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  1. 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. *~*~*~*
  2. 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.” *~*~*~*
  3. lilansui

    Chapter 1

    I'm glad you found it! I hope Leon and Logan entertain you.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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. *~*~*~*
  7. lilansui

    Chapter 33

    You're welcome, Nana.
  8. 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. *~*~*~*
  9. Hi Lilansui, First of all I am a big fan of your work and please keep it up. Secondly can you give any updates on when the next chapter of the reluctant consort will be published that would be great. 

    1. lilansui


      Hi Div! Thank you so much for reading my work! I've just updated The Reluctant Consort.  I'll work on sharing my update times from now on.  I've been obsessing a bit on the direction of the story this last week, so that's why it's taken a bit of time.  I'm on track now, so it will get easier. I hope you enjoy the new part.  Cheers.

    2. Div


      Hi lilansui, thank you for the reply and for posting the chapter. I was just a little worried with the pandemic and all going on so yeah just wanted to say stay safe and keep writing bye. 

    3. lilansui


      Awww, you too stay safe, and take very good care of yourself.

  10. 6 Bangkok gave Leon and Logan the freedom to sink into their newfound romance. Riku’s home offered convenience and privacy. Leon left his friends to their own adventures, preferring to walk the streets of Bangkok with Logan. Leon remembered every minute of their month in Thailand. They rode longboats that took them on a tour of the residential parts of the city, with Leon taking pictures of Logan smiling, or pointing out sights that caught his attention. He took pictures of Logan buying them beers when the longboat stopped at one of the street markets. There was one of Logan laughing with the longboat’s owner as though they were old friends. There was the visit to one of the largest temple complexes in the city, Wat Pho. Home to the giant reclining Buddha covered in gold leaf. Leon spent more than a few minutes capturing it on camera, then dragged Logan closer so that they could take a selfie. Logan had covered his face in embarrassment when Leon insisted they crouch down on the floor to get the right angle. They walked through the huge flower market; Leon took more pictures and bought Logan a bunch of edible flowers. Leon made sure to immortalize Logan's amused expression. He had a collection of pictures dedicated to Logan's expressions: happy Logan, moody Logan, annoyed Logan, and his favorite, thinking Logan. Leon scrolled through them and paused when he found a photo of Logan taken at a local restaurant in Bangkok. Leon frowned, remembering the lunch they spent at a local Bangkok restaurant. They chose a quiet spot by the windows with a view of the street. After spending five months in Leon’s company, Logan was well versed in Leon’s likes and dislikes when it came to food. Leon left Logan to order their food, while he watched the street. “Do you think it’s freeing to live the way we have these last five months?” Leon asked, when Logan was done making their order. “Without a care or schedule in sight. I wonder if I shouldn’t try to live like this forever.” “Don’t you miss home?” Logan asked, accepting the glasses of freshly squeezed tangerine juice from their waiter. “In some ways, I do,” Leon shrugged. “I also know if I go back home, the first thing I’ll give up is free time. There are projects I want to do that will take all my time. I’m worried I won’t be this free for a long time.” “I don’t mind a life of schedules,” Logan said, adjusting the plate of river prawn on lotus flower and sweet sauce before Leon. He had ordered barbecue chicken with sauce for himself. Logan took a few minutes cutting pieces of chicken to place on Leon’s plate. Leon had a bad habit of eating what everyone else ordered, and only a little of what was in his plate. Something Logan had picked up about Leon in Norway. “Why don’t you mind schedules?” Leon asked, picking up the pieces of barbecue chicken Logan placed on his plate. He chewed slow, as though testing the taste. When he was sure of the taste, he took another bite. “Schedules mean I know where I need to be every day, at every moment. They keep me goal-oriented. They’re efficient.” “That’s…true,” Leon smiled, taking up his glass of juice. He took a sip, then a deeper drink when he approved of the taste. He looked up from his plate and his gaze stayed on Logan as he ate his chicken. “What happens when we get home?” Leon asked, thinking he wanted to continue seeing Logan after their trip ended. He wanted Logan in his life. Logan placed his fork on his plate and dropped his hands on his lap. When he looked at Leon, it was to deliver somber news. “I’ll get a new assignment.” “Just like that?” Leon asked, annoyed by the acceptance in Logan’s voice. He needed Logan to want him too. “That is my life, Leon,” Logan said. “It’s what I signed up for.” Leon nodded. “So, I’m an assignment, and that’s it.” “That’s not what I’m saying.” “What if I want you to stay with me?” Leon asked. “Would you agree?” Logan held his silence, a tick in his jaw before he met Leon’s gaze. “No,” Logan said, his gaze leaving no doubt that Leon would not interfere with his career. Leon stared at him for a moment, and then he got up and left the restaurant, anxiety burning a hole in his gut. His appetite vanished. He did not want to interfere with Logan’s life in anyway. He wanted the best for Logan, always, but the idea of being unable to see him again— A strong grip on his left elbow jerked him to a stop and he turned to find Logan glaring at him. “Never do that again,” Logan yelled. “You don’t walk away from me.” “Let go,” Leon jerked his arm out of Logan’s hold, hating the swirl of uneasiness flooding his stomach. He wanted to shout with frustration on the street. Logan held up the camera bag Leon carried. “You left this behind.” Leon cursed and reached for the bag, only for Logan to move it out of his reach. “Do you want to talk about this?” Logan asked, studying him. “We can do it now, or later, when we’re about to go back to Aeras. Which do you prefer?” Leon wiped a hand down his face and looked around the busy street. Fear he didn’t understand filled his heart. It wasn’t as though Logan would be too far, but— “I’m afraid I’ll never see you again when we get home,” Leon stated, finally meeting Logan’s inquiring gaze. “You’ll be gone, disappeared into the intricate mess that is your beloved Royal Navy. You’ll stay inundated in missions. What we’ve built here will disappear in a flash and it scares me.” “I won’t let that happen,” Logan said. “I’ll make time for you, if you want it.” Leon chuckled, the sound bitter even to his ears, as he shook his head. It would not be the same. It would not be this: being together, living together. He could already hear doubt creeping into Logan’s voice. Back home where he was a prince and Logan an officer, would Logan have the courage to want him back? His heart threatened to break at the thought of it all. “Don’t tease me, Logan,” Leon said. “I know the rules and how they will pull us apart because of your duty to them.” “I’m sorry. I don’t know what to say to make this easier,” Logan said, sliding his hand from Leon’s elbow to lock their fingers together. “Baby, you’re having a meltdown in the middle of Bangkok, and all I want to do is kiss you and make it better.” Leon breathed in, staring at Logan's photo, thinking about that conversation on the street. They had not finished their discussion. Logan had pulled him into a hug and then hailed a taxi to head back to Riku’s house. When they got there, it was to find Riku planning a trip to the beach. Leon studied a photograph of Logan at the beach in Phuket. Logan was in swimming shorts, coming out of the water, his hair dripping, his body so incredible; Leon had been unable to resist taking the picture among other things. Years of military training had sculpted Logan’s body to perfection. Smiling, Leon saved Logan’s photos and decided he did not have the courage to revisit their lost conversation until it was necessary. Bangkok had turned into the perfect getaway. Now, they were in Anselm’s Seville. The Leandro Hacienda was ushering in December. Anselm tried to be there for them, but his presence in the hacienda meant he had to work at times. Petr and Riku spent most of their time together. David and Paul went in search of matador scenes, leaving Leon and Logan to their own devices. Leon smiled as a glass of orange juice appeared before him. He closed the laptop and shivered when cool lips trailed along his bare neck, down to his shoulder. The gown he wore slid off his shoulders and he placed the glass on the table, turning his chair so that he could kiss Logan. It felt as though he and Logan had fallen into a cloud of passion in Seville. Anselm’s hacienda was perfect for it: lazy afternoons in bed with Logan were the stuff of dreams. They made love, unfolding each other with desire and need, until there was nothing to hide. Leon moaned now as Logan pushed the gown away leaving him naked. He sunk his fingers into Logan’s hair, which had grown in the last few months, biting his lip as Logan kissed his way down his stomach, lower, until he took Leon’s cock into his mouth. Thoughts disappeared, and all that remained was Logan’s hot mouth on him, and the molten desire racing through him. If he lived with nothing else but Logan loving him, Leon knew he would be content. *** When they made it out of bed, Logan took pleasure in watching Leon ride Anselm’s horses. One afternoon, on a sunny Wednesday, Leon sat on a brown mare with no saddle in only a pair of jeans, his shirt hanging on the rail beside Logan, his feet bare. “You’re crazy,” Logan scolded, wishing he could pull Leon off the horse, even as Leon urged it into a run around the enclosed pasture. Leon’s laugh at the exhilarating ride had Logan watching him in awe. In moments like these, he marveled at the fact that he had somehow gained the right to kiss this passionate Leon and watch him come apart with ecstasy in his arms. Logan frowned when it started raining. He started to call out to Leon, but stopped. Leon held out his hands wide and tilted his head back, allowing his horse to guide the ride around the pasture. Horse and man, making a perfect picture in the rain, Logan brought his phone up and took the picture, thinking it the most real Leon had ever gotten. Logan wished he could keep Leon forever. When Leon rode toward him, stopping his horse right before Logan, Logan’s heart ached with love when Leon jumped off the horse and came to him. Leon climbed the