensate for the delay.” “What is Prince Jihan thinking?” Fara asked, and then shook her head. “We’ll just hope he gets here soon. I’ll go help serve the generals refreshments. You get that overcoat to Duke Silver.” “Thank you, and add water to the large cauldron in the kitchen. Hopefully, Prince Jihan makes it in time to take his bath,” Yasmin said, continuing up the stairs. She paused at the top when she saw Rashan coming out of his rooms. The little prince raced by her heading to the open doors of the master’s chambers. She smiled, noting that he was already dressed for the occasion in handsome green robes. Yasmin entered the master’s chambers, and stopped when Kastan turned to look at her, his expression expectant. He was not even in the dressing room. Instead, he stood by the large bed. She felt stung when Kastan sighed with disappointment at the sight of her. “Have you seen Jihan?” Kastan asked, making it clear he was anxious to see his consort. “He should be here by now. We’re running out of time.” Yasmin winced, not wanting to say that Prince Jihan had left the manor this morning and no one had seen him return. She had sent so many messages to the farms; it was starting to look as though Prince Jihan was ignoring her. She could only hope that Prince Jihan was on his way home. Duke Silver must have read the truth in her eyes because he cursed under his breath, and adjusted the red tunic he wore. It was long to his ankles, the hem embroidered with fine gold thread. Duke Silver was always handsome to look at, but today, he looked especially approachable. It was his hair, Yasmin decided. It was left to flow down to his shoulders. The thin gold crown with a black jade centerpiece on his head announced his status as Imperial Prince and Duke of Silver Shore. His marriage dance would have many in mourning. “I asked Master Rabo if Jihan returned to the fabric workshop, and he said no,” Kastan said. “Jihan has refused to go back there. Not even when I told him that Master Rabo would make sure the workers would meet him. Do you think he’s afraid to meet the valley’s people? Do you think that’s why he’s late?” Yasmin caught Naveed’s concerned gaze. The general was cautious about Kastan’s mood. “His Grace is too brave to be afraid. I’m sure His Grace is at one of the farms caught up in a project,” Naveed said, his tone soothing. “Yasmin sent him a message to remind him. He will be here soon.” “He didn’t need to work today,” Kastan said, though it sounded like a complaint. “I’m doing this marriage dance for him. I want him to love living here. It’s not good if all he does is work, and on the day of our marriage dance.” “I’m sure he knows how you feel,” Naveed said, glancing at Yasmin. Yasmin hid a grin when Naveed winked at her. It looked like Duke Silver was nervous and a bit disappointed that his consort was not taking their marriage dance seriously. Naveed approached her, and Yasmin handed the red overcoat to Naveed. “Don’t worry, Duke Silver,” Yasmin soothed. “Prince Jihan will be here soon. He won’t let you down.” Naveed gave her an assuring nod, and she turned to leave, giving Rashan a small wave as he went to sit on the neat bed close to his father. *~*~*~* “Pa, do you think I’ll ever have a marriage dance?” Rashan asked from his perch on the bed. He was playing with the green token on his belt, his gaze on his father, watching Kastan wear his overcoat. “Of course, you will,” Kastan answered, sparing his son a short glance. “I hope it is with someone you care about.” “Do you care about Papa?” Rashan asked, propping himself up on his elbows to see his father’s face. “Deeply,” Kastan said, a small frown dancing his on his forehead. He fastened the clip holding his overcoat together, and lifted his arms to allow Naveed to help him with his gold belt. The round gold ornament on the belt was carved in the shape of a tiger’s head. “Why are you frowning?” Rashan asked, noting that the small frown had not disappeared. “Hm…I’m not frowning,” Kastan said, adjusting the belt at his waist. “You are, Pa,” Rashan insisted, watching Naveed step away from his father. Kastan walked around the large bed to the bedside table on the left. There Rashan watched Kastan pick up a gold round medallion on a chain. It looked like a thick round coin with intricate carvings on each side. Rashan sat up on the bed and moved closer to see. “What do you think?” Kastan asked, handing it to Rashan. Rashan knelt on the bed, turning the hefty medallion in his hands. One side had a snarling tiger, the other a calm tiger. There was a seam on the sides. Rashan studied that seam for a moment, and then turned the snarling tiger to the right and the underside to the left. They unclipped and separated, leaving him with two sides. “Do you understand what you’re holding?” Kastan asked, sitting next to Rashan. Rashan met his father’s gaze, and then nodded, holding up the round pieces. “Master Safan explained it when we were learning army commands and who can give them. This is a family seal. A commander may create a seal for his life partner,” Rashan said, reciting what he had learned in his studies. “This seal is used to protect or create sanctuary, if the commander is not close, or indisposed. The Imperial House allowed it in case of hostile action against a Commander of the Armies’ family.” Kastan nodded, his eyes shining with approval. “You understand you may only grant this seal to someone you trust with everything you love,” Kastan reiterated. “Do you understand me, Rashan?” “I do, Pa,” Rashan said, snapping the pieces back into one. “It wouldn’t do if you gave it to a fickle partner. Then we would run the risk of a revolt or war within our borders. The Commander of Armies must always protect the empire first.” “I’m proud of you,” Kastan said, dropping a kiss on the top of Rashan’s head. He took the gold medallion from Rashan. “Now, if only your Papa can get here in time. I can then entrust you and this valley to him.” Kastan stood and helped Rashan off the bed. “Your Grace, the Generals are waiting for you,” Safan said, appearing at the door. “They have requested to meet Prince Rashan.” Kastan nodded, and Rashan smiled when his father placed his arm around his shoulders. He loved it most when he accompanied his Pa to meet the important Generals. It didn’t happen often, but since his Papa moved in with them, special things kept happening. As they left the master’s chambers, Rashan hoped that his Papa would stay with them forever. *~*~*~* Kastan entered the receiving hall with Rashan beside him. The moment his Generals saw them, they stood and saluted, pressing their right hand to their chest and their heads bowed in respect. They were all dressed in formal robes today, no armor in sight, but each of them spotted a ceremonial sword at their waist. Kastan walked the length of the room and took his seat on the dais. Rashan stood on his left side, arms folded behind his back. “Thank you for riding hard to attend the marriage dance,” Kastan said in greeting, waving the Generals to take their seats. “We have been waiting for your call,” General Condi said, with a small smile. Condi was a bulky man, wore his hair cut close to his head, and loved wearing bright billowing overcoats. Today, he had chosen a bright blue. His style, no matter how flamboyant, hid a sharp mind. Condi’s war strategies had kept his men alive on more than one occasion. “We thought you would call us days after the formal wedding in the Imperial City Akan,” General Faiza said. Faiza was a brute and loved the viciousness of war. With the right direction, Faiza became an unstoppable fighting machine. Kastan valued his knack for creating effective weapons. It was also important to have someone like Condi who could refine Faiza’s thirst for blood. Otherwise, Faiza was bound to go on a rampage in the wrong direction. “It would have taken His Grace a moment to recover from the heat of war to a political marriage,” Kigaru said. “Also, Kamran would not have been easy to conquer.” Kigaru was big on loyalty and information. Where Jihan had Set, Kastan had Kigaru. His men trained on infiltration and becoming spies. Kigaru was a tall thin man. His stature fooled many into thinking he was not strong enough to hold his own in a fight. Kastan hid a smile, at the memory of Kigaru carving up an unsuspecting assailant with his hidden daggers. Firuz would most identify with this General. “Your Grace, where is your Consort?” General Niku asked, looking to the door, her gaze expectant. “I’ve wanted to meet him since I heard he was in Kin Town with us. There are not that many civilians brave enough to stay at the warfront.” Niku was the only woman at this level of his army. Her rise to this position was not easy. She was the daughter of his mentor. A master swordsman who had died of old age before Rashan was born. Her full name was Celi Niku, but she preferred to be referred to as Niku. She thought it sounded more masculine. Niku trained hard and fought dozens of men for the rank of General in her father’s command. She led wild souls who preferred nomadic lives. Kastan often sent her on missions to the borders of the empire, as needed. She loved the freedom it gave her. Freedom to do anything she wanted was the price she asked for when she knelt to give him her allegiance. “Jihan is still out checking on the farms,” Kastan said honestly, having never lied to his Generals. Theirs was a bond of trust. Without that trust, rot grew and stained their intentions. “I’m half afraid he won’t make it to the Silver Meadow to dance with me.” Niku chuckled, and shook her head. “He has stayed married to you these last months. He won’t leave you easily,” Niku soothed. “I’m excited that Your Grace has a partner at Sun-filled Manor now. You won’t worry for Prince Rashan.” Kastan nodded, agreeing with her assessment. “Dare I say you look happier, Silvershore,” Kigaru said. “How can you tell?” Faiza asked. “He hasn’t launched into discussing our assignments and progress of recruitment,” Condi said, with a small laugh. “By now, we would have planned out new strategies of dealing with insurgencies.” They laughed and Kastan shook his head at their teasing. “Speaking of which,” Kastan said. “There are refugees in the caves outside the valley. They ran from the Iron Lands after Lord Revi seized their properties. The Hidden Keepers are looking into their application to join the valley.” “The Imperial City Akan also has seen a lot of new residents,” General Kigaru said. “There are reports of newcomers asking for permission to sell in the markets there. A fight broke out between the existing merchants and the newcomers. The city guard requested help from our barracks.” “Three days ago, my men caught a group of fifteen young men who had turned to plundering travelers on the road. They were from the Iron Lands. They were starving so I had them fed and have recruited them as foot soldiers,” Condi said, his gaze speculative. “Should we turn our attention to the Iron Lands?” Niku asked, leaning forward, her grey overcoat was neat and embroidered with silver thread. The evening light made it shimmer. Her sharp dark gaze narrowed. “West Nation is under control. Their prince is in our Capital, and His Majesty is satisfied with our defenses there. We can shift the army.” “What do you think, Rashan?” Kastan asked, not glancing at his son beside him. “The Iron Lands are unique because unlike Sun Kingdom, Blood Nation and Silver Kingdom, they were a large fiefdom ran by a governor before the empire,” Rashan said. “When the kingdoms came together to form Akasha, the Iron Lands continued along with their governor. The current one, Governor Tian, sent Lord Revi to represent the Iron Lands in the Imperial City Akan. However, this subordinate has grown too strong. Lord Revi is now a notable land baron.” “It is quite disturbing how much land Lord Revi has acquired,” General Kigaru said. “Imperial Prince Father has the mandate to protect the empire as Commander of Armies. However, he cannot deploy a single troop into the Iron Lands without clear evidence of abuse, insurgence, or disloyalty to the Empire. If he wants to deploy, he needs permission from the Governor, or a direct order from His Majesty,” Rashan said, his voice loud and sure. “What would be Prince Rashan’s solution?” General Condi asked. Rashan kept his silence for a moment, and then shifted his feet, glancing at Kastan for a second, before he met General Condi’s gaze. “There’s an exception to the restrictions,” Rashan said. “That is, if the Empire was already in wartime, then the Commander of Armies has mandate to deploy to protect.” “Too bad we just resolved West Nation’s crisis,” General Faiza said in annoyance. “Yes, the West Nation problem is solved,” General Condi said, his gaze thoughtful as he smiled at Rashan. “But, His Majesty has not shifted our status to peacetime. Well done, Prince Rashan.” Rashan nodded and Kastan grinned in pride. “While I do have the power to send in an army into the Iron Lands, they are still our neighbors,” Kastan said, looking at Rashan. “You must remember that most of our people prefer to have peaceful lives instead of enduring the pressures of war. We want to keep peace.” “Then, Imperial Prince Father can send in a small troop to find a reason to send in an army,” Rashan said, with a frown. Kastan nodded, and turned to face his Generals. “After the ceremony tonight, General Kigaru and General Niku, go into the Iron Lands,” Kastan said. “Take only essential men with you. Discover the source of unrest and send a report as quickly as you can. I would prefer no direct altercations with Lord Revi. If you can, connect with Governor Tian. Try to keep a low profile with him.” “Your order is received,” Niku and Kigaru said in reply. “Meanwhile, I’ll talk to His Majesty, and see what his thoughts are,” Kastan said, a frown appearing on his forehead when he remembered Neith’s warning. He hoped the Burning Feather was not the source of trouble in the Iron Lands. “Duke Silver,” General Faiza said. “I thought I caught a glimpse of His Majesty’s man, Rael, on my way here. Officers from the Royal Investigative Bureau were staying in the accommodations at the trade station. We keep a distance from them so I did not stop.” “I saw them too,” Condi said. Kastan sighed. “Rael wants to connect with Kamran. Jihan has not mentioned any contact. Let’s wait and see,” Kastan said, sitting back in his chair. He looked at the sundial by the window and took in a nervous breath. “Shall we discuss the evening’s events?” Condi asked, with a small smile. “What’s there to discuss?” Faiza asked. “Which one of us hasn’t had a marriage dance before?” Niku scowled at Faiza and he laughed “Before you scratch my eyes out, you blazing spitfire, it was a genuine question,” Faiza defended when Niku bared her teeth at him. “You might not have married, but you have attended all of ours. Nothing’s changed. A consort walks along a path lined by our soldiers and meets the groom at the end of that path.” “Except this is our Commander’s Marriage Dance,” Kigaru commented. “Not only are we accepting His Grace into our armies, we are also swearing fealty to him.” Kastan once again gripped the round gold medallion he held. All eyes fell on him and the powerful token he held. The Generals all knew what it meant. “I’ve never been in such a ceremony,” Niku confessed. “So, Imperial Consort will walk down the path of soldiers, until he reaches the generals. Then, all I have to do is take a knee right?” “Yes, take a knee and accept the jade token he gives you,” Condi said, standing up. He swept back the fabric of his wide sleeves to point at the two jade tokens on his belt. “We all have a black one and a green jade, one for Duke Silver, the other for Silver Shore Marquis. We shall now have three.” “What color is His Grace’s token?” Niku asked, adjusting the tokens on her belt to match General Condi’s display. “Red jade,” Rashan said with pride. “You must promise to protect my Papa, especially when he is out of our valley. I really like having him around.” Niku grinned and nodded. “Alright, little prince, I promise nothing will happen to His Grace on my watch.” Rashan nodded, satisfied and leaned on the armrest. Kastan took his arm and pulled him to sit on his lap. “We have one last matter to discuss before we head out,” Kastan said, hoping Jihan had made it back to the manor. This discussion should have given him enough time to return and start getting ready. “General Baiza and the estate at the bottom of the cliff,” General Condi stated. Kastan nodded. “He was a great general,” Faiza said, a note of sadness coloring his voice. “It’s a pity his daughter is still living in that estate. Baiza should have moved her into a private house, as he had promised.” “Nisa is too ambitious,” Kigaru hissed, giving Kastan a knowing glance. “She wants to be Countess, and reach above to take on a role as Duchess.” “That’s harsh,” Niku said. “Hardly,” Condi said, shaking his head. “Whatever the case, the moment General Baiza’s memorial is complete; a new General must be named for his army command. A man he led, that his soldiers trust, someone young and willing to relocate into the Bottom-cliff Estate.” “Moran,” Kigaru suggested. “He was General Baiza’s lieutenant general.” Kastan knew Moran. He was war-hardened, and had managed to save a dozen men out of the caves of Mount Kin. “Won’t his loyalty be compromised by Nisa?” Faiza asked. “No,” Kigaru shook his head. “Moran is a son of Blood Nation. Blood Nation protects their own. He is like a wolf. He is loyal to Duke Silver and Silver Shore Marquis.” “Wolves tear their prey apart,” Niku said, getting agreement nods from everyone in the room. “What do we do about moving Nisa?” Condi asked. “She has family living on the west side of the valley. Her father’s sister has a home large enough to accommodate all those living with Nisa,” Faiza said. “She won’t like moving.” “Bottom-cliff Estate can stay empty for a period when she moves out,” Kastan suggested. “This way she won’t feel insulted.” “It’s a risky move,” Condi said. “Your family’s lives are important. Without you, or them, this valley would not exist. Unless you move in the keepers, one of us must occupy that estate. It is your tactical post.” “The keepers refuse to live in temporary quarters,” Kigaru said, shaking his head. “Something about needing a home to call their own.” “Then it seems like Nisa will have to understand,” Faiza said with a shrug. “She is a decorated general’s daughter and a countess,” Niku said. “She should know military rules and what they exert on families. Bottom-cliff Estate is not a home. A general must occupy it and she’s not one.” “So, what’s the consensus?” Kastan asked. “Moran becomes General Moran after Baiza’s memorial. The moment he is inducted into this General’s Council, Lady Baiza will receive a letter of notification to vacate the estate,” General Condi said. “I’ll take responsibility for her move to her aunt’s home. Then we go in search of a suitable groom. The least we can do for her is get her a good match, as her father would have wanted.” Kastan nodded, glad that he was not the only one who thought Nisa needed someone to support and protect her. “It’s very typical of men to assume that what Nisa needs is a husband,” Niku commented. “Have you bothered to ask her what she wants? She might want to travel, or continue her work in the healing arts. She’s quite gifted. She also helps run the academy in the valley. Your sons all learn from her.” Kastan adjusted Rashan’s weight on his lap, finding the silky length of Rashan’s hair quite fascinating in that moment. Someone cleared his throat, then Kigaru spoke up. “Niku, we’re not being unfair,” Kigaru said. “It’s just that we’ve all seen her try to trap Duke Silver into marriage. Before the war, it would have probably worked out, I don’t know. Duke Silver might have fancied her and ended up with her as his Duchess. Right now…” Kigaru trailed off. “His Grace has a consort, and you think Nisa will make trouble for them,” Nisa guessed. “Do you think I’m wrong?” Kigaru asked, looking at Niku. Niku gave a tired sigh. “I don’t think you’re wrong.” “What’s the solution?” Kigaru asked. Niku kept her silence and Kastan looked up from his son’s hair to find Niku watching him. She smiled and he shrugged. “Fine, maybe Lady Baiza needs a lord to curb her ambitions,” Niku said in agreement. Kastan urged Rashan up and followed suit. He stretched his arms above his head, and glanced at the sundial again. “We should head to the meadow,” Kastan said, his anxiety hard to hide. Safan, Naveed and Temu entered the receiving room and the generals all nodded in their direction. Kastan met Safan’s gaze. “His Grace is in the manor,” Safan confirmed, and soft chuckles filled the room when Kastan gave a relieved sigh. “I never thought I would live to see a day when Duke Silver looks so nervous,” Faiza said. “Look who is talking,” Niku teased as she got up. “I remember your marriage dance. You were so confused, I had to guide you to the meadow and keep you in the right spot for your bride to find you.” “Take that back,” Faiza warned. “Whose fault was it that I was so confused? You made me drink a large barrel of Gura wine for courage that afternoon. You promised never to speak of it.” “I lied,” Niku said, laughing, and a round of teasing started as they made their way out of the manor. Condi took Rashan’s hand, leading him outside, as Rashan asked about Condi’s adventures during the war. Kastan hang back, his gaze wandering to the wooden screen and the corridor behind it. He wondered if Jihan was watching him. He started to head that way, but Naveed grabbed his elbow. “Your Grace, your consort will meet you at the Silver Meadow. Temu will make sure of it. You on the other hand, need to make it first so that the people can see you’re happy to be married to him.” Kastan started to protest but Temu hurried ahead of him. “I’ll watch over him until you see each other,” Temu promised. Temu gave him a short salute, and then ran to the corridor, turning in the direction of the stairs. If Jihan was dressing, then heading to the meadow would be better. Kastan gave in and allowed Naveed to lead him out of the manor. *~*~*~* Jihan arrived at Sun-filled Manor with a sense of anxiety growing in his gut. He jumped off his horse and wasn’t surprised when Firuz grabbed his arm. Firuz led him around the manor to the back. Jihan paused when he noticed a dozen or so stewards strolling around the back gardens. Their faces were new. Jihan had stayed at the manor long enough to recognize the gardeners and the men Temu and Naveed allowed on to the grounds. “Who are they?” Jihan asked, even as Firuz rushed him to the large bathhouse in the back of the manor. “The Generals have arrived,” Firuz said. “I’m guessing they work for them.” Jihan bit his lip to stop himself from asking more questions. All this time, he had known he would need to interact with Kastan’s Generals. Temu, Naveed and even Safan, whose sole duty was Rashan, were easy to understand. Eating, sleeping and living in the same house tended to resolve distance. The other generals were a mystery, a force he feared. What if they treated him like Master Rabo or Ferino had? Thinking about it made him shudder. Yasmin seemed to have a sixth sense because she burst into the bathhouse from the kitchen. She launched into complaints about Jihan’s lateness. She urged Firuz to help Jihan strip out of his dirty day clothes. “What took you so long, little Duke?” Yasmin asked, when Jihan was neck deep in the huge tub. The water felt hot enough to make his skin tingle. “I sent so many messages to you. Weren’t you worried about missing your own marriage dance?” Jihan started to answer her, but she dumped sweet smelling soap on his head. He closed his eyes as her fingers sunk into his hair and she started a hard scrubbing. Minutes later, his hair was rinsed in water filled with rose petals. Jihan wiped his face, hoping to escape drinking a mouthful of soapy water. Yasmin finished with his hair and Jihan sighed in relief. “Firuz, make sure he scrubs every inch of his skin,” Yasmin said, getting up from the platform on the rim of the bathtub. Her apron was soaking wet, she had clearly washed Jihan’s hair with too much vigor. Yasmin picked up a pail and started heading to the kitchen. “If I discover your haven’t done it, I’ll be the one to help you with a brush,” Yasmin threatened, as she disappeared into the kitchen. “Who is the boss and who is the servant?” Jihan complained, wiping water from his eyes. Firuz chuckled and pushed him deeper into the large tub. The stonewall was built high to accommodate the rise of bath water. Jihan loved soaking in here, but that luxury was not happening today. Firuz made sure he scrubbed every inch of his skin, as ordered. The process moved faster when Firuz washed his back for him. “Yasmin is irritated with you,” Firuz said, moving strands of Jihan’s hair from back so that he could scrub the curve of his neck. “You’re really very late.” Jihan sighed. “She can join the list of valley people irritated with me. I’m not sure what Kastan is thinking,” Jihan said. “It won’t change what the valley’s people think of me.” Yasmin must have heard him on her return. She placed a bucket of clean water on the platform and moved around the tub to look at Jihan. Her gaze was kind, her expression somber as she held Jihan’s gaze. “Your Grace,” she said. “I’m sorry it has been difficult for you. It’s just that, we’ve all taken care of Duke Silver and his son for ten years. We’ve seen him struggle to raise his son alone. We hoped when he did find a partner that it might be someone from this valley.” “That someone being Lady Baiza,” Jihan guessed, dropping his gaze to the water. “Yes, there was such a hope,” Yasmin agreed, but then she reached out to touch Jihan’s cheek. Her hand ducked away as fast as she touched him. “We were wrong. Duke Silver is happier than I’ve ever seen him. You’re what he wants, so everyone will accept that. That’s what a marriage dance is about, staking a claim on your chosen partner.” Jihan looked up to meet her smiling gaze and felt a bit of confidence dilute his anxiety. “Now, stand up, we’ll get you rinsed and dressed in no time,” Yasmin said, clapping her hands. “Duke Silver is delaying the generals in the receiving room. They’ll leave when we’re on our way upstairs. You can be a few minutes late to the Silver Meadow.” Jihan pushed wet hair out of his eyes, and Yasmin grabbed his right hand with a short cry. “What is this?” she said, studying Jihan’s nails. “Your Grace, were you digging mud with your hands?” Jihan didn’t get a chance to explain. Yasmin produced a small brush from her apron pocket and started scrubbing his nails clean. “Woman, you must have been a tyrant in a past life,” Jihan shouted in protest. Upstairs, Jihan stood by the bed he shared with Kastan in contemplation. This was the third time he was dressing up in ceremony. The first was the day he met the Emperor’s agent, Rael. That day, Kastan declared he would be consort. Jihan then met a frightening Emperor and realized a soul existed that he could not sweet talk into a deal. The second time was his wedding day, when he officially left his father’s home to help start a house with Kastan. That day, his name changed from Kamran to Miran. He moved into this manor, and faced a valley that looked at him like a villain. Now, here was a third time. A sigh escaped and he wondered what would change after this marriage dance. “Your Grace, Set left a message for you,” Temu said, coming into the master’s chamber. He stopped at the large table in the middle of the room, holding up a scroll. “He says it has to do with the Welfare Office. May I ask? Do you have him spying on our valley?” “What would General Temu do if I said yes?” Jihan asked, lifting his arms so that Yasmin could held him wear his overcoat over his plain red long tunic. He was in red again the fine silk brocade fabric woven to perfection, the gold embroidery on the hems once again drawing Jihan’s interest. He wanted to turn that fabric workshop into a business. He winced at the thought of Master Rabo. His heart was still stinging over that encounter. Yasmin overlapped the coat’s lapels, and took the wide leather belt on the bed. Jihan helped her adjust the right tension on the ties, before he turned his attention to Temu. “I’m quite aware that you would not do anything to harm His Grace, and the little prince,” Temu said. “I have heard from His Grace that the Emperor hopes you would turn this valley profitable.” “And?” Jihan prompted when Temu stopped talking. “The Hidden Keepers take care of the valley’s security. You don’t need to spy on the valley. You’re safe,” Temu said. Jihan chuckled. “The Hidden Keepers keep outsiders out of the valley. They protect those within the valley, from intruders and petty crimes,” Jihan agreed. “I see their value. Set’s value is different. He gains information that you, nor I, would manage to get out of the tiniest village.” “Information?” “The most valuable thing if you want to turn a profit,” Jihan said with a small smile. He frowned as he watched Yasmin start clipping seven of the red tokens he usually wore on his belt. “Why so many?” “Seven tokens for each general,” Temu answered. Jihan gaped and touched one. “What if I lose them on the way?” “Then the Generals will not be amused,” Temu said. “Why are you so interested in the Welfare Office?” Jihan started toward Temu, only to have Yasmin stop him. She held up a silver ivy and oak leaves circlet. The tangled leaves framed a black jade stone. Jihan sat on the edge of the bed and closed his eyes. Yasmin placed the circlet on his forehead, weaving the silver threads on the ends of the circlet into an intricate knot on the back. She pinned it all with the red jade pin Rashan gifted him. The weight of Jihan’s hair then fell down his back combed to a shine by Yasmin’s brush. The only other jewelry Jihan wore was his pair of rings: the wedding one and his engagement ring. Jihan touched them for a moment, rubbing his thumb over the black stone, and then got up. He thanked Yasmin for her care and joined Temu at the table. “Let me read Set’s note,” Jihan said, holding out his right hand for Temu to give him the note from Set. The trust growing between him and Temu was delicate. This man had once looked at him with suspicion the night of Andiya’s wedding. Jihan now stood with patience. Temu studied him for a moment, and then placed the note in Jihan’s palm. Jihan gave him a short nod of thanks and unrolled the note. ‘Ferino’s books match a list of welfare benefactors in the Welfare Office. The office sends money to Ferino as though paying these welfare benefactors’ debts. It is likely that excess funds are flowing to the butchery and disappearing. Ferino must be working for a bigger fish. You’ll have to set out a large enough bait to catch this fish.’ Jihan handed the open note to Temu. He watched Temu read the note, and step back to lean on the sturdy table Jihan used to work. “What does this mean?” Temu asked. “That this valley is too large to be in debt,” Jihan said. “Kas receives money from the imperial government to fund his armies, and the welfare office is supposed to disburse it according to need,” Jihan said. “Such monies are easy to embezzle without a full proof plan. The existing gap needs to be plugged. I can’t touch the welfare office, but you and General Naveed can.” Temu stared at the note. “How could we not know?” Temu asked, surprise clear on his face. “Your organization is based on trust,” Jihan said, then picked up his fan from the table and tapped Temu’s right arm. “Mine is built on mistrust.” “Your Grace,” Temu said, when Jihan started heading out of the master’s chamber, his red boots silent on the polished wood floors. “How can you build a business on mistrust?” Temu asked, hurrying after Jihan. Firuz who stepped in behind Temu chuckled. “His Grace’s philosophy is that you hand a man a position in full trust, but place another next to them to mistrust,” Firuz said. “Isn’t that counterproductive?” Temu asked. “One person receives the money,” Jihan said, walking down the stairs in leisure. He opened his fan, studying the blank side of the fan, and then turned the fan to the drawing of Kamran Estate. “The other man records the money. They are never in the same place at the same time, and they don’t know each other but their records must always match. What makes that counterproductive? If one has wrong numbers, naturally, someone has lied and the problem must be solved. It has worked well for Kamran, why not the army’s affairs?” Temu stopped walking, his gaze on Jihan, who continued walking down the stairs. This young merchant was more ruthless than he seemed. Why had he ever thought Jihan was weak? He caught Firuz’s smirk, and Temu scowled at the loyal shadow guard. Firuz always looked like he knew more than he was telling. As though saying, ‘Ah, there is a reason I chose to follow his footsteps. My master is more remarkable than he looks.’ Temu scoffed under his breath at the thought. In this case, he needed to congratulate Firuz. Jihan Kamran had an interesting mind. They were lucky he liked Kastan so much. “General Temu,” Yasmin touched his arm, and he looked up to find Jihan had already disappeared down the hall. Temu broke into a run down the remaining stairs. “Don’t forget to explain the ceremony to His Grace,” Yasmin called after him. *~*~*~*