railing and kissed him as though they didn’t have another night together. One kiss led to more. They laughed and worked on finding a private spot to enjoy each other to their heart’s content. The rain stopped, and they lay on long grass behind the hacienda, kissing, and exploring each other’s bodies, not spoiling the moment with words. It was bliss. Leon closed his eyes when Logan trailed kisses down his chest. Logan then braced his hands on either side of him and took a moment to stare down at Leon. Leon smiled, leaning up to steal a kiss from Logan. He chuckled when Logan lay over him, pressing his full weight on him. “Leon!” Riku’s voice drifted to them and Logan groaned, burying his face into Leon’s shoulder at the interruption. “Leon!” “We should ignore him,” Leon sighed, running his hands up Logan’s back. “Come on, Logan, kiss me again.” “Logan!” Riku yelled, a note in his voice making Logan sit up to see Riku running toward them. “Come on,” Leon protested when Logan got to his feet, his gaze narrowed when Riku saw him and changed direction, running at full speed toward him. Logan reached down and pulled Leon to his feet. “Something is wrong,” Logan said, when Leon leaned into his back, pressing a kiss on Logan's shoulder. “What could be wrong on such a perfect day?” Leon asked, burying his face into Logan’s back. Riku reached them, and stood staring at Leon for full minute, his eyes filled with tears. “I’m sorry,” Riku said, the tears spilling over. “What’s wrong?” Logan asked, shifting so that he could wrap his arm around Leon’s shoulders. Riku held out Logan’s cellphone. Logan had left it with him when they came out here, just in case. Logan sucked in air, thinking Leon’s parents had discovered the nature of their trip across Europe. He checked the caller ID and frowned when he saw Commander Steele’s personal number. “Hello, Sir,” Logan said, after bringing the phone to his ear. “Lieutenant Mason,” Commander Steele said his voice soft. “Are you near His Highness, Prince Leon?” “Yes, Sir,” his answer had Leon looking at him with a frown. “Good. We have bad news for him and he is going to need someone with him. There is no easy way to say this, Lieutenant. An hour ago, there was a terrible car accident near the family's vineyard in Aeras. Prince Kleopas and Princess Anastasia were both in the car. They are gone, Logan. Prince Leon is summoned back home. We’re already making the necessary arrangements. You’ll need to accompany him back.” Logan sucked in air, his arm tightening around Leon. “If you’ll hand him the phone now,” Commander Steele said. “It is my duty to make the notification to His Highness.” Logan’s gaze met Leon’s questioning one and he heard himself ask, “Can I make it?” “No, Lieutenant. This is my duty, son. Follow orders and hand the phone to His Highness.” Logan closed his eyes and held out his phone to Leon, keeping his arm around Leon. “It’s for you,” Logan managed to choke out, when Leon took it in confusion. Leon brought the phone to his ear, and Logan knew the moment Leon heard the worst news of his life. He dropped the phone to the ground, going limp. Logan wrapped his arms around Leon tight, aware of Riku moving in too, and holding Leon from the back. “I’m so sorry,” Logan murmured, into Leon’s ear. “You’re not alone. Baby, we’re right here.” Leon clung to him, shaking hard, even as he shook his head as though in denial. *** Logan sat beside Leon on the flight back to the Kingdom of Aeras. His hand closed over Leon’s right, doing everything he could to infuse strength into a listless Leon. Since the call from Commander Steele, Leon had not spoken one word. He moved in silence, following when Logan made him head back to their suite to dress. Commander Steele’s orders got them transportation back to Aeras in less than thirty minutes. A car stood waiting outside Anselm’s hacienda by the time Leon was fully dressed in a black suit. Logan left their luggage to Anselm, knowing it would be well packed and sent to Aeras. He made sure to take Leon’s laptop and his camera bag though. The seatbelt light came on in preparation for the landing. Logan started to reach for Leon’s belt to snap it in place, only to realize that Leon had not bothered removing it. Looking into gray eyes, he wondered if Leon even saw him. There was no need for words. Leon was not talking. “Logan, see me for a moment,” Petr said, touching Logan’s shoulder. “Sit with me.” Logan squeezed Leon’s hand, not ready to leave him. Petr gave him a warning glance, and he sighed and got up. It was no surprise that all Leon’s friends had boarded the plane with him. Riku moved into the seat Logan vacated and took Leon’s hand. Logan sat next to Petr and waited. “How deep are you?” Petr asked. Logan stared at his hands on his lap. He didn’t know what answer to give. He and Leon had barely talked about the future. When they tried, Leon would get so upset, Logan had thought it best they push it back. “We’re about to land,” Petr said, continuing without Logan’s answer. “You have a choice to make, Logan. Remember I told you that you would need to join our club to keep close?” Logan nodded. His gaze fixed on Leon’s seat. He could not see Leon but he imagined Leon was staring out the window as he had during the flight. “I suppose you’ll have to experience what I mean to understand,” Petr said. “I’m telling you if you want into the circle, I’ll help you. We all will, but you need to want it, Logan, because it’s not an easy feat liking a Queen’s favorite grandson. Do you understand?” Logan dragged his gaze away from Leon’s seat. “Let’s talk about it later, Petr,” Logan said, he could barely think straight right now. He didn’t understand what Petr was trying to say. Right now, all he could think about was Leon. Leon looked like the type to hold his pain inside, and not reach out for help. “Sure,” Petr said. Petr nodded and Logan got up and returned to his seat making Riku return to Petr. When they landed, it was to find a palace attendant waiting for Leon with three black royal service cars at the ready. It was night. The palace was keeping Leon’s arrival private. There was no press in sight. The heightened security tipped Logan that there was more going on. Leon stared at the palace attendant waiting for direction. “Your Highness, Prince Leon, my name is Dax Karia. I am your personal secretary assigned by the palace. I will accompany you through this difficult time.” Leon pointed to Logan and the rest of his friends. “I—,” he broke off, clearing his throat. “I need them.” Logan started to step forward, but stopped when Riku held his elbow. “Can you stay with him? Don’t leave him alone at the hospital?” Riku asked. “He’s—” “I know. I’ll stay with him,” Logan said, following Leon to the car Dax indicated. “Where are we going?” Logan asked Dax, who sat in the front passenger seat. “The hospital first,” Dax said, shifting to look at Leon. “Then to the palace to meet Her Majesty.” Leon closed his eyes and clasped his hands tight on his lap. Logan once again covered Leon’s cool hands with his hoping to relieve Leon’s anxiety. It worked for a while, until the car pulled into the underground parking lot at the hospital. Leon shivered then, tension returning. Dax led the way to the morgue. Logan noted that only relevant staff remained. At the doors into the morgue, Leon stopped right outside unable to follow Dax. His fingers clenched into tight fists. Logan started to reach for him, but Dax stepped out, giving him a censoring glance. “Your Highness,” Dax addressed Leon. “You’re Prince Kleopas’s only son and the head of Castle Arguro now,” Dax said, in the gentlest voice possible. “We should get this identification done so that we’re able to start funeral arrangements.” Leon sucked in air and seemed to push himself to enter the morgue. Logan followed behind him, afraid. He was not as confident as Dax that Leon would keep it together. He wasn’t wrong. It took Leon exactly three minutes from the moment he saw his parents. Logan reached him as he broke down into hard sobs that had Dax leaving them alone and closing the doors to ensure privacy. Logan held on to Leon as he cried harsh sobs that wrecked through his body, until all he could do was hold on to Logan. Shock and pain washed over Leon, Logan wished he could take it all for him. Yet, all he could do was hold Leon in the middle of this horrible storm. When Leon calmed down enough to walk, Logan led him out of the morgue to find Dax waiting for them. Dax held out a handkerchief to Leon. “What’s next?” Logan asked, making sure he blocked Leon from everyone else, as he composed himself. “Now, we head to the palace,” Dax said, studying Logan with a curious glance. “I’m not sure you’re—” “I have clearance,” Logan said. “Talk to Commander Steele.” Dax nodded and led the way out. Once upstairs, Logan sighed because their luck had ran out. The press waited outside. The security Dax brought with him was efficient. They cleared a path to the car in minutes. Leon walked on his own steam, and once they were in the car, the driver took off. “Leon.” Logan tried to reach out, but Leon just shook his head, tears sliding down his cheeks. Logan sighed and pulled him into his arms, holding him. The drive to the Capital’s Palace went too fast. One moment Leon was in his arms, the next the car pulled up to the main entrance. Leon moved out of his arms, taking in deep breaths, building armor around his emotions. When he got out of the car, he was composed enough. Logan followed Leon into the palace, stopping only when the Queen’s personal secretary and Commander Steele met them. Leon continued up the wide staircase to the first floor following the queen’s personal secretary and Logan met Commander Steele’s gaze. “Lieutenant Mason,” Commander Steele said in greeting. “Thank you for completing your mission with success. Now that His Highness is home, I have a special mission for you…” Logan looked up the staircase to find Leon watching him. Their gazes held for a minute, then Leon was gone, and there was only duty staring at Logan. *** A week later, Leon stood in the green salon where his mother liked to host her guests at Castle Arguro. She liked the wide windows that let in the sun. Anastasia worked tirelessly with the gardener to create a bustling, flourishing flower garden for the perfect view. Leon stared at the bright garden now and felt nausea rise. His mother would want the garden kept up and he had no clue how. He did not know the first thing about running the castle. Why had he never bothered to learn? His father’s work was easy. Leon trained all his life for it, but running the castle… Leon took in a deep breath, hoping to quell the panic. He closed his eyes and the image of his parents lying so still in the morgue filled his mind’s eye. He sucked in air, and forced his eyes