  6. Information for The Reluctant Consort. This novel has turn into a very long epic with a lot of things to remember. I'm sometimes very afraid that I'm not doing it justice. Still, I hope it is enjoyable to read. I do promise that when I go back to reedit it, I'll add anything that I missed the first run. Here's is a map a friend was kind enough to draw for me, and while some labels are not entirely accurate, I love it so much that I had to share it here. The Empire of Akasha - Sun Kingdom - Iron Lands - Blood Nation - Silver Kingdom Imperial City Akan (Imperial Seat) Please note the empire's boundaries are the thick black border. Purple is for rivers, and lakes, save for Silver Shore where white is for the lake. The Imperial Family Chart The Kamran Merchant Family Silver Shore Valley Information Important Spots in Silver Shore - Sun-filled Manor – Duke Silver’s home - Bottom Cliff Estate – Tactical post, current home of Lady Nisa Baiza. She lived with her late father, General Baiza. General Moran's future home. - Magistrate’s Compound – Main policing officers, home to the Welfare Office - Sarus and Antac Farms owned by Sun-filled Manor, under Jihan's jurisdiction - The Trade Station – Owned by Kamran and Silver Shore Valley, cared for by Garren and Set with General Temu's help - Silver Meadow – An open space used for marriage dances and other ceremonies - Silver Lake – Has an island in the middle where Kaveh Miran lives with his trusted attendant, the island on the lake is also where Kastan’s mother, Shana Miran is buried. Jian Miran, Rashan's mother, is also buried at this island. People Living in Silver Shore Valley 1. Sun – Filled Manor - Yasmin – The Manor’s Manager and cook - Fara – She is Rashan’s nanny - Safan – Rashan’s guard, Kastan’s trusted friend - Temu – A General and Kastan’s trusted friend, later assigned to protect Jihan - Naveed – A General and Kastan’s most trusted right hand man 2. Outside the Manor - Master Rabo – The Fabric Workshop master weaver - Master Aleka – The Farm manager brought by Jihan - Ferino – A butcher who is in league with Lady Nisa, doesn’t pay rent to the manor - Muge – Lady Nisa’s nursemaid - Master Bero – An instructor at the Academy where Rashan goes to study 3. The Hidden Keepers – Protectors of Silver Shore Valley 4. Magistrate officers and Police - Take care of daily cases 5. Lady Nisa Baiza– Daughter of General Baiza, also known as Renai Countess 6. Ishan Gura's sister lives In a small village in the valley – She is married to an officer under General Condi. (Andiya and Jihan visit her later) 7 Kastan's Generals General Condi General Faiza General Kigaru General Niku People living at or near Kamran Estate Andiya Kamran Gura - She manages the Kamran Estate warehouses, and is married to Lord Gura, who owns a neighboring orchard. Ishan Gura - Jihan's childhood best friend. Owns Gura Estate, is a Lord and Andiya's husband Vion - Fish farmer expert, helps manage the Kamran estate Deora - Kamran House Manager . In later chapters she appears as Deona.(This is a massive typo in later chapters, I'll get it sorted with edits) Kamran Merchants Garren - Head of The Eagle's Claw, Kamran's main manager Set - Head of Set's Stronghold, and the Traveler's Branch of Kamran (Information Peddler) Ambra - In charge of creating new trade routes, currently on a mission to Tanad Kingdom/ Connects Tagon with new merchant for trade. Helps Jihan with creating routes to Tanad. Kamran Merchants Associates Swallow - has an estate in the Iron Lands, Jihan's first love before Swallow married his wife./ Later saved by Kastan from Lord Revi's attempt to seize his assets. Tagon - A Merchant in Sun Kingdom, Jihan's lover before his family arranged a marriage for him. People Living in the Imperial Palace Rael - Head of the Royal Investigative Bureau/ His Majesty's most trusted aide Fortan - Empress's Advisor Ancients/ Empire's Guardians Ha- Battle Strength (Kastan's cheerleader) Neith - Foresight/Protector (Advises the Emperor/ is partial to Jihan) Bast - Shadow guard's Patron Shadow Guards Choose their own charges Shadow Guards live in the Quadrum. A stronghold in Blood Nation's Deepest Valley. Bast is their patron Grandmaster Lehin - Master metal forger from the Iron Lands/ Later to be Kastan's weapons master I hope this helps to keep up with everyone in the story and I hope I didn't leave out anything. I'll post new chapters next. Sui. The Reluctant Consort
  7. Chapter 15 Two mornings after Kastan’s return, Jihan set up his work desk in the dining hall. The weather was still rainy, the temperatures cool. Kastan worried Rashan might get sick again, so he had insisted that Rashan stay home. Jihan figured working in the dining hall would encourage Rashan to stay indoors. It was barely working. “I want to go outside,” Rashan said, keeping up a whine that had continued for most of the morning. Jihan added up the farm expenses, and entered the figures into his new ledger. The costs were higher than he liked, but it was manageable. Pushing away the ledger, he reached for the list of workers in the fabric and leather factories in the second level of the manor. “Why can’t I go out?” Rashan asked, for the fiftieth time that morning. The encouragement was obviously not working. This was the first day Rashan was up from his bed. The weather was still cold, the rain falling at odd times of the day. Jihan didn’t want to see Rashan get wet and get sick again, so he understood Kastan’s insistence that Rashan study at home today. If Rashan needed to practice, he could use the open space on the third floor. Getting Rashan to accept it was proving harder than any negotiation Jihan had done. Jihan looked up from the list he was reading to find Rashan playing with a dagger. His first instinct was to tell Rashan to put the dagger down. Then he remembered watching Rashan dueling with a long sword, and he closed his eyes. Why couldn’t Rashan have liked playing with wooden sticks? Shaking his head, Jihan sat back and opened his eyes in time to see Rashan throw the dagger on the dining table. The dagger’s sharp blade dug into the polished wood, the handle shaking with the force of the throw and Jihan got to his feet. “Why would you do that on a dining table used to eat?” Jihan asked, fighting back annoyance. “I was practicing,” Rashan said. “You won’t let me go outside to throw it on the trees. Why won’t you let me go outside?” “I don’t want you to get sick again,” Jihan said. “Now, take that dagger out of our dining table, and apologize to Yasmin for ruining her hard work.” “I don’t want to,” Rashan said, on the verge of stomping his foot in protest. Yasmin chose that moment to walk in, bringing in drink made of horrid herbs the doctor had left for Jihan. Jihan grimaced at the sight of it. He had tried to escape drinking it several times only to have Kastan trick him into it. The doctor was worried he would get sick from taking care of Rashan. “I don’t want to drink medicine so bitter it would kill pepper,” Jihan said, pointing at the bowl of medicine that Yasmin had brought over. “But we both don’t have a choice, do we? Come closer and let’s do your sciences reading.” “I don’t want to,” Rashan said. “You can’t make me.” “You know what,” Jihan started, and then closed his mouth to stop himself. Rashan was right. He was an independent entity, from his schedules, his life plan and even the people working under Rashan. Jihan had no say in what Rashan did on a daily basis, but there was no way he was going to acknowledge that truth. Jihan took in a deep breath and moved back to his chair. It was a good thing that he was not above bribery. “What, Uncle Jihan?” Rashan asked, his challenging tone enough to make Jihan grit his teeth. He met Rashan’s angry gaze and tried not to show weakness. Rashan glared at him for a full minute, in which Jihan worried he would lose the battle. This was not a good day. His gaze fell on the list he was reading, and an idea struck. “I have to visit the fabric workshop on the second level,” Jihan said, with a small smile. “Pa said you should stay in today in case you get sick after not sleeping for days taking care of me,” Rashan said, his tone taunting. “Why do you get to go out?” “You didn’t let me finish,” Jihan said, lifting his hands up almost in surrender. “You can come along, and Firuz…” Jihan turned to his shadow guard, almost desperate; he smiled when he saw Firuz shake his head in resignation. “Firuz can help you throw that dagger better. He has secret techniques he can share.” “Really?” Rashan asked, walking over to the dining table to pull out his dagger. He studied the hole he had made on the table, and rubbed it with his thumb. “The hole is not so bad.” “You have to promise not to practice your dagger throwing skills on the furniture in the future,” Jihan said, pointing a finger at Rashan. “It’s already so old, if you hit a weak point, the dinign table might cave in.” “Uncle Jihan, you worry too much,” Rashan grinned and his gaze shifted to Firuz with excitement. “When are we going outside?” Jihan grabbed up the list of workers from the table and shook his head. “You still haven’t made your promise,” Jihan reminded Rashan, folding his arms against his chest. “I promise not to throw daggers and to apologize to Yasmin,” Rashan said, putting his dagger away. “When do we go out?” “How about now, seems like a good time,” Jihan said. Rashan gave an excited shout. Jihan hid a smile, and started heading out of the dining hall, shaking his head. Rashan ran after him, keeping pace and asking Firuz a dozen questions a minute. Jihan opted to walk to the second level. They left the manor’s red gate, and made a hard right turn. They walked up a cobbled road, walking by the Duke’s Office. The doors to the office were open, but Jihan knew Kastan was not there. Kastan had left the manor saying he needed to visit the training fields in town and then he had a matter to handle with the Hidden Keepers. Jihan wondered what had the hidden keepers so worried. Finding the fabric workshop was easy. Finding the keys to the locked doors took longer. Jihan perched on a bench outside the workshop, watching Firuz throw a dagger on the ground, while Rashan watched intently. They were lucky the weather was holding, even though it wasn’t as warm as Jihan would have liked. Jihan got comfortable on the bench. Taking his fan, he opened it and waved it to chase away little flies in the air. He smiled when Rashan tried his turn at Firuz’s dagger, and it fell flat. Firuz had his own tricks. Rashan got absorbed in trying to sink Firuz’s dagger into the ground. After watching Rashan throw a few tries, Jihan got up from the bench and paced to the end of the building, leaning over the railing to see the back of the building. He frowned when he caught a glimpse of a shadow running to the back of the building. Jihan closed his fan; Firuz was at his side in seconds. Jihan pointed his fan to the back, and Firuz jumped over the railing on light feet. He disappeared behind the building for a moment. Jihan strolled back to the bench and sat just as he heard a man start complaining about Firuz’s harsh treatment. Firuz dragged a man who looked old enough to be Jihan’s father up the short steps to where Jihan sat. Firuz pushed him to his knees, and kept his tight grip on the man’s collar. “What do we have here?” Jihan asked in a lazy tone. He closed his fan, placing it under the man’s chin and using it to lift the man’s face. “Firuz, did you find someone hiding behind the building? I wonder who it could be.” Rashan hurried up the steps, peering at the man, as he sat next to Jihan on the bench. “Master Rabo,” Rashan said, his eyes wide with surprise. “Why would you hide from us?” Rabo winced, and tried to look away but Jihan wouldn’t let him. “Rashan, do you know this man?” Jihan asked, his right brow lifted, as he met unwilling dark eyes. “Yes,” Rashan said, studying the knife Firuz had given him. “He takes care of this workshop. His name is Rabo. He sends my robes to the manor when they are ready.” “Really,” Jihan said, studying Rabo. “Master Rabo, why are you hiding?” “Master—,” “You are meeting His Grace, Duke of Silver Shore,” Rashan said, cutting in. “Master Rabo must address him as His grace. It is what’s proper.” Rabo cursed under his breath and sat back on his haunches. He looked at Jihan with a grimace. “Master Rabo, I’m not the death reaper coming to collect your soul,” Jihan said, upset by Rabo’s reaction to him. “Don’t look at me like the world is ending. I just want to talk to you.” Rabo gave him a skeptical glance, and Jihan nodded so that Firuz would let the man go. Firuz let go of the man’s collar and stepped back. He didn’t move away though, giving Rabo no way to escape. Jihan sat back on the bench, his fan dropping away from Rabo’s chin. “I don’t know why you’re so unwilling to meet me that you would hide,” Jihan said, making a show of studying his fan. “Did you run when you saw me?” Jihan looked at Rabo from the periphery, and saw another silent curse. “Why would you run when you saw me?” Jihan asked, curious. When Rabo kept his silence, Jihan cleared his throat. “Should I ask my shadow guard to help you answer?” Jihan asked, winking at Firuz. Firuz took a step closer to Rabo, making the man shudder. “I’ll answer His Grace’s questions,” Rabo said, giving Firuz a wary glance over his shoulder. “As long as His Grace promises not to unleash his shadow guard on me, I am not Ferino. I don’t know how to fight.” Jihan nodded. “That sounds fair. Firuz, why don’t you keep showing Rashan how to throw that dagger he’s playing with. Rashan, be good and learn well.” Firuz helped Rabo to his feet, and then nodded for Rashan to follow him. Rabo rubbed his knees and then looked at Jihan with suspicion in his eyes. “How may I help His Grace this morning?” Rabo asked. “What makes you think I need your help?” Jihan asked, placing his fan in his cloak’s pocket. Jihan folded his arms against his chest and took in the quiet cobbled street. The building across the fabric workshop looked like a warehouse of sorts. The doors were closed, although Jihan felt like the workers had hidden away like Rabo. Had they seen him coming? “Master Rabo,” Jihan said, a frown creasing his forehead. “Yes, Your Grace,” Rabo answered. “Does everyone hide when they see me coming to their place of work?” Jihan asked, meeting Rabo’s gaze. Rabo cursed under his breath and tried his best to ignore Jihan’s gaze. Rabo was afraid of him, afraid of Firuz, so eventually he met Jihan’s gaze and nodded. “I’m sorry, Your Grace. I didn’t mean to close the fabric workshop and hide from you. I was just—” “Afraid that I’ll set Firuz on you,” Jihan said with a scoff. What an interesting moment, Jihan thought. The valley’s people viewed him as a villain. The man with a shadow guard who attacked the good people. He was a specter and it didn’t sit well with him. Communities were so hard to join. The people got too used to little traditions, same faces and activities. Change turned hard, and the promise of change frightening. He could not blame them for viewing him as an outsider. He had known it would be this hard when he started. Still, that didn’t stop him from feeling hurt and frustrated. After all, he was doing all of these for them…for the valley and Kastan. Jihan sighed and nodded to the closed workshop doors. “Master Rabo, your views of me aside,” Jihan said, deciding to shift the sting on his pride to examine later. “The workshops in the manor remain under my care. I should know how they work as His Grace’s Consort. Do you agree?” “Your Grace is right,” Rabo said, his gaze lowered. “I would really like a tour of this fabric workshop,” Jihan said. “Please, you’re welcome to come in and look around,” Rabo said. Jihan nodded and got up. He met Firuz’s inquiring gaze with a shrug, as he followed Rabo into the fabric workshop. *~*~*~ In the bright hall at the Imperial Tower, Neith watched Jihan tour the fabric workshop on a large round white jade mirror. The mirror was mounted on a wall across her chaise. She sat back arranging the green silk of her dress. Her gaze narrowed as she noted how tense Jihan looked, a frown creasing her forehead. “Frowns on you are like an alarm,” Ha said, as he came around to where she sat carrying a box of scrolls from the court ministers. “Are you willing to read these?” Ha asked. “You promised Bast that you would.” “If you keep nagging me, I’ll leave them there,” Neith answered. “Where is Bast again?” “Bast has gone to Levan,” Ha said, letting a wistful sigh escape. “I can’t believe it is time for a new batch of Shadow Guards to make their vows and go out to find their charges. Time moves too fast.” “Always an emotional time for Bast,” Neith said, nodding her head. “The Quadrum is lucky to have his protection. I’m sure the new Shadow Guards will turn out well.” Ha took a step closer to the white jade mirror, his frown making an appearance when he saw Jihan bending over white silk. “Imperial Prince Consort intrigues you,” Ha noted. “You watch him often. Why?” “He surprises me,” Neith said, her affection of the man hard to hide. “Silver Shore Valley is not easy. He is facing it without breaking. His efforts will change the empire’s power balance. Little things he does seem useless but are quite powerful.” “Like what?” Ha asked, knowing Neith would have watched Jihan long enough to know. “For one, the trade station he is building will attract Lord Revi’s attention. The Iron Lands are so close. I’m anticipating Lord Revi causing trouble there,” Neith said. “How is that upsetting power?” Ha asked, smiling when Jihan knelt on the dusty workshop floor to study the weaving machines. His companion, the master fabric weaver gaped in horror. Rabo tried to get Jihan to get up, but Jihan continued his inspection of the machines. “He is always forgetting he’s a royal now.” “That’s why I love watching him,” Neith said, amused when Jihan got up, and wiped his hands on his cream overcoat. “There is never a dull moment with him.” “He’s struggling to find his place at Silver Shore Valley,” Ha said. “Kastan hides the many complaints he has received over his Consort’s meddling.” “Give him time,” Neith said, grinning as she watched Jihan caress a spool of grey silk fabric with reverence. Jihan glanced at the weaver with respect and complimented him for the fine work. The older man lowered his head in surprise. Rabo had not expected praise from Jihan. Neith was sure the older man was questioning his own judgment of Jihan. “I agree with the god of war’s choice to keep the complaints to himself. It is to support his husband,” Neith decided. “Jihan will make peace with his place. Which reminds me—” Neith waved her hand and the scene in the mirror changed. “Lord Revi’s power is growing. He is using money to weaken the palace. The Iron Lands are mostly under his control. He is like a growing blight.” “Any business in the Iron Lands is controlled by his people,” Ha said, his tone full of displeasure. “Yesterday, he met with one of the Empress’s old ghost warriors. The burning feather is still alive. She is courting Lord Revi’s support.” “The palace is too dependent on him,” Neith said, her tone thoughtful. “Kamran should have already taken hold in the Iron Lands, but Jihan has been too cautious. Not his fault, facing an Emperor was frightening enough. Now he is occupied with Silver Shore.” Neith grimaced as she watched Lord Revi collect taxes from a poor village. He listened to no excuse from the poor farmers, taking everything they had and leaving them with nothing. “It’s too hard watching this,” Ha said. “Why can’t we ever interfere?” “Because,” Neith said. “Interference will make the roots of the tree rot. You know this, Ha. We can only support and guide.” “Fine, then tell me how we can support and guide,” Ha said. “I only know how to grace Imperial Prince Kastan with the strength of a thousand armies. You’re gifted with sight and Bast protects. What can we do to change the empire’s future?” “Lord Revi will want to control Imperial Consort’s trade station on behalf of the Empress,” Neith said, her gaze thoughtful. “Imperial Prince Consort is going to need outside support. Let’s ask Bast to talk to Blood Nation’s old prince. Blood Nation is bound to Silver Shore thanks to Princess Jian. They should help their Duke.” Ha clapped in excitement, turning to look at the white jade mirror, he pointed at Lord Revi. “I knew we could find a way.” “It’s a delicate maneuver. We’ll need to move with precision,” Neith warned. “Nothing happens without Imperial Prince Consort’s knowledge. His decisions drive the power balance change. Any mistake and he is dead, or out of Silver Shore Valley.” “I’ll follow what you say,” Ha said, with a grin. “I can make the trip to Blood Nation and visit the old palace with Bast. See what they will say about meeting a certain handsome merchant at Silver Shore.” “Remember, Imperial Prince Consort sets the terms of trade,” Neith emphasized. “Yes, Mistress,” Ha said, giving her a playful curtsey before he left in a cloud of white smoke. Neith shook her head and waved her hand, returning to watching Jihan. “How many people work in this workshop?” Jihan was asking Rabo. “Ten men and five women, Your Grace,” Rabo answered. “Where are they?” Jihan asked, leaning on a large roll of embroidered silk. He crossed his arms against his chest and pinned Rabo with an intent gaze. “Um, in the bath house,” Rabo said. Jihan narrowed his gaze. “Are you telling me if I go to the bath house I’ll find all your workers?” “Yes,” Rabo said with a quick nod. “They are bathing in the bath house,” Jihan said, disbelief clear in his voice. “If I go there, I’m bound to find fifteen fabric workshop workers naked in the baths. Is that what you’re saying?” “It is,” Rabo said, with another nod. “It’s mid-morning and you insist they are bathing. Did they break a sweat weaving?” Jihan asked. “I never thought weaving was so intensive.” Neith chuckled. “They weren’t weaving. They-they were chasing a rabbit,” Rabo said. “Chasing a rabbit?” Jihan asked, the ridicule in his tone hard to miss. “One?” “Y-yes,” Rabo said, wincing. “Was the one rabbit to share among all your workers? Are they starved?” Jihan asked. “Is there not enough food in the common dining hall? Why do they need to chase one rabbit, break a sweat and go bath on a day they should be working?” “Your Grace,” Rabo said, almost in surrender. “I—” “You don’t need to lie to me, Master Rabo,” Jihan said, cutting him off, clearly irritated. “They must be hiding away from me. I’ll leave and let you all get back to work. I hope I find a working workshop the next time we meet.” Neith winced at the hurt she saw in Jihan’s eyes when he turned away from Master Rabo. He needed the fabric workshop to increase revenues. He needed those workers to trust him if he was going to achieve his goals. She was starting to love the resourceful Imperial Prince Consort. He worked so hard. He also felt every moment so much, it could cripple him, which was probably why he was holding back with the god of war. She sighed. Jihan needed to learn how to trust his husband. It was sad that no one had ever taught him how. Jihan left the fabric workshop. He was deep in thought, oblivious of the curious looks he was getting from Rashan. When they got back home to the manor, Jihan urged Rashan back to his studies, even letting Firuz stay with Rashan so that he could keep learning Firuz’s knife tricks. Jihan left his heavy cloak on a chair in the dining hall, and stepped out to the open space at the back of the manor. He was handsome in his cream robe, with fine gold designs on his lapels and sleeves. They shimmered in the weak sunlight with every step. Jihan kicked a stone with his boots and perched on a bench closest to the cliff. He leaned back, resting his elbows on the table as he stared up at the sky. The strands of his dark hair sweeping the table top in the light breeze. Jihan kept his gaze to the skies and he leaned back even farther, a small smile flitting over his lips. Neith realized he was waiting for the Kamran Eyrie eagle, Yoru. Yoru circled the skies above the manor. Neith closed her eyes and when she opened them, she saw the world through Yoru’s eyes. ‘You’ve waited for your charge, little one,’ she greeted. ‘You must be tired.’ ‘Neith,’ Yoru said. ‘You honor me with a visit.’ ‘I want to have a look at your charge, little one,’ Neith said. ‘Let me borrow your eyes for a while.’ ‘As you wish,’ Yoru said, looking down to see Jihan extend his left arm. Yoru swept down with a breathtaking flourish and landed with perfect grace on Jihan’s arm. Neith felt her heart flutter at the exhilarating experience, her heartbeat speeding when Yoru looked into amused brown eyes. “Yoru, you’re especially majestic today,” Jihan said, having noted the impressive landing. Neith chuckled, and Yoru spread his wings out before he folded them with pride. He was a stunning eagle. Jihan grinned and Neith fell in love with the handsome prince consort. “Andiya must be spoiling you,” Jihan continued. “You two are having fun at Kamran Estate without me.” ‘Not too much. We miss you,’ Yoru said, meaning it. Neith studied the pathway Yoru used to talk to Jihan. It was a new connection. Yoru must have learned how to connect to a familiar from the ancestors living at Silver Shore Valley. Neith could see his earlier connection to Jihan. It had hurt Jihan’s head each time. The new connection was smoother, neat with no frayed edges. ‘You look terrible,’ Yoru said. ‘Aren’t you eating enough?’ Neith loved the warmth of Yoru’s immense affection for Jihan. “I’m eating well enough,” Jihan said. “You and Firuz would have a lot to discuss. He keeps talking Yasmin into cooking all my favorites. If I eat them daily, they will stop being favorites.” Neith chuckled, and Yoru shook his head. ‘Lady Andiya has sent a letter,’ Yoru said. ‘She also needs your help with a business matter in Vasia Town. The details are in the letter.’ Jihan took the small wooden tube tied on Yoru’s leg. “I’ll send her a reply. Do you want to visit the Silver Shore Eyrie?” Jihan asked. ‘For a while,’ Yoru said, and Neith took her time studying Jihan. He was worried, Neith realized, noting the tension lines on the corner of Jihan’s eyes and his mouth. It was an internal worry. Business matters rarely scared him. He loved dealing with those kinds of problems. His current worries were tied to his heart. ‘I’ll stop by before the sun fades in the horizon,’ Yoru told Jihan. ‘Thank you, little one,’ Neith said to Yoru, ‘for letting me see him and for being his good friend.’ ‘I’m the one that’s grateful,’ Yoru said, as he spread his wings out and flew away. Neith was back on her chaise watching Jihan in the white jade mirror. Deciding that she didn’t want to watch any longer, she got up and touched her dress with a frown. She had to meet the god of war about his valley. She would need to ride a horse, which meant a change of clothes. *~*~*~* Kastan’s horse jumped over a large fallen tree, racing through the forests outside the gates of the valley, Naveed behind him, followed by a troop of soldiers. He brought his horse to a stop when they reached the edge of the forest. A clearing ahead led to deep caves. The Hidden Keepers had reported people living in the caves. Kastan clutched his horse’s reins and shifted on his saddle, his horse moving with him, before it settled into a stop. His gaze stayed on the cave entrance. It was a relatively warm day, a departure from the last few days of rain. Kastan adjusted his left sleeve under his leather vambrace, pausing when his wedding ring shone in the light. He rubbed the gold surface with his thumb, a small smile gracing his lips. He had left Jihan sulking at home this morning. The manor’s doctor worried Jihan would pick up Rashan’s infection. The doctor had left a prescription for Jihan. Knowing Jihan and his penchant for getting in the mud and the ponds at the farms, he had coerced him into staying at the manor. He had used Rashan, shamelessly. Tasking Jihan with the impossible job of making sure Rashan didn’t get sick again. Kastan smiled at the memory of Jihan’s incredible pout. “Your Grace,” Naveed said, drawing his attention. Kastan looked at the cave entrance in time to see children running out, holding hands and laughing. They looked happy and well tended. The hidden keepers were right. There were families living in the caves. “What do we do?” Naveed asked, moving his horse closer to Kastan. “A troop of soldiers descending on such happy children will scar them.” “I agree,” Kastan said, thoughtful, “take two men into the cave. I’ll wait.” “Are you sure?” Naveed asked. “I don’t want to leave you—” “I’ll be fine,” Kastan said, amused by Naveed’s care. Naveed gave him a worried glance, and Kastan dismounted his horse. “Go, General Naveed, I can fend for myself. It’s not like you’re leaving me alone,” Kastan nodded to the ten soldiers on horses around them. “I’m curious about those families living in the caves. I want to know why they have chosen to stay here. We’ll come to the rescue if you stay longer than ten minutes.” Naveed nodded and dismounted his horse too. He called on two of the soldiers, leaving the rest with Kastan. Kastan watched Naveed reach the children, his interaction gentle as he greeted them, and asked them to call their guardians. Kastan urged the soldiers around him to do a quick sweep of the area in case of an ambush. He was leaning on a tree waiting for Naveed to emerge from the cave, when he heard the sound of a horse galloping. The rider was upon them in minutes. The soldiers moved into formation around Kastan’s position. Kastan kept leaning on the tree sure that the rider would be in for a bigger surprise at finding a troop of soldiers so close to the clearing. Kastan looked up at the dark horse that emerged from the forest path, the rider slowing the horse to a stop. Kastan watched the rider clutch the reins of the horse as it reared up, keeping total control. A skilled rider, he thought. When the horse settled, Kastan took in the rider’s slight figure wrapped in a dark cloak. It was a woman. Kastan did not attempt to stop his soldiers from attacking at any sign of trouble. A woman could be as deadly as any man could. “How lucky to have ran into the god of war,” the woman said, her voice sounding very familiar. Kastan pushed back his cloak over his shoulder so that he had access to his sword. His gaze remained on the woman still mounted on her horse. “How may I help you, my lady?” Kastan asked. “Chivalrous as ever,” she said, reaching up to push the hood of her cloak down. The soldiers around Kastan gave a collective gasp. Kastan understood their surprise. Neith was a beautiful woman and she took some getting used to. It was all the hair, Kastan decided. So long and thick, it was so much he wondered how she managed it. Strange how he loved Jihan’s hair, but found Neith’s a distraction. “I’ll dismount my horse now,” Neith announced, her gaze remaining on Kastan. “I would hope your men will not stab me to my death.” Kastan bit back a laugh at the idea of Neith dying at the end of one of his soldier’s swords. She had trained him. She could still drop him to the ground with a few sweeps of his sword. She was no weakling. “I request time with His Highness, Imperial Prince Kastan,” Neith said, her tone suddenly formal. “Fall back,” Kastan ordered his men deciding to give Naveed backup early. “Troop leader, support General Naveed at the caves.” “Yes, Commander,” the answer came, and the soldiers hurried to the clearing and the cave entrance after Naveed. Neith dismounted her horse, pausing long enough to murmur her thanks to the horse before she turned to face Kastan. She removed her riding gloves, her gaze taking him in from his head to his leather boots. “You look happy and content,” Neith said with a pleased nod. “I have no complaints,” Kastan said, clearing his throat. He folded his arms against his chest and turned to watch the caves. “What brings the god of war here?” Neith asked. “I’m surprised you don’t know,” Kastan said. “Your life is a big blur,” Neith answered. “I can only guess as to where you are, not why.” “Interesting,” Kastan said with a small smile. “Does that frustrate you, Neith?” “Plenty,” she answered with a grimace. “There are families in the caves,” Kastan said, deciding to put her out of her misery. “I would prefer to know who they are and why they are staying here. It will reduce surprises. The hidden keepers want to know how we should handle their presence here.” “Hmm,” Neith said, a frown appearing on her forehead. “Families mean refuges. Have you heard of the increasing number of displaced families from the Iron Lands?” “The Imperial Palace and its court should handle those issues,” Kastan said. “My officers cannot interfere or it will be an act of rebellion.” “So, you won’t give your brother an opinion,” Neith said. “He is the Emperor,” Kastan answered with a shrug. “It’s his burden to handle the plight of his people.” “True,” Neith said, with a nod. She turned to him, crossing her arms against her chest. “The Iron Lands aside, shall we discuss Silver Shore Valley.” “What of it?” Kastan asked, a brow raised in question. “Why have you not made any attempts to help your consort solidify his position by your side?” Neith demanded. “You two are married. The valley’s people should know to respect your consort and help him build prosperity.” “They do,” Kastan said, surprised by Neith’s accusing gaze. “They are holding him at arm’s length,” Neith said. “It’s frustrating him. I don’t want to see that beautiful creature discouraged. Do your part, god of war, otherwise why did you marry him?” “Neith!” Kastan said in shock, her anger hard to understand. Jihan was doing fine. He was working the farms, getting to know Yasmin, and building a trade station. He was bonding with Rashan, and even Temu was referring to him more often. Kastan frowned when Neith gave him a hard look. “What?” Kastan asked. “Warriors are always so clueless,” Neith said with a sigh. “I’ve heard your men do a ceremony to induct their wives into the brotherhood when they get married. How is it that the Commander of these men has not done this ceremony for his consort?” Kastan’s brows rose up in realization and then he turned away from Neith and cleared his throat. “I was giving Jihan time to adjust to life at Sun-filled Manor. It’s a lot to take in, and—” “Without that ceremony, you’ve left him at a great disadvantage,” Neith said. “Your people listen to you, Commander. You must present Jihan to them and tell them he matters to you.” “But there was a wedding,” Kastan said, a frown creasing his forehead. “Silver Shore Valley has long ran autonomously,” Neith said. “You knelt before the heavens and the earth in front of the Emperor at the Imperial Palace in the Capital. The valley’s people were not there to see it. They don’t think he has a place among them.” Kastan turned to look at Neith, guilt flooding him. Why had he not thought of this before? He had been too busy getting excited about having Jihan in his life. He had not stopped to think of Jihan’s place in the valley among his soldiers and their families. “Okay,” Kastan said, nodding. “We can have a marriage dance at the manor—” “Not the manor, it must be in the Silver Meadow near the lake,” Neith said. “Among the valley’s people, a dance in red and gold with light from the moon and fire, on a field of flowers. It will be a memorable sight, one enough to soften the people’s hearts.” “When is the best time for this dance?” Kastan asked, understanding that Neith had come looking for him to tell him what he needed to do. “Your consort will need to leave the valley to handle a matter in Vasia,” Neith said. “He’ll ask to leave in three days. Delay him and plan the dance so he may leave on the new moon night.” “The new moon is in five days,” Kastan said. It was a short time to plan a dance fit for a duke and his consort. “Yes, well, you are the valley’s master,” Neith said. “There is nothing you can’t do.” “Did you come here to tell me that I’m neglecting my consort’s affairs?” Kastan asked. “They are very important matters,” Neith said. “Also, to remind you that Lord Revi is fast becoming the empire’s nemesis. If he joins hands with the Empress, Miran will have to draw family blood.” “She is misguided when it comes to winning power,” Kastan said, rubbing his left arm. He could not remember a time when his family had needed to cut down someone in the family. “You should visit your father for guidance,” Neith said. “The burden of a sword against an Empress will fall on your shoulders. You cannot expect the Emperor to take that role. He has loved that woman, and she has given him two sons.” Kastan cursed under his breath. “How long do I have?” Kastan asked, distaste at the task at hand heavy. Neith closed her eyes, her head tilted as though to listen to the music made by the leaves on the tree branches. When she did open her eyes, Kastan stared into golden orbs. They shimmered in the sunlight, the dark iris of her eye a stark contrast. “Lady Andiya will visit Sun-filled Manor,” Neith said, her voice making Kastan shiver at the weight of its power. “Her child will be born in your halls and a fortnight after she leaves, Rushi will take your treasure from you. Your choices on that night will decide the fate