open. The reality of his parents’ deaths tore him to pieces. “Your Highness,” someone said, trying to draw him out of the cold. “W-wh—” Leon stopped to clear his throat. He turned to his right to find the attendant his grandmother had forced on him standing a few feet away. A blessing and a curse, he decided. The attendant was a blessing because Dax was the only person who seemed to know what Leon was supposed to be doing. Leon thought it a curse because he had this sinking feeling that his parents were dead because of the palace. His first instinct was to distance himself from his grandmother. “What am I doing next?” Leon asked Dax, needing direction. “We’re driving you to the funeral procession,” Dax said. “You'll have a ten minute walk from the Thelem Academy behind your parents’ caskets until you arrive at the Thelem Abbey where Her Majesty is waiting for you, Your Highness.” “I don’t remember all the protocols.” “I will stay with you through the ceremony and guide Your Highness through them,” Dax promised. Leon nodded glad he did not have to remember all the procedures. Turning to the gardens again, he pointed at them. “Dax, Mom would want me to keep up the gardens and I don’t know how,” Leon said. “Can you make sure they know to take care of them? I—, it’s—,” Leon shook his head. “She would want that.” “I will see that it gets done,” Dax murmured. “Leon, you don’t have to worry about that right now,” Riku said, from somewhere behind him. Leon turned and was surprised to see his friends sitting in various chairs around the room. They all stood up, all dressed in impeccable black suits. Riku stepped up to him first, and hugged him hard. Paul, then Petr followed, each one patting his back in support. Anselm kissed his cheek, and then David took his right hand and pressed a coin into his palm. “Hold it to distract your mind. We’re with you during that procession,” David murmured, holding him tight. “You’re not alone, Leon.” Leon clutched the coin and hugged David hard holding back tears, before he turned and left the green salon, afraid he might start sobbing again. Heart pounding as he followed Dax out. Leon stopped when he saw Logan standing by the exit in his dark formal uniform. His hat held under his left arm. When Logan saw him, he made a perfect salute and Leon could only stare at his lover. In the past week, they had barely seen each other. The palace had pulled Logan from Leon’s protection detail. Commander Steele had instead assigned a new officer to Leon. Knowing that Logan wanted a prestigious military career, Leon had kept his silence. After all, they had not made any promises to each other. Logan held Leon’s gaze for a second, before he opened the doors and Leon had no choice but to head out. Leon tried to remain strong as he walked by Logan, biting his lip hard as he followed Dax to his car. He could do this. Lose everything in a week: his parents and his chosen lover. He could manage this. Leon almost broke when Logan slid into the backseat beside him. Dax raised the privacy glass between them and the driver and Leon turned to look at Logan. “You came,” Leon stated, gripping David’s coin tight. “I haven’t seen you all week. Did you get a good assignment?” “Leon,” Logan said. “I’m sorry. They’ve kept me so busy. I wanted to come and stay with you, but it’s really hard to get away.” “It’s alright. I knew it was going to be like this from the start. There is nothing to be sorry about, Logan,” Leon said, pain numbing his heart. Logan reached out to touch Leon’s right hand. “I’m worried about you.” “Is it enough to stay with me?” Leon asked. “Leon.” Leon closed his eyes and forced himself to let go. Seville was a dream. He had dreamed their intense romance to life, and now he had to stop. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to say that,” Leon said, shaking his head. “Don’t worry about me. I have my friends, and grandmother. I’ll be fine. Thank you for keeping me safe these last few months, Logan.” “Leon—” The car came to a stop, and Leon wondered at how fast they had gotten into town from Castle Arguro. His driver was speeding. Logan looked like he had more to say, but they did not seem to have time. There was nothing more to say anyway. Logan did not look ready to give up his career. It was a ridiculous thing to expect of him. The fantasy was over for them. Logan cursed under his breath and leaned in to press a chaste kiss on Leon’s jaw. “Don’t skip your meals, Leon. Please don’t forget that you’re not alone,” Logan said. Leon closed his eyes as Dax opened Logan’s door. “This is the farthest we can take you, Lieutenant Mason. Any closer and it will be trouble we both can’t afford,” Dax said, prompting Logan to get out of the car. Leon stared at Logan’s back as he got out and almost cried out for him to stay, so he bit his lip hard and watched Logan leave. Dax closed the door and in less than a minute, the car continued on taking Leon to his parents’ funeral. Leon clutched David’s coin tight, his heart turning to ice from all the pain. *** At the funeral, Logan matched behind Leon in the company of Commander Steele and Lieutenant Commander Stevens. They acted as the barrier between Leon and the people following Leon and his parents to Thelem Abbey. Leon walked alone behind two caskets on carriages. He was too young to have married, and Princess Anastasia’s parents were too old to match with Leon. Prince Kleopas's brother should have been beside Leon, but Prince Isaak had chosen to wait at the church. Leon cut such a lone figure. Only twenty-two years of age and facing such tragedy, Logan’s heart ached wishing he could rush up and take Leon’s hand. An impossible dream, Logan thought as they reached Thelem Abbey. Queen Amethea met them in person. Logan watched as Her Majesty, the Queen, acknowledged the two caskets with a touch on each one, and then walked to Leon. She pulled Leon into a tight hug, kissed both his cheeks and took his right hand. They entered the abbey together, and in that moment, Logan knew he would have to keep his love hidden. After all, it had been a dream to try loving a man like His Highness, Prince Leon Nicholas Raphael Maximillian. *** Two days after the funeral, Leon stood in his grandmother’s study trembling with anger. “You ordered them here thinking to put our family in the line of fire. I saw the messages you sent Dad. You did this. You wanted to make him Crown Prince and it killed them.” “Leon.” “I don’t want any part of it.” Leon stated, holding up his father’s personal cell phone. “Dad didn’t want it either. He told you it would be better to pass on your responsibilities to Constantin or even Gia. They’re old enough for it. I’ll abide by his wishes. I'm not even qualified. I like boys, Granny. I'll never hide that fact.” "Does liking boys make you disabled?" Amethea asked, glaring at him. "Does it make you stupid or unable to work? Why would you say that to me?" "Granny! I will not progress the family to the next century is what it means," Leon snapped. "I'm quite sure you've heard of surrogacy. The Kingdom of Aeras is quite ahead in the medical field, Leon. I never want to hear that argument again. Insulting yourself insults the thousands of Aeras citizens like you. I will not stand for it." Leon stared at her for a full minute, and then looked away. "It doesn't matter. Nothing can change the fact that my parents are dead." “Leon, you should give me a chance to explain,” Amethea begged her grandson. Leon turned away from her, shaking his head. He could barely sleep these days without seeing his parents dead in his dreams. It was just too much to discover that they had died because of The Crown. “I don’t want anything to do with the palace,” Leon said, facing his grandmother. “My parents would be alive now if they hadn’t decided to come here. Someone must have leaked out the reasons why you were calling them.” “Leon.” “It’s the truth, and you know it,” Leon said, grief almost choking him. “Whatever it is that ended with them interred at Thelem Abbey, I don’t want any part of it. I’m cutting myself off from the palace, as of this moment.” “You can’t do that,” Amethea said in shock, noting the same stubborn streak in Prince Kleopas rising in his son. “Leon.” “I’m sorry, Grandmother. I will not accept anything from the palace again. Think of me as a commoner living beyond your sight. I’ll stay at Castle Arguro because Dad left it to me. Don’t try to change my mind. Just do what Dad suggested. Give it to Constantin or Gia.” “Leon.” “I’m done, Grandmother,” Leon stated, tears filling his eyes as he gave her a short nod and left the private study room. Leon walked out of the palace with determined steps, not looking back once in his resolve. Had he turned, he would have seen Queen Amethea watching him with a deep frown on her forehead. *** “What shall we do now, Ma’am?” Olivier asked, when he joined Queen Amethea in her study. Amethea watched Leon speed out of the palace. “It’s the wrong time to discuss anything with him. Leon is grieving,” Amethea said, clutching the curtain, as she leaned on the wall. “He loved his parents, Olivier. This is hard for him. It’s hard for me, so I understand his anger. Let’s leave him alone for now. Find a way to keep Dax by his side. This is only the beginning. Tell Commander Steele he owes me an explanation on Kleo and Anastasia. It should not have happened that way. I want a thorough investigation with clear evidence.” "Yes, I’ll pass that along right away," Olivier said. "Leon's going to use his orientation to try to fight my final decision,” Amethea said. “Aeras is on par with the rest of the world,” Olivier said. “He’s free to marry who he wills, Your Majesty.” “Yes he is. Find us the guidelines on same-sex marriage for the family. There is precedence of surrogacy in the late eighteenth century. One of the queens could not conceive. The Royal Diet approved a surrogate for the purposes of the bloodline. The surrogate got a title for her contribution. Its old rules but they should work for Leon now. I'll leave him no escape." “Yes, Ma’am,” Olivier said, and left the room. Leon’s car disappeared after he left the palace gates. She hoped he would find someone to soothe his pain before he had to take over the throne. She knew now that there was no one else to leave it to but Leon. Why? She scoffed, because she did not need an investigation to know that her eldest son, Isaak, had murdered his own brother for her position. Isaak must have discovered she was pushing the investigation on him. For that alone, she would make sure Leon was crowned king while she lived. Leon would not thank her for it. ***
  11. Hi!! To those following Prince & His Royal Guard, I'm updating some edits, and you'll get notifications on that.  Nothing much is changing as I'm fixing typos ^_^ Please bear with me.

    1. Show previous comments  2 more
    2. Timothy M.

      Timothy M.

      Did you also fix the one with father-in-law in the Consort story ? I'm enjoying that tale very much.

    3. lilansui


      @Timothy M. I'm still working on that one. I'll make sure to update a new chapter this week though. ^_^

    4. McPhih


      Thank you awesome author....I can't wait for our newlyweds (Duke and his untameable yet adorably intriguing Consort) to make memories together in ink.... Thank you @lilansui for making us fall in love

  12. lilansui

    Chapter 10

    Not at all. I will confess to writing that scene a million times. The edit was painful because of the impact intended here. In the end I felt that it was better for Jihan to face these power couple when he is stronger and not in defense mode. Jihan is also not one to stay down, so he will get back to the Emperor soon. Gosh, I love your reaction!
  13. lilansui

    Chapter 10

    Thank you so much for this. Yay!! A fellow Mo Dao Zu Shi fan! I love, love that novel. The author (MXTX) is someone I look up to. I find her work very captivating, so I've ended up reading a lot of it. She does silent angst in such a beautiful way, and her characters are quite impressive. As for this story, I might call it a bastardized version of xianxia. I haven't stayed as true to Xianxia traditions, choosing to create a different mixed world. It's been a challenge to remember that I don't want to pull the traditions in as much and I truly felt that pressure at this chapter because weddings are so full color and traditions. I'm hoping readers enjoy it as is. You've caught me in a season of ancient times. I'm all like my characters are riding horses right now and wearing robes. I do miss writing Modern Stories. Just yesterday I was wondering what Jihan's Tiktok videos would be about (obviously how to clap back on Kiyan for threatening his big sis ), Then I had to return to the actual plot plan. I'll get back to modern times soon when TRC is done. So true. Guess the next part is all about getting to know each other. Yes, everyone is always after something in life. I guess it depends on what people are willing to do to get what they want. You're welcome. It's really interesting how this traditional rites sort of trickle down into our own modern times. I mean if the family is not really keen on them, they won't happen. But then you'll find these pockets of communities that can't ignore them, and it is really fun being part of it all. little story--> I thought my Mom would be cool about not really following wedding traditions when her kids were tying the knot. She ended up surprising me. Because she had to go through them, so she wanted us , also to do it too. She turned into a tradionalzilla if we tried to talk her out of it, so culture costumes were a must for all of us. I really thought about it, her meeting Jihan, but with so much happening already, this confrontation will come later. Rushi is also a passive attacker, she waits in the shadows. Hahaha. I know right! I mean it was all fun and sweet when Rashan was meeting him as someone who saved his life. Soon, they'll be meeting as Step-Pa and Step-son. Jihan inherited a tween. hahaha. Fun times ahead.
  14. Chapter 9 Firuz rolled on the floor in the vault Jihan used to store valuables. He strained to undo the chains tied around him. Chains forged to haul crates of iron in the depths of Mount Kin. He was driven by two fears. First, that Jihan would face an unavoidable calamity. The second was that he would be late to save Jihan from that calamity. Firuz could not escape the pain of losing Jihan if something fatal happened. The tattoo on his wrist would turn into a wound that would fester until he was in excruciating pain worse than death. It would be his prize for failing to protect his chosen charge. Most shadow guards kept that truth from their charges. He had also kept that truth from Jihan. It would be too large a burden to carry for Jihan. His charge had a soft heart that had him taking on all the danger in a bid to protect everyone he cared for. Not knowing the truth of their bond had led Jihan to come up with this stupid plan to face the imperial court by himself. Thinking of Jihan in an interrogation chair at the palace had Firuz’s heart pounding with fear. The fear made him stronger, drove him to his feet and searching for a way out of Jihan’s vault. *~*~*~* Kastan rushed to Jihan in a panic. He pushed Temu aside and crouched down when Andiya moved her brother’s head to her lap. She would not let Kastan touch Jihan, slapping his hands away when he reached to touch Jihan. Kastan forgave her fear, as it was his too, and instead watched her try to wake Jihan. “An! Wake up, An!” Andiya shook Jihan, patted his jaw, and checked his pulse at his neck. Her motions were frantic. Then she leaned over Jihan, opening his mouth with trembling fingers. She took in a deep breath at his mouth and sat back with a relieved cry. Kastan was glad to see her relieved expression. It meant Jihan was not in danger. Andiya settled Jihan’s head on her lap and used her sleeve to wipe her brother’s face. “Why did you drink so much?” she murmured, pressing her palm on Jihan’s cheek, rubbing it as though to soothe Jihan awake. “Is he okay?” Ishan asked beside her. “He’s passed out from drinking,” Andiya said, her voice heavy with tears. “He knows he can’t handle more than one jar of wine. He must have taken too many.” “Then, he’ll be out of it for a while,” Ishan said, his voice heavy with relief too. “Does he pass out like this when he drinks too much?” Kastan asked. Jihan had kept so much of himself hidden when they were together. It annoyed him that he didn’t know. It annoyed him that he felt like an outsider with this little family. “His Grace did not need to lie to him,” Andiya said, sparing Kastan a quick glance. “Your men let Swallow go when I agreed to come with them. You should have told Jihan that Swallow is safe. Why did you have to tell him that Swallow was in danger? It’s cruel.” “Your brother is too stubborn for his own good. The only way to help him is to push him into a corner,” Kastan said, staring at Jihan. Swallow’s existence and Jihan’s obvious affection for him did not help matters. “I will be as cruel as I need to be to protect him.” Andiya brushed back strands of wet hair clinging to Jihan’s forehead. When she looked up at Kastan again, her cheeks were wet with tears. “He’s given up everything for me,” Andiya said, shaking her head. “Jihan does not deserve your anger.” Kastan ignored Andiya’s comment. He sheathed his sword and reached for Jihan. “I’ll carry him inside,” Kastan said, starting to lift Jihan. A feral scream filled the air and one of the ghost warriors landed on the ground beside Andiya. A dark shadow fell over Kastan and he sat back on his haunches when he felt a dagger dig into his neck. His right hand came up to steady the strong arm with the dagger on his neck. Kastan held out his left arm to stop Temu and Naveed who gripped their swords ready to attack. Firuz knelt over Jihan, his arms bloody and tied with chunks of broken chain. The fine material of his tunic was ripped. Firuz brought trembling fingers to Jihan’s throat, pressing against Jihan’s vital vein. His fingers were bloody, splinters in his skin. “He’s alive,” Andiya said, looking into Firuz’s frightening eyes. Kastan gave her respect for meeting Firuz’s midnight eyes without flinching. “Jihan drank too much, Firuz. We need to put him in bed, otherwise he will wake up sick,” Andiya said. “An needs you.” “Intruders in the estate,” Firuz managed, visibly fighting through the haze of madness. “I failed to protect him.” “Firuz,” Andiya said, she let go of Jihan, and shifted, moving back. She pointed at Jihan who now lay on the ground, still passed out. “Look, you need to pick him up and get him inside. My brother is getting wet.” Firuz gave another angry shout, his hand shaking where he held the dagger to Kastan’s neck, his instinct telling him to take out the threat first. If Firuz went on a rampage now, he would kill every newcomer in this estate. It would be a massacre. “Son of Bast, geuleul boho,” Kastan said, using the Levan dialect used by the Shadow Guards in their home turf and during their training. “Remember your oath, must walk the footsteps of your charge, cannot break the oath, you must remember to protect him first.” Firuz growled and turned to him, his dark eyes unnerving. “Must remember,” Firuz said. “My charge…to protect first.” Firuz held Kastan’s gaze for another moment, and then he moved the dagger away from Kastan’s neck. Firuz picked up Jihan with care and walked into the house without waiting for any of them, his main concern Jihan. “What was that?” Andiya asked, staring at Kastan in surprise. “It takes me hours to get him out of that rage. You did it with a few words. How is that possible?” Kastan rose to his feet. Andiya’s husband got up too and helped his wife to her feet. “We should go inside now,” Kastan said, ignoring Andiya’s question, his thoughts on Jihan. “Jihan would like it very much if you took better care of yourself.” Kastan headed for the front steps without looking at Andiya again. However, he did pause when Ishan asked a question of Temu. “Are we your prisoners? Why can’t we go back to the Gura estate?” Lord Ishan asked of Temu. “Kamran comes first. You’re not prisoners, but it will be easier for you to stay here,” Temu said, his tone gentle. “Please, let’s go into the house for now.” *~*~*~* Jihan woke to the sound of water pouring. His head felt fuzzy, and he didn’t want to open his eyes. A cool cloth was pressed to his forehead, offering some relief. Jihan opened his eyes and saw Firuz leaning over him. His shadow guard’s eyes were pitch black, the edges streaked with white. It was enough to let Jihan know that he had sinned against their bond. Firuz had gone feral. Jihan brought his hand up, pressing it on Firuz’s left cheek. “Firuz, let’s walk together from now on,” Jihan said, his voice rough with sleep. Firuz closed his eyes, and lowered his head. Jihan touched the braids in Firuz’s hair. “I’m okay,” Jihan murmured, moving his feet under his covers. He felt warm and very comfortable. He rubbed his thumb over a scratch on Firuz’s jaw. Somehow, Firuz must have broken out of the vault. It would not have been easy. Jihan sighed. His sins were many. Firuz lifted his head and opened his eyes. Jihan watched as the black faded from Firuz’s eyes. They sat in silence for a moment, before Jihan had a quiet cough beyond Firuz. He shifted to look behind Firuz to see who was in his private quarters, and frowned when he couldn’t see his visitor. The events last night tumbled back and he closed his eyes at the memory of Kastan’s anger. He doubted he would ever forget the sight of Kastan’s sword pointing at him. Kastan’s dark gaze at the mention of Swallow. Thinking about Swallow, Jihan sat up. His heart was pounding fast in panic when he saw Kastan. Firuz helped him arrange pillows behind his back and then moved to lean against the wall next to Jihan’s bed. Making it clear that he was not leaving the room. Jihan sighed and turned his attention to Kastan. His breath caught at the sight of him. Kastan sat in the armchair by the windows that showed off the front courtyard. It was morning, and those windows were open. The skies were clear after a night of rain. The sun rays danced in to the room landing on Kastan's dark hair. He was dressed in black this morning, from his outer coat, tunic, to his inner trousers and fine boots. Intricate silver embroidery decorated his outer coat, on the sleeves and the hems. There was a time he would have sat on Kastan’s lap and traced those designs on Kastan’s coat, while Kastan read morning reports on the war. Kastan would sink his fingers into Jihan’s hair, absently playing with it. Jihan wondered if he would ever get those moments back. He studied Kastan’s hands that currently rested on his lap, knowing that Kastan was waiting for him to meet his gaze. He could not bring himself to look up. Kastan turned a ring he wore on his right small finger continuously with his left hand, round and round that ring went. “How do you feel?” Kastan asked, his gentle tone making Jihan look up. It was a departure from the angry Kastan he remembered last night. The angry Duke Silver who pointed a sword at him and asked him if he was willing to die. “Um,” Jihan scratched his nose lightly. “As well as can be expected after three large jugs of wine, and an invasion of my home by an Imperial