of this empire. I hope your will is strong enough to overcome that crucible.” Kastan held Neith’s gaze, wondering what treasure Rushi would try to take from him. He had so many now, Rashan and Jihan, Silver Shore and its entire people. His heart could not bear the thought of any of them suffering after they had given so much to the rest of the empire. “You will know the moment by the depths of your heart,” Neith said in closing. She turned away and when she looked at him again, her eyes were no longer golden. He felt honored to have received an insight straight from Neith. She only gave them to the Emperor. For her to have given him one, she had to be worried, that, or his Silver Shore Valley would play an important role in the balance of power. “One more thing, if you love your consort, show him,” Neith said, anger clear in her eyes. “He’s only ever given love and doesn’t know what it’s like to receive it. It’s no wonder he holds himself so tight. Remember that, majestic god of war. I’ll leave you to your day now.” Kastan watched her walk back to her horse, and mount it as though she lived a top its back. Her hood came up over her head and she took the reins of her horse. “Duke Silver, will you watch me ride away without an invitation to the marriage dance?” Neith asked, her tone playful. “Is there any place on this empire that you cannot visit at will?” Kastan asked, smiling at her. “I’m a lady at heart,” Neith said. “I appreciate an offer for a dance.” “Then by all means, come to the dance, our goddess Neith,” Kastan said. “I cannot promise to dance with you. My hand is promised to a jealous consort.” “I’ll make Ha dance with me,” Neith said, with a grin. “I look forward to it, Duke Silver.” Kastan lowered his head in an elegant bow and watched her ride away, crossing the clearing and heading deeper into the forest ahead. Naveed returned to his side minutes later, followed by an older man using a walking stick. The clothes the old man wore were of fine silk, even though it was a bit worn. Kastan shifted his cloak to hide his sword and walked into the clearance to meet them. “Your Grace, the families in the caves are refugees from the Iron Lands,” Naveed said when he reached them. “They are hoping to find a place in Silver Shore Valley. This is Grandmaster Lehin.” “Grandmaster Lehin,” Kastan said, turning his full attention to the old man who could be his grandfather. “Your Grace,” Grandmaster Lehin said, bowing his head as much as he could. “I apologize for my family intruding on your domain. We are left with no choice and find ourselves at your mercy.” “What can I do for you?” Kastan asked. Grandmaster Lehin reached into the pocket of his heavy cloak and pulled out an old book. He handed Naveed his walking stick, then held out the old book to Kastan in a formal bow. “My family specializes in forging metal. We were prosperous in the Iron Lands, and owned a large workshop. Lord Revi’s men plotted against us and took everything we had forcing us out of our home. I now offer you this family manual and seek asylum for my family.” Kastan raised a brow at Naveed, and then took the book from Lehin. It was a manual on different ways of forging metal and crafting tools and weapons. It was invaluable information. Kastan closed the manual and looked at Lehin. “We shall work for you, Your Grace,” Grandmaster Lehin said. “Please give us a chance. I heard you took in the Hidden Keepers for their ability to protect Silver Shore Valley. My family will offer you the finest tools and weapons forged in this empire.” Kastan rolled the manual, and clasped his hands behind his back. Grandmaster Lehin’s family was full of weapons masters. They were an asset. It was always good to have forgers who knew what to do with metal. Lord Revi’s men were foolish taking over a forgery without the forgery master. They were not smart enough to know that the forge was successful because of the skill behind it. “Grandmaster Lehin, I will consider your request. Silver Shore Valley is not easily entered,” Kastan said. “The Hidden Keepers will let you know our decision when we reach it. Meanwhile, you are free to seek help from the soldiers at the gate. Our officers will deliver relief food and medicine daily. They will also be available to help you, if you are faced with trouble.” “Your Grace is kind and wise,” Grandmaster Lehin said, bowing his head lower. “I look forward to your decision.” Kastan and Naveed waited for Grandmaster Lehin to return to the caves before they left the clearing. “Will you let them into the valley?” Naveed asked. “We always need innovative forgers,” Kastan said. “I’ll ask Jihan what he thinks of a forge in the valley.” Naveed sighed. “The Iron Lands are deteriorating. I can’t believe people are turning into refugees.” “Lord Revi is a skilled statesman,” Kastan said. “There is no easy way to remove him from his position. He always has ironclad reason for his actions. He would need to lose a considerable chunk of his power to remove him.” Naveed scoffed. “That’s what they say about tyrants.” Kastan shrugged, his thoughts occupied with Jihan and the marriage dance suggested by Neith. “Naveed, would it be alright to plan a marriage dance for Jihan now?” Kastan asked, wondering if it was too soon. Jihan was already swamped with work. “We have all been wondering how to ask,” Naveed said, sounding very relieved. “I’m so glad you brought up this topic. Temu, Safan and I think that you’ve stayed too long. We’re worried the people will keep treating His Grace like an outsider. I’m relieved you’re thinking of the marriage dance.” “Why didn’t you say anything earlier?” Kastan asked, looking at his best friend. “Because,” Naveed shrugged. “We thought you both needed time to settle your hearts after getting an arranged marriage.” Kastan scowled at Naveed. “You should have mentioned something.” They had reached the valley’s entrance. Kastan turned to head home. “Your Grace, you had intended to visit the trade station today. Do you still want to meet Set and Garren?” “That can wait,” Kastan said. “I need to get to the manor and see Jihan. We’ll ask Yasmin to start preparations for the marriage dance. We should have it in three days.” “Three days,” Naveed almost shouted. “Have you gone mad?” Kastan chuckled and raced his horse to Sun-filled Manor. Rashan met him at the front door. Kastan dumped his cloak on an armchair in the hallway taking Rashan’s right hand. “Pa, you have to help me,” Rashan said, looking distressed. He led Kastan to the sitting area on his left. “I was mean to Uncle Jihan this morning. He even decided to take me on a walk with him because of it, when he came back, he looked upset. He is sitting outside and won’t even let his shadow guard stay with him. What do I do to make it better?” “Why were you mean to Uncle Jihan?” Rashan shuddered, clutching Kastan’s hand. “I don’t know, it just happened. I wanted to go outside and he wouldn’t let me.” “Did you apologize to him?” Kastan asked, looking into young dark eyes. He rubbed his thumb over Rashan’s forehead, trying to take away the little frown forming there. Rashan lowered his gaze when he answered. “No,” Rashan said, biting his bottom lip. “I don’t know what to say to make it better. I don’t want him to hate me, Pa.” “I’m very sure he will never hate you,” Kastan said, smoothing Rashan’s hair back and leaning forward to press a kiss on Rashan’s forehead. “I have a plan that might help.” Rashan looked up, his gaze brightening with excitement. “What plan? Can I help?” Kastan grinned and got up from the chair “We need Yasmin,” Kastan said. “She promised to learn how to make lemon tarts. Jihan’s favorite.” “Should we ask her to make some?” Rashan askesd. “We should,” Kastan said, picking up Rashan for an instant and swinging him up. Rashan laughed and Kastan returned him to his feet. “Shan, your Papa is a good man. He cares about you. Give him a chance to love you, hmm?” “I will,” Rashan promised. They ended up in the kitchen where they found Yasmin busy making their evening meal. “Your Grace, welcome home,” Yasmin said, covering a steaming pot. “I’m glad you’re home. Maybe you can convince Prince Jihan to get in out of the cold. I know he had a bad day today, but he could still get sick staying out by the cliffs with no cloak.” Kastan frowned. “Bad day?” he asked. Yasmin sighed and wiped her hands on her apron. “The fabric workshop workers hid from him today. He wasn’t happy about it,” Yasmin said. Kastan sighed and squeezed Rashan’s hand. “Shan, why don’t you help Yasmin prepare some lemon tarts for Jihan. I will go get him,” Kastan said. He patted Rashan’s shoulder and left the kitchen to find Jihan. *~*~*~* ‘An, I read your last letter. Your heart sounds unsettled to me. Your feelings for Duke Silver remain intact, but your task at Silver Shore Valley makes your heart waver. You worry he might only need you as long as you can help him. The valley’s people treat you differently, in the same way we treat strangers different at Kamran. In time, you will earn their trust. After all, you are a merchant, my dear brother. As for love, give Duke Silver a chance, An. Kamran continues. Gura wine is doing very well. The rest of our business is getting back to normal. We need your negotiation skills in Vasia. Tagon has brought a new player from Tanad Kingdom, someone who can take Silver Shore salt to Tanad at reasonable prices. Garren believes you are the best at negotiation. Let us know when you’re able to reach Vasia. Try to enjoy life, An. Rashan is a lovely boy. His adventures remind me a bit of you when you were that age. They make me hope for a boy. Ishan says he wants a girl. He thinks she will be like me, which terrifies me. Give Firuz a kiss on his cheek from me. I can picture the frown he will make perfectly. I think of him always and pray for his safety, as he is the most valuable talisman next to you. I love you, dear An. Take good care of yourself. I miss you very much. Andiya’ Jihan traced his sister’s name on the paper. Reading her letters left him homesick, extremely. He wanted to be home with her. He worried over her baby. He wanted to see her give birth and marvel over how perfect the baby looked. He wondered if she was eating well. He hoped their parents would not visit Kamran Estate to give her trouble. It pained him that he could not be there to defend her. His index finger stilled when he noticed a teardrop on the parchment. When a second followed, he brought his hand up to his cheeks, surprised to find he was crying. He wiped them away but they wouldn’t stop falling, chasing down his cheeks as if he was filling a river. He couldn’t remember the last time he had cried. Had he ever cried? He couldn’t remember. Why couldn’t he remember? Heavens, he was tired. His chest tightened and a sob ripped out of him. He was at once glad that he had chosen to sit outside in the backyard. It was a warm afternoon, and the waterfall was at full speed. His back was to the manor. He hoped no one would pay attention to him out here. “Jihan?” Firuz asked, wrapping an arm around him. “What’s wrong? Is Andiya okay?” Firuz reached for the letter, and Jihan tried his best to breathe in so that he could speak. The arm around his shoulder moved away and he braced his elbows on the table. Burying his head in his hands, he let out a sob the tightness in his chest making it hard to speak. “Sh-she’s fine,” Jihan managed. “I’m-I’m-Why is it so hard? W-why does no one like me here? Why did I decide to come here? I can’t believe I got married and left Andiya alone. What’s wrong with me, Firuz?” “There’s nothing wrong with you,” Kastan soothed, rubbing his back in gentle motions. Jihan sat up, shocked to see Kastan back so soon. Kastan had been coming home late, why would he decide to come home so early today? “I’m not crying,” Jihan said, embarrassed. Jihan started to turn away, but Kastan cupped his cheek and forced him to meet his gaze. “Don’t hide your tears from me,” Kastan murmured. He kissed Jihan’s cheek and shifted closer. Jihan closed his eyes, mortified when tears trailed down his cheeks. Kastan pulled Jihan to his side, pressing Jihan’s forehead into his shoulder. “I’ll stay with you until you feel better.” Jihan breathed in Kastan’s scent and let out a soft breath when the tears came faster. He thought about the fabric workshop manager running away from him. He was so tired. He wanted to go home to Andiya. He missed her so much. He missed having people who knew him and liked him. Silver Shore Valley was proving harder than he had intended. “Who upset you?” Kastan asked, still rubbing Jihan’s back, soothing him. “Your husband will avenge you.” Jihan clung to Kastan’s cloak and bit back a watery laugh, his tears faltering. “What happens if I say I upset myself?” Jihan asked, reaching into his pocket to get a handkerchief. He leaned his forehead on Kastan’s shoulder, as he worked on wiping his tears away and the mess at his nose. “Then, I’ll help you vanquish the thoughts that made you this upset,” Kastan said, still rubbing Jihan’s back in soothing motions. Jihan shook his head. He started to pull back but Kastan wouldn’t let him go. “I know you’re missing home,” Kastan said, having noticed the letter from Andiya. Firuz had left it on the table as he gave them space. “I can’t be Andiya, but I am your lover. Let me share your tears. I’ll hold you like this when you miss your sister and your beloved home. Or when you feel things are too hard.” “I’m crying like a weakling,” Jihan murmured against Kastan’s shoulder. “That can’t be attractive.” “I’m happy when you let me see you like this,” Kastan said, holding him tight. “Kas—” “You’re no weakling,” Kastan said. “Let’s sit out here until you feel better. Later, we can have Firuz bring your favorite tea. Yasmin has also learned how to make the lemon tarts you love. She always has some baking now. We should have a few…” Kastan picked up Andiya’s letter but did not read it. He placed it in the letterbox Jihan had brought with him from the house. Closing the box, Kastan got comfortable on the bench, holding Jihan, stroking Jihan’s hair and rocking him, as he held him. It was so soothing, Jihan felt as though the hurts of the day were fading. It felt good to lean on Kastan’s solid frame. *~*~*~*
  8. Chapter 14 Kastan bit back a soft curse at the arrival of Nisa in his home. She was General Baiza’s only daughter and Kastan worked at treating her with kindness. She was like a sister to him and had grown used to visiting the manor at will. General Baiza had once entertained dreams of marrying her into Sun-filled Manor, but Kastan had worked hard to disabuse the man of that thought. Now that the General was gone, Kastan felt obligated to look out for Nisa and make sure she found a good match. It was the least he could do for her. “She’s important to you,” Jihan said, drawing his attention. “Is she a General?” “No, she’s the daughter of a decorated General,” Kastan explained. “Her father’s command is changing to a different general. Their family is titled, so Lady Baiza has taken on her father’s estate. She remains an active part of the valley. Her family established and supports Rashan’s academy in town.” “You should meet her then. Do you want me to come with you?” Jihan asked. Kastan frowned; annoyed that he had to deal with Nisa when he should be heading into the dining hall to spend time with Jihan and Rashan. He had come to love their family time in the dining hall in the morning. “No need,” Kastan said, brushing his lips on Jihan’s cheek. “I’ll meet her and come join you and Rashan in the dining hall.” Jihan nodded and left him with Temu with a small wave. “Are you sure His Grace shouldn’t meet Lady Baiza?” Temu asked. “She might continue her visits. It will be good if there is no friction between them.” “I plan to find Lady Baiza a husband,” Kastan said, watching Jihan enter the kitchen instead of heading into the house. “She’s been visiting the manor too long. It’s time for her to have a home of her own, this way she will have no time to worry about my manor.” “Do you think it will be that easy?” Temu asked, with a soft chuckle. Kastan shrugged. “It has to be, I’m never giving Jihan a reason to leave this valley. Which reminds me, Jihan is going to start building a trade station outside the gates. Temu, I’m asking you to guard him.” “Why do we need a trade station?” Temu asked, curious. “Jihan will answer that question in time,” Kastan said. “I was going to ask Naveed, but you’ve been dealing with the keepers and the intruders. Temu, I want to ask you to take care of Jihan out there. His work might get him in trouble like with Ferino. I wish I could be with him every waking moment, but that is not possible. I’ll rely on you.” “As Safan watches over Rashan, are you asking me to take on His Grace?” Kastan turned to see Jihan leave the kitchen and enter the dining hall, followed by Firuz and Yasmin. They were carrying trays of food. Kastan started for the front of the manor eager to finish with Lady Baiza so that he could join his family. “Yes, Temu, I’m asking you to take on protecting Jihan,” Kastan said. “I promise to take care of him,” Temu said, stopping and bringing his right hand to his chest. He bowed his head in a solemn promise, and Kastan placed his hand on Temu’s right shoulder. “I know you will,” Kastan said, feeling a little relieved. Minutes later, he entered the manor’s formal greeting room to find Nisa Baiza perched on a chair sipping tea. She placed her cup on the stool beside her chair and stood up when she saw him. Her curtsy was flawless, as flawless as the stunning white dress she wore. Nisa was a beautiful woman. “Greetings, Your Grace,” Nisa said. “I’m sorry to visit you so early. I arrived from the capital late in the evening and thought I should report to you first.” Kastan walked down two short steps and crossed the room to the large chair set in the most prominent point of the room. Nisa waited until he sat before she followed suit. “You didn’t need to rush,” Kastan said, keeping his tone light. He adjusted his dark robes over his knee. “You should have rested from your journey, and come to the Duke’s office later in the day.” “I was worried I would miss you,” Nisa said. “I didn’t want to intrude on your consort if I came to the manor later and you were gone.” Kastan gave an inward sigh. Nisa ignored his hints that she should visit him in his office, instead of the manor. This was not the first time he had tried to remind her. “What brings you to my doorstep this early?” Kastan asked, bordering on exasperation. “I came home to find that all arrangements have been made for my father’s memorial ceremony. I wanted to thank Your Grace for taking care of the arrangements,” Nisa said. “I don’t know how to show my gratitude.” Kastan had only authorized the Welfare Office to take charge of preparations, under Naveed’s supervision. He was glad the arrangements were done. “General Baiza was valiant and I relied on him more than I dare admit,” Kastan said, still upset by General Baiza’s death. West Nation’s war had robbed him of a good man. “He was one of a kind. It is only natural that we send him off with great honor. The funeral ceremony was hasty, but I wanted to make sure the memorial was done right. We arranged the ceremony and waited for you to return home. Let General Naveed know the date you choose now that you are back.” Nisa got up from her chair and gave him an elegant curtsy. “Nisa thanks Duke Silver for his kindness.” Kastan nodded. “If that’s all—,” Kastan started to get up too, but she rose from her curtsy. “I hoped to visit Little Prince,” Nisa said, cutting in. “I haven’t seen His Little Highness since before the war. Please—” “It’s too early for visitors, Nisa. You may see him later. He will be at the academy in the afternoon,” Kastan said. “Thank you for stopping by.” Nisa stared at him for a moment, and then swallowed hard, stepping back. “Thank you for your time, Your Grace,” Nisa said. “I’ll remember to tell General Naveed of the date. I’ll leave you to your morning.” Kastan nodded and watched Nisa walk out of the formal living room. When he heard the front doors close, Kastan narrowed his gaze. “Find me a list of all the legitimate heirs of noble houses in the valley,” Kastan said, moving to the large windows to watch Nisa ride out of his compound. “The faster we can settle Nisa the better.” “Right away, Your Grace,” Temu said, with a hidden smile. *~*~*~* A month passed by, and Jihan was knee deep in the hard work of dragging Silver Shore Valley into a sustainable marketplace. He faced fierce resistance at every step, starting with finding labor for the farms, which turned near impossible. The locals who came to work at the farms had sabotaged the farms’ tools, and refused to keep to time schedules. They delayed his work schedule giving Jihan no choice but to ask them to leave. Kastan offered to help but Jihan insisted it was better that he deal with their opposition alone. In the end, the local’s hostility forced Jihan to ask Garren for a workforce. He would make the farms work on his own for now. The Hidden Keepers would not let outsiders stay in the valley, so he and Garren decided to build temporary quarters at the new trade station. The temporary quarters accommodated the workers building the trade station and the ones working in the farm. The farm workers came into the valley in the morning and left at dusk. In terms of building trust with the valley, Jihan still felt like an outsider. He had yet to see the butcher, Ferino, who had taken to hiding from Jihan whenever he went into town. The rest of the shops owned by the manor had closed, the business owners had closed shop. Temu told him that they were afraid Jihan would seek them out about rent. Jihan decided to let the shops go for now, and concentrate on making the farms work. He had brought in milk cows, and fast growing vegetable seeds. His intent was to take the milk and the vegetables to the trade station and sell them to wholesale traders. It was a start to increasing income to run the manor’s expenses, but it would take him a while before the farms turned a profit. He just needed to keep at it. Meanwhile, he was exploring other ways to find income for the manor. He had his eye on the fabric workshop he had discovered within the walls of the manor, and the furniture workshop. An excited shout interrupted his thoughts, drawing Jihan’s attention to the game of polo on the field. Jihan enjoyed watching and playing polo. He had been hoping to participate but Lady Nisa Baiza had interrupted his plan. They were at Rashan’s academy on a student event day. Rashan had asked him and Kastan to attend the academy’s activities, and help award prizes to the top students. Jihan had not wanted to disappoint Rashan. So, he had put off all his daily activities to attend the event. The event had started in the morning. Jihan arrived first at the academy accompanied by Temu and Firuz. Kastan would join them in the afternoon, as he had a meeting with the magistrate’s council. The first part of the event was the ongoing polo event. When Jihan had first arrived, the students were hoping to pair with their family and friends for the match game. Two pairs playing against each other. The pair with the highest score at the end of the play period would win. Jihan had been had been looking forward to playing with Rashan. He had not factored in that Lady Nisa Baiza would be at the academy. Nisa was an instructor at Rashan’s academy. Jihan hadn’t known that she was good friends with Rashan. The two were close. Their relationship born of time spent together. Women were frightening creatures, Jihan decided. Specific women, he adjusted when he thought about his sister, Andiya. She was a good woman. Well, he should just say that Nisa Baiza was a frightening creature. Renai Countess, Lady Baiza to the valley, and the woman Jihan was sure wanted to take his place at Sun-filled Manor left him feeling sick to the stomach. She was kind to him when they talked, but her gaze told a different story. Her gaze gave her away, especially when she looked at Kastan. She was full of longing and a deep unrequited love. There was envy in her gaze when she looked at Jihan, and contempt lingered in the dark depths of her gaze. It was hard for Nisa to look at him without a sneer. The contempt was clear to him when Kastan was not around. She hid it well when Kastan was close. Jihan thought about her reception when he arrived for the event. The academy instructors had all greeted him with excitement, but she had simply inclined her head in his direction and walked off. When Rashan started to ask Jihan to play with him, Nisa had changed the rules of the game. She had asked the students to choose their favorite instructor instead of family or friend, outsiders she had called them. Nisa and Rashan had partnered first. Jihan mulled over satisfied smile Nisa sent his direction at the little win. This was not the first time she had given him those triumphant smiles. They happened when Nisa managed to win Kastan or Rashan’s attention. It was annoying. He was learning to ignore those little looks because they were designed to upset him. Besides, he could not blame Nisa for wanting Kastan. He could understand Nisa’s feelings. Kastan was a formidable prince. There were days Jihan marveled over his own luck. When he woke first and found Kastan deep asleep beside him, he spent minutes watching Kastan sleep. Sometimes, he traced his fingers over the length of Kastan’s nose, or memorized the feel of Kastan’s stubble on his skin. His heart skipping when Kastan shifted closer to him, seeking warmth, giving him trust. It felt like he was living a dream having Kastan beside him. So many moments, Jihan locked them inside his heart to study later when he was alone. Jihan smiled. It was a powerful thing to have Kastan to himself. Yes, he could understand Nisa’s jealousy. He could even understand Nisa’s obsession with Kastan. He understood, because his man was impressive. So, he was not taking Nisa’s little games to heart. Well, he was trying not to. Jihan waved his fan in lazy motion with a sigh and watched Rashan and Nisa score their fifth time. He placed his fan on the table and clapped when their round ended and they were declared winners of the game. Rashan threw his arms up in joy, laughing with excitement. Their opponent was tough to beat and had four points, so their win was satisfying. Rashan rode his horse to the score podium and received his gift. It was in a small wooden box. Jihan watched Rashan open the box and inspect his gift. Nisa approached Rashan with an expectant smile. Rashan only gave her a respectful bow, before he turned his horse and rode to the tent where Jihan sat. “I think he is coming to you,” Firuz said, and Jihan got up from his chair. He adjusted his robes and went around the table, coming out of the large open tent. Firuz followed closed behind, smiling hard. “He looks excited.” “I can see it,” Jihan said, aware of the many parents in the tents around the field watching him. They were all curious about him, and his relationship with Rashan. Jihan shrugged off their gazes and concentrated on Rashan. Rashan stopped his horse a few feet away and jumped off. He was covered in sweat, the back of his dark purple polo uniform wet. Jihan reached out and brushed tendrils of hair framing Rashan’s face. He got a handkerchief from his pocket and used it to wipe drops of sweat from Rashan’s forehead. “Congratulations, Rashan,” Jihan said, truly proud. He was falling in love with the little boy. “You played so well. I’m proud of you.” “This is for you,” Rashan said, opening the box to reveal a red jade hairpin. “It matches your token. Do you like it?” Jihan took the box from Rashan, and studied the hairpin. His heart so full of happiness, he could barely contain it. Rashan continued to sink into his heart. He crouched before Rashan, and lifted the hairpin out of the box. He handed it to Rashan. “I love it. Why don’t you put it on for me?” Jihan asked. “I want to wear your prize.” Rashan grinned and got to work putting the red jade hairpin in to the tight knot of hair Jihan had tied this morning. When he was done, Rashan smoothed his palm over Jihan’s forehead and stepped back with a wide grin. “It looks good, Uncle Jihan,” Rashan said, with a nod. “Thank you, Rashan,” Jihan said, brushing his thumb over Rashan’s right cheek. “Are you competing again?” “Yes, but it will be a solo weapons match,” Rashan said. “I’ll be sparring with a long sword. Will you watch?” “Yes,” Jihan promised, though he was worried Rashan would get hurt. “I look forward to it.” Rashan grinned and gave him a hug. “I have to go meet my friends now,” Rashan said. “Please don’t leave. I really want you to see me compete.” “I wouldn’t dare,” Jihan said, patting Rashan’s back. “We’ll ride home together today.” “Then, I’ll go back now,” Rashan said, moving to take his horse’s reins. He waved and headed to the opposite side of the field to join his friends. Jihan rose from his crouch and reached up to touch the red jade hairpin. He couldn’t help the smile, even as he turned to head back to the tent. “You’re shining,” Firuz teased him. “Is it because you won that little contest?” “She might have played with him, but I got the prize,” Jihan said with a small chuckle. “I love Rashan.” “It’s very obvious,” Firuz said, squeezing Jihan’s shoulder when he sat down. “Can’t help it,” Jihan confessed. “What are you going to do about Nisa?” Firuz asked, and Jihan followed Firuz’s gaze to the faculty tent on his right. Nisa was watching him with a dark expression on her face as she gripped her sword. Jihan shuddered, wondering if she wanted to kill him. Her anger was too clear now. Rashan’s little display had rubbed her the wrong way. “I’m glad you’re with me,” Jihan said to Firuz. “I’m afraid if I was alone she would have already cut me in half.” “Well, it’s a good thing your husband is here,” Firuz said, as a commotion filled the field. Jihan dragged his gaze away from Nisa to see Kastan entering the field in the company of Master Bero. A wave of excitement filled the atmosphere. Kastan’s arrival was greeted with enthusiasm. The students rushed to the sidelines to catch a glimpse of him. Jihan started to get up when Kastan reached their tent. Kastan waved him down, coming to stand next to Jihan’s chair. Jihan wished he still held his fan when Kastan brushed his lips on his forehead. The show of affection would only infuriate Nisa. “Master Bero says I’m late,” Kastan said in greeting. “I missed watching Rashan compete in a polo game and win. He gave you his prize.” “Master Bero misses nothing,” Jihan said, when Kastan moved to take the chair next to him. “How was your meeting with the magistrate?” “Trying,” Kastan said, accepting a goblet of water from Naveed. “Is he still receiving complaints against me?” Jihan asked, aware that the workers he had kicked out of the farms were filing complaints at the magistrate’s office. They hoped he would stop bringing in outsiders and hire them again. “We can talk about that later,” Kastan said, dismissing Jihan’s question. “How is Rashan? Is he doing well?” “Exceptional,” Jihan said, looking to the faculty tent in search of Nisa. He shouldn’t have bothered. “Your Grace, welcome to the academy,” Nisa said, entering their tent. She had removed the clothes she used for the game, and was in a blue dress that showed off her figure. Her hair left to fall down her back, with a blue circlet tied around her forehead. She curtsied for Kastan, and moved to Kastan’s right side. “May I sit with you?” Nisa asked. “I’m afraid all the other tents are full.” Jihan fought the urge to roll his eyes and picked up his fan. The faculty tent did not look full at all, which was where Nisa should stay. When Kastan remained silent, Nisa continued. “To be honest, Master Bero is anxious that you have a good time today. It is so rare for you to attend our academy’s events. He asked me to keep you company and make sure you lack for nothing,” Nisa said. “Firuz,” Jihan said, when Kastan still kept his silence. “Why don’t you find Lady Baiza a chair? We don’t want to worry Master Bero, when he takes care of our Rashan so well.” “Yes, Your Grace,” Firuz said, and hurried out of the tent. Kastan took Jihan’s right hand, making Jihan look at him in surprise. He had not expected the show of unity, but it was enough to settle Jihan’s aching heart. “I tried to hurry the magistrate through our meeting,” Kastan said. “I know this is your first time here at the academy, so I wanted to join you. It will be good for Rashan to have us both here. I have disappointed him on all other student events this year.” “Did no one come to cheer him on?” Jihan asked, understanding Rashan’s request for him to stay the whole day. “Safan usually represents me in these events if I can’t make it,” Kastan said. “The days I was at West Nation, or when I have a meeting with His Imperial Majesty in the Capital. There are duties I can’t ignore, no matter the reason. Those times, I disappoint him.” Jihan wondered how Rashan coped. “I feel relieved now that you’re with us,” Kastan said. “You’ll be here for him in my stead. It makes me happy to think Rashan now has two parents.” Jihan smiled and squeezed Kastan’s hand. Firuz returned with a chair for Nisa, and placed it on Kastan’s right side. Naveed directed him to place it a few feet away from Kastan. Jihan turned to find Nisa watching him behind Kastan. “Please, be comfortable, Lady Baiza,” Jihan said, nodding to the empty chair. Nisa scowled at him, but she still sat with her back straight, her attention straight ahead. Jihan hid a smile and returned his attention to the activities on the open field. *~*~*~*~* Nisa watched Kastan move closer to his consort and whisper into Jihan’s ear. Jihan laughed and the elated sound frayed her nerves. She closed her eyes and her fingers bunched her skirts. The anger boiling beneath the surface threatened to swallow her whole. She should have been the one to sit next to Kastan. The one he whispered to, the one whose hand he held so tight and not the no-name man currently enjoying the status of Prince Consort and Duke of Silver Shore. She still could not believe this marriage had happened. It annoyed her that she could not seem to find a crack in their union. Jihan was too assured in his position. He showed no jealousy no matter what she did. He was like a stone, showing no reaction even when she moved too close to Kastan. There was no reaction from him. Kastan deferred to Jihan on all matters to do with their home life, Rashan and their marriage. Nisa had tried to invite Kastan to her house several times. He always told her he would ask Jihan first. ‘I’ll ask Jihan to plan a day and we can visit,’ Kastan would say. ‘Jihan plans our visits, I’ll ask him to make arrangements.’ It was Jihan this or Jihan that with Kastan. Nisa wondered what the merchant had given to the Imperial Prince to win such loyalty. She couldn’t remember a more frustrating month. All her attempts to pull Kastan’s attention had failed, so now it seemed as though she was going to need to seek out a mightier sword. She had delayed her father’s memorial, as she tried to know Jihan Kamran. Now that she understood he was a hardy weed, she was going to play a harder game. Jihan reached out and smoothed his palm over Kastan’s hair, arranging straying strands. He said something amusing, prompting Kastan’s full laugh. The sound was so surprising it drew a few gazes from the tents around them. Dark jealousy filled Nisa, because she couldn’t remember ever getting Kastan to laugh with such abandon. Fear accompanied the jealousy and she concentrated on formulating a plan. She needed to get Jihan away from Kastan fast enough before it was too late. It wouldn’t do to have a Kastan who couldn’t forget the handsome merchant. *~*~*~* Kastan enjoyed spending the day with Jihan and Rashan. Rashan won his long sword match, and received an award for his prowess in martial arts. He failed his tests in the sciences, and Jihan hugged him to cheer him up, promising to help him with his studies. When the last event ended, Kastan gave a short speech at Master Bero’s urging, encouraging the students, calling them the future of the valley. The ceremony ended, and Kastan led his family out of the academy. He ignored Nisa’s many attempts to get his attention, instead opting to work at surprising Jihan and Rashan. He felt the need to celebrate Rashan’s wins and a day spent in Jihan’s company. Instead of horses, they used one of the ducal carriages from Sun-filled Manor. “Where are we headed?” Jihan asked, when he looked out the carriage window and realized they were not heading home. “I have a surprise for you both,” Kastan said, taking Jihan’s hand and grinning at Rashan. “I wanted to treat you both and end the day on a high note.” Jihan’s gaze widened with pleasure, and Rashan smiled, glowing with the day’s excitement. Kastan marveled over the happiness he felt in his heart. If all he did had these two looking at him this way, with such trust, then he would be content. Their destination was a lighted floating boat on the lake. Yasmin and Fara were on board having brought a feast to fit a king with them. Safan helped them arrange everything, and Temu had three men operating the boat. Jihan stood staring at the lighted boat in awe, the silver water in the lake glittering in the moonlight. “When did you plan this?” Jihan asked, when Kastan took his hand arm and led him aboard. “While we waited for Rashan to compete,” Kastan said. “I wanted to cheer him up if he happened to lose the match, but he won. So we’re celebrating.” “You’re the best Pa a boy could have,” Jihan praised him. Jihan leaned up and brushed his lips on Kastan’s chin, before he hurried after Rashan who was leaning on the rail looking down at the water. Kastan touched the spot Jihan had kissed, hoping for more. The boat set off and Kastan joined his family on the rail to watch the lake water. Much later, after a hearty meal and a cheerful toast to Rashan’s wins, Jihan sat on a comfortable bench at the front of the boat. Rashan lay stretched out beside him, with his head on Jihan’s lap, deep asleep. Kastan watched Jihan play with strands of Rashan’s hair. Jihan’s gaze was thoughtful as he watched the moonlight dance on the water. Once again, he wished he knew what Jihan was thinking. “How annoyed are you about Nisa?” Kastan asked, remembering Jihan’s little game with a chair in the corner of their tent. He tried to let Jihan deal with Nisa, hoping she understood that Jihan was his consort without exception. “I know she’s been doing her best to make you jealous. I heard what she did with Rashan on the field today.” “Does everyone report every incident to you?” Jihan asked, keeping his tone low. “They try to,” Kastan said with a small chuckle. Jihan nodded and returned to watching the moonlight on the silver water. He looked relaxed, no tension on his shoulders. “Did you ever like her?” Jihan asked, his gaze not moving from the horizon. “I thought of her as a little sister,” Kastan said. “Her father hoped I would think of her as more, and encouraged her to spend time at the manor. I kept her around because I respected General Baiza, but I have no interest in her.” “She likes you,” Jihan said, looking at him. “She wishes you chose her as your consort.” “You are my consort,” Kastan said. “I chose you, and would again, Jihan.” Jihan’s lips curved into a small smile, but he didn’t say more. Kastan moved closer to where Jihan sat. It took some maneuvering, but he managed to squeeze in next to Jihan. He made sure Jihan was resting against his chest, and Jihan made sure Rashan stayed comfortable in his sleep. “You married Jian,” Jihan said, his tone thoughtful. “You must have loved Rashan’s mother. You would know what if feels like to love.” Kastan’s gaze shifted to Rashan, and he frowned wondering how to give Jihan the answer he needed. He opted for truth. “I was twenty when I married Jian. She was eighteen years old. We were young and following the wishes of our families. None of us could walk away,” Kastan said. “My first marriage was obligated. All I can say is that I understood Jian’s motivations, and respected her for doing her best with me.” “She gave you Rashan,” Jihan said. “Yes, she did,” Kastan said, unable to say that he had understood what love was with Jian. He had not. “Jihan, I married Jian in the same state of mind Andiya would have married me had the Emperor refused to change his edict. I married her for the empire’s stability.” “What about me?” Jihan asked, his tone quiet. “I chose to marry you,” Kastan said. “Do you believe me?” Jihan kept his silence, though he nodded his head. “What if you want other children?” Jihan asked, after a moment of silence. “Then we’ll find a way to have them together,” Kastan said, pressing a kiss on Jihan’s left temple. “Nisa can give you children—,” Jihan started “Do not discuss Nisa giving me anything,” Kastan cut off Jihan. “I don’t want anything from her. You’re my consort. I only care what you want and wish to give me.” Jihan sighed and leaned his head back. “Don’t be angry with me,” Jihan said, his tone low. “I’m just—,” He broke off, his hand stroking over Rashan’s hair. “I’m only thinking about Rashan. He should have someone to play with and not have to grow up alone,” Jihan said. “Is this your way of telling me we should find a surrogate?” Kastan asked. “I had hoped to be selfish and spend time with you and Rashan for a few more years. Can’t we talk about it after your heart has settled in this valley?” Kastan asked, his tone pleading. “Right now, I need you to lean back and relax. Enjoy our family, Jihan. I really love us together like this.” Jihan chuckled and Kastan wrapped a comforting arm around Jihan’s shoulders holding him tight. “Alright, if that’s how you feel,” Jihan said, finally relaxing against Kastan. “Let’s do that, Kas.” *~*~*~* Heavy rainfall greeted them the next week. Jihan halted the final stages of construction at the trade station as the rain made it impossible to continue. He gave the workers three days off, and left Garren and Set in charge. He left the construction site with Temu riding to the farms. The first farm was named Sarus Farm. Jihan wanted to make it a dairy and poultry farm. Sarus could withstand the heavy rains. The second farm was named Antac Farm. Jihan worried about Antac Farm because of the nurseries and the incomplete silos. He spent the rest of the day helping the workers manage water drainage, and work to protect the nurseries. When he got home, it was to meet Kastan at the manor’s front door. Removing his wet cloak, Jihan frowned taking in Kastan’s leather cloak, gloves and the large hat he wore to cover his head. “Where are you going in the rain?” Jihan asked, accepting a kiss from Kastan. “There are flash floods in the east of the valley,” Kastan said. “We have a village in trouble. I’m worried people might lose their lives. This is not the first time this has happened. I need to see what we can do to handle the problem for good.” Jihan sighed and was going to complain a bit about Kastan going out in the rain, but then Rashan came rushing in, laughing at the soggy sound his shoes were making. Jihan shook his head. “Rashan, say goodbye to your Pa, then it’s a hot bath for you. You’re going to get sick if you keep those clothes on,” Jihan said, watching Kastan hug his son. “Pa, are you going to the East Villages?” Rashan asked. “Are there floods again?” “Yes,” Kastan said, using his palm to wipe water off Rashan’s face. “Your Papa is right, why don’t you go take a hot bath. Yasmin already has the water boiling. We don’t want you getting sick.” “Okay, be careful of the floods, Pa,” Rashan said, then ran in the direction of the large bath downstairs. Jihan turned to Kastan with a small smile. “Just because you keep calling me his Papa, doesn’t mean he’ll start,” Jihan said. “Stop pushing him.” “I have to try,” Kastan said, touching Jihan’s damp clothes. “You should change too. Rashan needs you healthy. I’m leaving the manor in your care.” “Don’t worry, we’ll be fine,” Jihan said, leaning up to brush his lips on Kastan’s jaw. Kastan left soon after, leaving Jihan standing at the front door. The rain continued, the skies pouring as though in mourning. Jihan sent out a prayer of protection for Kastan. Firuz then took him by the shoulders and matched him into the house to go change. That night, Jihan insisted on having his evening meal in Rashan’s room. He made sure the fireplace in Rashan’s room was lighted and helped Rashan with his sciences homework. When Rashan was ready for bed, he tucked him in, and left Safan to guard him. Jihan entered the master’s chamber stopping to stare at the bed he shared with Kastan. It felt surreal to be the only one sleeping there. He had grown used to having Kastan beside him. “I’ve heard an old wives tale,” Firuz said, coming up behind him. “Married couples have a hard time sleeping alone. They get used to having someone in bed beside them. I’m sure you will be missing Kastan tonight. If you want, I can sleep next to you.” “Stop teasing me,” Jihan scowled. “I don’t miss Kastan in my bed. I can sleep quite fine on my own.” “If you’re sure,” Firuz said, going to check the windows, and make sure they were locked tight. Jihan scowled and got ready for bed. When he slid under the covers, he found that he had chosen the right side of the bed, instead of the middle. He shifted to the middle, and arranged the covers around him. When he started to lay down again, he reached for the right pillow, shifting until he was back where he started. Jihan sighed, turning to look at Kastan’s side of the bed. His body had even trained itself to accommodate Kastan. Running his palm over Kastan’s pillow, he wondered if Kastan had a warm place to sleep tonight. “Should I stay?” Firuz asked. Jihan closed his eyes and burrowed under his covers. “Yes, please,” he said, grateful when Firuz perched on Kastan’s side of the bed. It wasn’t the same, but at least he would not be alone. Kastan didn’t come home that night, or the next day. Jihan was too busy handling the damage at the farm to think about Kastan’s delay. When he got home from the farm, it was to find Safan carrying an unconscious Rashan into the manor. The sight of Rashan so out of it panicked Jihan. “What happened?” Jihan asked, rushing after them, up the stairs. “Is Rashan alright?” “He wasn’t feeling well at the academy, and fell asleep during Master Bero’s lecture. When I tried to wake him up, he wouldn’t open his eyes. I carried him here,” Safan said. “Why didn’t you say he was feeling unwell this morning?” Jihan asked, as he watched Safan place Rashan on his bed. “It wasn’t unusual,” Safan said, reaching for Rashan’s boots. “I thought he would shake it off.” They both got to work removing Rashan’s shoes and his outer coat. Jihan pressed his palm over Rashan’s forehead and hissed at the heat there. “We need to cool him down,” Fara said, when Jihan looked up and found Fara placing a bowl of cool water on the bedside table. Jihan helped her undo Rashan’s tunic, and took the cool cloth from Fara, placing it with gentle care on Rashan’s forehead. Firuz brought more blankets for Rashan, and Safan helped Jihan change Rashan into a sleeping shirt and slacks. When they had Rashan comfortable, Jihan pulled a chair closer to the bed. He took Rashan’s hand, worried by how hot Rashan felt. Jihan stayed with Rashan, changing the cold rug on his forehead, and adjusting the covers when Rashan got restless. Jihan only left Rashan’s room long enough to change out of his day clothes. Adjusting his green gown over his inner shirt and slacks, he left the master’s chamber and ran into Safan. “Your Grace, you should rest too,” Safan urged. “Don’t worry about me. Rashan is shivering with cold, but he is hot to the touch. He has all the heavy blankets on his bed, and still he shivers,” Jihan said. “Safan, I’m sure the manor has a doctor. Call him in, and let’s find a way to heat up Rashan’s room. The weather is not helping.” “I’ll get the doctor,” Safan said. “Temu just came in. I’ll ask him to help me with the coal furnace.” Jihan nodded and entered Rashan’s room to find Firuz helping Rashan sit up. Jihan rushed forward, relieved to see Rashan awake. “He’s still too hot,” Firuz said, when Jihan pressed his palm on Rashan’s forehead. “Help Yasmin make the ginger and lemon tea that Andiya taught you,” Jihan said. “We should get something warm inside him. I doubt he can get any food in him.” Firuz nodded, and hurried out of Rashan’s room. “It’s so cold, my head hurts, and my throat is scratchy,” Rashan complained, reaching for Jihan. Jihan got on the bed and pulled Rashan into his arms. Rashan moaned in discomfort, burrowing his face into Jihan’s neck. “Uncle Jihan, when is Pa coming back?” Jihan closed his eyes, and took in a deep breath unsure what to say. Kastan had no set date of return. Jihan wished he had a date to give Rashan. When he was young and got sick, he had always wanted Andiya with him when he felt the worst. Rashan’s person had to be Kastan. Of course, it was Kastan. He hated that Kastan couldn’t be here right now. “He’ll be home soon, Shan,” Jihan said, shifting to ease his leg. Rashan clutched his gown in panic and moved closer. “Don’t leave me alone,” Rashan begged. “Please stay with me like Pa does when I’m sick.” “I’ll stay with you,” Jihan promised, pressing a kiss on the top of Rashan’s head to calm him. Jihan pulled the blankets over Rashan, and rocked him when he felt Rashan still shivering under the heavy blankets. He wished Kastan were home. Kastan always made any situation feel manageable. Jihan wondered when he had started to rely on Kastan’s strength. He didn’t fully know the exact moment. Jihan felt tears sting the back of his eyes because he suddenly missed Kastan terribly, and it scared him. *~*~*~*~* Kastan got home three days later, weary from endless hours of hard work. His soldiers had worked without rest. They had needed to relocate the families affected by the flash floods and build shelter for them. He had left Naveed with plans underway to redirect excess water in to existing canals that directed water into the East Village Dam. He would need to send troops of men for the rest of the month until they had the water under control. For now though, he had needed to see Jihan and Rashan, so he hurried back home. Kastan removed his heavy cloak and dropped it on a table in the front hall. The house was oddly quiet. It was early morning, Rashan and Jihan should have been in the dining hall, and it was never quiet when they were in there. He slowed down at the peaceful silence. Yasmin met him at the stone garden. “Welcome back, Your Grace,” she said, wiping her hands on her skirts. She looked harried. “I’m so glad you are back. Please, come talk to His Grace. He won’t listen to anyone, not even his shadow guard.” “What happened to Jihan?” Kastan asked, forgetting that he was tired, fear taking over at the thought of anything happening to Jihan. “Little Prince got sick from being in the rain,” Yasmin said. “His Grace has been taking care of him for three nights straight without rest. He won’t leave Little Prince’s room. We’re all worried he’ll get ill in the process because he’s not taking care of himself.” Kastan squeezed Yasmin’s shoulder. “Prepare a bath for me in the master’s chamber, and some food. I’ll get Jihan from Shan’s room,” Kastan said. “I’ll make sure he rests.” Yasmin breathed out relief and hurried into the dining hall, while Kastan made his way to the stairs. He entered Rashan’s rooms to find Temu and Safan sitting in Rashan’s study space. They stood when they saw him, giving him nods of welcome. Kastan walked deeper into Rashan’s room, to find Firuz arranging ledger books at a table in the corner. Jihan must have moved his workspace into Rashan’s room. Fara was folding clean clothes on the chaise. They both turned to greet him, but their quiet murmurs of greeting were telling. Kastan’s focus remained on the bed where he could see Jihan sleeping on Rashan’s bed. His consort was still in his sleeping clothes. His green gown swept the floor tangled with the sheets. Rashan was sitting up, reading a book, which he discarded the moment he saw Kastan. “Pa,” Rashan said in a whisper, careful not to shake Jihan awake. Kastan smiled in greeting, always glad to see Rashan’s excitement when he walked into a room. Rashan started to get up, but then Jihan shifted and he stopped, staying still. A little frown creased his forehead as Rashan studied Jihan’s face. When Jihan kept sleeping, he sighed in relief and looked up with a wide smile, bringing his index finger to his lips. Kastan’s heart squeezed. Rashan was worried about Jihan too. Kastan crouched down, watching Rashan gently shift hair from Jihan’s face. His little fingers caressed silky strands with care. Jihan’s breathing stayed even. He was deep asleep. Comfortable in Rashan’s space, most important, Kastan thought was that Rashan was at ease with Jihan. He could not get enough of seeing them together like this. Meeting Rashan’s gaze, he returned Rashan’s smile and nodded. Straightening up to his full height, he leaned close to Rashan to whisper in his ear. “How are you feeling?” he asked. Rashan lifted both his hands in fists to show that he felt strong. “That’s good news. Then, I’ll clean up, and be back to get your Papa. Do we have a deal?” Kastan asked. Rashan nodded and settled back against the pillows. Kastan paused before he left, taking in the picture Rashan and Jihan made. They were the two most important people in his life, his family. A soft snore escaped Jihan and Kastan grinned, meeting Rashan’s gaze. He winked and hurried out of Rashan’s room to get a bath. Kastan hurried through clean up and eating a fast meal brought by Yasmin. He was back to get Jihan in less than an hour. Temu followed behind him. “How is he doing with the trade station? Is it hard for him?” “The trade station is almost complete,” Temu reported, as Kastan carried Jihan to their rooms, heading straight for their bed. Temu watched as Kastan made sure Jihan was comfortable. “His Grace has pushed his people until they are at the last stages of construction. The station is set up as a market and also a collection place,” Temu said. “It will be an interesting place for our people. His Grace has Set and Garren already making plans on management of the station. They work faster than us.” “How are the farms?” Kastan asked, knowing that the farms were Jihan’s latest obsession. He was hoping they work, if only to pay back the work Jihan had put in. “Sarus Farm is going really well,” Temu said. “It’s working without problems. Sarus Farm is coming to life with the help of Jihan’s workforce. It’s almost unbelievable. It pains me that no one from within Silver Shore Valley is working there.” “What about Antac Farm?” Kastan asked. “Not so stable,” Temu shook his head. “The rain was too heavy and damaged quite a number of crops. His Grace was trying to save them when Little Prince fell ill. He left the work up to the farm manager and me while he stayed home. We saved most of the nurseries, but not all. We had to start new seeds again, but the farm manager says not to worry. I’m caught between awe and envy when I look at what they have done with the farms.” “The farms needed time investment,” Kastan said. “We are too good at war and terrible at dealing with management. Jihan is good with those things. Temu, I will be happy if you would support him without bias.” “I’ll support His Grace as you ask,” Temu said, helping Kastan with pulling the covers over Jihan. “Which brings me to my dilemma. I need authority to move farming tools from the manor stores to the Antac Farm.” “You have it,” Kastan said, giving it without question. “Thank you, Your Grace. I’ll leave you two to rest,” Temu said, and hurried out of the Master’s Chambers. Kastan listened as the door closed, before he slid into bed beside Jihan. He adjusted his pillow so that he was facing Jihan. He had missed Jihan terribly. He had gotten so used to having Jihan beside him in bed, that he couldn’t sleep well without him. He wondered what his consort would say to such a confession. A small smile played on his lips and he found himself dozing off to sleep to the lull of Jihan’s even breathing. *~*~*~* Jihan woke up in comfort. He opened his eyes expecting to see Rashan, but instead, he saw Kastan. It felt like a dream for a moment, and he stayed still afraid if he sat up the mirage would fade away. He shifted to his right side, and reached out to touch the scar on Kastan’s right eyebrow with his left hand. His fingers touched warm skin and his heart lurched with excitement. He shifted closer to Kastan, and because he could not restrain himself, pressed his lips on Kastan’s forehead. Kastan opened his eyes and Jihan wrapped his arms around him. He gasped when Kastan held him and pulled him into a tight embrace. “You’re home,” Jihan murmured, burying his face into Kastan’s shoulder, breathing in his clean scent. It felt so good he wanted to cry. “I’m home,” Kastan said, his voice sleep roughened. “I missed you, Jihan.” “I missed you too,” Jihan said, doing his best to press himself as close to Kastan as he could. “I want to say don’t leave again, but that’s impossible.” Jihan closed his eyes, just glad to have Kastan back home. Then, he remembered that Rashan was sick, and started to pull back. “Where are you going?” Kastan asked, holding him tighter. “Let go, I have to go check on our son.” Jihan tried to get away, but Kastan wouldn’t let him go. “Shan is awake and doing well,” Kastan said, his tone soothing. “Fara will make sure he eats. Stay with me, Jihan.” “But—” Jihan started. Kastan kissed him, and Jihan moaned. He melted in Kastan’s arms as his world righted itself again. *~*~*~*
  9. Chapter 13 It felt good to sit with Kastan and Rashan. Jihan listened to them talk about their day. Kastan asked Rashan about his studies. Rashan talked about Master Safan and training. Kastan finished eating and Temu approached him to remind him of a meeting with the valley’s magistrate. Jihan pushed his teacup away and watched as Rashan got up first. “I should hurry too. I don’t want to be late to see Master Bero,” Rashan said. “Uncle Jihan, Master Bero teaches me the sciences. He has an academy in the main town. I’ll be back home in the evening. Can we have our evening meal together?” “Absolutely,” Jihan said, glancing at Kastan before he said, “we’ll wait for you.” Rashan beamed and Jihan wondered how often Kastan made it home for evening meals. Rashan left them with a happy wave, Safan leading the way out of the dining hall. “Will you be home in time?” Jihan asked Kastan. “I’ll do my best,” Kastan said, reaching for Jihan’s right hand. “Does it bother you when he calls you uncle?” Jihan shook his head. “It's not about me,” Jihan said. “Rashan doesn’t know me. He needs to learn to trust me in his own time.” Kastan studied him for a moment, and then nodded. “Alright,” Kastan said, though Jihan could see that it bothered him. “Give him time, Kas,” Jihan said, reaching out to squeeze Kastan’s arm. “Before you leave for your meeting, I need you to check something with me. Can you spare me a few minutes?” Kastan got up and held out his hand right hand to Jihan. Jihan placed his hand in Kastan's and turned to Firuz when he stood up. Firuz hurried out of the dining hall to the doors leading to the kitchen. Earlier, Yasmin had come into the dining hall to talk to Jihan. She had wanted to know what to do with the chest of spices sent by the Empress. Jihan worried about the contents in that chest. Rushi was not his friendly. She certainly did not like Kastan and thought him a threat. It would be folly to take a gift from Rushi on good faith. Five minutes later found them in the expansive back yard of the manor. The cliffs Firuz had praised were a remarkable sight. There was a waterfall under a bridge between two steep cliffs. The river with the waterfall separated the manor from the cliff across. Jihan wondered who lived in the cliff across. The bridge looked usable, but the height was enough to make Jihan unsure about crossing it. A fall from that bridge would end in sure death. Jihan shuddered and took in the scenery. The cliffs, while steep, were colorful and vibrant; flowers and bushes grew in wild force on different ledges. The open garden leading to the cliff was green with grass. Comfortable benches installed in little clusters around the large garden. It was perfect for a picnic or breakfast in the morning. Jihan caught a glimpse of rooftops in the distance below. It looked like a glimpse of the town in a strange twist of geography. He could see how one might fall in love with Silver Shore Valley. The scenery healed the soul. Water pouring into a bowl drew Jihan's attention. He dragged his gaze back to the wooden table in the middle of the garden. Firuz was putting water in five bowls he had gotten from Yasmin in the kitchen. The chest of spices from the Empress Rushi sat in the middle of the wood table. Kastan was perched on the bench at the head of the table. Temu and Naveed stood behind him. Jihan reached up to braid his hair into a messy ponytail. He finished in time with Firuz and moved to open the chest of spices, pulling it closer to him. He pushed the lid up and stared at the yellow gauze covering the spices. Jihan took the gauze and lodged it under the chest. Inside, he found an array of ground spices in small boxes. None of them packaged, just ready to use, the chest could be used as kitchen storage. Jihan gave Firuz a wary glance and reached for the wooden spoon Firuz brought along with the bowls. Jihan scooped out a spoonful of chili and poured it into the first bowl. Firuz handed him another spoon, which he used to scoop up cinnamon powder. He placed it in the second bowl, and continued until he had three other bowls with sage, rosemary and ginger. “What are we doing?” Kastan asked, curious as he leaned forward, watching Jihan help Firuz to stir the spices in their bowls. “Are we hoping to cook with these spices later?” Naveed asked. “I’m partial to cinnamon bread.” Jihan smiled and filed that away. “No, we’re never cooking with these spices,” Jihan said, closing the spices chest. “Why? They came straight from the palace,” Temu asked. Jihan ignored the note of distrust in Temu’s voice and nodded to Firuz. Firuz got a knife from a scabbard at his waist and used the clean water to rinse its thin sharp blade. He then held it up for Kastan to see. “What’s that for?” Naveed asked. “Our kind uses these knives to test for poison in food,” Firuz said. “It will detect even the slightest traces.” Firuz dipped the blade into the cinnamon water. He lifted the blade up and Jihan sat on the bench in shock. Firuz’s blade turned into a sickening greenish color. He had hoped to be wrong. Firuz used clean water to wash the blade and dried it on a small cloth. He then dipped it into the sage water, when the knife changed color again,Temu stepped closer to the table. “I’m guessing the greenish color is not good news,” Temu said, his tone grim. “The spices have traces of poison,” Kastan said, looking at Jihan. “She gave you this box?” “Yes, the morning we left,” Jihan said. “She probably thought I wouldn’t check.” “No one would think to,” Naveed said, also moving closer to peer into the bowls of water and spice. “It’s a gift from the Empress.” Jihan shrugged and opened the chest again. He was careful to cover the ground powder with the yellow gauze. He didn’t want particles escaping the box. Jihan lifted the top tray and found a small scroll tucked underneath. He returned the tray, closed the box and broke the seal on the scroll. “Imperial Prince Consort,” Jihan read aloud. “You’re either one of my people or you’re not. If you are, feeding these spices to your new husband opens a new world for you. If not, then it will be better for you to throw this box away. If I visit and find it, I’ll use it against you. Try to report this to Imperial Prince and see what happens.” Jihan sighed and handed the note to Kastan. Kastan read it and handed it to Temu who read it with Naveed. Kastan folded his arms against his chest, his thoughtful gaze stayed on the bowls Firuz had prepared. “It’s a warning,” Kastan said, after a moment of silence. “The box is not enough to confront her. The spices could have been exchanged in transit. She's flexing her power.” “We can’t keep this gift, Kas,” Jihan said. “Not in a house with Rashan.” Temu gave Jihan a glance filled with complicated emotions. It made him wonder what Temu thought of him, but then the look passed. “I’ll dispose of—,” Naveed started to say. “No need,” Firuz said, lifting a large metal bucket from under the table. He placed it on the table and reached for the box. He undid it piece by piece, placing the spices in their trays in the bucket. He broke the main box into pieces and put the wood in the bucket. He then poured accelerating oil inside and lit a fire. The wood caught fire fast and Firuz moved the metal bucket away from the table. He made sure the wind was taking away the smoke before he placed the bucket on the ground. Jihan turned his attention to Naveed. “This is better, that way, no one has doubts as to what happened to these spices,” Jihan said. “Jihan,” Kastan said. “Our sister in-law is a bully,” Jihan said, angry that she would dare threaten him using a chest full of poison. What if he hadn’t checked it? What if he allowed Yasmin to use the spices? Gods, he hated to think what would have happened. “She’s the worst kind, as she prefers using insidious attacks," Jihan said. "I’m letting you know that if she comes at me…at us…I’ll not lie down and take it.” “Can’t you let me handle this?” Kastan asked. Jihan watched Firuz manage the burning spices. “Kas, she tried to turn me into an assassin with a chest of poison disguised as a gift. You’re not the only one in her sights now. We need to be careful.” Kastan sighed as Naveed placed the scroll on the table. “Fine,” Kastan said. “But don’t try to do anything right now. The valley is recovering from the war with West Nation. We can keep a distance from the palace for a while.” Jihan nodded and got up. “Is that what you wanted to show me?” Kastan asked. “Yes,” Jihan said with a shrug. “I thought it was better if we all knew what was going on.” “I would have believed you if you dealt with it on your own,” Kastan said, holding Jihan’s gaze. Jihan felt warmth flood him at the solid trust he read in Kastan’s gaze. It was not Kastan’s trust he was trying to win though, but that of his two loyal men. “It worked out this way,” Jihan said. “You should head to your meeting now. It’s not good for you to be late.” Kastan stood up too. “What happens if I’m late?” Kastan asked, enjoying bossy Jihan. “I’ll have to think on that,” Jihan said, trying to move closer to Firuz. Kastan intercepted him, taking his hand and leading him closer to the cliff. The edge of the cliff was secured with a thick half wall made with rocks. Jihan figured it was built up to keep Rashan safe. Jihan leaned on the wall, peering over the edge of the cliff. The drop down was interesting, filled with bushes and rocks jutting out. “Thank you,” Kastan said, moving closer and wrapping an arm around Jihan’s waist. Kastan pulled him into his arms. Jihan found himself pressed against Kastan, and his breath caught in his throat. He looked up into knowing dark eyes. “None of us would have thought to check that box,” Kastan said, shaking his head, “Especially since it came from Rushi’s workshop.” “I’m cautious because I’ve met meaner bullies,” Jihan soothed. Kastan squeezed him with a wince. “I don’t like to hear that you have struggled,” Kastan said with a sigh. “It makes me angry.” Jihan chuckled and reached up to rub the frown lines on Kastan’s forehead. “I want to ask you to take care of the household matters,” Kastan said. “Yasmin knows what is needed for the manor to run. She has tried to help with the manor's ledgers, but she can only do so much. I’m always occupied with military issues and I’ve neglected them.” “I’ll handle it,” Jihan said. “About your Kamran network,” Kastan said. “I want you to know that they are welcome here, Jihan.” “We’ll talk about it when you’re not so busy,” Jihan said, thinking Kastan did not need more problems right now. “You’re always so...” Kastan trailed off, stroking Jihan’s cheek with a finger. “You can lean on me, you know. That’s why I’m here.” Jihan nodded, knowing Kastan was serious. Still, it was difficult to let him in all the way. Just in case, he was wrong. Kastan brushed his lips on his forehead. “I’ll see you later,” Kastan said. “Mm,” Jihan said, as Kastan let go of him. “Try to make it for the evening meal. Rashan is looking forward to it.” “Yes, my dear consort,” Kastan said, grinning as he walked away. *~*~*~* The two weeks that followed Jihan's first day at Sun-filled Manor were full of discovery. Jihan could only watch and absorb the manor’s daily rhythm. Kastan woke up at dawn, dressing for the day and heading out to deal with the daily concerns brought by officials in the valley, and daily reports from outposts around the empire. Rashan had a set schedule for his studies too, and an intensive physical training program with Safan. He spent his mornings reading or having a lecture from guest scholars from an academy in town. His afternoons were spent on the third floor practicing or in a training field outside with Naveed and Temu. Jihan tried to get time in with Rashan at meal times. Waking up early enough to eat his morning meal with Rashan and catch up. He hurried into the dining hall at midday. If he was lucky, he found Rashan and Safan, at times he ate alone. The only time they all met and sat together was in the evening. Jihan loved the hours they spent in the smaller sitting area just outside the dining hall. Rashan told stories of his day. Kastan sharing any pressing concerns he might have, including Rashan in finding solutions. Sometimes, Temu and Naveed joined them. In those few hours, Jihan felt like they were becoming a family, though they hadn’t quite reached yet. Jihan returned his attention to the records he was reading. The ledgers of Sun-filled Manor were a complicated mess. There was a book filled with Yasmin’s careful account of money she spent on kitchen supplies. Her list was the easiest to deal with as it came from money given to her by Kastan. The rest were old ledgers ran by Jian, and then Kastan, who was too busy to keep up. Jihan created new records as he read the old ones. He tracked money coming in and out and frowned as he stared at the short list of incoming money. Sun-filled Manor had an interesting money route. The manor owned twenty shops