Prince.” “Were you trying to drown yourself with the wine?” Kastan asked, grinding his teeth for a moment. “You couldn’t face me sober?” “I had no idea you would be my guest,” Jihan said, dropping his gaze to his own lap. He had not expected to see Kastan last night. He should have, but he had thought his father would get to him first. “I still don’t understand why you are here.” Kastan sighed drawing Jihan’s gaze. They stared at each other for a moment. It was different from what Jihan remembered. He couldn’t forget the way Kastan had looked at him in the heat of passion. The kisses Kastan rained on him and his embrace. His cheeks flamed at the memory of it all and he looked away from Kastan afraid he would run to him now. Why had so many things changed between them? Jihan remembered the edict on his desk with Andiya’s name and he cursed under his breath. “My sister,” Jihan said, deciding to think about their immediate problem. “My father is coming for her.” “Andiya will stay safe,” Kastan said, his tone quiet. “As long as you’re willing to take over the position that was meant to be hers.” Jihan lifted his gaze from his lap to stare at Kastan. “My father will have the Emperor’s escort with him. I-I’m worried,” Jihan persisted, needing to ensure his sister’s safety. “I’ll handle the Emperor’s escort,” Kastan said. “All you have to do is fulfill your promise. Can you do that?” Jihan nodded and looked around his room. His heart squeezed and he pressed his right hand to his chest at the onslaught of regret that filled him. He had grown up in this bedroom. It was his sanctuary. The place he thought of when he needed comfort. Not too long ago, he had imagined that he would grow old and die in this very bed. Now, he would have to leave this place for good. He was to be married. He would move from Kamran Estate to—to Silver Shore Valley. The thought of never returning to Kamran Estate left him filled with sadness. “We will head to the Imperial City Akan first to officiate our alliance. Let Temu know what you need sent ahead to Silver Shore,” Kastan said, as though reading his thoughts. “Pack your trunks and he will make sure they get there.” ‘Alliance,” Jihan thought, wondering why that word stung. “Jihan, to make this work, I must make one thing clear. Your father cannot know your sister is married before you,” Kastan stated. “We must hide Andiya and Ishan’s marriage until the day after our wedding. It is the only way to protect her from the Empress. Do you understand me?” Jihan nodded. “Yes.” “The Emperor knows the truth and wishes to talk to you before the ceremony. He has promised to keep the secret as long as you cooperate,” Kastan continued. “We shall spend three days at the most at the imperial palace before we head to Silver Shore Valley. I hope that we can get through this without trouble, Jihan. For the sake of your family and mine.” Jihan bunched the covers in his fingers as he met Kastan’s gaze. The love he had once seen in Kastan’s eyes had disappeared. Instead, all he saw was a prince of the realm staring back at him, giving orders. Their marriage turned into an alliance…a price Jihan had to pay to keep Andiya, Ishan and Swallow safe. “As you wish, Your Grace,” Jihan murmured, his heart aching because deep down he still wished to see Kastan smile at him as he had when they were in Kin Town. What a fool he was. His heart was too soft. He needed to be stronger than this. Kastan got up from his chair, and moved closer to Jihan’s bed. Firuz remained leaning on the wall, not moving a muscle. Kastan sat on the edge of Jihan’s bed, and reached for Jihan’s right hand. His strong fingers curling around Jihan’s and then he rubbed a thumb over Jihan’s knuckles. The small caress sent Jihan’s nerves into overdrive. He forced himself to stay still, even as the urge to return the caress filled him. He wanted to shift closer and rest his forehead on Kastan’s shoulders. He would close his eyes and savor the warmth of Kastan’s embrace. He would sigh when Kastan held him tight, making him feel as though nothing in the world would harm him as long as he was in Kastan’s arms. Jihan kept his gaze on Kastan’s hand holding his, and it took everything inside him not to squeeze Kastan’s fingers in return. “Every consort deserves a proposal of marriage,” Kastan said, his tone low, his voice husky. “Despite our current circumstances, you and I…” Kastan trailed off and fell silent. He let go of Jihan’s hand and it felt like a loss. Jihan watched Kastan remove the ring he had been turning around his right small finger. A thick silver band with a snarling tiger on each side of a black jade stone. Kastan studied the ring for a moment, then took Jihan’s right hand. “I have had this ring since I turned twenty and my father named me Duke of Silver Shore,” Kastan said. “It’s a symbol of my house, my personal household.” Jihan bit his bottom lip, as Kastan proceeded to test the family ring on Jihan’s right ring finger, then his right index finger, and finally on Jihan’s middle finger. It fit there snug and comfortable. Kastan ran his thumb over the stone, holding Jihan’s hand so he could study the ring. Kastan gave a short nod as though satisfied with his handiwork and looked into Jihan’s eyes. “Jihan of Kamran,” Kastan said, squeezing Jihan’s fingers. “My house is yours to call your own, as is my heart and body.” Jihan’s breath hitched when he read sincerity in Kastan’s gaze. His teeth bit harder on his bottom lip. He had lived most of his life expecting a life without a proposal. He had imagined living a life without a partner, without a family of his own. He had thought it his lot in life. Now, here was Kastan offering him the one thing he could not get for himself. All because of an order from the emperor. Why did it feel so bittersweet? “You have my word that I will marry you and protect you as a husband should,” Kastan said, letting go of Jihan’s hand. He leaned in and brushed his lips on Jihan’s forehead. Jihan closed his eyes, his heart going wild at the feel of Kastan’s lips on his skin. He almost cried out in protest when Kastan moved back. “Temu’s scouts say your father is three hours away,” Kastan said as he got up. “It’s best if we face him as one. As you’ll come to discover, facing the imperial class is all about appearances. Firuz, please help your charge get ready in the clothes Naveed gave you,” Kastan said, then turned and left Jihan’s room without another word. Jihan sat on his bed, his gaze on the ring on his right hand. The Jihan in Kin Town was overjoyed by the sight of it on his finger. Kastan’s promise to marry him felt like a dream. Yet, the Jihan who was master of Kamran felt defeated. “What a handsome ring,” Firuz said, moving away from the wall to perch on the spot Kastan had left. He took Jihan’s hand to study the ring. “Well crafted by a skilled artisan. The collectors in the Imperial City Akan would buy it for millions of gold pieces. Since they can’t buy it, they will ask to paint it, Prince Consort.” Jihan sighed and rubbed his thumb over the black jade stone. He started to take it off, but it would not move from his finger. He tried to roll it off a few times, and when he only succeeded in pinching his finger, he gave up. Kastan had wedged it on tight. No doubt making a statement. “It must be enchanted,” Firuz said, with a small frown. “Don’t be whimsical,” Jihan said, shaking his head. He rubbed the black jade stone and shook his head. “What would be the point of enchanting a ring?” “To mark the rightful partner,” Firuz said with a small chuckle. “The Miran Family is full of such mysteries.” “Old wives tales,” Jihan said, pushing the covers aside and shifting to get off his bed. “We’ll have to see if they are tales when we get to the Imperial Palace and the ancient ones bless your union. It is said Miran wedding rings are forged from their hair. You’ll be a master of Silver Shore Valley soon,” Firuz said, as he moved off to Jihan’s dressing table. His comment had Jihan stopping in his tracks. The idea of him leaving once again left him insanely sad. He might have lived a life of travel but he always had a place here, no matter where he went. If he moved to Silver Shore as Kastan’s consort, he would take on Kastan’s name. His home would be Silver Shore Valley. He would not even have Andiya to welcome him home. He would be a newcomer at Silver Shore Valley. Who would welcome him there? “This estate will remain standing here,” Firuz said. Jihan looked at him. “I won’t be here,” Jihan said. “You can visit,” Firuz reminded him. “There is Andiya, Vion and Deona to watch over it. It will endure, just like the Eagle’s Claw and Set’s stronghold.” Jihan turned to head to the bathroom, his heart still aching . *~*~*~* “We were at the border, about to enter the Iron Lands when ghost warriors caught up with us,” Andiya narrated, her tone low as she watched Jihan dress in the clothes Naveed had brought for him. “Swallow’s guards fought hard to protect us,” Andiya said, then shook his head. “The fight was intense and when some of them started to die, Ishan and I came out of our carriage. I was afraid they would hurt Swallow too.” “What happened then?” Jihan asked, securing his inner white shirt. He made sure the ties were held tight and then took up the matching white tunic. He studied the embroidery on the sleeves of the tunic before he wore it. The fabric felt soft, and very rich, the material finer than that any he and Andiya had sourced. It had to come from the royal weaving factory. “Swallow talked to the head of the ghost warriors, saying we were his responsibility and that he was taking us to the Iron lands. He tried his best to keep us with him, but when it got dangerous, I interfered and told the ghost warriors that we would return back here,” Andiya said. “They did not talk to us after that. They let Swallow collect his wounded men and we only left after Swallow had entered the Iron Lands on his way home. Then they brought us back to Kamran, and you know the rest.” “Did anyone touch you?” Jihan asked. “No, other than when we got here and they dragged us out of the carriage,” Andiya said. “I worried something might have happened to you.” Jihan nodded and took the fine red outer coat embroidered with silver thread. He wore it fast and fastened the ties that held it together. It fit his form so perfectly, he wondered who the tailor was and how they had known his size. “Are you disappointed we came back?” Andiya asked. “If we had managed to escape, you would have had a better chance facing Duke Silver.” Jihan adjusted the tight sleeves over his wrists and paused to stare at the ring on his right hand. He was never one for jewelry, so seeing Kastan’s ring on his finger was taking some getting used to. Dropping his hands to his sides, he turned to face his sister. “Things have turned out this way,” Jihan said. “There’s no use crying over it. Let’s make the best of it, Andiya.” “But,” Andiya started. “I’ll leave Kamran Estate to you,” Jihan said. “You’re the only one who can manage it. Father won’t care. He will be more concerned for his new title and the lands he has acquired.” “Surely the imperial family won’t stop you from running Kamran all together,” Andiya wondered. “We can’t know until I get to the palace,” Jihan said with a sigh. “Andiya, what matters is that you’re safe. As long as that remains the same, I don’t care what happens to me.” “I do,” Andiya said, closing the distance between them. She reached for the heavy weight of his hair and made sure it wasn’t caught under the collar of his coat. Taking a comb from the dressing table, she ran it through the long strands in slow deliberate strokes. When she was done, she made sure the silver clip holding strands of Jihan’s hair away from his face was secure, then stepped around to look at him. “Do I pass?” Jihan asked her, managing a smile. Andiya reached up and touched the pin going through the hair clip. “It’s odd to see a snarling tiger on your pin,” Andiya said. “Yours were always plain.” Jihan looked into the mirror behind him. He was branded with Kastan’s crest from head to toe. From the pin with the snarling tiger to the deep red outer coat with silver embroidery on its sleeves and hem. His tunic was white, matching his trousers and boots. Jihan rubbed his chin. Firuz had made sure he was clean shaven, and Andiya had made sure his face was rubbed with oils she used for her skin. He looked polished within an inch of his life. “His Grace will be shocked when he sees you,” Andiya said with satisfaction. “We Kamrans clean up very well. No one will dare say anything against my brother. They will be too busy appreciating your beauty.” “Take that back. Your brother is not beautiful,” Jihan said. “Andiya—” “An,” Andiya said, cutting him off. “I’m sorry that you have to face this alone. You’ve protected me since you were eleven. I’ve tried so hard to be strong for you too but it wasn’t enough. In the end, making sure you look your best is all I can do for you. Thank you for doing this for my sake, for Ishan and,” Andiya touched her stomach, “your nephew. Forgive your big sister for being so inadequate.” Jihan pulled his sister into his arms. He held her tight and rocked her from side to side when she started to cry. “Shh,” he soothed. “I won’t be alone. Firuz is coming with me. I love adventure. You know that, don’t you? This is the start of a new one, so there is no need to worry, Andiya. I promise to visit you often and tell you about all I’ve seen. Besides, you once told me I should watch the sunset over the silver lake. I will make sure to watch it every day. And when you visit me, we can watch it together. Andiya clutched him tight. “I don’t know what you have with Duke Silver, but,” Andiya said, rubbing his back. “I pray that it is love, Jihan. You were sad when you could not see him but now you have him to keep. I hope you two work it out despite the politics with his family. You both deserve happiness.” Jihan closed his eyes because he didn’t know what to say in answer. His heart was numb at the moment. He was moving from one moment to the next as though in a dream. Perhaps when the dream ended then he would stop and try to make sense of it all. A knock came on the door and Jihan let go of Andiya. He took in a deep breath and afforded his sister a smile. She returned it, wiping the tears from her cheeks. Firuz went to the door, opened it and stepped out. Jihan followed him, pausing in the hallway when he saw Naveed waiting. “The escort has arrived,” Naveed said, his gaze fixed on Jihan in surprise. “Prince Consort should go to the outer courtyard to wait with His Imperial Highness.” Jihan nodded and led the way out of the house, clenching his hands tight as he walked down the stairs. He could not imagine what his father’s expression was going to look like when Duyi saw him. *~*~* Kastan watched the carriage prepared by Rushi’s attendants drive into the Kamran outer courtyard. The ghost warriors Temu had brought with him manned the gates. They directed the carriage driver into the courtyard. Kastan watched the six white horses leading the carriage come to a stop. The horses were strong, handsome and wore leather harnesses with gold studs. The carriage was painted red with gold coated edges and an excessive amount of red fabric on the windows. The weight of it would make travel very slow. Ten imperial palace guards escorted the carriage, all riding horses. If Rushi had wanted to make a statement, she had. Anyone who saw this carriage on the road would stop to stare in wonder. Kastan wondered if Jihan would agree to travel to the Imperial City in it. He imagined Jihan’s reaction to that suggestion. He missed Jihan’s scowl when stupid suggestions were made to him. Kastan shook his head, smiling at the memory of Jihan scowling at one of his workers for making a stupid comment. Kastan wondered when he would get to meet that Jihan again. Shaking off melancholy, he paid attention to the men behind the carriage. The entourage of royal soldiers riding up behind the carriage all wore the royal investigative bureau uniform. Rael led the team, looking official in his formal uniform. His agenda here was clear. To document everything he could discover about Jihan. Kiyan was too thorough.. Temu’s ghost warriors received the escort party. Kastan clasped his hands behind his back as he stood at the gate into the inner courtyard. He watched the carriage doors open and an older gentleman emerged from the carriage. The man took a moment to stretch his arms above his head. Lord Duyi, Kastan presumed, his father in-law. Duyi Kamran dropped his arms to his side and took a good look around the outer courtyard. His gaze resting on the closed warehouse doors, the quiet stable, and the security offices filled with ghost warriors at the moment. Kastan wondered if Duyi had ever seen the estate at its best, before Jihan had gutted it into silence. Finally, Duyi turned to look at the inner courtyard gate. Duyi gaped when he saw Kastan. His fingers bunching his coat in clear surprise. Kastan kept his stance, his gaze shifting to Rael who was dismounting his horse. It took them all a moment to come together with Duyi gesturing wildly at Rael. Kastan could not hear their hushed conversation but he assumed Duyi worried about Kastan’s presence at the estate. No one had bothered to tell Duyi that Kastan might decide to pick up his consort in person. Kastan hid a smile and turned when he heard footsteps behind him. Naveed and Temu walked up to him, leading a small entourage. Naveed smiled wide at Kastan before he stepped aside and Kastan’s heart slammed against his chest. Jihan, his consort, took his breath away. He was so attractive, Kastan wanted to rush him and pull him into his arms. He wanted to taste Jihan’s lips and sink his fingers into Jihan’s neat hair, muss it up, watch it tumble down his back. Yet, all he could do now was stare at his lover. Jihan pushed the heavy fall of his hair with a nervous sweep of his right hand at his neck. That same hand traveled over his chest, smoothing soft fabric and resting on the ties securing his outer coat. His fingers toyed with his collar for a moment, before his hand dropped to his sides. Jihan looked stunning in his traveling clothes. The white and red colors of a new consort before marriage suited him to perfection. They made Kastan eager to see Jihan in his wedding ceremony robes. Jihan stopped a few feet away from Kastan. Naveed and Temu on each side of him, behind him was Firuz, Andiya and Ishan. Jihan looked unwilling to leave their company and join Kastan. “Greetings to His Imperial Highness, Prince Kastan,” Rael’s voice filled the morning. “Your servant Rael is here with your father in-law. We bring the carriage to escort your consort to the Imperial City Akan.” Kastan’s gaze stayed on Jihan, delaying his answer until Jihan looked at him. Light brown eyes met his and it was endearing to realize that his little merchant was nervous. Wanting to ease Jihan’s mood, Kastan turned to Rael. “Rael is very kind to have taken time from his very busy schedule to see to my consort,” Kastan said. Rael stood at the front of the group of soldiers. They all brought their right hands over their chests in respect to Kastan's station. Duyi stood next to Rael holding a red bag that carried Rushi’s edict. Kastan could see Duyi doing his best to catch a glimpse of his son and daughter. Kastan blocked his view. “Rael follows His Imperial Majesty’s orders,” Rael answered. “I can only go where he asks me to be. His Imperial Highness shall now accept the imperial edict on his marriage. After which, we shall head back to the Imperial City Akan for the ceremony.” Kastan had not heard a question, so he stood still as he watched Duyi open his red bag. Duyi handed the white scroll inside that bag to Rael, who opened it with care and read out the contents. “His Imperial Majesty, Emperor Kiyan, grants Lady Andiya Kamran permission to marry his brother, Imperial Prince Kastan, Commander of Armies and Duke of Silver Shore. She shall be known as Imperial Princess Consort,” Rael said. “All shall obey this order.” Duyi smiled with pride and started to walk forward, his gaze searching for Andiya. Kastan did not move from his spot, still blocking Duyi’s access to his children. His father in-law stopped, staring at him with a challenging gaze. Kastan smirked and Duyi blinked, taking a step back. “Rael, your voice still sounds strong as you read imperial edicts,” Kastan said, his tone casual. Kastan took out a yellow envelope from his pocket and held it up. Rael recognized the yellow envelopes used by the Emperor’s office at once. “I’ll trouble Rael to read this edict too,” Kastan said. Rael frowned and gave Duyi a quick glance before he hurried forward to take the scroll Kastan held. Rael recognized Kiyan’s handwriting on the scroll immediately. “Pardon me, Imperial Highness,” Rael said, as he stepped back from Kastan and turned to face the men and women he had arrived with. “This is a message from the Emperor.” The men and women who had lived all their lives in the palace naturally dropped to one knee as though their beloved Emperor Kiyan was speaking in person. Duyi turned to look at the soldiers in surprise, just as Rael read out the edict Kiyan had written the evening he listened to Jihan’s mother. “This adjustment edict comes after careful consideration of the previous created order. I, Kiyan Miran, do hereby give Kastan Miran, Imperial Prince and Duke of Silver Shore, permission to marry one with Kamran blood. I grant him leave to bring his choice of consort to the Imperial Palace and seal this new bond before the ancient ones. The order is signed by His Imperial Majesty, The Emperor. ” Kastan smiled as he heard Jihan’s soft gasp behind him. Rael turned to face Kastan as the men and women of his bureau rose in acknowledgment of the order. “May I ask His Imperial Highness who your choice is?” Rael asked, giving Kastan a knowing glance. “Choice?” Duyi asked, hurrying around Kastan, forgetting all pretense of decorum. Duyi gave a relieved sigh when he saw Andiya standing next to her husband. Duyi rushed to her side and took her right arm, pulling her forward. Duyi could not even see Andiya’s clear reluctance to leave Ishan’s side. He was too involved with making Andiya comply with his wishes. “Of course, my daughter is the perfect choice, Your Imperial Highness. She is the right choice for you. Jihan, hurry and congratulate your sister. She’s to be an imperial consort.” Kastan kept his gaze focused on Jihan as his father spoke. There was anger in Jihan’s eyes. Jihan’s hands clenched tight into fists when he saw Duyi pulling on Andiya's arm. Duyi spared his son one glance before he wrapped an arm around Andiya eager to present her to Kastan. It was as though Jihan didn’t exist. Jihan sighed and met Kastan’s gaze. Kastan held out his left hand, giving Jihan an encouraging nod. Jihan hesitated for a second, but then took a step forward and placed his right hand on Kastan’s open palm. Kastan closed his fingers around Jihan’s hand and pulled him to his side with a small satisfied smile. “Rael, meet my Prince Consort, Jihan of Kamran,” Kastan said, proud to present his chosen partner. Rael’s gaze went wide but he recovered quickly and brought his hand over his chest in respect. “Congratulations to His Imperial Highness and your consort, may your happiness last eternal,” Rael announced. The courtyard filled with the phrase as the escort guard repeated Rael’s words. Kastan turned to Duyi who was squeezing Andiya’s right arm too tight as he glared at Jihan. “What have you done?” Duyi shouted at Jihan when the courtyard was quiet. “How could you do this to your sister?” Duyi took a step forward, his anger clear. The hand he lifted to hit Jihan stopped midair when Firuz grabbed it and pushed Duyi back. “Pa,” Andiya said, “Jihan has done nothing wrong.” “He is to be married to His Imperial Highness when the Empress herself vetted you, Andiya. Jihan must have interfered,” Duyi said, tugging his hand out of Firuz’s hold. Firuz let him go but placed himself in a protective stance between Duyi and Jihan. Jihan tried to move away from Kastan, but Kastan would not let him. He held on tight to Jihan’s hand and touched Firuz’s right shoulder. Firuz glanced at Kastan and then moved to the side, allowing Duyi access to Jihan. When Duyi started to reach for Jihan, Kastan stepped forward, placing Jihan behind him. “If father in-law is upset with Jihan then take it out on me,” Kastan said. “Jihan has made no mistakes. I just like him very much and wish to bind him to me.” “You’re lying for him,” Duyi said. “Jihan talked you into this out of some need to have more power than me. There is no way—” “If father in-law persists on insulting my chosen consort, I will take it personally,” Kastan cut in. “You won’t like what happens when I get upset.” Jihan squeezed Kastan’s hand. Kastan turned to see Jihan staring at the ghost warriors who stood on the rooftops each holding a bow and arrow trained on his father. Duyi followed his gaze and gaped. He had not seen the ghost