on the main street in town, three farms and a salt mine. If all of them worked right, the manor would have a solid source of cash flow. At the moment, it seemed like only six of the twenty shops brought in money for their rent. One farm was working, growing rice and nothing else. It paid its monthly dues by providing rice to the manor. The other two farms had gone quiet. Jihan wondered what had happened. The salt mine was the only steady source of income. Jihan picked up the list of bereaved families that the manor was supposed to pay monthly. It seemed as though the manor was taking on the compensation of soldiers who had fallen during the war. Yasmin had told him that Kastan’s personal pay from the army ran most of the kitchen’s needs. Everything remaining went toward the compensation fund, including income from the salt mine. Jihan rubbed his forehead, feeling a headache start. The Emperor should have told him that he was to perform a miracle at Silver Shore Valley. The state of Kastan’s finances made him want to cry. He was lost in farmland deeds and a Silver Shore Valley map when the window opened behind him. A figure slipped into the master’s chambers dressed all in back. Jihan spared a glance at the intruder, and then returned to the maps. “You’re going to damage your relationship with my husband,” Jihan said. “He takes protection of this manor very seriously, Set.” Set moved to the large table Jihan was using to go through the manor’s records. Jihan had tried different spots in the manor, including the household office downstairs. Yasmin needed to come in and out of that office during the day. His presence in that office made her nervous, so he had moved to the cozy sitting area. He had spent most of his time checking out the many books on the shelves instead of working. In the end, setting up in the master’s chambers had given him the peace he needed to concentrate on the records. Set looked to his left and gave an impressed whistle at the sitting area with the many windows showing off the silver lake in the distance. He turned to his right and took in the large bed in the far right, with its impressive headboard. Jihan loved the tiger head carving on the headboard most. Set shifted his gaze to Jihan and removed the covering over his mouth. He sat down in the chair opposite Jihan. “Master Jihan, your new role suits you so well,” Set said, his grin wide as he took in Jihan’s emerald robes. “You look like royalty.” “It’s because you’ve never seen me at home. I’m not in traveling clothes,” Jihan joked. “Every time I met you, I was going somewhere.” “True,” Set agreed with a sigh. He was dressed light for travel. Jihan dropped the farm invoices on the map and met Set’s gaze. “It’s good to see you,” Jihan said, smiling at Set. “I’m assuming this is not the first time you’ve been in this compound.” “You’re right. It’s also the first time you’ve been alone in days,” Set said with a frown. “Your husband’s hidden keepers are quite vigilant.” Jihan’s brow lifted and he looked to the open window behind him. He had kept it unlatched because Firuz asked him. “Firuz knows you’re around,” Jihan guessed, sitting back in his chair. “Nothing gets past him,” Set shuddered. “How are you doing, Jihan? Are you okay? Should we mount a rescue? You’ve barely left this manor since you arrived.” “There is nothing to worry about,” Jihan said. “No problems, except from the imperial family. And the only reason I’m not leaving is because I’m trying to understand the manor’s position in this valley.” “You’re one of the imperial family now,” Set pointed out. Jihan shrugged, still unwilling to think of being related to the Emperor and his Empress. Set nodded and pulled out a large black bag from a bag on his back. He placed it on the invoices before Jihan with a wink. “Your sister wanted to send Yoru, but I told her to wait. Yoru is a secret I’m not sure you’re ready to share. So, she gave me that bag for you.” “Thank you,” Jihan said, lifting the heavy bag and placing it back on the table. “You can count after I’m gone,” Set said. “Andiya is doing well but there are decisions to be made by you, Jihan. First, are we still keeping the network hidden? Should we return to normal business?” Jihan worried his bottom lip for a moment, and then shook his head. “Business may return to normal, the smaller suppliers need the business connections working,” Jihan said. “Your network of information is what the Emperor is after. I want to protect that, and your people.” “Then, we’ll act accordingly,” Set nodded. “We have always kept to ourselves anyway, so you have nothing to worry about. As you’ve been in here, I’ve spent my time collecting information on your valley. It is financially ill. You know this, right?” “I’m discovering it,” Jihan said, nodding to the ledgers on the table. “This manor is carrying the burden of welfare compensation.” “Yes, the people are relying too much on that welfare office,” Set said. “Staying closed off from the outside world is stunting their growth. It is a prestigious place to live, but only if your family has a member in the army. Anyone else is dependent on welfare. You need money flowing in the villages.” “The valley remains a command point filled with state secrets,” Jihan pointed out. “You’re right. It doesn’t need to open its gates. The same way we get salt from the valley’s salt mine. The valley can sell its products that way,” Set said. “Garren can send a business troop and trade with interested merchants. We can set up a trading station near the valley’s gates.” “Can Kamran afford it?” Jihan asked, thoughtful. Garren and Andiya handled his business’s finances, leaving him to worry about logistics and new business plans. “I believe that is why Andiya sent in that bag for you,” Set said, with a small smile. “She says you have a fund at your disposal if you need it. However, the bag you have there is startup capital.” Jihan chuckled and patted the black bag. “I guess I’ll use this startup capital to build the trade station,” Jihan said, “after I talk to Kastan.” “Is he controlling you?” Set asked, his brow raised in question. “No,” Jihan said, making sure his tone left no room for doubt. Set was protective of personal freedoms. He had freed hundreds of children and women from abusive homes. Bringing them under his care and helping build his network of information. Jihan could not blame him. Set had come from a very harsh family setting. His father had controlled everything his mother did, and when she did something wrong… Jihan sighed. Set had lost his mother to his father’s beatings. “My husband is kind to me, Set,” Jihan said, holding Set’s gaze. “You have nothing to worry about.” Set took in a deep breath and let it out. He looked around the expansive master’s chambers, before he returned his gaze to Jihan. “Garren and I were talking.” “And?” Jihan asked, tugging open the strings on the black bag from Andiya. He found a note inside that he pulled out, smiling when he saw the funny drawing of a laughing cat. His sister always knew how to lift his moods. “We would like you to introduce us to Duke Silver,” Set said, making Jihan look up. “You made us, Jihan; everything I am today would not have come to be without you. It’s not fair that you have to take on the weight of protecting us alone. Let us help you.” Jihan returned Andiya’s note into the bag and studied Set. The heavy weight resting on his shoulders tightened every time he thought about exposing his people to Emperor Kiyan. “Duke Silver is not the problem,” Jihan felt compelled to say. “I’m in deep debt with a dragon. I’m afraid I’ll burn to a crisp at the slightest misstep. I’m only a pawn in his deadly game at the moment.” “They still made the pawn a Prince Consort,” Set said, his tone very low. “We’ll make you worthy of their game. Please think about it. You’re not a weak pawn, Jihan.” Firuz entered the master’s chambers, making Set look back at him. “Your time is almost up,” Firuz told Set. Set sighed and got up. He turned to Jihan. “Can we send Yoru?” Set asked. “He misses you.” “Yes,” Jihan smiled, missing Yoru too. “There is a beautiful cliff behind the manor. He would love it. I’ll wait for him in the morning.” “Okay, give him your answer to our request to meet Duke Silver,” Set said. “It’s always better to be prepared than to defend yourself, Jihan.” “Thank you,” Jihan said, as Set started to leave. Set paused, looking down at the map on the table. His gaze on the three dots Jihan had marked, for the three farms owned by the manor. He pointed at the first dot, on the outskirts of the main town. “The rice farm is understaffed,” Set said. “Their output is a quarter of what it should be. They have an invasive weed in their main pond. It makes watering a problem. They have twenty acres, but only five are in use.” “You’ve been hard at work,” Jihan said, noting down Set’s remarks. “Your interests are mine,” Set said, then pointed to the two dots. “These two farms are lying waste. I found old farmhouses with old caretakers. They need investment.” Jihan nodded and Set left through the window as fast as he appeared. Jihan turned to Firuz. “How is it with Temu and the others?” “They are frustrated,” Firuz said, placing a tray with a pot of tea and a cup on the table. “Have tea first. Those ledgers will still exist tomorrow.” Jihan pressed his palm on the black bag from Andiya. He pushed the bag to Firuz. “We don’t know enough about the valley to start pushing money in. We’ll start slow.” “What about Set’s suggestion?” Firuz asked, taking the bag as he sat in the chair Set had used. “It will restore some peace to Temu and Naveed. Set has been playing with them as he comes in and goes. He is also right; you don’t have to do this alone.” Jihan rubbed his temple and looked away from Firuz. He stared at the windows, and the sunny view beyond the windows. “I’ve been Kamran’s caretaker so long,” Jihan said, shaking his head. Kamran was in his blood. He had protected his business so long, that it was difficult to share it even with Kastan. “It’s not a sin to lean on him,” Firuz said, as though reading his thoughts. “You’ve done it alone too long, Jihan. Take a step in his direction. He might surprise you.” Jihan sighed and returned his attention to the tray Firuz had brought. He reached for the teapot and poured himself a cup of tea. “Pushing aside matters of trust, why do you think two farms are lying waste? Also, fourteen shops are not paying rent. I wonder why…” *~*~*~*~* Later that day, right after lunch, Kastan was at the Duke’s office handling reports from the West Nation border. His attention should have been on the number of soldiers needed to staff the checkpoints both empires had created. Instead, his thoughts were firmly rooted on his consort. Jihan had spent most of his time since he arrived at the manor reading ledgers, and asking Yasmin endless questions. His questions centered on running the house, and how many people it would take to make tasks in the house simpler. His questions had made Yasmin so worried about her position, that she had come to look for Kastan in his office. Kastan promised her nothing would happen to her job. When he tried to ask Jihan his thoughts on the matter, Jihan told him not to worry. He turned into the perfect lover at night, and Kastan forgot to push the matter. He could not resist a willing Jihan. He got hard thinking of Jihan’s drugging kisses. The fact that he could get them whenever he wanted now made him smile wide. Still, Jihan was on a strange mission that he refused to share with Kastan. This afternoon, Jihan had decided he would accompany Rashan into the main town to see where Rashan went to school. His son was ecstatic with this news, and even offered to give Jihan a personal tour of the academy. Kastan was beyond happy at the sight of them getting along so well. It made him believe that they could be happy together. Shaking his head, he forced his attention back on the reports on his desk. His mood lowered when he found a note from the palace. It was from Rael, who was interested in visiting the valley. He wanted to discuss the Emperor’s plan of having the valley support the palace in six months. Kastan rubbed his forehead at the ambitious goal. He was straining all their financial resources at the moment. He truly doubted he would manage sending extra supplies to the palace, unless Jihan came up with a new plan. He pushed that thought to the back of his mind and concentrated on what he could solve. Kastan was busy making a reply to the General in charge at the border when his door slid open and Temu ran in. “Your Grace,” Temu said, his voice full of panic. “We need you on the main street in town. His Grace went to visit the academy with the Little Prince. All was fine, until he left with his shadow guard. His Grace decided to carry out an inspection of the shops owned by the manor. He ran into Ferino, the butcher—” “Is he alright?” Kastan asked, getting up, heart pounding in his chest. The idea of Jihan running into Ferino left him weak with worry. Ferino was a butcher, who worked out of one of the shops owned by the manor. He was supposed to pay rent to the Duke’s office, but that had never happened as he had multiple welfare families who took meat from him on credit. Kastan had listened to his case once and thought it better never to push for rent. It would aggravate the welfare of several bereaved families. “Ferino pushed His Grace out of the shop, which triggered the shadow guard. They are now fighting in the middle of the street,” Temu said. “None of us can stop a shadow guard, Your Grace.” Kastan ran out of his office, hurrying out of the Duke’s Office to mount his horse. He was on the road heading to the main street in minutes. He worried for Jihan’s safety. Ferino was a bull of a man who had handled knives and axes all his life. He came in handy at war. When he wasn’t fighting, he stayed at his shop chopping meat. Kastan shuddered, hoping he would make it in time to save his consort from an angry butcher. *~*~*~* Jihan wiped dust off his dark outer robe, his gaze on Firuz and the hulking man holding an axe. Firuz had moved the fight to the street and there was now a growing number of spectators. This was not how he had hoped to introduce himself to the valley. Still, it seemed extreme for Ferino to respond with violence when Jihan asked a simple question about rent. Shaking his head, Jihan noted that the butchery’s door was wide open and the place was empty. Knowing that Firuz would keep the butcher occupied, he ducked into the butchery in search of an office with records. It took him a few minutes, but he found a ledger behind a counter in the shop. Crouching on the floor, he placed the book on a small stool and started going through each page. Grabbing a paper used to wrap meat, Jihan got a stick of charcoal and scribbled information as he read. He was on the final page when he heard footsteps entering the butchery. He folded his piece of paper and stuck it into the pocket in his sleeve. Closing the ledger, Jihan returned it to its spot and crawled to the end of the counter. He looked around to see if Ferino was back. He hoped Firuz had not gotten hurt. Heart pounding in his chest, he froze when fine leather boots with silver designs stopped a few feet away. Jihan swallowed and looked up to find Kastan watching him. Breathing out relief, Jihan sat back on his haunches and smiled at Kastan. “Do you want beef tonight?” Jihan asked, looking back at the chests filled with preserved meat. “I’m sure Ferino will not be averse to selling you a few pounds.” “Jihan, why are you kneeling on the floor?” Kastan asked, his tone gentle. “I’ve never known you to hide.” “I hide very well, thank you,” Jihan boasted with a short grin. He held out his right hand to Kastan who helped pull him up. Jihan wiped at his knees, peering around Kastan to the commotion outside. The sound of Firuz’s sword had stopped. He could hear Ferino complaining about being ambushed in his place of business. Jihan winced and straightened up, meeting Kastan’s curious gaze. “Why are you always in trouble when I find you?” Kastan mused, rubbing Jihan’s right cheek with his thumb. He leaned in and pressed a soft kiss on Jihan’s forehead. “Tell me what’s going on? I thought you were going to Rashan’s academy.” “I did go to the academy,” Jihan said. “Rashan showed me his class and I met his Master Bero. Then, I left because I didn’t want Rashan to miss his lecture. When Firuz and I came out of the academy, we decided to explore the town. I happened to remember that the manor owns a few shops. I entered this one to ask why there has been no rent. The butcher lost his mind and pushed me outside. Firuz reacted.” “Why didn’t you ask me?” Kastan asked. “Because, you’re busy with military matters,” Jihan said, dropping his gaze the gold embroidery on Kastan’s collar. “And, you asked me to take care of household matters.” “I did ask,” Kastan said, touching Jihan’s chin, smiling when Jihan looked up. “You won’t ask more?” Jihan asked. “I’m always on your side,” Kastan said, taking Jihan’s right hand. Temu appeared at the butchery door, followed by Ferino and Firuz who pushed Ferino into the butchery. Kastan turned, facing the door, effectively placing Jihan behind him. Jihan stared at Kastan’s back in surprise. He remembered doing this for Andiya when they were in trouble. He had never had anyone stand in front of him to protect him, other than Firuz. Kastan still held his hand. Jihan closed the small distance between them and pressed his forehead on Kastan’s back. Kastan inhaled sharply and squeezed Jihan’s hand, holding it against his stomach. Jihan smiled. “Your Grace,” Ferino said, his voice full of anger. “I did not mean to offend you, but—” “A shadow guard will only react if you touch his charge with aggression,” Kastan said. “There is no doubt that you touched my consort with violence in mind. What I want to know is why?” “He came in to ask about rent,” Ferino said, his anger still high. “I don’t take kindly to such questions here, in front of my customers. He wouldn’t take my answers—” “You offered no answers,” Firuz stated. “His Grace asked you if he could help you solve the problem, but your answer was to grab his arm and push him out the door. You would not let him go until he fell down the steps.” Jihan winced as Firuz’s anger rose. “I’m fine, Firuz,” Jihan said, from behind Kastan. “My clothes got dusty. I’m not hurt.” “That’s not the point,” Firuz said. “Alright,” Kastan interrupted. “Ferino, you have wronged my consort.” Jihan pulled at his hand and stepped around Kastan, so that he could see Ferino. The butcher was a hulk of a man, standing tall with his shoulders straight. He had a busted lip, thanks to Firuz, and there were cuts on his arms where Firuz had cut him with his sword. Jihan imagined here would be other injuries on his body. Firuz’s hits were calculated, and designed to be remembered. Ferino scowled at him, though he lowered his gaze after a moment. Jihan sighed. “Ferino, I’m not interested in being your enemy,” Jihan said, drawing Ferino’s surprised gaze. “I was not here to ask for money from your pocket. I just wanted to talk to you about your business. I’m sure there are many reasons why you would be unable to pay rent. With some help, we could figure it out together.” “You don’t know me. Why would you help me?” Ferino asked, accusation clear in his voice. Kastan shifted, and Jihan squeezed his hand to stop him from defending him. “Why wouldn’t I?” Jihan asked. Ferino blinked and stared at him. “Kas, don’t hold a grudge over Ferino’s reaction to me,” Jihan said. “Firuz has also solved the matter. We should let it go.” “Is that what you wish?” Kastan asked, never looking away from Ferino. “It is,” Jihan said, hiding a smile at the glare that Kastan was giving Ferino. Ferino took in a relieved breath and his shoulders relaxed. Jihan nodded and looked around the empty butchery. “Think about my offer,” Jihan said, letting go of Kastan’s hand. He took a step forward so that he was standing in front of Ferino. Meeting an unsure dark gaze, Jihan continued. “You can find me through the Duke’s office, or send a message and I will find you. Thank you for your time, Ferino.” Jihan nodded at Ferino and stepped out of the butchery, Firuz following him closely. Outside, Jihan waited on the verandah until Kastan came out. Jihan started for his horse, so that they could go home, but Kastan stopped him. “Walk with me,” Kastan said, holding out his hand to Jihan. “To where,” Jihan wondered, looking around the busy main street. “I want to show you around,” Kastan said, with a playful grin. Jihan hesitated for a moment, but then he took Kastan’s hand and allowed himself to be led down the steps to the path on the side of the road. He could not remember going out with Kastan. They had spent all their time indoors in Kin Town. This felt new and oddly satisfying. Their walk was more of a stroll along the main street. Kastan held his hand, pointing out shops of interest. Jihan soon realized Kastan was showing him the shops the manor owned. About five were open, the rest were closed for the day, and Kastan was not sure what the owners sold. Jihan wondered if the closed shops ever opened for business. They stopped by a fruit vendor on the street and bought grapes. Kastan had them washed and held them for Jihan to eat at his leisure. Jihan was sad to discover there was no actual market. He loved walking through open markets, and the valley had none. “What if we set one up?” Jihan asked. “Why? The valley’s people can get anything from the existing shops,” Kastan said, pausing at an intersection. Jihan frowned, watching an empty cart pass followed by a carriage. “Markets give smaller merchants a livelihood,” Jihan said. “Are you saying the valley doesn’t have small farmers or traders?” “They take their produce to the welfare office for purchase,” Kastan said. “The officers there do the best they can to buy the produce, if they can’t, the manor takes on the burden.” No wonder the manor’s two farms were lying waste. How could the manor make the two farms work if they were taking on produce from the valley’s people? It would be a betrayal. Jihan sighed and pulled his hand out of Kastan’s hold. He folded his hands against his chest, and turned to face his husband. “Your valley is insane, is what it is. This utopia is not sustainable. The Welfare Office needs relief from all that stress. Its purpose should be to help the people who are truly struggling, not to be a warehouse of sorts. This valley’s people should have the choice of making their own money if they can. Have you ever thought of that?” Jihan asked. “Is this an argument you’re starting? Why change what is working for the valley? My people have never complained to me that they were unhappy with how things are running—” “Who would dare complain to Duke Silver?” Jihan asked, throwing his hands up in disbelief. He shook his head, and because the street was clear, he crossed the road first. “Jihan,” Kastan hurried after him. “That butcher has so many debtors, I don’t know if he can ever recover that money. It makes me wonder how he is still able to sell meat at his shop.” Jihan shook his head. “I don’t know that he will ever pay the manor the rent due. I’m sure the other fourteen shops not paying you will have the same problem. Your manor is barely surviving. If I were this valley’s creditor, I would buy you all off and make you work for me. You’re in debt, Kas.” “Which is why the Emperor brought you here,” Kastan pointed out. “Don’t remind me,” Jihan said, stopping to glare at Kastan. He pressed his right index finger into Kastan’s chest. “How dare you mention your brother right now?” “I’m sorry. Tell me what you need me to do,” Kastan said, capturing Jihan’s finger. “It’s not that simple,” Jihan shook his head. “This might be more than I can handle, Kas. I don’t know that I can fix it. It’s—” “A problem you need to solve,” Kastan cut in. “I didn’t want to tell you like this, but the Emperor sent a request that the valley should support the palace financially in six months. I don’t think this valley will manage it, if it stays the same.” Jihan gaped. “You can barely support your manor,” Jihan felt compelled to remind Kastan. “How can His Imperial Majesty imagine that you’ll manage his luxuries?” “He has his reasons,” Kastan continued, trying to justify his brother’s tyranny. Jihan had no words. White-hot anger filled him and for a moment, he felt like the top of his head might blow off. He understood love toward a sibling, he had it for Andiya, but the insane loyalty Kastan had for his Emperor Brother was destructive. All Kastan did was give, and all Kiyan did was take, when did it balance out? Jihan turned to keep walking, but then Set’s idea filled his mind. He looked at Kastan. “What would your hidden keepers think about having outsiders coming in to the valley to trade?” Jihan asked. Kastan winced. “We track every person who enters this city, Jihan. It’s hard enough to do that with the city’s residents and their families. Imagine if we had an influx of merchants.” “Fine, then I’ll ask for a trade station to exist outside the gates,” Jihan stated. “Give me that much.” “What will you do with a trade station?” Kastan asked. “Trade,” Jihan said, with a small grin. “Kas, why would you ask an obvious question?” “We can’t afford it,” Kastan countered. “I’ll build the trade station,” Jihan said. “That’s not right—” “Your brother wants contributions to the palace in six months. Where do you think they’ll come from if the valley is not producing enough income?” Jihan asked. “Silver Shore is not taking your money, Jihan,” Kastan glared at him, and Jihan shrugged. “Fine, then the valley can take me on as a lender,” Jihan said. “I’ll build the trade station. The valley is drowning in debt. It needs an influx of trade from outside. Silver Shore can pay me back when it’s back on its feet.” “Jihan.” “You said you’d let me make my choices,” Jihan reminded Kastan. “I want to do this, you should let me.” Kastan sighed, his gaze shifting to the shops on each side of the street. The doors of the shops were open, the traders all leaning on counters or sitting on stools outside chatting. There was no sign of active trading, just gossiping and lazy afternoons. He thought it a sign of peace. Jihan on the other hand looked at the idle traders and saw a stuck economy. An empty cart drawn by an old man drove by, before Kastan spoke again. “Alright, fine, you can build your trade station,” Kastan said. “But you’ll have to take on a troop of men from Naveed.” “I have Firuz,” Jihan pointed out. “The troop of men for your trade station or nothing,” Kastan insisted. “Fine, as you wish. Now that we’ve settled the Emperor’s issues, I have one of my own,” Jihan said, when Kastan took his arm and started leading him back to their horses. Kastan kissed Jihan’s right cheek as they walked, making Jihan pause. Kastan smiled, kept walking, urging Jihan forward. “What problem may I solve for my consort?” Kastan asked. Jihan bit his bottom lip. He gave Firuz a quick glance then decided to take a leap into the unknown. “My Kamran business has two important people I would like to introduce to you.” “Is one of them driving the hidden keepers crazy?” Kastan asked, squeezing Jihan’s hand. “I have no idea,” Jihan said, with an internal scowl. He had warned Set not to play with the keepers. It was very easy for him to come in without notice. “You can ask them when you meet.” Kastan stopped, his hold on Jihan’s right hand jerking him to a stop too. Jihan looked up to find Kastan studying him with a complicated expression in his eyes. “What?” Jihan asked. “You have decided to trust me with an important part of your life,” Kastan said. “Thank you.” Jihan shrugged. “It’s nothing—,” Jihan started to say. “Don’t brush it off,” Kastan said, squeezing Jihan’s hand. “I’ll be glad to meet your people. When can we expect them?” “We’ll know tomorrow,” Jihan said. “What’s happening tomorrow?” Kastan asked. Jihan smiled hard at the thought of seeing Yoru after so long. He had really missed Yoru. Kastan stopped. “Who else has the power to make you smile that hard?” Kastan asked. Jihan blinked. “Are you jealous?” Jihan asked, amused by Kastan’s fierce gaze. They had reached their horses. Temu and Firuz waited with them, and Jihan started to mount his horse. “No,” Kastan said in answer to Jihan’s question, reaching for the reins of Jihan’s horse. He held the horse steady, as Jihan mounted and handed Jihan the reins. “Are you really not going to tell me?” “I’ll have to show you, Kas,” Jihan said, reaching down to stroke over the dark stubble on Kastan’s jaw. “You have nothing to worry about.” Kastan made a face, and Jihan chuckled, charmed that Kastan would be jealous. *~*~*~* Kastan watched Jihan walk to the edge of the cliff at dawn the next morning. Jihan moved with a sense of excitement, his steps fast, his gaze riveted on the horizon. Kastan adjusted his heavy cloak over his shoulders and moved at a slower pace. Firuz lounged on the table in the middle of the garden. Legs crossed under him, eyes closed in meditation, Kastan marveled at his presence. Rashan was still asleep in the house, and Yasmin was busy in the kitchen. Kastan stepped down two steps and walked on the grass heading to Jihan. When he was a few steps away from his consort, Jihan extended his left arm out, and Kastan stopped when he looked out and saw the largest eagle he had ever seen. His gut reaction was to reach for his sword, worried that it would attack Jihan. The eagle circled above them, before it landed on Jihan’s left arm as gently as it could. Kastan breathed out when it turned to look at him, and lowered its head at him in a display of respect. A sense of recognition filled him, and his gaze shifted to Jihan who was looking at the eagle. “Welcome to Silver Shore Valley, Yoru,” Jihan said, smiling that happy smile that had Kastan feeling insanely jealous. Jihan had smiled at him like that when they were in Kin Town. After their wedding, he had yet to see that smile directed at him. It was insane that he was jealous of an eagle, but he could not help it. “I’ve missed you,” Jihan said to Yoru, his sincerity clear in his voice. Kastan held still realizing Jihan placed his affections for this eagle at the same level as those he had for Andiya. A spot he had hoped to reach himself, he wondered if he ranked below the eagle. Silence fell and Kastan realized the eagle was having an exchange with Jihan. A thread of excitement raced through him at the realization that Yoru was one of the clan he protected. He could not talk to Yoru, unless Yoru wanted it, so Kastan took another step closer to Jihan. “Jihan?” Kastan called out, keeping his tone calm, not wanting to annoy the predator on Jihan’s arm. Jihan turned to him, and he frowned when saw the drop of blood on Jihan’s lip. “Kas, this is Yoru,” Jihan said. “He’s the oldest eagle at Kamran Estate. I’ve protected his kind all my life. Yoru, this is my husband, Kastan Miran, the Imperial Prince. I hope you’ll accept him as my life partner.” Kastan turned to Yoru. “It is my honor to meet one as majestic as you. Your kind has lived long in our valley,” Kastan said, concerned by Jihan’s nosebleed. “If you speak to Jihan, the eagles in the Silver Shore eyrie are your kin. You will always have my protection.” Jihan’s gaze stayed on Yoru, and after a moment of silence, Jihan spoke. “Kas, Yoru thanks you,” Jihan said. “He says he can only accept your protection after he meets with the eagles in your eyrie.” “Why does he make you hurt?” Kastan asked, hating the blood coming down Jihan’s right nostril. “It’s not his fault,” Jihan said. “He says there is a way not to make it hurt, but he never learned how.” “Then, he should meet the elder eagles in the eyrie,” Kastan said. “They know a way. I’m sure they will teach him. I don’t like seeing blood coming out of your nose, Jihan.” Jihan stroked Yoru’s neck with a finger. “Don’t worry about him, he gets grumpy,” Jihan soothed the eagle. “Yoru, go to Set, and tell him to come to Silver Shore Valley with Garren. Duke Silver will be waiting to meet them. Our Kamran network is spreading its wings.” Yoru spread his wings in answer, ready to take flight. He turned to Kastan and inclined his head one more time before Jihan helped launch him into the air. Yoru gave one long call, circled the manor, and then flew in the direction of the eyrie at Silver Shore. Kastan hoped Yoru would find his kin among the eagles of Silver Shore Valley. He was eager to see the smile Yoru put on Jihan’s lips again. He wanted to keep Jihan that happy, considering the many burdens now placed on Jihan’s shoulders. Jihan reached into his pocket and got a handkerchief. He pressed it to his nostril to wipe away the blood. “Yoru is magnificent,” Kastan said, taking the handkerchief from Jihan. He pulled Jihan closer and concentrated on helping Jihan clean his nostrils. “He trusts you, so you must have been good to him and his clan.” “He has been good to me too,” Jihan said, tilting his head back, to help Kastan. “I don’t like to see you bleeding though,” Kastan said, wiping the last of the blood away. Kastan folded the handkerchief and placed it in his pocket. He wrapped his arms around Jihan and held him. “I’m happy you’re feeling comfortable enough to invite your people here. Bring them more often, Jihan. Fill this place with your joy.” Jihan brought his right hand up and pressed his palm on Kastan’s left cheek. The touch had Kastan’s heart racing in his chest. Warmth filled his heart and he held on to Jihan, closing his eyes when Jihan smiled. Watching Jihan run around the estate, hard at work, had him worried. It was a worry that refused to dissipate no matter how many times he held Jihan, or kissed him, or made love. “Your Grace,” Temu’s voice interrupted the moment. Kastan opened his eyes, pressing a kiss on Jihan’s cheek. Jihan’s hand dropped away, and Kastan let go of him, turning to find Temu standing a few feet away. “There is a visitor we cannot turn away,” Temu said. “Who would visit us this early in the morning?” Jihan asked, a frown creasing his forehead. “Renai Countess, Lady Nisa Baiza,” Temu said in answer. “She would like to meet Your Grace, to report on matters at the border, and visit with the Little Prince.” *~*~*~*
  10. lilansui

    Chapter 1

    I'm glad you found it! I hope Leon and Logan entertain you.
  11. lilansui

    Chapter 11

    Hwaiting! There is mad love for Firuz and getting a Shadow Guard. All I can say in regards to whether Rashan gets one or gets trained by Firuz, is that he is lucky in that he has both Kastan and Jihan looking out for him. I think he might be luckier than the Emperor's sons. I suppose this story is turning into a sort of family drama with crazy assassins and shadow guards who keep you alive. Hahaha.
  12. lilansui

    Chapter 12

    This is too awesome, maybe because the Mother controlled the household, hahaha. Coming from a very matriarchy home, I get this. In the end, Jihan probably cannot forget that moment kneeling down in his courtyard where Kastan told him it was the only way to save Andiya. Very true. Marriage and money, hahaha, what a beast of an issue. Thank you. Also very true, I've been having a bit of a push and pull with this. Yes, a bit, it happens when you stay in a place too long. You don't see the faults, newcomers do.