warriors. Bringing his hands up in surrender, Duyi stepped back, almost bumping into Andiya. He took in a deep breath and met Kastan’s gaze. “There will be no fruit borne of your union,” Duyi stated. “Why choose a son over a daughter?” “I have already married once for an heir,” Kastan said, then looked at Jihan when he answered. “This time I will marry out of choice. Despite our many troubles, Jihan understands me best.” Jihan blushed, making Kastan smile as he turned to Duyi. “I hope father in-law can accept this union,” Kastan said. “If you don’t, then you shall have to endure, Lord Duyi. I’m taking Jihan away with me today. We hope to see you at the imperial palace for our ceremony.” Duyi gaped and Kastan turned to Rael. “We can give you two hours to rest, and change your horses,” Kastan said. “Leave the carriage here to fetch later. We will ride back to the imperial city. It’s faster. Temu will assist you.” “Yes, Your Grace,” Rael said, hurrying off to get the horses from the carriage. Kastan brought Jihan’s right hand up, rubbing his thumb over the ring he had placed on Jihan’s finger. He pressed a kiss on the back of Jihan’s hand and met surprised brown eyes. Jihan’s anger from the incident the night before still lingered. He could see it in the depths of Jihan’s eyes. Still, a softness was invading. Kastan wondered how long it would be before Jihan looked at him with love again. Aware of Duyi’s gaze on them, Kastan leaned in to whisper into Jihan’s ear. To Duyi it would look as though Kastan was kissing Jihan’s cheek, or whispering loving words. “Remember, your father must think Andiya and Ishan will get married after he leaves today. All my men know not to speak a word of the truth. I hope you’ll manage to keep it from him long enough for us to leave. Otherwise, Duyi will take this news to the Empress and she will think Andiya’s marriage an insult. No one will be able to save Andiya at that time. Do you understand?” Jihan nodded and met Kastan’s gaze when he shifted away. “See to your Pa,” Kastan said, letting go of Jihan’s hand. “Lady Andiya and Ishan can help you.” Jihan turned and led his father to the house with fast footsteps. *~*~*~* ‘This time I will marry my choice.’ Jihan picked up his fan and fanned his face as he paced the sitting area in the main house. Kastan could sure talk himself out of any situation. Those words had sounded real. Jihan understands me best. Do I? he wondered. I have no clue what you’re thinking right now. Jihan turned and came to a stop when his father blocked his path. “What are you thinking?” Duyi demanded. “You can’t marry Prince Kastan. What will happen to all our businesses? You will be away at Silver Shore Valley. Who will take care of them now?” “Is that what you’re worried about?” Jihan asked, shaking his head. “Andiya is the right choice. Her marriage to Prince Kastan will leave you free to do as you please. You’ll have my title when I’m gone. Think Jihan! Decline Prince Kastan’s offer, and let him marry Andiya.” Jihan’s hand dropped to his sides, biting his lip hard as he looked behind his father to Andiya and Ishan. Their gazes pleaded with him for help. Kastan was also right. The moment Duyi discovered they were married, he would shout foul play to the heavens. Why had fate given them such a stubborn father? “Our businesses will continue,” Jihan said, closing his fan and straightening his shoulders, facing his father with confidence. “The network I’ve spent so many years building is not so weak as to break because of what I become in the next few days.” “Pa, I warned you when you decided to make a play for a noble title. I begged you not to accept the supply token for the war. You didn’t listen. I worked hard to make sure we lived through it, and came out on the other side. These are the rewards you desperately wanted. It’s your turn to do as I say.” “Jihan—” “I will not move a finger to change Prince Kastan’s mind,” Jihan said, shocking his father. He had always done what Duyi wanted. Not this time, not when Andiya’s life was at stake. “You’ll just have to live as a Prince Consort’s father in-law.” “What about the lands I’ve acquired?” Duyi asked. “Who will look after them? What are you thinking? You hate politics. You’ll hate living as Prince Consort. Do you think you’ll be able to travel as you did before? You won’t, Jihan. Why are you stubborn? Who will take on my title if you’re Prince Consort?” Jihan wanted to blurt out the existence of Andiya’s child. How that child would be the heir to the Kamran fortune. But it was not time yet, so he smiled at Andiya, and watched her lean on Ishan as their father went on a long tirade against Jihan’s marriage. They let Duyi rave and rant for the next two hours. Jihan resumed his pacing and used his fan to distract himself from his father’s incessant voice. He wondered if other families had a nagging parent and what they did about that. Firuz saved them when he came to announce that it was time to leave. Duyi had exhausted himself by that time. He stopped talking long enough to drink water from the jar resting on the side table in the room. Jihan closed his fan and faced his father. “Pa, we should go now,” Jihan said, when his father had drank two cups of water. “Don’t worry about the business. I’ll take care of it somehow. Right now, I’m leaving the estate under Andiya’s care. She knows how to take care of it.” Duyi wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, giving Jihan a blank stare. Jihan then turned and left the room without waiting to hear his father’s response. For the first time in his life, it felt good to ignore his father’s orders. Outside, he found Kastan waiting for him in the outer courtyard. Surprising, but the person who had given him the strength to ignore his father’s nagging was Kastan. Jihan took in a deep breath and let it out slow as he approached Kastan. Kastan stood by a white horse holding a black cloak. He shook it out when Jihan reached him and placed it around Jihan’s shoulders in one sweep. *~*~*~* Andiya took Ishan’s hand as she watched her brother mount the horse the prince was holding steady for him. The black cloak on Jihan’s shoulders spread out behind the horse, and she stopped to stare at the red tiger crest on the back of that cloak. Her brother was now one of the lucky ones at Silver Shore Valley under Duke Silver’s direct protection. Jihan held his horse’s reins and turned to give her a short wave. Andiya caught her breath when she saw Duke Silver shift his horse beside Jihan. They made a perfect picture of polar opposites: one in a deep red cloak, and the other in a black one. The effect was unexpectedly powerful. “I suppose he has finally found his place,” Andiya mused aloud as she held her husband’s hand and lifted her free hand to wave a goodbye at her brother. She would be following them to the capital tomorrow, thanks to Duke Silver's planning. “I suspect it will take him sometime to realize it,” Ishan agreed beside her. Andiya nodded. “I suspect so too,” she said. Her gaze slid to her father who was looking at her with a suspicious glance. She let go of Ishan’s hand and bit back a smile, giving Duyi Kamran a short nod. Duyi scowled at her in return as he urged his horse to follow his youngest son who was now in a higher station than he would ever reach. How frustrating that had to be, Andiya thought. *~*~*~* Kiyan insisted on talking to Jihan upon his arrival at the palace. Jihan entered the large imperial office on shaky legs. Kastan was not allowed to come with him and Firuz stood outside the door waiting.. “Kastan has brought you before me as his choice from the Kamran Family. You are thoroughly caught by our imperial family. Do you hate us?” Kiyan Miran asked of Jihan. Kiyan sat behind a large desk, larger than any desk Jihan had ever seen. The carpet before this desk had a stunning dragon design that left him staring. Everything in the room left him with no doubt that he faced a powerful man. Most unsettling were the eyes watching him in the hidden corners of the office. Jihan felt them because Firuz had taught him how to be alert to it. Jihan adjusted his stance and met Kiyan’s gaze. “I doubt my hate of His Imperial Majesty would change my current circumstance,” Jihan said, his thumb tracing the ring around his right middle finger. Kastan’s ring was turning into a comfort when he was nervous. “Do you understand why I have insisted on a member of your family marrying into the royal family?” Kiyan asked, getting up from his chair. Kiyan walked around the large desk and came to stand in front of Jihan. Kiyan was not as tall as Kastan, though they had a similar built. Wide shoulders, and a dark unrelenting gaze. Kiyan wore his power with an assured ease. It clung to him like the gray robes he wore. The gold belt around his waist was real, as were the ruby studs embedded on the gold belt. Jihan brought his gaze up to meet Kiyan’s challenging one. “This lowly servant exposed too much of his network during the war,” Jihan said, with a small smile. “To my greatest disappointment.” “Is that how you look at it?” Kiyan asked, narrowing his gaze. Jihan held his words. “Are you not a citizen of this empire?” Kiyan asked then. “I am,” Jihan said. “That’s good to know,” Kiyan said, turning away from Jihan. He moved to lean on the desk that Jihan was admiring. “I heard that you escaped multiple attempts to murder you.” “Yes, the burning feather was quite industrious,” Jihan said. “They even interrupted my bath once. A sword clanging at my ear woke me from a deep sleep.” “You live quite a dangerous life,” Kiyan noted. “So it seems,” Jihan said, tugging on the sleeves of the red outer coat he still wore. They had taken his cloak at the entrance before leading him to see the Emperor. Kastan waited somewhere outside the huge imperial palace. Jihan was on his own in here, facing off against the Emperor. It left him feeling very alone. “You answer me with veiled anger. I can understand why you don’t like my interference in your life,” Kiyan said, shaking his head. “I wouldn’t like me either. You’re not alone in this. Even my brother is upset with me. You see, he finds you very…important. He has tried to protect you from me. Did you know this?” Jihan’s brow rose, finding it hard to hide his surprise. Kastan had not mentioned anything, not that they had talked on their journey to the Imperial City. Jihan’s fault, really, he had stayed away from Kastan as much as he could during their journey. Kiyan smiled at his surprised expression. “Yes, I would imagine that would amaze you,” Kiyan said. “After all, Duke Silver is said to be as fierce as a snarling tiger. He should not have any soft spot in his heart. I know different, and because of that, I have put him through terrible moments.” Jihan stilled wondering what Kastan had suffered. What terrible torture would an emperor inflict on his brother? “That’s not the story we need to discuss here,” Kiyan said. “We called you here to form an alliance, Jihan of Kamran. Your network is very enticing, but I’m also aware of how delicate its leadership is. If anything happens to you, it will disappear into the ether. Am I right?” Jihan hid a smile. It looked like the Emperor’s efforts, as well as Queen Kyra’s, had given them some information. Not much, just enough for them to realize that Jihan had built a melting network. Meaning the network existed to help accomplish certain tasks, and would disappear once that task was complete. It was smart of the Emperor to target the top of the network. What Kiyan did not know is that the network could continue without Jihan. Which was why he had broken down Kamran Estate and given Set control. Garren and Set could continue without him indefinitely. If they needed help, they would contact Andiya who would give them direction. “What do you want from me?” Jihan asked, refusing to give Kiyan the answer he wanted. “I want access to your network,” Kiyan stated. “There are political opponents with more power than the palace, as you have experienced with the burning feather. It will be good for us to become allies, Jihan. Help me strengthen our empire.” “His Imperial Majesty should know that I’m a merchant. Any deals I make must benefit my business.” “What if I threatened your family?” Kiyan asked. “I would demand your loyalty in exchange for their safety.” “Imperial Prince Kastan found me standing alone at Kamran Estate,” Jihan said, folding his hands behind his back. “Everything I do is outside my family.” “That’s hardly true. Your father is in the receiving hall waiting for permission to start your