  13. Chapter Twelve Nisa Baiza, Countess of Renai and the daughter of General Baiza ran up the steps leading to the imperial military offices at the palace. Heart pounding, she prayed that she wasn’t late. She had spent too much time at the West Nation border. She had joined the army under General Baiza when the war started, in the hopes of meeting Prince Kastan. When her father fell in the caves of Mount Kin, she was inundated in the war and winning against West Nation. Orders had to be followed in the army and she barely got time to seek out the Imperial Prince. When the war ended, she was one of the people left at the border to help implement the new treaty. It took too long for her to get news of Prince Kastan’s wedding. The moment the announcement arrived at the newly built border offices, she had set out, hoping to get to the palace in time. Nisa ran into the military offices at a dead run. She stopped when the officers in the receiving room looked up from their tasks to stare at her. “Renai Countess,” the man behind the closest desk said, standing up. “Lady Baiza, it’s an honor to have you in our office. How may be of help?” Nisa sucked in air, hoping to slow her speeding heart rate. She had not stopped to think of what she was doing. Her assistant would be the one coming to ask for a meeting with the Imperial Prince. It was not normal for her to run in like this to demand an audience with Prince Kastan. “My lady,” the man behind the desk said again. “I—,” Nisa started and looked around the room, conscious of everyone’s gaze on her. She cleared her throat and straightened her shoulders. “I’m looking His Highness, Imperial Prince.” “I’m sorry, Lady Baiza,” the answer came. “His Highness, Imperial Prince has left the city. He has returned to the main command at Silver Shore Valley.” Nisa bit back her protest and stepped back, disappointment filling her heart. “Was Imperial Highness alone?” she asked, her voice almost in a whisper, afraid to hear the answer. “No, Lady Baiza,” the man said, with a wide smile. “His Highness, Imperial Prince, took his consort home. I’m sorry you must have missed the wedding celebrations. The festivities were a sight to see.” Nisa’s hands tightened into fists and she left the military office before she could punch the innocent man. Sorrow filled her at the thought of Prince Kastan married and lost to her for good. She could hardly believe it was real. How long had she waited? “Lady Baiza!” Nisa looked up and was surprised to find the Empress’s Advisor, Fortan, standing a few feet away. “It’s been a longtime. Lady Baiza, how have you been?” Nisa could not find words to explain her current heartbreak. She was devastated. She had hoped that after the war she would have time to get closer to Prince Kastan. After all, she lived at Silver Shore Valley, and the prince had treated her with kindness and comforted her when her father died. She loved him and his son, Rashan. She had thought there would be time. Why had she waited? “Lady Baiza, you don’t look well,” Fortan said, moving closer to her. “Come with me. I’ll take care of you.” *~*~*~* Silver Shore Valley had one main entrance and exit. The road that led into the valley was between natural rock cliffs. The natural rock cliffs provided a unique defensive strategy, creating a funnel that Kastan thought of as a checkpoint. Blocking this entrance would mean a there would be no easy access into the valley unless an individual came along who loved steep cliff climbing. The fall from the top of the cliff to the valley on the other side was fatal. Kastan had commissioned mammoth iron gates to fit between the two walls of natural rock. He had then found a very elite group of men and women called the hidden keepers to operate the gates. The hidden keepers were an elite secret guard. They looked like ordinary traders, but their society was strict and built on duty. It reminded him of the Shadow Guards in Blood nation, but with a kinder training. Their main goal was to protect and keep peace. Kastan had stumbled into their kind on a trip into the Iron Lands when he was still training. Before he was named Duke of Silver Shore, civil unrest erupted in the Iron Lands. Lord Revi’s policies as a trade minister had led to dissatisfaction. The Hidden Keepers were among some of the people who lost their lands due to bad loans and taxes. Lord Revi had taken over their lands in the Iron Lands and put them out of homes. Kastan had done his best to restore normalcy to the people during that time, by changing policies that would heal trade in the Iron Lands. When Kastan was gifted with Silver Shore, he had offered the hidden keepers a place to set roots in Silver Shore as long as they helped keep the valley safe from intruders. Over the years, they hidden keepers had become people Kastan trusted with his son’s life. The gates stayed open during the day but at night, the heavy gates were kept locked, leaving a small entrance for those who arrived late or were in an emergency. The hidden keepers kept meticulous records of the coming ins and out of the residents of Silver Shore Valley. Their records came useful to the valley’s magistrate investigators and the police force. They also helped to notice suspicious movement into the valley, or out of the valley. Silver Shore Valley ran very much like any other city in the empire and crime was not unheard of. The gates were open, though the sun was well below the horizon. The hidden keepers knew he was on his way home. Kastan led his horse to the large open gates, noting the five red flags that came up when he rode through. Kastan was conscious of Jihan riding on his left, following him with confidence. He smiled at the thought, and warmth filled him. The well-oiled hinges started moving the moment they entered Silver Shore Valley, closing the gates. Jihan turned back to see the large gates slide into place before he urged his horse to keep up with Kastan. Riding the busy streets heading to Sun-filled manor, Kastan could feel the heavy weight that had settled on his shoulders before the west nation war lifting. It had settled on him when he first left Silver Shore Valley. He hadn’t been sure how long it would take him to get back home. He had feared it would take a year, but thanks to Jihan that had not happened. The carriages with relief food from the capital stopped at the magistrate office compound on the main street. Kastan noted his soldiers dismounting their horses in the magistrate compound and running to their families who were waiting for them. There would be laughter and joy, as well as grief and pain in the reunions. Wars were hard on families. He was anticipating hundreds of letters from the welfare office. Kastan kept going, urging his horse into a faster run. He took a series of turns off the main road, and in the minor roads of the valley. He ended up on a secluded cobbled path that passed through a forest. A five-minute ride brought them to a set of large black gates, the first of Sun-filled Manor defenses. The walls surrounding the outer perimeter joined cliffs on each end. The guards opened the gates, and lifted five red flags. Kastan led the way into the relatively quiet grounds of the first level of his compound. Kastan made sure Jihan was keeping up with him as he turned his horse to his right, taking a long winding path to the second level wall. The green gates were already opened with five red flags raised above them. Naveed tossed a black token to the guards as they rode. Kastan brought his hand up in acknowledgement and rode up a steep path to the last gate. The red gates were opened wide, the path lighted with outside lamps. The hidden keepers at the red gate stood on each side, and Kastan lifted his hand in greeting when he rode past. The red gates closed as fast as they opened, securing the manor. Kastan slowed his horse to keep pace with Jihan as they headed up the cobbled path to the manor’s front yard. The flower gardens on each side were lighted with garden lamps, giving them a mystical atmosphere. Kastan enjoyed watching Jihan looking at the gardens. When they got to the open square at the manor’s front, Kastan brought his horse to a stop and dismounted. He hurried to help Jihan who had jumped off his horse. His consort clutched the reins of his horse, looking up at the manor with a wary glance. Kastan took the reins of Jihan’s horse from him and gave them to Temu. He brushed his lips on Jihan’s cheek and took Jihan’s right hand in his. “Welcome home,” Kastan murmured into Jihan’s ear, making Jihan give him a shy smile. The front doors opened behind them, drawing Jihan’s attention back to the expansive Sun-filled Manor. The manor was built to impress with stone from the valley. It boasted three stories of house with a courtyard in the middle. Thanks to Yasmin, the house was well lit with gas lamps that made it look warm and welcoming, hiding its age with elegance. Kastan held Jihan’s hand tight and led him up the steps to where Fara and Yasmin waited. “Your Grace,” Fara said, smiling at Kastan. She turned to Jihan and brought her right hand to her chest. She gave him a respectful nod. “Fara welcomes His Grace home to Sun-Filled Manor. I am Fara, Silver Shore Marquis’s nanny.” Jihan nodded, accepting Fara’s greeting. “And, I’m Yasmin, Sun-filled Manor’s housekeeper,” Yasmin said, her words rushed. “I welcome His Grace home. We’re excited to have you here.” Jihan acknowledged her greeting with a smile. He looked exhausted from their hard day of travel. Kastan frowned, he didn’t think Jihan had slept enough the last few days. “Where is Rashan?” Kastan asked, looking into the entryway, and down the wide hallway leading deeper into the house. “He fell asleep,” Fara said her tone apologetic. “He has waited for you two whole days without sleep. Finally, he slept on the chaise in the receiving room and I asked Safan to take him to bed.” “Then, that’s fine,” Kastan said, squeezing Jihan’s hand. “Let him sleep. He can meet Jihan in the morning. It’s late and we have all had a hard day. Yasmin, please prepare bath water and a late meal for us. Serve it in our chambers.” “Right away,” Yasmin said, already hurrying away, followed by Fara. “Your Grace,” Temu said, making Kastan turn. Temu and Naveed waited behind them, the horses already taken away by the stable master. “We’ll leave you to rest,” Temu said, with a small smile. “We’re heading out to catch up.” “Of course,” Kastan nodded, giving Temu and Naveed his permission to leave. Temu and Naveed left with quick grins, and Kastan turned to Firuz. Firuz’s gaze was intent as he took in the gardens. Kastan knew the shadow guard would need to familiarize himself with Jihan’s new home. “Feel free to explore the manor and the surrounding gardens,” Kastan said. “Discover all you can, Firuz.” Jihan started to comment but Kastan lifted him into his arms and carried him into the bright entryway. “Jihan, this is our home. I should show you every room, but I’m just going to take you to our chambers first. You can discover the rest later.” Jihan chuckled and wrapped his arms around Kastan’s neck. Kastan hoped that he would manage to keep Jihan happy forever. *~*~*~* The next morning, even before the birds started singing, Kastan’s voice drifted into Jihan’s dreams. “Jihan, I have to leave for a while,” Kastan said. Jihan fought the heavy cloud of sleep and shifted only to have his lips captured in a soft kiss. Kastan brushed hair out of his face and Jihan opened his eyes to find Kastan leaning over him. Kastan was already dressed for the day. His hair damp from his morning bath. He knelt on their large bed his hands braced on each side of Jihan’s head. “Are you awake enough?” Kastan asked, his lips against Jihan’s. “Mm,” Jihan said, breathing in Kastan’s clean scent. “There was a disturbance late last night,” Kastan said. “The hidden keepers have requested my presence.” Jihan nodded and kissed Kastan. “Go, I’ll be here,” Jihan said. Kastan nodded and stared at him. “Rashan is still asleep. Have your morning meal with him when he wakes up. He’ll like that,” Kastan said. “Fara and Yasmin will help you with anything you need. Safan is also around.” Jihan nodded and pulled Kastan over him, happy when Kastan’s weight rested on him. Kastan hugged him too, and brushed his lips on the curve of Jihan’s neck. “We’ll be fine,” Jihan promised. Kastan nodded, then moved away. Jihan watched him leave their sleeping chambers and lay back on the comfortable pillows with a sigh. A few minutes later, Firuz settled on the bed and Jihan smiled. “There you are,” Jihan murmured. “Did you sleep?” “Of course, your husband is generous. He’s given me a furnished room next to your chambers.” “Yes, but did you sleep?” “I rested,” Firuz said, his tone shy. “Your husband’s home is well defended. There is not much to worry about.” “Better defended than Kamran Estate?” Jihan asked. “Yes, much better,” Firuz said with a solemn tone. “You noticed the red flags yesterday?” “I did,” Jihan said, thinking of the five red flags at each gate. “Five entering the red gate,” Firuz added. “I doubt anyone else can enter the red gate so easily, without expressed permission.” “Hmm,” Jihan nodded. “We’ll see what happens with Set and Garren. I’m anticipating their visits. I’ve been quiet too long.” “They are probably the reason your husband has to leave so early,” Firuz guessed. “Are you sleeping in?” Jihan rolled to his right side on the comfortable bed, so that he could look at Firuz. Firuz was also dressed for the day in his perpetual black clothes. The edges of his collar had red embroidery, which was enough to tell Jihan that their trunks had arrived at Silver Shore. “I should take a bath and look presentable,” Jihan said, propping his head up with his right hand. “I have to meet my son.” “Are you nervous?” Firuz asked. Jihan started to shake his head, then met Firuz’s keen gaze in the dim room. His mirror at all times, he thought. “You know I’m nervous,” Jihan murmured. “It’s always been Andiya with me. She’s been more my parent, even as I said I protected her. Now, I have am to parent someone.” “You can start with friendship,” Firuz suggested. “Prince Rashan has a father in Duke Silver and a mother, in Princess Jian. You can’t replace these roles for him.” Jihan felt like cold water had cascaded over him. How could he have forgotten Rashan’s mother, Princess Jian. Her name even sounded so close to his, it made him ache with an emotion he could not describe. Jian was the woman rumored to be Duke Silver’s true love. The people made endless plays about their love story. Hell, The Eagle’s Claw had ran dozens of such plays. How Jian was the reason Kastan had kept Silver Shore Valley locked up. Where would he fit in? “Firuz is right,” Jihan murmured. “I’m not here to take Jian’s place.” Kastan had not given him words of love, but he had given him a title that felt like a weight on his shoulders. “Do you doubt Kastan’s motivations when he married you?” Firuz asked, voicing his thoughts. “No,” Jihan said, sitting up on the bed, sleep long gone. “Although it is quite clear that we are not together because of love.” “Love is not that simple,” Firuz said. “I don’t doubt that your husband feels it for you, Jihan. Otherwise, he would not have married you.” “Our marriage was a necessity, to keep Andiya safe, and to gain the Emperor what he wanted. Kas and I, we’re just lucky that we are compatible,” Jihan said, his hand coming up to touch the mark on the curve of his neck. Kastan had kissed him there and raised the red mark again, in a show of possessiveness. It felt good to have it there, even though they were only bound in commitment. It was foolish to expect love. He was lucky enough to have found a life partner, and that was more important. “Love is not the issue right now,” Jihan said, shaking his head. “I should get ready to face the day.” Firuz got up, and moved to open the curtains covering the many windows in the sitting area of the sprawling bedchamber. Jihan adjusted the waistband of his sleeping trousers, as he climbed out of the large bed. He stretched his arms above his head, his toes curling on the carpet on the floor. He shook his head when he saw the black tiger’s head on the carpet. It felt like everything Kastan owned was stamped with a black tiger head, including him. “I want to meet the people who do all the branding,” Jihan said, dropping his arms to his sides. Jihan looked up to where Firuz was finished pulling the curtains and he stared. His gaze diverted to the arched windows and the light that streamed into the small sitting area of this part of the bedroom. So much light, it felt like the sun was greeting him in the morning. Jihan crossed the room on bare feet, leaving the black carpet, stepping down a step to the sitting area. His fingers trailed over the backs of chairs, set around a table. He came to a stop by a large vase holding decorative spears. Standing right by the glass windows, he smiled wide at the view. The gardens he had seen at the front entrance continued, and spread out below. The turned into a small fishpond, that flowed into an open grass field. In the distance, Jihan saw the lake waters shining in the rising sun’s light. The horizon a splash of oranges and yellows, the beauty left him breathless. “What a view,” Jihan murmured, touching the cool glass. “This room does have the best view, although Rashan’s has an impressive one too,” Firuz said. “He also gets to see the back of the property where there is a cliff and a waterfall.” Jihan smiled, his gaze never moving from the view. He felt healed just looking at it. “Your bath water will get cold,” Firuz said, after a time. “Kastan’s housekeeper filled the tub in the bath with very hot water. She had said to call if it cools.” Jihan dragged his gaze away from the view and turned away, remembering the reasons why he had gotten out of bed. He followed Firuz through the small sitting area, up another set of steps. They crossed a larger sitting area, on his right was the door. Jihan saw that it was closed as they crossed the room to the west side of the space. There were sliding doors on the farthest wall. Firuz slid them open and led the way into a large dressing room. The right side of the room was filled with Kastan’s clothes, hanging on racks mounted on the walls, and folded on shelves. Jihan recognized it as Kastan’s, when he saw the shining commander’s armor resting on a stand in the corner right side corner. There was a table on Kastan’s side with two-foot stools on each side. It was laden with four little wood boxes and a hairbrush that looked out of place. Kastan must have left it there when he was leaving. Jihan turned to the left side of the room, his gaze widening at the sight of his clothes neatly arranged on racks, some folded on shelves. One of the racks at the end had clothes he did not recognize. “The seamstresses have been hard at work,” Firuz said, when he noted Jihan’s gaze on the new clothes. “Apparently, Duke Silver’s Consort has a standard to keep. They used your usual clothes to make sure they fit.” “Hmm,” Jihan said scratching his head. He needed to wash his hair and soak in hot water for an hour. He wondered if there was a deep bath in this huge house. If not, he would miss the one he had at Kamran. “Through that door, you’ll find the warm water in a tub,” Firuz said, pointing at a discrete door in the farthest corner of the room. “I’ll help you shave when you’re done with your bath.” Jihan thanked him and went to bath. The tub was enough to fit his whole body, but the water was lukewarm, so he could not linger. He washed all the important bits and rinsed his hair. Firuz came in carrying the shaving blade, shaving cream and brush. Firuz was fast with the razor, giving Jihan a very clean shave. He then moved to the table by the wall to clean up his tools. “Have you ever thought to start a barber shop?” Jihan asked. He got out of the tub and dried his body with a towel. He moved to the same table where Firuz was working, and applied frankincense oil on his shaved jaw and the rest of his body. “Do you think people would trust a shadow guard to hold a shaving blade so close to their necks?” Firuz asked, rinsing the brush with clean water in a bowl and placing on a small holder. The woody scent of frankincense filled the room and Jihan imagined Firuz standing in a barber’s shop. His potential clients looking in and shuddering at the sight of Firuz, they would then run when Firuz sharpened his blade. Jihan chuckled and shook his head. “It might be better if you live with me forever,” Jihan said finishing with the oil. He capped the frankincense bottle and placed it together with Firuz’s shaving items. He took an orange tree twig from small box and stuck it into his mouth. He used one of it to brush his teeth, watching Firuz empty the water in the tub via a drain at the bottom. When that was done, Firuz left him alone and Jihan poured water into a goblet on the table. He rinsed his mouth, spitting out the water into the tub drain. When he was done, he rinsed the pencil-thick twig and cut off a piece of the end he had used. He returned it to its box and reached for a dry bath towel. He was shivering when he came out of the bathroom to find Firuz had laid out his clothes on a comfortable chair on his side of the dressing room. Jihan rubbed himself dry once more, and then wore his black inner trousers and a black inner shirt. He pulled on dark socks and reached for the bath towel to dry his hair some more when the back of his inner shirt felt wet. Firuz held out a deep blue long robe made of fine silk. Jihan stood up from the chair he sat in and wore it, tying it at his waist. The top shaped to frame his slender shoulders and chest, and then flowing down. It reached almost to his ankles. Jihan raised a brow looking at Firuz. Firuz shrugged and handed him an outer robe. The fabric was heavier, the gold embroidery on the collar, the hem and the sleeves intricate and fine. It was long to match the robe he wore, but while the top fit to match, the bottom skirts had slits on the sides to allow for easier movement, Jihan guessed, as he wore the outer robe. The sleeves fit at his wrists, but there was nothing to secure the front. He looked up, and Firuz moved to fit a wide leather belt with gold rings on it around his waist. Firuz secured it around Jihan’s waist. The wide leather belt held the two sides of his outer robe in place. The belt had a red jade token hanging on his left side. Jihan lifted the red jade to study the sculpted tiger with a red tassel hanging on it. “Your husband’s are black, yours are red,” Firuz said, nodding to the opposite side of the room. Jihan saw that Kastan’s belts all had black tokens attached to them. “You’ll have to ask him what it means.” Jihan nodded and let go of the jade token. He adjusted his sleeves and rubbed his hands together. He was cold, thanks to his damp hair. Jihan moved to a shelf, which held all his hairpins. He got a strong wooden one and rolled his damp hair into a tight bun on his head. He stuck the long pin inside the bun to hold in place, and almost moaned in gratitude when Firuz dropped a heavy blue wool cloak over his shoulders. Jihan pulled it close, and shivered slightly. He picked up his fan from the table on his side and rubbed his stomach. “I’m starving,” Jihan said. “Are you hungry, Firuz? I could eat a horse.” “Don’t say that around the horses, it’s cruel,” Firuz said. Jihan chuckled, and led the way out of the dressing room. They left the master’s chambers and Firuz stopped at a door on his immediate right. Jihan followed him into the neat handsome room. It had a medium sized bed and a sitting area. Jihan spied a discrete door in the farthest corner that he assumed was where Firuz could change and freshen up. “Naveed gave me this room to use,” Firuz said, picking up his own cloak. Jihan patted the neat bed and smiled. “It’s a beautiful room,” Jihan said, glad that Kastan had understood that Firuz would need to live close to him. “It is,” Firuz said with a pleased smile as he led the way out and closed the door. Jihan grinned and followed him down the wide hallway. Firuz pointed to the first door they met on his right. “This is Naveed’s room, he is followed by Master Safan, Rashan’s teacher,” Firuz said, pointing to the door on his left. “Temu is in the room next to mine. I believe the setup is to ensure full defense if intruders got in. I would plan it the same.” Jihan nodded as they reached an open space with long benches and a table. He vaguely remembered the staircase as Kastan brought him upstairs last night. He had been too sleepy to pay attention. There was an open door across them. “That is Rashan’s chamber,” Firuz said, then pointed to a door right off the stairs, “and that is his school room. It’s packed with books.” Jihan stood in the middle of the open space and glanced down the hallway to the doors leading to Kastan’s chambers. All that mattered to Kastan kept close and secure on the first floor of the manor. The carpet in the hallway was faded, instead of the red it was supposed to be, it was very light now. He turned his attention to the furniture in the open sitting area. The wood looked neglected, even though the cushions were very clean and there was not a speck of dust. Jihan followed Firuz to the stairs leading down, his gaze lingering over the set that led upstairs to the second level. “The second floor has a martial arts practice room and an impressive weapons cache,” Firuz said. “There is an unfinished construction in the north west corner. It looks like it was started then forgotten.” Jihan continued down the stairs to the ground floor. Firuz continued his tour. “To our immediate right, the first door belongs to Yasmin, the housekeeper,” Firuz said. “Down the very short corridor is Fara, Rashan’s nanny. This box of space at this staircase creates privacy. You can’t tell who is going upstairs from the front of the house.” Jihan smiled at Firuz’s apparent appreciation of Kastan’s manor. They walked down a short corridor and came to an interesting corner. To Jihan’s left was a corridor leading to the front of the house. He could see a sunken room near the entryway. Right in front of him was a wooden screen wall with shapes of dancing tigers carved in the wood. The wooden screen wall was in the shape of an L. Making a corridor on Jihan’s left and right ahead. If one moved closer, they could peep through the holes carved in to see the front entryway. “The room to your left seems like an office. The door is locked and I could only peep through the vents,” Firuz said. “Behind the wooden screen is a meditation garden that needs attention. It’s a very odd place to have it too, right in the center of the main floor.” “We’re going directly ahead,” Firuz said, pointing down the continuing corridor and kept walking. Jihan touched the carved wooden screen wall as he walked. He loved the workmanship on it. There was a wall on Firuz’s side and Jihan spied a pair of sliding doors near the end of the corridor they were using. “This is an office,” Firuz said, as they walked past those doors. “Yasmin comes in and out of it, so it must be used to manage the household. She seems to be running the place alone.” “It shows,” Jihan said, opening his fan and waving it in lazy motions. They came to a stop at another intersection. The wooden screen ended, and Jihan stepped around it to catch a glimpse of the garden. It was a square space set in the middle of the main room just as Firuz judged. The garden had large decorative rocks in the middle and different shades of gravel that lay in a disarranged mass. It looked like someone had forgotten the gravel and chaos reigned. The garden was bright. Jihan looked up wondering where the light was coming from and stilled. Someone had taken the time to build a roof light above the garden. Which made Jihan want to step out and look at Sun-filled Manor’s structure. The glass in the roof light would bring sunlight to the garden and make the rocks in the gravel shine. Neglect stains covered the glass above muting the effect. Jihan frowned. “It would be a great place to meditate in the silence of night,” Firuz said beside him. “It needs work.” “You love these types of gardens,” Jihan said. “When we’ve been here longer, and they are used to us, maybe you can take charge of it.” “I look forward to it,” Firuz said. Jihan smiled and turned around to find a cozy sitting area tucked in the southeast corner. “This looks like where your family would sit. There is a library behind the wall, and comfortable chairs,” Firuz said. He pointed to the entryway. “That wall is for a room accessed right after you enter the front doors. I assume it’s for visitors you can’t turn away, but don’t want to invite inside. The opposite end of this floor has a large meeting room. I imagine your husband might have important guests who visit him here.” Jihan nodded, thinking of the generals in Kastan’s armies. Each one demanding a level of respect as they visited their commander. It would be a headache, but he needed to learn each of their names soon. His stomach grumbled and Firuz took his left elbow moving him back on their original path. The dining hall was tucked in the southwest corner of the ground floor. Firuz guessed that it was set there to be closer to the kitchen, which was separate from the main house. A wide hallway on Firuz right led to the back door of the manor. “If you go out those doors,” Firuz said, pointing to the tall wood doors, “you’ll find more toilets on your immediate right. It’s lucky you have a special one in your chambers. Your husband’s people have worked to develop the manor’s plumbing. It reminds me of the Eagle’s Claw but with an upgrade.” Jihan smiled, thinking Firuz was more in love with this manor than even the master was. “Also, you’ll find a large bath near the kitchens, just like the one we had at Kamran Estate. This one is larger and one can swim in the hot water. Naveed said I could use it anytime I want, as long as I talk to the kitchen staff. They heat the water in a large vat to fill the bath.” Jihan was glad to discover he would not need to start construction of a bath. They stopped at the closed dining hall doors. Jihan’s thoughts were on the state of the furniture and carpets he had seen on their path. The wood was sun-damaged, the natural colors on fabrics, curtains and carpets fading. The manor was old, but clean, meaning the housekeeper did the best she could, it just needed a little uplifting. Surely, Duke Silver could have afforded that at any time. Why hadn’t he bothered? Firuz reached to open the dining hall doors just as Jihan heard a young voice talking. He motioned Firuz to wait before sliding the doors open. It sounded like Rashan and maybe Fara, whom Jihan had met the night before. “Did you see Imperial Prince Consort last night?” Rashan asked. “How did he look? Do you think he is nice?” “He is handsome and his smile is ready,” Fara said. “I think he is a good man.” “What title should I use to address him?” Rashan asked. “Master Safan, do you know what they used for my mother?” “Princess Jian was the daughter of the old king of Blood Nation. She was already titled when she came to us,” Safan said. “She was Her Royal Highness in the Imperial Palace, and Her Grace, the Duchess of Silver Shore, here at home. We called her Duchess or Her Grace.” “So,” Rashan said. “Do I call Imperial Prince Consort, Prince Jihan?” “That might be easiest,” Fara said. “What will you call him, Master Safan?” Rashan asked. “His Highness, or His Grace,” Safan said, “depending on the occasion.” “What about you Fara?” “Prince Jihan,” Fara said, “or His Grace, as he is also a Duke now.” “Why is he not a Duchess?” Rashan asked. “Because he is a Duke,” Fara said with infinite patience. Jihan smiled at this, closing his fan. “If I call my father, Pa, then shouldn’t I also call Prince Jihan Pa?” “If you want to,” Fara said, her tone losing confidence. Jihan could understand her. A new parent, who was also not blood related was hard to navigate. “You don’t sound sure,” Rashan said. “What do you think I should use to address Prince Jihan?” Jihan closed his eyes. He had hoped Kastan would be with him when this conversation came up, but it seemed like he would have it alone. He had no easy answer for Rashan. He didn’t feel qualified enough to be Rashan’s anything on this first day of his life at Sun-filled Manor. Still, he was here, and Rashan’s concerns were now his too. Jihan nodded to Firuz, who knocked on the door once and slid it open. Jihan took in a deep breath and entered the dining hall, breathing out slowly. “Good morning,” he said, keeping his tone light. “I thought I woke up early, but everyone is already up.” “Your Grace,” Fara said, giving him a nod. “Good morning.” “Good morning, Your Grace,” Safan said, standing and bringing his right hand to his chest, “Welcome to Silver Shore Valley.” “Thank you Master Safan,” Jihan said, his gaze moving to Rashan who stood behind his master. The room had one long dining table that looked like it could sit twenty. Safan had occupied a seat in the middle of the table, his plate empty, as if he had just finished his meal. When Jihan came in, he had stood up, pushing his chair back. Rashan stood behind Safan holding the back of Safan’s chair. Rashan’s move was defensive. Jihan felt his heart ache at the sight of it. “I don’t know if you remember me,” Jihan said, meeting Safan’s knowing gaze. “We met briefly months ago.” “Of course, I remember you, Your Grace. You saved Rashan from a runaway carriage. He has wanted to thank you since. You also saved me from your shadow guard,” Safan said with a grin. Jihan returned the grin and turned to look at Firuz who stood behind him, his expression blank. Jihan turned to Fara. “I’m sorry to trouble you, but I’m starving. May we have our morning meal in here?” Jihan asked, looking around the dining hall. There was a fireplace in the corner, close to the windows. There were three smaller round tables, each set up with two chairs, near the fireplace. The fire was already going and it beckoned to Jihan. It seemed like the perfect place to have breakfast. “It’s no trouble, Your Grace,” Fara said. “Rashan has not eaten yet either. He can join you. I will be right back.” “Perfect,” Jihan said. Safan placed his spoon in his plate and picked up his goblet and plate. “I’ll help Fara. If you don’t mind, your shadow guard may come with me to the kitchen.” Jihan turned to Firuz, and he nodded. Firuz squeezed his right shoulder and followed Safan out the side door leading outside. Alone with Rashan, Jihan rubbed his hands again, his gaze on the fireplace. “Rashan, I’m a bit cold this morning,” Jihan said. “Do you mind if we sit by the fire?” “How come you’re cold?” Rashan asked, even as he started moving down the length of the table. “I get that way in the morning,” Jihan said. “I feel cold but it gets better as the sun rises.” Jihan walked the length of the table, keeping pace with Rashan and stopped when Rashan came around the large chair at the head of the table. Rashan was tall for his age, and looked like Kastan in every way. There was no doubt that Rashan belonged to Kastan. Jihan smiled at the thought of them standing next to each other. He doubted he would tire of finding similarities. Rashan’s hair was braided at the sides, the thick curly mass then held back with a tie. It looked like Fara’s work. He was in a simple pale green tunic this morning, with the same ornate embroidery as Jihan’s outer coat on the hems. Rashan wore silver vambraces on his wrists and his boots were black. Jihan was quick to note that the tiger token hanging off his matching sash belt was a deep green. Jihan held out his right hand to the boy and felt his heart skip when Rashan hurried to take it. Jihan squeezed Rashan’s hand. “Rashan, I am Jihan, your father’s consort. It’s nice to see you again,” Jihan said. “It’s nice to see you too,” Rashan said with a quick smile. “You look different from the last time I met you.” “How different?” Jihan asked. “I don’t know,” Rashan said. “I think your hair was down. You were also dressed like a scholar.” “That’s true. I was in the middle of traveling,” Jihan said. “Should we sit?” “Yes,” Rashan said, allowing Jihan to lead him to the small round table closest to the fireplace. Jihan waited until Rashan was settled before he moved closer to the fire. He held his hands out and felt a wave of warmth flood him. It felt good and he kept it up until he couldn’t take it anymore. Hiding his hands in his cloak, Jihan moved to sit in the empty chair across Rashan. “Um, Prince Jihan,” Rashan started, his hands folded on his lap. “Rashan,” Jihan interrupted, wincing at the formality. “Why don’t we change how you address me? Prince Jihan sounds too formal for me, for us here at home. Why don’t you call me Jihan?” “That would be too impolite,” Rashan said, sounding older than his eleven years. “Master Safan says it’s good to remember who we are in this valley.” Jihan nodded, okay, that sounded reasonable. Rashan was Silver Shore Marquis. The people in the valley probably used his title to address him. Jihan met keen intelligent eyes. He needed to keep things open and clear with this young prince, especially because he needed Rashan to learn how to trust him. Jihan breathed out and his gaze slid to the fire. It’s warmth seeping in to him slowly. He should have dried his hair more. Then he would be able to think clearly. For some reason, Kyra and her enthusiasm to introduce Jihan to her son filled his thoughts. He turned to Rashan in excitement. “How about you call me what you call your Aunt Kyra’s husband?” Jihan suggested. “Uncle Nade?” Rashan asked, his gaze turning thoughtful. “But, he’s my uncle, and you’re my father’s consort, almost like my Ma, or Pa.” Jihan nodded. “I know, but you and I don’t know each other that well yet,” Jihan said. “Right now, I’m like an uncle who has moved into your house. So, it is perfectly okay to call me Uncle Jihan. Try it.” “Uncle Jihan,” Rashan said, gave a thoughtful nod, and then he leaned forward. “I’ll try it for now. It sounds better than Step Pa which was suggested by some of my friends in the town.” “I am your Step Pa,” Jihan agreed, “but calling me that does sound odd.” Besides, he didn’t want to be step pa. He wanted Rashan to like him and want to talk to him, as a child would his favorite uncle. Rashan grinned and Jihan felt his heart soar at the sight of it. How could it be so similar to Kastan’s grin? “I could call you Ma,” Rashan said, his serious tone stunning Jihan into silence. “Uh,” Jihan said, trying to find a comeback for this that wouldn’t include insulting Rashan’s mother in anyway. Gods help him, what was the right thing to say. “Um…you know I can’t be your Ma?” “No, you’re not a Ma,” Rashan said, and chuckled his eyes bright with mirth. Jihan realized Rashan was teasing him and he shook his head. “You scared me,” Jihan said, pressing his palms on top of the table. “I don’t know the first thing about being a Ma. They are very special people, you know.” “How?” Rashan asked, curious. “Well, for one, your Ma gave you to your Pa,” Jihan said. “Don’t you think that’s special?” Rashan nodded and swallowed hard. “I didn’t get to meet her though. Pa says she was excited to have me and that I should always know she loved me.” Jihan felt a measure of guilt flood him. Rashan grieved for a mother he had not gotten to meet. Yet, Jihan took his mother for granted on a daily basis. She tried her best to love him in her own way, and yet he only saw her faults. Jihan swallowed hard, and reached out to pat Rashan’s right hand on the table between them. “Your Pa is right,” Jihan said. “Your Ma loved you very much. Don’t ever doubt that.” “Do you have a Ma?” Rashan asked. “I do,” Jihan said with a small smile. “Can I meet her?” Rashan asked. “Anytime you want,” Jihan said. “I’ll ask her to visit us, or we can visit her, whichever one you want.” “If she visited, I’d show her all my favorite spots,” Rashan said. “Would you like to see my favorite spots in the valley?” “I’d love to see them,” Jihan said. “Then, Uncle Jihan, when we get to know each other better, can I call you Papa?” Rashan asked, “Because you’ll be like my second pa?” Elated by the prospect, Jihan reached out again to take Rashan’s hand. He squeezed it gently and nodded. “When you’re ready, Rashan,” Jihan said. Fara brought them breakfast soon after, and Jihan sat with Rashan listening to tales about the Silver Lake beach. Rashan sounded like he spent a lot of time by the beach exploring. He was also fond of apricots, and riding the horse his father gifted him. Jihan listened with rapt attention, as they ate breakfast. Safan and Firuz sat in chairs at the large dining table. Jihan hoped they were bonding after their near fight when they first met. *~*~* Kastan could not recall the last time he had heard of an intruder wanting to enter Sun-filled Manor. There were occasional break-ins on the third level, but never all the way to the green gate, or even to his red gate. No one was crazy enough to venture into his personal stronghold. He walked the perimeter wall of the green gate accompanied by Temu and Naveed. Kastan adjusted his sword belt, the leather of his boots wet from the morning dew on the grass. There were no visible signs of intrusion; nothing to show someone had jumped over, not even footsteps on soft soil. Ahead of him, he could see some of the soldiers in charge of the perimeter wall. They had been running continuous patrols, inspecting every inch of the area. The head of security in the green zone was Palona, an older man, with a very keen sense of duty. He came hurrying to Kastan after releasing the team of five. Kastan stopped and waited for Palona. “What time did you notice this person?” Temu asked when Palona reached them. “It was late. The moon high in the sky,” Palona said frown lines creasing his forehead. “The fact that the moon was high and he made it in this far is worrying.” “Then, our intruder is not very ordinary,” Naveed said, a note of excitement in his voice. Naveed loved puzzles. Kastan clasped his hands behind his back and gave the perimeter wall another speculative glance. He wasn’t naïve as to think a wall would keep out a determined assassin. Naveed and Temu could make it to the red gates without detection. He could make it into the house, and had done so numerous times. The only other person he knew who could now manage what he could was Firuz, Jihan’s Shadow Guard. “Troop four and five are on patrol,” Palona said, into the following silence. “They have combed every inch of this level. We’ve gone through all the buildings—” “Is anything missing?” Kastan asked, curious. “No. Nothing is missing,” Palona said, his voice heavy with concern. Kastan understood his worry. A thief was preferable to a disappearing intruder. Stolen items could be replaced, but peace of mind was hard to restore. “Not even in the sewing workshop?” Naveed asked, his tone changing, filling with a wary note. “What would they want with clothes?” Temu asked, scowling at his best friend. “Clothes to look like the soldiers on duty,” Naveed said, making Temu snap his fingers in realization. They both turned expectant gazes on Palona. “We checked the inventory,” Palona said, “including the distribution warehouse and in the troop’s quarters. Nothing is missing. No one is missing an extra pair of shoes, or cloak or uniform.” Kastan narrowed his gaze and his attention drifted to Jihan and his Kamran Network. When they were at Kin Town, Temu and Naveed had experienced the same moments. There had been unknown people sneaking into the inn and disappearing without a clear glimpse. Kastan had yet to discuss Jihan’s business which him. Jihan’s people were a probability. They would be restless for news about their master by now, even with Andiya back home. “Palona,” Kastan said, turning to head back to the Duke’s main office. It was set up in the green zone for easy access to the community officials, and anyone else who wanted to see him. “Yes, Your Grace?” Palona said. “Temu, Naveed and the Hidden Guard in the red compound will take over,” Kastan said. “Whoever it is, they are not here for a thing but a person or information. Don’t interfere.” “Yes, Your Grace,” Palona said, relief in his voice. Breach of gates was a deadly case to present to Kastan especially with no evidence. Kastan understood Palona’s relief. It was not easy being in a position of authority in his chain of command. He expected results and performance. He was proud that Palona’s team had managed to detect someone who moved with the shadows, or it could be this person had allowed Palona to see him. Temu gave Kastan a short nod and hurried off, leaving Naveed with Kastan. “Why don’t we go through the rest of your report,” Kastan said, when they entered the busy Duke’s office. “I promised my consort I’d get back to him soon. I don’t want to lie to him.” “Right away, Your Grace,” Palona said, rushing ahead to the receiving desk. He picked up a rolled writing paper and followed Kastan to the inner office. Palona started his report as Kastan walked around a large desk and settled in his chair ready to sign requests, read petitions and reports on happenings in the valley. “We have petitions coming in from the welfare office. Families of officers fallen in battle…” Kastan stayed in the office for two solid hours. He made it back home right before lunch, and entered the house feeling mentally tired. The families of fallen soldiers weighed on his mind, mothers whose husbands had died leaving their families vulnerable. There was no way to ease that kind of loss, and the easiest way was to provide them with a financial safety net. Kastan rolled his shoulders, trying to ease tension. The unknown intruder also nagged at the back of his mind. He had Rashan and Jihan to protect now. He hoped this person meant them no harm. He couldn’t imagine the idea of losing Rashan or Jihan. Shaking his head, he nodded at Naveed who took the box of petitions to the housekeeping office. His household would handle most of the payouts to the families of fallen soldiers. Their purse strings would be tight, but there was no choice. Temu hurried in from the outdoors. Kastan paused by the neglected gravel garden, hoping for any sort of news. “Nothing yet,” Temu said. “The hidden keepers are looking. They’ll send a message when they discover something.” Kastan nodded and rubbed his stomach when it growled. He headed to the dining room, with Temu hurrying around him to open the sliding doors. He would get something to eat before going to find Jihan and Rashan. Kastan paused when he entered the dining room, his breath caught when he saw the trio sitting at the round table by the fireplace. Jihan and Rashan sat facing each other. They were playing a dice game, Rashan half sitting, half standing in his seat as he checked the scores. Laughing and talking, his voice filled with excitement. They had both rolled their dice, and they were hidden under a cup. Jihan was looking under his cup on his side trying to see what he had rolled. “Wait, wait,” Rashan said, covering Jihan’s cup too with a small grin. He pointed at the wooden hairpin holding Jihan’s hair on top of his head. “Is that the only thing you have to wager?” “It is,” Jihan said, reaching up to pat the bun. “What? It’s a very good hairpin. I haven’t complained using it.” “Why didn’t you have one with our house crest?” Rashan asked, his frown matching the one on Kastan’s forehead. It was good to wear items that identified their house. He had taught that to Rashan because it meant that people did not give his son a hard time out there. Now he would need to teach it to Jihan. His independent and willful Jihan, would it even work? “I was sleepy when I dressed this morning,” Jihan said, making Firuz chuckle. The shadow guard sat behind Jihan’s chair, helping Fara peel potatoes. It was such a domestic scene. Kastan was stunned watching it. “Fine, I’ll take the wooden hairpin,” Rashan said, letting go of Jihan’s dice cup, grinning wide. Jihan narrowed his gaze at Rashan, a teasing twinkle in his gaze. “You look pretty confident. What if I win?” Jihan asked, reaching out to stay Rashan from opening his cup. “You won’t,” Rashan said in a singsong voice, “But if you do, I’ll give you my hairpin.| Jihan laughed and made a show of opening his dice cup. Rashan opened his with a flourish. Standing up, he peered at Jihan’s dice. “You got four, and I have two sixes. I win,” Rashan said, clapping as he jumped around the table. “How do you keep winning?” Jihan complained, sulking as he looked at Rashan’s dice. “These things are being mean to me.” Rashan chuckled and moved to Jihan’s side, patting Jihan’s shoulder. “I’ve given you my pair more than once. You know I’m not cheating.” Jihan sighed and shook his head. He reached up to his head and with one move, removed the wooden hairpin, his hair tumbling down his back. Kastan found himself wanting to protest at the show of splendor. Now that Jihan was his, he didn’t want anyone else to see Jihan looking so…free and open. Rashan grinned when Jihan handed him the wooden hairpin. “You’re a worthy opponent, Rashan,” Jihan praised, when Rashan took the hairpin. Rashan surprised Kastan when he removed his own hairtie and pulled his hair into a tight roll on top of his head. He stuck the wooden pin to hold it just like Jihan. “Your Grace,” Safan said, coming up to Kastan from the door leading to the kitchen. “Welcome back. They have been at it since this morning. I didn’t have the heart to pull Rashan into his daily schedule today.” “You did well,” Kastan said, then crossed the dining hall to reach his family, wanting to join in the fun. “Pa!” Rashan said, when he saw him. “Did you see? Uncle Jihan lost his hairpin to me.” Do you like it?” Kastan’s right brow rose at Rashan’s address of Jihan, but Jihan reached for his left hand. Kastan saw Jihan shake his head and decided they must have reached some sort of agreement. “Shan, it looks very good on you,” Kastan praised his son. He touched the wooden hairpin holding Rashan’s hair and smiled. “Shan, why don’t you check on the fire for me? It looks like it’s going down.” “Sure,” Rashan hurried to the fireplace, followed close by Firuz. Kastan turned his attention to Jihan and before Jihan could speak, he leaned down and kissed him on the lips. It had been a long time since he had come to laughter and joy. Seeing Jihan and Rashan play and laugh, unraveled him. Ending their kiss, Kastan breathed in Jihan’s scent, earthy and uplifting; he filled his lungs with it, and reached up to caress Jihan’s cheek. Jihan wrapped cool fingers around his wrist. “Is everything okay?” Jihan asked. “It’s perfect,” Kastan said, using his free hand to stroke his fingers through Jihan’s heavy hair. He was surprised to feel that it was cold and a little damp. Turning around to make sure the fire was going again, Kastan urged Jihan to stand. He lifted Jihan’s chair and moved it as close as it could get to the fireplace and urged Jihan to sit. Firuz moved the table and Rashan’s chair. Temu got a chair for Kastan and in minutes, their family of three sat around the table. Kastan winked at Rashan, understanding why he had taken the hairpin from Jihan. His son must have realized Jihan’s hair was damp. Fara brought him food, and a pot of tea to share with Rashan and Jihan.” “Pa, earlier, I heard the hidden keepers discussing an intruder.” Rashan sipped his tea, his elbows on the table. “How is it possible?” Kastan noted Jihan’s worried gaze, then turned to Rashan. “There was an intruder spotted in the green area last night. There have been no other sightings, but you should be careful, Shan. Listen to Master Safan.” “I always do,” Rashan said. “I’ll help you protect Uncle Jihan.” “It will make me happy if you both protect each other. Why do you call him Uncle?” Kastan asked, needing an answer, holding Rashan’s gaze. “We talked about it,” Rashan said, his gaze thoughtful. “We decided that it was better to start with uncle, and then when we get to know each other and I’m ready, Uncle Jihan said I can call him Papa.” Kastan turned to Jihan for confirmation, and got a smile and nod in return. How had he gotten so lucky? “Then, I’ll trust your judgment,” Kastan said. *~*~*~*
  14. lilansui

    Chapter 33

    You're welcome, Nana.
  15. Part II We wear many hats in life. Which one will I need to wear today? – Jihan Miran, Akasha’s Imperial Prince Consort Chapter 11 “I know you like roasted chicken. Try this,” Kastan said, tearing pieces of roasted chicken from the platter in the middle of the table. He placed them on Jihan’s plate, and sat back to watch Jihan eat. The sun was long gone. They were in the auxiliary palace, hidden away in Kastan’s personal suite. Music filled the air in the distance. Their wedding party was still ongoing. Kastan’s officers were free to drink the night away. He had even gone ahead and chased away Naveed and Temu to join the party. He had wanted uninterrupted time with his new consort but Jihan’s shadow guard had refused to listen to him. Firuz waited in the waiting room outside their inner suite. Kastan was unable to convince him to go rest in his own chambers. There was a lot to prepare when they got home to Silver Shore. Kastan imagined he needed to find a place for Firuz that would keep him close to Jihan, as long as that place was not in their very sleeping quarters. “You’re watching me,” Jihan said, his tone complaining. “Why aren’t you eating too?” “I am,” Kastan said, picking up a piece of bread and bringing it to his mouth. “Watching you eat is also filling.” Jihan choked out a laugh and covered his mouth as he tried to keep in the chicken he was chewing. He broke into coughs. Kastan poured water into Jihan’s goblet and pressed it into Jihan’s hands. Jihan took a sip, and then another until his cough was under control. “Can you never say such lines with such a serious look? They don’t suit you,” Jihan said, rubbing his chest with his left fist. “You don’t think I mean it,” Kastan stated taking a bite of the vegetable stew that had come with their meal. He chewed in silence watching Jihan compose himself, and then swallowed to say. “Jihan, you’re my husband now. I want us to have a harmonious life together. I am happy when I see you eating.” Jihan sat back and stared at him. He sipped his water, and placed the goblet on the table. He looked around the elegant suite and a small frown danced on his forehead. “How come Rashan was not here for the ceremony?” Jihan asked. Kastan stared at his stew for a moment, and then placed his spoon down. He too reached for his goblet of water and sipped to buy time. When he looked up, he found Jihan watching him with a curious gaze. “Did you want him here?” Kastan asked, sitting back. “His family unit changed today,” Jihan said. “His Pa got married and brought in a new family member. He should have been part of the ceremony.” “I know that and I wanted him here, but the situation we’re in doesn’t allow for him to be here, Jihan.” Kastan smiled at Jihan. “You are protecting Andiya. I’m protecting my son who is eleven. He thinks he can fight off an army with his little fists. I left him in charge of Silver Shore Valley.” “Alone?” Jihan asked, his eyes wide with shock. “How could you do that to a child?” “Rashan is never alone. He has capable help in Silver Shore’s Hidden Guard. The valley is locked down,” Kastan said. “Are you worried?” Jihan stared at Kastan for a moment, then shook his head and stared at the food in his plate instead. “I’m sorry,” Jihan said. “It’s sometimes hard to remember that other fathers are different from mine. I shouldn’t judge your decisions by my Pa’s standards.” “He’s made you struggle,” Kastan acknowledged. “I’m sorry.” Jihan shrugged. “Don’t apologize to me,” Jihan said, shaking his head. “I’m the one who should apologize for assuming things.” “Jihan, all this politeness is making me nervous.” Jihan looked up to meet Kastan’s gaze. When he spoke, his tone was shy. “I never thought I would be someone’s Pa,” Jihan said. “Now that you’ve made me one, I promise to be a good one to Rashan. I will support you both as I would my own sister, Andiya. I will always protect Rashan.” Kastan got up and cupped Jihan’s face in his hands. He kissed him hard, filled with joy that he could not easily explain. His heart believed in Jihan’s shy promise. Ending their kiss, Kastan sat in his chair grinning when he saw Jihan’s red ears. Cutting another piece of roasted chicken, he placed it on Jihan’s plate and sat back to watch Jihan eat. Other than Kyra, he’d had no one else he could rely on to protect Rashan, to stand on Rashan’s side and help him with no prejudice. Now here was Jihan with his shy smile. It was a gift. Kastan picked up his goblet and decided on full disclosure. Jihan had stepped into his world now. It would be better for Jihan to know everything in order to survive. “Jihan,” he said, his tone making Jihan look up at him with a slight frown. “There are things I need you to know before we reach Silver Shore Valley. Details you must know about my life as my consort and Rashan’s guardian. I want you to know that I will not keep secrets from you.” Jihan studied him for a moment, and then nodded. “I’m listening.” “You’ve met Kiyan and Kyra,” Kastan said, pulling up his left sleeve to reveal a small fig tree with three branches on his inner wrist. “We are bound by duty to the empire. This tree represents us three, and is only a shadow of the one the Emperor wears. As three, we must act for the benefit of the empire to ensure peace and prosperity. I wear it to remember my duty. Kiyan wears his to show him the state of the empire.” Jihan wiped his hands on a napkin and moved his chair closer so that he could touch the tattoo on Kastan’s inner wrist. “Why couldn’t I see it before?” Jihan asked, tracing his finger over the gold contours of the small tree, mesmerized by the gold leaves on three thick branches. “You were an outsider,” Kastan said, studying Jihan. “You were outside the circle of trust.” Jihan looked up to meet his gaze. “And now?” Jihan asked. “You are my consort,” Kastan said, “my partner in this life.” Jihan touched the tattoo one last time and rolled down Kastan’s sleeve before he returned to his food. “You must be tasked with protection and keeping peace,” Jihan said, making Kastan smile. “Yes,” Kastan said, picking up his goblet to sip on his wine. “I grow our armies. Respond to the emperor’s call to war, and protect the empire from internal and external dangers.” “Like West Nation’s war,” Jihan said. “So, Rashan is to take on your role in the future.” “Yes, he is Silver Shore Marquis to be Duke of Silver Shore when I’m gone,” Kastan said. “It is my duty to make sure he is ready and equipped to face the future.” “He’ll be ready,” Jihan said with such conviction, Kastan wanted to lean over and kiss him again. Jihan finished his roast chicken and reached for a cup of water. He drank deep and sat back in his chair rubbing his stomach. “Feeling better?” “Mm,” he said on a sigh. “I hadn’t eaten anything since morning. I could barely eat anything at the party earlier, so many people wanting to talk. Thanks for getting me food.” “It’s what I should do,” Kastan said. Jihan wiped his hands on a wet towel placed in a bowl on his left side and dried his fingers with his napkin. He drank the rest of his water and sat back in his chair, looking at Kastan, his gaze expectant. “There is someone who wants my position in this empire,” Kastan said, keeping his tone light. “To create trouble, she’s formed the burning feather that attacked you.” “She,” Jihan said, his gaze shifting to his empty goblet of water. “At the Raven Inn in Kin Town, the day you saved me, you knew who was behind the burning feather the moment you saw that robe.” “Yes,” Kastan agreed. “Why didn’t you tell me then? Why now?” Jihan asked. “You didn’t have the power to face down a phoenix at the time,” Kastan said with a small smile. “You’re my consort now. My armies will fight to protect you. You can know that my sister in-law is the reason the burning feather exists.” Jihan sat up in surprise. He remembered that soon after Kastan’s discovery, Lord Villes, the Empress’s father had died. Lord Villes was accused of treason during wartime. Jihan’s gaze’s widened. “Lord Villes took the blame to protect the Empress,” Jihan said. Kastan nodded. “Why is she after you now?” Jihan asked. “My command of the empire’s armies intimidates her,” Kastan said. “Kiyan has tried to explain to her why she should sit still, but her past is hard to ignore. If she can’t kill me, she wishes to find a way to control Rashan through my consort.” “Why are you telling me this?” Jihan asked. “Rushi will try to win your cooperation,” Kastan said. “She was the one to push through the order of marriage with Andiya’s name. She met with your mother and convinced her of the merits, then urged your father to travel with the escort to Kamran Estate. Rushi has already done her best to place your parents in her web. She hoped to bring Andiya under her wing when we married and use Andiya to control Rashan later.” Jihan scoffed. “One wants my livelihood, the other my sister,” Jihan said. “This imperial couple is really too much.” “Her focus has shifted from your sister to you,” Kastan corrected. “Why would she want me?” Jihan asked, his eyes wide with clear confusion. Kastan bit back a grin at the fact that Jihan still seemed oblivious of his new position. It was both endearing and worrying. “You’re my consort, Jihan,” Kastan reminded him. He got up from his chair and moved to Jihan’s side. Crouching low on Jihan’s right, he took Jihan’s right hand. He rubbed his thumb over the black jade stone on Jihan’s ring. He shifted his thumb to the band under with ruby stones on its surface. Their marriage bond so clearly sealed. Kastan still couldn’t believe it was real. Kastan squeezed Jihan’s hand and got up, urging Jihan to follow him. He led him to the four-poster bed set in the middle of their room. The headboard rested on the wall and red curtains were tied to the posts. The sheets were white, but the quilt over the bed was also red, carefully laid out for them. Kastan picked up Jihan when they got to the bed and placed his consort in the middle. He removed their boots and climbed on the comfortable mattress. He took his time untying the curtains and pulling them in place, sealing them in a world of their own. The lamp mounted on the ceiling above their bed was the only source of light. Jihan shifted back until his back was against the headboard. He arranged pillows behind his back and crossed his legs, getting comfortable. He had long removed his overcoat, but he was still in his red ceremony robes. Kastan matched him, moving forward so that their knees were touching. Jihan arranged the skirts of his robe, and then picked up the black jade tiger seal on his lap to play with as Kastan continued. “My brother’s wife is from Giode Kingdom. He married her out of responsibility. We needed to stabilize the border in the Northwest of the empire at the time. Rushi is the sister of the Giode King.” “Every child in their third year of school learns the structure of the imperial house,” Jihan said, shooting Kastan a short grin. Kastan poked Jihan’s knee and got a smile in return. “Well, Rushi has lived a life full of palace intrigues. Giode Kingdom’s royal house is messy and full of jealousy. Her father was pushed out of the throne by her uncle. This uncle then wanted to take over the throne from Rushi’s brother, who took over. There were attempts made on her and her brother’s life. When we intervened and helped them stopping the uncle, Rushi’s brother thought Rushi marrying into our empire would help heal some of the terrible things she has had to endure.” “Experiences like that are hard to forget,” Jihan said. “After Giode was stable, Kiyan brought Rushi back to our imperial palace as his wife. They have lived a quiet partnership until two years ago when I started noting little incidents,” Kastan shook his head. “They were minor uprisings in little towns in the Iron Lands. The issues were not large enough to warrant an army but serious enough to need my presence. The strife continued and escalated until we got to West Nation’s uprising. Lord Villes and his trusted aide, the Foreign Minister of Trade instigated that mess on Rushi’s behalf. Their goal was to make me fail in protecting the west border.” “Which is why they interfered with suppliers,” Jihan said. “Yes. When I examined all these incidences, it has become clear that Rushi is making an attempt to push me out of command.” Jihan dropped the token he held on his lap and placed his hand over Kastan’s right knee. “The burning feather’s goal is to change the commander of armies,” Jihan said. Kastan noted that it wasn’t a question, but he felt the need to acknowledge the truth that they both could not avoid. “Yes. Rushi is a thorn stuck on my side. She is empress, and the mother to the future emperor. I cannot harm her, only weaken her plans,” Kastan confessed. “And as my consort, Jihan, you’ll have to deal with the many trials she places me through.” “Does the Emperor know about her?” Jihan asked. “He does,” Kastan said. “He is handling it as best he can. She is his wife, and the mother of his children. Her presence in this palace is important for our imperial family’s stability.” “His Imperial Majesty should be careful. Unchecked offenses may turn Rushi into a tyrant,” Jihan said, his gaze narrowed. “The most important part is knowing what she’s like so that we can be ready. Thank you for telling me.” “I have kept these problems from my son. Rashan is only eleven,” Kastan continued. “He only knows how to train harder, and learn all he can. I want to protect his youth as long as I can.” Jihan nodded, taking Kastan’s hand and squeezing it hard. He finally met Kastan’s gaze. “I didn’t tell him about our wedding,” Kastan said. “He would have wanted to be here, but I was worried about what Rushi would do. Rashan loves his cousins and sees her as an interesting aunt. He would carry anything she tells him.” “Then you did the right thing. We don’t want Rushi finding an opportunity,” Jihan soothed. “We can have a family celebration of our own when we get home. I’m nervous to meet him. Do you think he’ll like me?” “He’ll like you,” Kastan promised, knowing his son was openhearted. Rashan would give Jihan a chance. “In time, he’ll come to love you.” Jihan nodded and stared down at their clasped hands. “The Emperor,” Jihan started, and then stopped. He swallowed hard and squeezed Kastan’s fingers. “He wants my Kamran network to work for him. That’s what he told me that day we met in his office. I’m worried. I’ve tried so hard to protect my people. I don’t know if I can keep them safe when the Emperor gets involved.” “I never saw your estate working. Did all the people working with you live at Kamran Estate?” “No,” Jihan said, shaking his head. “The easiest way to keep us underground is by keeping the many parts of the network separate. I—,” Kastan leaned in and pressed his lips on Jihan’s cheek. Jihan stopped talking and held still. Kastan, remembering that the imperial palace had too many interested ears murmured in Jihan’s ear. “Let’s talk about your network when we are at Silver Shore Valley. I promise to help you find a way to protect them all.” Jihan relaxed and leaned into him, resting his chin on Kastan’s shoulder. Kastan tagged his hand out of Jihan’s hold and wrapped his arms around him. He rubbed Jihan’s back, his fingers tangling in silky black hair and a red ribbon that reminded him of the red string of fate. His heart ached in the sweetest of ways and he decided to ask a question he had wondered about for weeks. “Why did you leave me at Kin Town?” Kastan asked. “I woke up after a wonderful night and you were gone, Jihan. Do you know I spent all those weeks looking for you?” “How did you find the estate?” Jihan asked. “Your eagles,” Kastan said, reaching up to untie the ribbon holding the circlet in place. Once it was free, he let go of Jihan and moved back to take the circlet off. He didn’t like the slight red bruises on Jihan’s forehead from the metal on the circlet. Jihan reached up to rub at the bruised skin, and Kastan took his hand hostage. He blew on the red skin on Jihan’s forehead and shook his head. “Don’t wear things that will hurt you again,” Kastan said, hovering his fingers over the red marks. “We should find an alternative if you must wear it.” “The circlet was a gift from your sister,” Jihan said, taking the headdress and studying it. “She asked me to marry you with an open mind.” “Did you?” “I did,” Jihan said, surprising Kastan. He placed the circlet over the headboard, and turned to look at Kastan. “I left you in Kin Town because your sister joined you at the border. She was actively searching for my network and since I didn’t know what they wanted, I had to protect my people. If she found me there, I would have had no choice but to cave to His Majesty’s demands.” “You still ended up here with me,” Kastan pointed out. “Yes,” Jihan nodded, looking around the red curtains of their bed. “But you only have me, and my people are safe. We were too exposed in Kin Town. I would not have been able to hide them from Kyra fast enough.” “You could have written me a note,” Kastan said, oddly annoyed. “I don’t know what was worse, the silence or you walking away so easily.” “It wasn’t easy,” Jihan said. “I—,” Jihan broke off and stared at their clasped hands on his lap. “You are Imperial Prince and Duke Silver. I’m a common merchant. I didn’t think I would get to keep you even if I stayed and begged to follow you to Silver Shore Valley.” Kastan smiled at that, and breathed out relief. At least he wasn’t alone in his affections. Jihan felt something for him. It was more than enough to give him hope. “I would have let you come with me,” Kastan said, making Jihan look up at him. “If you’d begged to follow me, I would have let you.” Jihan gave a soft chuckle and shook his head. “Instead, you followed me.” “I did,” Kastan said, then asked a question he had hoped to avoid for the rest of his life but just couldn’t. “What about Swallow? Temu says you looked close. I believe him as I doubt you would entrust your precious sister with someone you didn’t care about.” Jihan squeezed Kastan’s hand. “Swallow is married to a lovely woman. She’s pregnant, as we speak,” Jihan said. “Yes, but he was your lover at one time,” Kastan insisted. “Do you still have feelings for him?” Jihan frowned, looking thoughtful. It gave Kastan a bad taste in his mouth. “I love him as my best friend, Kastan,” Jihan said, giving him a reason to breathe easier. “Swallow has supported my family for ages. He helped build our business and protected Andiya when I couldn’t. He saw me grow up. He’s important to me.” “I can do all those things for you too,” Kastan said, hit with inexplicable jealousy. It came at him hard. Born from the clear warmth and affection Jihan had for this Swallow when he spoke. Jihan chuckled and reached up to touch Kastan’s crown, tracing his fingers over Kastan’s forehead and the frown lines there. “Are you jealous?” Jihan asked, with wide eyes. “No.” Kastan shook his head, unable to hide his annoyance. Jihan laughed and fell back on his pillows. “Duke Silver surprises me at every turn. Swallow hasn’t kissed me for three years now. He let me go when he found his wife. I have since moved on.” “Then, he hurt you.” The pain of old separation still lingered. It was all over Jihan’s face. Jihan shrugged as though to shake it off. “We all get hurt by love,” Jihan murmured. Kastan agreed, thinking of the betrayal he had felt when Jihan left him at Kin Town. The endless weeks of Jihan hiding and staying at Kamran Estate. Kastan had worried he would never get to have this moment. Yet, somehow, all that waiting felt worth it for this moment, he decided. Jihan was now his to keep for a lifetime. He would make Jihan forget all the hurt he carried. Kastan smiled at the thought and took in Jihan. “There’s one thing we haven’t done,” Kastan said, reaching for the belt he had placed around Jihan’s waist today. “It must be done well otherwise we’ll have bad luck in our marriage.” “What’s that?” Jihan asked, sitting up and making it easy for Kastan to remove the gold belt. “Consummate our union,” Kastan said. He flung the belt away, and captured Jihan’s lips in a kiss. He took in Jihan’s surprised gasp and sipped at Jihan’s lips before he deepened their kiss making Jihan cling to him. Jihan met his kiss and returned it with equal hunger. It was all Kastan needed. Tortured by weeks of waiting for this moment, Kastan felt crazed with need. He wanted to feel Jihan’s skin, and sink his cock into him just to get back his sanity. He tugged at robes, pulling on ties, tearing at them when they caught and refused to part, until they were both naked. He broke their kiss, trailing his lips along Jihan’s cheek to his neck where he bit into the curve of Jihan’s shoulder. He grunted with satisfaction when Jihan arched into him and his fingers dug into Kastan’s back. There was nothing headier than Jihan wanting him back. He moaned when Jihan started his own exploration. Gentle fingers caressing down his back, sliding to his waist, a bold hand slipping between them. Kastan braced his hands above Jihan as those gentle fingers circled around his cock. He was swollen with need and Jihan’s touch added to the maddening heat. He met Jihan’s gaze. “I’ve been weeks without you.” Kastan warned with a hiss when Jihan stroked him. “I don’t think I can take it slow.” Jihan brought his free hand up to tag Kastan down to him. “I don’t want you to be,” Jihan murmured, then fit his lips to Kastan’s in a kiss. It felt like coming home when he sunk himself into Jihan, gasping as his cock was engulfed in white-hot heat, listening to Jihan’s passion filled moans. Kastan held on to his consort and lost himself on their quest for pleasure. *~*~*~* Jihan shifted on comfortable sheets, loving the feel of them on his skin. He ached in secret places, his cock filling at the memory of why he ached. Kastan had taken him like a man possessed and he had loved every minute of it. Three days ago, he had been angry with Kastan and the imperial family. Now, he was high on lust and old affection for Kastan. It felt good having someone who could bring him to ecstasy with dedicated determination. It felt satisfying to come hard when Kastan took him, possessed him and left him with no doubt that he was wanted. He enjoyed Kastan’s drugging kisses, and the way Kastan held him as if he mattered. He was a brazen fool for wanting to hold on to this mad ecstasy and he wasn’t sorry about it. Jihan had missed Kastan in their separation. He shifted his head on Kastan’s chest, tangling his hair in Kastan’s fingers. Their red quilt on the floor, their sheets tangled around their feet. Kastan watched him, as he ran his fingers through Jihan’s hair, the motion soothing. “When I first saw you,” Kastan said after a while. “I wanted to see what you looked like naked wearing nothing but your hair. I’m a lucky man to have you in my bed.” Jihan blushed and shifted on his right side, looking up at Kastan. Kastan continued arranging Jihan’s hair over Jihan's arm, making the long strands cover his stomach. “You have a curious obsession with hair,” Jihan said with a small smile. “Not any hair,” Kastan corrected. “Yours, Jihan.” Jihan reached up to trace his thumb over Kastan’s scar. “Will you ever tell me how you got this?” “No,” Kastan said, shaking his head. “Why?” “Because,” Kastan grinned. “I would prefer it if you thought I got it during a battle.” Jihan chuckled and dropped his hand away with a short caress. “Meaning you got it elsewhere. Kas, your pride is showing,” Jihan teased. Kastan’s fingers stilled in his hair, and Jihan looked at him to find him staring. “What?” “It’s the first time I’ve heard you call my nickname,” Kastan said. “Kyra is the only other person who dares.” “Do you like it when people call your nickname?” “Sometimes,” Kastan said, bunching Jihan’s hair and letting it go. “My mother used to call me Kas. In a way, hearing that name reminds me of the simpler times, when I was young and didn’t know responsibility to the empire.” Jihan then realized that he didn’t really know much about Kastan’s mother. The empire’s founding father was over documented, but the emperor’s mother remained a mystery. “What was your mother like?” Jihan asked, wanting to know. Kastan kept his silence for a while and Jihan wondered if he had asked a sensitive question. Jihan didn’t like talking about his parents either. But that was because they disappointed him more times than he dared say. “My Ma had a beautiful smile,” Kastan said, his tone lost in memory. “I remember her cooking in a kitchen at the house we lived in when I was no more than five. It’s a faint memory, but it always fills me with joy when I think of it. Kiyan and I would be watching Kyra in the courtyard. When food was ready, she called our names. ‘Kiyan, Kas, bring the baby. Come eat.’ Kiyan would pick up Kyra and we would run to the house. She would laugh hard when she saw us and do her best to hug us all at once.” Kastan smiled and shook his head. “The memory is old, but it’s the best one I have of her,” Kastan said. “When we moved into the palace, I didn’t get to meet her as much. Pa wanted us in training all the time. She died when Kyra turned three. We didn’t know that her health was deteriorating at the time. My father said she had a hard time carrying Kyra to term and after Kyra’s birth, her health got worse. We all had a hard time after she was gone.” “Why is she not written in the records books? The people don’t know about her,” Jihan said. “It was a decision my father made. Our private records have her name and her lineage,” Kastan said. “But, my father was very protective of her and wanted to keep her memory intact and pure. You see, he loved her dearly and losing her broke a part of him. We did our best to keep the memory of her alive for Kyra but it wasn’t enough. Kyra calls me Kas, because I once said that I remember Ma calling me that.” Jihan pressed a kiss on Kastan’s chest. He wrapped his arm around Kastan sensing hidden grief. “Kas,” he said. “What is your mother’s name? Will you tell me?” “If you wish it,” Kastan said, stroking his fingers through Jihan’s hair. “Shana Miran. She was Empress for less than a year, so she is only known for having borne three children during her reign.” “She gave birth to three very powerful children. Her legacy is quite impressive,” Jihan mused. “Where is she buried?” “Why?” “Because, I’m your Consort, Kastan,” Jihan said. “I should pay my respects to your mother and ask for her blessing now that I’ve entered your house.” Kastan chuckled and rubbed his back. “Ma was a gentle soul, and would not mind you visiting her after you’ve been in my bed,” Kastan said. “Besides, it is already too late. I’ve already tied you to me and made you mine in every way that matters. She would know it with one look at you.” “Kas,” Jihan sat up and yelped when strands of his hair tangled in Kastan’s fingers. “Stop teasing me, I’m being serious here.” Jihan scowled at his husband, and would have moved away only to have Kastan pull him back in place. “What’s wrong with her knowing you belong to me?” Kastan asked. “Nothing,” Jihan said, shaking his head, hiding his face into Kastan’s shoulder. “She would love you just as you are,” Kastan promised, wrapping his arms around Jihan. He held him tight. “Speaking of which, Jihan, I want you to know that you don’t need to impress anyone but yourself from now on. No matter the situation we find ourselves in, no matter what, do what you feel like doing. Promise me.” Jihan lifted his head from Kastan’s shoulder to meet Kastan’s gaze. “What about you?” Jihan asked, thinking of Kastan’s obligations to his brother. “Can I make such a promise when you’re my husband, Kas? We’re considered one.” “Promise me,” Kastan insisted, squeezing Jihan against him. “Don’t worry about my brother. I’ll handle everything he brings on.” Kastan sounded quite confident in his promises to deal with Kiyan, but Jihan remembered Kiyan’s gaze. The Emperor was not an easy target. He looked like someone who got what he wanted. Jihan could see him coming after their house if they failed to deliver on expectations. Still, Kastan wanted him to do what he felt like. “I promise,” he said, smiling at Kastan. Kastan narrowed his gaze at him. “Are you being serious?” “Can’t you tell?” Jihan asked, raising his brow. Kastan touched Jihan’s right brow, tracing the arch in a gentle caress. “I believe you’ll do what you want,” Kastan said, “even if it’s something I don’t approve. Just don’t leave me again. I couldn’t take that.” Jihan felt his heart slam against his chest at the simple request. His heart ached for some reason and all he could do to soothe it was kiss Kastan, kiss him to heal them both after their separation. Kisses turned to more and once again, they were wrapped in each other’s arms. *~*~* “Wake up, Jihan.” Firuz’s voice cut through the haze of sleep, and Jihan groaned, rolling himself in the red quilt tighter. “Come on, the Empress invited you to eat your morning meal with her,” Firuz said. “Her attendants are waiting in the hallway outside. Jihan, wake up.” Jihan groaned, hating the idea of leaving his bed. Kastan had kept him up until the early hours of morning. Just before he faded to sleep, he remembered a kiss on his forehead and Kastan’s promise to let him sleep in. “Kas said I could sleep in,” Jihan said. “Your husband is on the practice grounds with his two sentinels,” Firuz said. “I’m not about to go get him to fight off the Empress’s attendants. It will look like you can’t face her alone. Jihan, come on.” Jihan sighed and sat up, still clinging to the quilt, his hair a wrecked mess. He rubbed his eyes and winced at the sunlight streaming into the bedroom. Firuz noted his discomfort and moved to block the light. Jihan smiled and looked up at his Shadow Guard. “You look happy,” Firuz said with a small smile, “like a contented consort.” Jihan blushed and pushed the quilt away. He was in a light pair of sleeping trousers. Kastan must have helped him wear them. He couldn’t remember. Pushing his hair out of his eyes, Jihan started to get out of bed, only to stop when he heard Firuz’s gasp. He turned to find Firuz staring at him. “What?” “Did he-he do that to you?” Firuz asked, pointing at his left shoulder. Jihan frowned and looked to his left. He saw the red mark on his shoulder, and remembered Kastan’s mouth sucking on his skin when Jihan took him all in. Heat flooded his cheeks and he got off the bed. He rushed to the mirror by the dressing table, and pushed his hair to one side. His neck was full of red marks, unmistakable love marks and there was no way to hide them. “We were all at the wedding,” Firuz said, behind him. “He didn’t have to make his claim so darned obvious.” Jihan chuckled. “They are for me,” Jihan said, touching the darkest one on the curve of his shoulder and neck. Kastan seemed on a strange mission to remind him that they were now bound for life. “I better get dressed,” Jihan said with a sigh. “The Empress is waiting.” Thirty minutes later, bathed and dressed in his day clothes, Jihan followed the Empress’s attendants out of Kastan’s auxiliary palace. Firuz walked next to him, still fuming over the marks Kastan had left on Jihan. One of them was clear above Jihan’s collar. Firuz had searched his clothes trying to find a scarf to hide it, without success. “Stop smiling so hard,” Firuz said, reaching out to tag on Jihan’s collar. The red outer coat Jihan wore was a new version of the one he had worn when he arrived at the palace. He was still very curious about the fabric made in the royal factory. He had thought to ask the Emperor, but the man did not look open to discussion. Jihan had decided he could wait until he discovered who worked with the weavers. Jihan took Firuz’s hand and squeezed it. “Stop worrying,” Jihan said. “My husband left those marks on me. It’s perfectly reasonable to show them off.” Firuz gaped and the two attendants ahead giggled hard. Jihan clasped his hands behind his back, as he walked, his steps light. The sun was up and he was in a great mood this morning. Firuz swept a lock of Jihan’s hair over his shoulder obscuring the visible love mark and Jihan chuckled at Firuz’s obvious concern. The empress’s attendants led Jihan to the back of the main palace. The path they took had a ton of palace staff who stepped aside as he passed and gave Jihan little nods in greeting. Jihan acknowledged each one, unused to the attention. He wondered if it was busy hour on this path. He was aware that most of them just wanted to have a good look at an Imperial Prince Consort. Kastan had made an interesting decision marrying him. It was not common for a prince to choose to marry a man, instead of a woman. Jihan had only heard of the custom in the old kingdoms and but not in the new empire. Then again, Kastan was setting precedent for future generations. Jihan sighed as he greeted a new influx of staff on the way around the palace to what looked like a workshop. The heavy scent of spices drifted into Jihan’s nostrils and he sneezed. The reaction was immediate, as he smelled pepper in the air. He stopped to sneeze and get it out of his system. When it was over, his nose was irritated and his eyes were teary. Getting a handkerchief from his pocket, he wiped his eyes and looked to Firuz. Firuz gave him a concerned glance and he shook his head. The empress’s attendants slid the workshop doors open, inviting him in. Jihan wiped his eyes and blew his nose hard hoping to control his reaction to pepper. When he was sure he was okay, he clutched the handkerchief in his left hand and entered the workshop. Firuz followed him, glaring at the attendants who tried to stop him. The attendants stepped back, not wanting to tangle with a shadow guard. Jihan forgot his irritated nose when he saw the large tables in the workshop. There was an assembly line workflow. Fresh herbs set out to dry. The dry herbs bundled in a bunch and then sent to packaging or grinding worktables to make powders. The staff was made up of women dressed in flowy dresses made of silk, all designed to keep them cool in the busy workshop. Jihan slowed his steps taking it all in, his gaze lingering over the final product. The ground herbs were packed into neat green bags made with parchment paper and secured with twine. Each package was marked with care. Jihan was enchanted by the setup. His business sold healing herbs but never herbs for use in the kitchen. Why had he never thought of selling cooking herbs? “Prince Consort has finally made an appearance,” a soft feminine voice said, drawing his attention to a dais set up in the farthest corner of the workshop. A large lounge chair was set before a low table holding a grinding stone. Comfortable stools were set around the low table. Sitting on one of those stools was the Empress Rushi. She was a petite woman, plain-faced with dark hair flowing down her back. She made up for her lack of height with attitude. Jihan wondered if it would be rude to congratulate her on how straight her back was as she sat on that stool. She was dressed to impress in a deep green gown. The colors of the groom’s family were still required on the day after the wedding. The fabric of her dress was in excess as it flowed around her stool, sweeping the gleaming wood floors. When Jihan got closer to the low table, he brought his right hand to his chest and bowed his head. “Jihan greets Her Imperial Majesty and wishes her a good morning,” Jihan said, sneaking a glance at her. Rushi stopped grinding the herbs she had under her grinding stone and looked up at him. Her gaze was cursory. She did not find him a threat, which was a plus, Jihan decided. “You’re very beautiful for a man,” Rushi said. “I suppose I can see the appeal Kastan has for you. I heard you are a merchant. What do you think of this spice workshop?” Jihan absorbed the jab about Kastan’s preferences and made a show of looking around the workshop. “Her Imperial Majesty’s workshop is very impressive. Do you sell these herbs?” Jihan asked. Rushi glanced at him in shock as though he had insulted her at the suggestion. “We use them in our imperial kitchens,” Rushi said, her tone enough to tell him she thought his opinion of selling too unrefined. “The imperial kitchen cooks for a large number of people on a daily basis. Our spice workshop supplements their meals, and makes sure we always have a constant supply.” “Oh,” Jihan said, looking around the busy workshop. What an idea though. He wondered if he could replicate the same setup out there, either at Kamran, or maybe Silver Shore. Fresh herbs were easy to get, packaging them for food would be interesting to some. “May I ask Prince Consort a question?” Rushi asked, bringing his attention back to the present. “Yes, Your Majesty,” Jihan said, with a small nod. “How is it possible for a merchant to gain the trust of a shadow guard when an Empress cannot?” Jihan clasped his hands behind his back, and gave Firuz a short glance. Shadow Guards were notorious for being very discriminating when they chose a charge. Jihan had long decided never to pry into their secrets. Firuz never shared much about the process of selection. “I chose Master Jihan when he was too young to understand the reasons himself,” Firuz answered. Rushi glanced at Firuz, and for a moment, Jihan thought he read envy in her eyes. The moment disappeared as fast as it appeared, and then she was studying the rosemary herbs under her grinding stone. “Shadow Guards remain a mystery,” Rushi said, with a sigh. “There are now two in the family. Queen Kyra’s and now Prince Consort. I wonder if the next generation in this family will be lucky to gain a shadow guard’s loyalty.” Was she talking about her sons? Imperial Princes were taught to fight shadow guards at the very least ghost warriors. When they couldn’t hold up in the fight, they had tons of ghost warriors to protect their lives. Why was Rushi so concerned? He wished he had brought Kastan along to this inquiry. He certainly knew more about training princes than Jihan. Jihan heard Firuz clear his throat, and he brought his attention to Rushi who was watching him with an expectant gaze. Jihan nodded. “I’m sure they will be very lucky,” Jihan said, only to get giggles from the attendants taking the finished herbs in response. “Her Majesty wonders if you would like to take herbs to your new home for your table.” Firuz said, making Jihan’s gaze widen. “Are you saying my herbs will be lucky to be on your dining table?” Rushi asked, pushing. Jihan cursed inside and smiled at the Empress. “I mean that we will be very lucky to have spices made by Her Majesty on our table,” Jihan said, hoping that saved him from his blunder. “You’re an interesting man,” Rushi said, getting up from her stool. Jihan stepped back to keep a distance from her. Rushi adjusted the skirts of her dress and smiled at him. “Did you know your mother visited us before your wedding? She asked me to watch out for you in our imperial palace. I told her I understood her worry. Our imperial family has so many rules and expectations. Naturally, as Empress, I should make sure you are able to keep up.” Jihan fought the urge to roll his eyes. Rushi had missed a mark if she thought mentioning his mother would make him do anything. Laner Kamran was a follower. She would never request anything of an Empress. She wasn’t brave enough to do it. So, all that Rushi had said was a lie. “Her Majesty is generous,” Jihan said, keeping his tone light. “I will be glad to discuss this matter with my husband first. We just married and I don’t want to overstep.” “Prince Consort has his place in Imperial Prince’s house,” Rushi said. “You will be in charge of managing Imperial Prince’s household while he handles matters of state. You will tend to Prince Rashan too. It is not that hard to see how overwhelming your task will be and it’s best if you lean on someone with experience to help you cope. Don’t be afraid to count on me, Prince Consort.” Jihan gave an internal scoff. Did he truly look like a weakling for her to make this suggestion to his face? Biting back a bitter remark, Jihan gave her a short nod. “Jihan thanks Her Imperial Majesty for her kindness,” he said, keeping his tone polite. “I promise that if my husband agrees, I will come running for aid at once.” Rushi glared at him and Jihan hoped she would not offer him food. He doubted he could swallow it. Her gaze made him edgy and her intentions were all too clear. He could see the wheels turning in her head as she tried to find a way to control him. “Prince Consort is really here,” Kyra’s voice filled the room, and Jihan turned in relief, insanely glad to see her. She was also in green, a lighter color than the sparkling dress she had worn the day before. Kyra smiled and rubbed her hands in a show of excitement. “I’ve been looking for you all over the palace. I had no idea that Her Imperial Majesty would also be eager to meet you today. You’re so popular,” Kyra said, taking Jihan’s right arm when she reached him. She stepped back and took in his outfit. “Look at that, you’re so handsome this morning too. You’re glowing with happiness. I think its mission accomplished on Kastan’s wedding, don’t you agree, Sister In-law?” Kyra turned to Rushi with an expectant look. Jihan wanted to cling to Kyra when Rushi turned away from them and moved to sit on the elegant chaise. She made a show of arranging her skirts before she gave Kyra a very forced smile. “Queen Kyra is always so optimistic in the morning,” Rushi said. “Why are you looking for Prince Consort?” “Because, we’re all leaving the palace today and I want to give him something,” Kyra said, squeezing Jihan’s hand. “We might not see each other for a few months. Unless,” Kyra turned to Jihan, “you can convince Kas to bring you to Tanad Kingdom. Oh, I would love to have you over.” Jihan smiled. “I’ll have to talk to Kas first.” “Of course,” Kyra said, with a nod. “The war just ended and your Silver Shore is carrying the weight of the war expenses. I’ll see if I can arrange a visit to see you in your new home. I’m sure Rashan will enjoy playing with his cousin when I bring my son.” Jihan nodded and relaxed when Kyra patted his arm. She turned to Rushi, this time her smile disappearing. “May I steal Prince Consort from you?” Kyra asked, her tone hard, she was not asking to take Jihan. Merely, stating that she was taking Jihan along. “Queen Kyra may do whatever she pleases,” Rushi answered with a wave of her hand. “Prince Consort, I’ll make sure the attendants get you that spice package for your table.” “Her Imperial Majesty is very generous,” Jihan said, and brought his hand to his chest bowing his head. Kyra did not give him time to say more. She took his right hand and led him out of the workshop with fast steps. She did not talk until they entered the main palace and had reached a spectacular courtyard decorated with red roses growing in large white pots. Kyra stopped and turned to look at Jihan. “Are you okay?” she asked. She swept her palm over Jihan’s shoulders removing invisible specks, a frown creasing her forehead. “I wasn’t late, was I?” Kyra asked, her voice filled with concern. “No, you were on time,” Firuz said, relief clear in his voice. Kyra nodded and smiled at Firuz. “It was smart of you to let my shadow guard know,” Kyra said. “He came running to get me instead of sending a message to Kas. That would have taken longer.” “Thank you for your assistance,” Firuz said, giving her a short bow before he stepped back. “Rushi is not the friendliest family member,” Kyra told Jihan, pushing the lock of hair over his shoulder to his back. She grinned when she noted the large love mark on Jihan’s neck. “It’s a good thing you knew to hide that. She would have needled you over it out of jealousy.” “You’re not what I expected,” Jihan said, surprised that he liked Kyra. She seemed like the most decent relative Kastan had. “What were you expecting?” Kyra asked, grinning at him. “I don’t know,” Jihan said, clasping his hands behind his back. He kicked the ground with his white boots, the red embroidery on them a startling contrast. He remembered running from Kin Town afraid of meeting Kyra. Now they were family. “You’ve been good to me twice now,” Jihan said, remembering her advice before his wedding. “Plus, you just saved me from the Empress. I wasn’t sure what I should say to her. She kept calling me Prince Consort. I have never heard so many Prince Consorts in one comment.” Kyra laughed, and then leaned closer to whisper in Jihan’s ear. “She insists on using our titles to address us,” Kyra said. “Imperial Prince for Kastan and Queen Kyra for me, there are times I stare at her in awe. It can’t be easy keeping that up.” Jihan sighed, the sound accompanied by his stomach growling loud enough to embarrass him. He pressed his right hand on his stomach with a hard blush and a mortified expression on his face. “She promised me food,” Jihan said, when he met Kyra’s surprised gaze. “I didn’t get any but I’m not sad about it. I was too nervous to eat.” Kyra burst out into another laugh, filling the courtyard with the sound of it. She was beautiful when she laughed. Her spirit so carefree, she reminded him of Andiya. His stomach growled again, and Kyra took his left arm. “You poor thing,” Kyra said, heading into a corridor that led to the west side of the palace. Along the way, Kyra gave him a detailed tour, explaining rooms and their uses when she could. There were turns that left Jihan hoping that Firuz had memorized them. He had no hope of getting back to Kastan’s palace on his own. Kyra led him down another long corridor and opened a door. The scent of food hit him hard, and his appetite almost had him shaking with hunger. They had entered a neat dining room. “These are my personal living quarters. I had breakfast prepared for you and Kas,” Kyra said, leading Jihan to a chair at the small table. “I’d just asked my attendants to invite you over when my shadow guard brought me news of Rushi calling you. Rushi moved faster. Sit, Jihan, relax. Rushi won’t send anyone here.” The next hour was pure fun with Kyra. She talked about his business and her family in Tanad Kingdom. How it was like for her to get used to living in Tanad Kingdom and then, falling in love with her husband. “It wasn’t easy,” Kyra said, pushing a plate of sliced apples to Firuz and her shadow guard. “I had a hard time getting used to Tanad customs and wanted to return home. But I was married, and my husband tried his best to make sure I was comfortable. In time, I fell in love with him and we got a son.” “You sound happy,” Jihan said, drinking his tea. “Do you miss them?” “I miss them very much,” Kyra said. “I wished I could bring them here with me, but we were facing a war. It was better for me to come alone. Speaking of sons, Jihan, I really want you to meet my Byul. He is so cute. I just want to keep hugging him but he won’t let me anymore. He says he is too grown up now. I don’t know how to tell him that I’ll always see him as my baby.” Jihan laughed charmed by Kyra. Later, Firuz led the way back to Kastan’s auxiliary palace. Jihan walked up the front steps and paused when he saw Kastan pacing outside the front doors. His husband was dressed in dark travel robes, his deep red cloak sweeping the ground as he paced. Kastan wore his sword belt and the silver vambraces he wore glinted in the mid-morning sun. Kastan clenched his hands in fists and shook his head. Jihan smiled and hurried up the steps, his heart skipping when Kastan saw him and changed direction heading for him. “Kas,” Jihan started, only to have the air squeezed out of him when Kastan grabbed him in a desperate hug. “Are you alright?” Kastan asked, holding Jihan tight against him. “I swear if she touched you, I’ll find her right now and we can have it out.” “Kas,” Jihan said, wrapping his arms around Kastan. “I shouldn’t have left you alone this morning. I should have stayed and then they wouldn’t have sent people to get you,” Kastan said, his voice sounding shaky. “Nothing happened,” Jihan said, doing his best to pull back but getting nowhere when Kastan tightened his arms around him. So, he leaned up and pressed his lips to Kastan’s left temple and whispered into Kastan’s ear. “Kas, calm down,” Jihan said. “Kyra came on time; Firuz sent for her, as she was closer and would move faster. The Empress did nothing to me other than give spices for our table.” Kastan breathed out in relief, squeezed him once more and leaned back to study him. Jihan smiled wide and reached up to rub out the frown lines on Kastan’s forehead. Kastan kept his right arm around Jihan as he took Jihan’s hand with his left, pressing a kiss on Jihan’s palm. “Stop smiling. I was so worried, I thought something would happen to you,” Kastan said. “You could have come to mount a rescue. I would have thought it very sexy,” Jihan teased. “My not coming made you look strong,” Kastan started to explain. “If I had shown up…” Jihan pressed his fingers over Kastan’s lips. “I know,” Jihan said with a small smile. “It’s over, Kas. There was no damage to us.” “If there was any damage, I would expect you to call me,” Kastan said, then turned to Firuz who stood a few feet away. “You make sure I get news about him in time.” “Yes, Your Grace,” Firuz said with a nod. Jihan sighed and patted Kastan’s shoulder. “We should leave this place now, before they think up another way to get me to meet Her Imperial Majesty.” Kastan grinned and kissed Jihan, a lingering kiss on his lips. “My consort is right. The horses and carriages are ready. I’ve said goodbye to all that need to hear it. I’ve gained what I wanted in this palace,” Kastan said. “We should go, Rashan is waiting for us.” *~*~*~* “What are you looking at?” Andiya asked Jihan when they were on the road that would take them to Silver Shore Valley and Kamran Estate for Andiya. Jihan had chosen to ride in the carriage so that he could spend time with Andiya. Kastan was riding a horse, leading the unexpected large convoy. Firuz rode alongside their carriage. Jihan held the dark box Kyra had given him as a gift. It was open on his lap to reveal a neat book bound with leather. Taking the book out, Jihan untied the leather straps to reveal the pages. “Kyra gave it to me as a wedding gift,” Jihan said, looking at his sister. “It’s a journal on how to keep a noble household. Do you think she’s worried I’ll fail at running her brother’s house?” Andiya chuckled and reached for a purple bag she had boarded the carriage holding. She held it out to Jihan and sat with her hands clasped on her lap when he took it. “It will take time to get used to being related to the imperial class. My gift is not as fancy as Queen Kyra’s,” Andiya said, with a nervous laugh. “I love your gifts more,” Jihan said. They were the best compared to those of his in-laws. The Empress had given him spices, which were stowed away with the rest of the gifts for their wedding. Jihan tried not to think of the Emperor’s gift. His was verbal, and sounded more like an order. Kiyan had pulled him into a short hug before he boarded the carriage and it had almost given Jihan a heart attack. Kiyan wanted him to work hard at making Silver Shore Valley profitable. ‘Rael of the royal bureau of investigation will reach out to you, as needed. Meanwhile, I charge you with making Kastan a wealthy man,’ Kiyan said into his ear. ‘It is my wish that he is able to sustain our imperial palace. Don’t disappoint me, Prince Consort Jihan. I can’t wait to see what you can do.’ Jihan shuddered at the knowing glance Kiyan gave him when he let go. It reminded Jihan that his marriage came with consequences and burdens. Andiya spoke as though noting his mood. “You were always gone at Kamran Estate. You spent your time worrying about how to make money, dealing with the business and all that. You never got to stay at home enough,” Andiya said, her tone that of an older sister advising her younger sibling. Jihan placed Kyra’s box on the bench next to him and opened the bag his sister gave him. Inside was a smaller book bound with fine cloth. The pages looked new, and it was thick, which meant Andiya had spent considerable time putting it together. Jihan opened the cover and found an inscription on the first page. ‘For Jihan’s household, so that he may always have a warm home.’ “I don’t know about complicated political and business matters,” Andiya continued. “But I know about running a household. Making sure everyone has good food in the morning, at lunch and evening. Making sure there are clean clothes to wear and keeping household finances. You’re Consort to an Imperial Prince. You’ll now have a large household to manage. There is staff, suppliers, guests and your husband’s status to manage. You need a plan so that you don’t drown under pressure.” “Andiya,” Jihan started, awed by the careful notes he found in the book she gave him. “Your sister won’t be there to help you,” Andiya said, scooting closer to him. She took his hand and squeezed. “You only have Firuz to rely on when things get hard. I’ve written down all I know, all I’ve done for our home and what I learned from Ma when she was with us. If a situation seems impossible, Jihan, you can write me. There is still Yoru who will get the message to me very fast. I’ll do my best to help you solve the problem.” Jihan felt tears fill his eyes as he stared at his sister. Andiya continued her sage advice about running a large household. Warnings like watch out for the women who will surely come to tempt the husband, and suppliers who try to deliver less pounds of flour. Jihan listened to it all, clutching her book with one hand as she held his other hand. When she was done, she pulled him into a tight hug. Andiya patted his back. “Kastan is too striking for his own good,” Andiya said. “He also has too much power, and is a warrior. He has been good to you as a lover. You’re now a consort, which is different. If he tries to bully you, don’t sit back and let him, An. You push back, and hold your own. If you think he’ll break you as it sometimes happens, come home to Kamran Estate. You’ll always have a place there. Promise me.” “Andiya,” Jihan started to protest. She tightened her arms around him and shook him. “Promise me now,” Andiya said. “You promise me that you’ll come home to Kamran Estate if you can’t bear it anymore. Do it, An.” Jihan closed his eyes and felt the tears he held in fall. The carriage came to a stop and he buried his face into her shoulder. It seemed like they had come to the intersection of roads, one road going to Kamran, the other to Silver Shore Valley. Jihan breathed in, then out, wondering when he would feel Andiya hug him again. Would he get to see his nephew or niece born? “I promise,” he murmured to Andiya, knowing he might break it. After all, he had promised Kastan he would not leave. “Good,” Andiya said, rubbing his back. “We’ve never had anyone but each other at Kamran. Your title means there will be more troublesome happenings for both of us. I promise to get stronger, Jihan.” Jihan hugged Andiya back. Firuz knocked on the carriage door, making Jihan’s heart squeeze with anxiety. He pressed a kiss on Andiya’s cheek and moved to place the book she had given him in the box Kyra gifted him. Firuz knocked again, and opened the door this time, peeping in. “It’s time, Jihan,” Firuz said. “Andiya, will you step out for a bit. His Grace wants to talk to you. I’ll help you down.” Andiya squeezed Jihan’s shoulder, and then got up moving to the door so that Firuz could help her step out of the carriage. Jihan wiped his eyes, and took in deep breaths to control his emotions. Gulping in air, he blew it out when Firuz peeped in again. “Are you coming? Your husband is getting worried,” Firuz said. Jihan picked up the box and moved to the door, hugging the box tight when he stepped down the carriage. The sun was high above them. Jihan stood staring in awe as he watched Kastan take Andiya’s hand and tuck it into the crook of his arm. They walked together, heading to the back of the carriage. Jihan followed them, curious as to what Kastan wanted to tell his sister. “I know we haven’t had the best experiences with each other,” Kastan was saying when Jihan caught up with them. “My men were rough with you when we first met.” “That’s an understatement,” Andiya said. “You pointed a sword at my brother.” Kastan winced at the bitter note in Andiya’s voice. “I was wrong,” Kastan said. “I should never have done that but I was jealous and lost my mind that night. Let’s think of it as the past.” “Swallow is old news,” Andiya said, making Jihan bite back a chuckle. “Had you asked me nicely, I would have told you that An was pining for you for weeks.” “Andiya,” Jihan said, compelled to stop her from exposing him. “Tell me more,” Kastan said, patting Andiya’s hand where she clutched his left elbow. Andiya laughed and she winked at Jihan. “I’ll let you discover those truths on your own,” Andiya said. “Duke Silver, what are we doing?” “We’re family now, Andiya. I know Jihan worries most about you. I want to ease his mind by giving you a unit of ghost warriors loyal to Silver Shore to help keep you safe.” “We have always had them invading, never had some on our side. Are you sure about this? I mean this is—,” Andiya started to protest. “Don’t refuse them,” Kastan said, stopping before men dressed in full black riding at the back. “Their main priority is keeping you, your husband and children safe. If you need to use them to reach me, do it. I’ll drop everything and come running to Kamran Estate.” “Your Grace, surely, you can’t be that idle,” Andiya said, her surprise hard to miss. “I’m taking away your little brother,” Kastan said, looking at Jihan. “I’m just making sure he’ll be able to sleep without worrying. So, don’t hesitate to ask for my help. I’ll come running.” Andiya shook her head at Kastan’s words and turned to the unit of ghost warriors who faced her and bowed as one. Kastan and Andiya talked a few more minutes and then it was time for Andiya to leave. Kastan helped Andiya back into her carriage. “Write me,” Andiya told Jihan, pausing at the carriage door. “I will,” Jihan promised. “Take care of yourself and the baby.” Andiya nodded and waved. She entered the carriage and pulled back the curtains at the window so she could lean out. Kastan gave a nod and the ghost warriors moved into place, to protect the carriage. Andiya smiled at Jihan and panic filled him. “Andiya,” he said, his voice barely above a whisper as he took a step forward. She waved and his hands couldn’t move to tell her goodbye. It was strange not going home with her. It was worse watching her leave him with a smile on her face. Kastan moved closer and placed his arm over Jihan’s shoulders, waving at Andiya on Jihan’s behalf. “You’ll get to see her again,” Kastan said. “You can visit her as much as you like.” “Can I?” Jihan asked, clutching the box of books from Andiya and Kyra. “Of course,” Kastan said, squeezing his shoulders. Jihan wanted to believe him, but there was no knowing when he would have time to return to Kamran Estate. He stood watching Andiya’s carriage drive away. She leaned out the window again to look at him until she couldn’t anymore. Then all he could see were the ghost warriors and the back of the carriage. “Do you want to keep looking?” Kastan asked. Jihan clutched the box he held and nodded, unwilling to move. “Alright, we’ll stay until you’re able to leave,” Kastan said, squeezing his shoulders, and moving away. Jihan closed his eyes as Kastan sent the rest of the convoy moving, heading toward Silver Shore Valley. Jihan had taken this road thousands of times. He had never hesitated at this intersection, always taking the left side in a mad rush to get to Kamran Estate. He had never imagined there would come a time he would take the right side, heading to Silver Shore Valley. “Should I help you mount your horse?” Firuz asked, after an inordinate amount of time. “The sun will go down soon. You can’t keep standing here.” Jihan hugged the box he still held and shook his head, not ready to listen. “You’re a married man now,” Firuz said. “You even have a son to take care of and you’re standing here pining after your sister. Don’t you think you’re being too much?” Jihan slid his gaze to his shadow guard and scowled. “I’ll stand here all night if I want,” Jihan said, annoyed. His heart was aching with the idea that his loyalties would now have to include Silver Shore Valley. A valley full of people he did not know, and who would probably give him a hard time at first. All in the name of him marrying their master and becoming a consort. If he had to endure all of that, they could afford a few minutes for him to stare after his sister. He had protected her all his life. “You’re sulking. It’s not pretty,” Firuz said. “I don’t like you right now. I thought you liked Andiya?” “She’s married now,” Firuz said. “She’s happy with Ishan. I can only support her like you. Jihan, we’re moving into a new world. Don’t hesitate like this. Otherwise, it will get harder. Look behind you.” Firuz turned Jihan when he wouldn’t move and he blinked when he saw Kastan talking to Temu and Naveed. Kastan stood next to two horses. One was his, the other Jihan’s horse. The last of the convoy had already passed them and was in the distance. “Those two men are Kastan’s most trusted. They take care of him and all he cares about, which now includes you. The longer you stand here looking unwilling, the more you’ll lose ground with them. From what I can tell, this hasn’t been easy for their side either, Jihan,” Firuz said. “You’re now ranked higher than them. They’ll have to take your orders. Don’t give them reasons to give you a hard time about it.” Jihan sighed and looked in Andiya’s direction one last time. Firuz was right. He was always right. Jihan had no time to sulk. Even with Kastan’s ghost warriors, Jihan still needed to get stronger so that he could make sure Andiya stayed safe. There was no telling what the Emperor would do if Jihan failed to impress. Handing the box he held to Firuz, Jihan took in a deep breath and walked toward Kastan. His husband stopped talking to Temu and Naveed and turned to face him. “Ready?” Kastan asked. Jihan glanced at Temu and Naveed, who had their gazes lowered and had turned away from him. It was clear his little meltdown had not impressed them. Firuz’s warning about gaining their trust filled his head. “Yes, I’m ready,” Jihan said to Kastan. Kastan held out his hand and Jihan took it without hesitation. Kastan helped him mount his horse and handed him the reins. When everyone was mounted on their horses, they all turned as one headed to Silver Shore Valley. Jihan could see the excitement to get home on Temu, Naveed and even Kastan’s faces. Their eagerness made him anxious. His anxiety had him wondering what was waiting for him at Silver Shore Valley now that he was Duke Silver’s consort. *~*~*~*
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