wedding rituals,” Kiyan said. “I can start by holding him hostage.” “I would pay His Imperial Majesty to save me from Pa. He has nagged me all my life,” Jihan said with a soft scoff. “I haven’t been able to escape his nagging. Even now, I’m worried he will follow me to Silver Shore Valley. So, if you threaten him a bit, I’ll be very grateful. It would make him leave me alone.” “Are you telling me I can’t use your father to threaten you?” Kiyan asked, amused. “I’m saying you would be saving me,” Jihan said with a little smile. “What about your Ma?” “She follows my Pa,” Jihan said. “If you threaten Pa, naturally she will stand on his side.” Kiyan sighed and shook his head. “Who can I threaten to get your cooperation?” “No one?” Jihan suggested. “Hmm…I wish that could be true, but it’s not quite right,” Kiyan said, the knowing smile on his lips making Jihan’s blood run cold. “I should confess that you’re not the only one who has been busy these last few days. Kastan’s ghost warriors were watching your property. You know that, right?” Jihan clenched his hands into tight fists. He had not forgotten Temu’s little visit the evening Andiya left with Ishan. He had been thinking about it quite a lot. Those ghost warriors must have followed Swallow’s convoy that night and discovered Andiya. It was the only way they would have known to get Andiya back home. Their presence so close to the estate still bothered him. “They are loyal men. They helped me discover that you have a soft spot for your older sister, Andiya,” Kiyan said, his tone gentle. “You see, Jihan, just like you, I have people I want to protect. Because of this, I work very hard at knowing everyone’s weakness, which is why I’ve been playing a terrible game on you and Kastan. My game revealed your weaknesses quite clear.” Kiyan picked up a bunch of notes from a rack on his desk. He waved them from side to side with a small sigh. “The ghost warriors in the service of Kastan are bound to his duty as Commander of Armies. I exploited that this time because he was overly invested in you. They reported everything they saw. So, I know that you tried to protect your sister by sending her away. I know that Andiya married her husband before Kastan arrived to save you from your decisions. They said her wedding was quite lavish.” Jihan froze in place, staring at the Emperor at a loss. “My wife, Rushi, thought Andiya would make a great partner for Kastan,” Kiyan said, placing the notes on his desk with a small plop. “Rushi worked hard to get Andiya vetted and sent the royal order ahead to your father. She wanted to make sure you received it in time. I know you got it. Your father confirmed the day he sent it to you. So I know that you made a conscious effort to ignore a royal order and I don’t blame you.” Kiyan shrugged and looked around his office. “Shocking as it is, even an Emperor can be at a disadvantage. I have been caught between a wife and a brother, and all I could do was let them fight it out until one won. I had to make the outcome work for this empire. To do that I had to wait until you and I were face to face in this very moment. It’s been a torture waiting.” “Jihan, do you know how strict the palace law is?” Kiyan asked. “Rushi is Empress. She wrote an order of marriage that you ignored. You then helped Andiya get married to her lover and even facilitated her escape with her lover. While Kastan has saved your life by making you Prince Consort, I have every right to make your sister face charges on blatant disregard of a royal order. Her death would be swift. You would have no chance to stop it.” Jihan bit his bottom lip hard. He clung to Kastan’s promise that Andiya would remain safe. Surely, the Emperor would not go against Kastan’s promise. “Ah, you’re wondering why I would threaten your sister’s life when Kastan has given you his word that she is safe,” Kiyan said, pushing off his desk and walking around to sit in his chair again. Kiyan studied Jihan in silence for a while, before he answered. “This is how you discover the type of torture I put Kastan through. As his brother, I want to help him keep his promises, but as his emperor, sometimes I must break promises for him. Does that make me cruel?” Very cruel, Jihan wanted to say, but he couldn’t think about Kastan right now. His thoughts were on his sister and Ishan and their baby. Nothing could happen to them. Nothing! He had worked so hard to protect them, and facing this man, he had nothing but fear to fight back. Fear that had his blood boiling through his veins, his fists clenched tighter and he wondered what he could say in this situation to get the upper hand. “Relax,” Kiyan said, lifting his right hand as though to sooth Jihan. “You said you needed to gain something in return for our deal. I’m only educating you on your gains, Jihan. I’m also asking you to help Kastan keep his promises to you. Your sister and her husband live to continue on as you, yourself, planned. In exchange, your wealth will help strengthen this empire’s armies at Silver Shore Valley. Your network will help serve this empire and keep the wolves at bay. I will keep the secret of Andiya's marriage. Do you think it a fair deal?” Feeling sick to his stomach, Jihan stared at the Emperor of Akasha. ‘Ah,’ he thought, ‘so this was what raw power looked like.’ He had thought Kastan harsh last night, but the brother was worse. This imperial family was crazy. A great big abyss yawned before him. “Jihan.” “I—” Jihan broke off and took a step back. He brought a hand to his stomach as bile rose. He barely managed to control it. He had been right about tangling with the royal family. “All I need is a nod that you agree to my terms,” Kiyan said. “You don’t have to talk.” Jihan bunched the fabric of his red coat and nodded feeling suffocated. “Good. I’m glad we have come to an agreement. It’s not always so tense among us. Welcome to the imperial family, Jihan. I wish your happiness with Prince Kastan lasts eternal. You may leave now,” Kiyan said with a pleasant smile. Jihan stumbled out of Kiyan’s office, only stopping when he was at the end of the corridor and Firuz wrapped a steadying arm around his waist. Jihan took in deep breaths and grabbed Firuz’s collar. “I—send a note to Set,” Jihan said, pushing Firuz’s arm away. “Ask him to send someone to check on Andiya right now. I need to make sure she’s safe.” “But,” Firuz started to protest. “Go, Firuz,” Jihan said, the panic in his voice enough to alarm Firuz. “I’ll be fine, here. You need to hurry.” Firuz searched his face, then turned and ran off. Jihan hoped Firuz knew where the messenger birds were kept in the great labyrinth that was this imperial palace. Walking to the railing in the ornate hallway, Jihan leaned on a pillar and took in gulps of air. If anything happened to Andiya, none of this would matter anymore. Did they know that? “Jihan? Are you okay?” Kastan asked, coming up behind him. Jihan closed his eyes when Kastan rubbed his back. He turned to Kastan, staring at his husband to-be in a new light. He had complained about his father being too overbearing. What a small problem he had. What was it like for Kastan having such a powerful man as a brother? ‘Help Kastan keep his promises to you.’ Jihan shuddered. “Was my brother hard on you?” Kastan asked. “Did he tell you something upsetting? I can go in and talk to him.” Jihan grabbed Kastan’s right arm when Kastan started to turn in the direction of Kiyan’s office. “No,” Jihan said, not wanting to upset the delicate balance. “I—Kastan, take me to my suite. I’m just nervous because I can’t find my way back.” Kastan frowned, placing his hands on Jihan’s shoulders. He looked into Jihan’s eyes, his gaze searching. “What did my Emperor Brother tell you?” Kastan asked. “He shouldn’t have been able to threaten you.” “He didn’t,” Jihan said, speaking the truth. Kiyan had not threatened him but the one person Jihan cared about most in this world. “He just wanted my input on business matters. He asked me to help out at Silver Shore Valley.” “Jihan,” Kastan started. “He welcomed me into the family and wished us eternal happiness. Don’t worry, Kastan. I’m just tired. It’s been a very long day and I want to sleep,” Jihan said, his gaze shifting to the Emperor’s office door. If possible, he wanted to sleep a longtime and wake up from this nightmare he had jumped into. Maybe then he would forget that he had failed at negotiating with an Emperor. Kastan gave his brother’s door a short glance before he led Jihan away. *~*~*~* Two days later, Kastan woke up too early on the day of his wedding. He was assaulted by anxiety and excitement in equal measure. He was anxious to get home to Rashan, and excited to take Jihan with him. Kastan dressed in his wedding ceremonial robes with a sense of exhilaration. He ate little, eager to get the ceremony started. Kyra kept throwing him knowing glances on their short ride from the palace to Kamran Manor. Tradition dictated that he pick up Jihan from his family home. There were hurdles to get through there and then Kastan would then thank Jihan’s parents for giving him a spouse. They would then head to the main ceremony. Their vows would then be said before the three ancient ones in the sanctuary hall at the imperial palace. “Are you nervous?” Kyra asked, when the carriage stopped outside Kamran Manor. “No,” Kastan said, adjusting the thin gold crown he wore. His hair usually held back was left to fall down his back. Kastan looked down at his rich red robes, arranging his collar and making sure the thick gold belt at his waist was secure. Naveed had assured him he looked his best. He would trust in that as he faced his reluctant consort. He hoped Jihan would accept him. He took in a deep breath and looked up to find Kyra watching him. “What?” She grinned and knocked on the door, prompting an attendant to open it and place steps to help her climb down. She paused long enough to brush non-existent lint off his shoulders, and pat his clean shaven jaw. “Kas, you look dashing today,” Kyra said with a mysterious smile. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen this side of you, so I’ll have to thank Jihan later. Jihan is the luckiest man in this empire.” “I’m the lucky one,” Kastan corrected her, still unsure how he had managed to get Jihan to be his for a lifetime. He worried that he would only believe it when Jihan was at Silver Shore Valley sleeping in his bed. Kyra leaned in and kissed Kastan’s left cheek. “Then, let’s go get him before you start singing praises on the streets.” Kastan grinned and followed her out of the carriage. Behind it, stood a black open carriage with an imperial guard manning the six white horses and a second one standing on the back. Kastan and Jihan would ride in that carriage heading to the palace. Kyra gave it a once over and nodded in approval. Behind the open carriage were men and women on horses. They made up Kastan's bridal party. Five of Kyra’s ladies in waiting joined them on the steps leading up to the Manor’s front gates. They each held boxes and talked among themselves in hushed tones. Kastan watched Kyra answer their questions, then when they were done, they hurried up the steps to knock on the closed gates. Kastan's bridal party made up the rear, here to witness for Kastan and cheer. “Now the hard part starts,” Kyra said, taking Kastan’s right hand and urging him up the steps. Kastan turned to his side to find Naveed and Temu grinning. “They’ll open the gates,” Kastan said, following his sister up the steps. “He’s a merchant,” Naveed said. “The most important one in the family. You’ll be lucky if you have any gold left in your pocket.” Kastan frowned as the women at the gates knocked harder and got no response. “It’s payback for when you wouldn’t open the gates for my husband,” Kyra said, when they stopped behind the women, who had started singing songs hoping to win over Jihan’s family on the other side. “You agreed to open the gates when they offered you a box of black jade stones.” Naveed and Temu chuckled behind him, making Kastan give them a censuring gaze. “We heard an Imperial Prince wants to marry our Jihan,” a woman called from the other side. “We closed the doors because surely this Imperial Prince must be here to steal from us. We cleaned our Jihan’s clothes, tended to his food and made him look so handsome that an Imperial Prince took interest. Surely, how can we open the gates and let an him rob us of our treasure?” Kastan opened his mouth to counter that statement. He wanted to answer that he was not here to rob a treasure, but ask nicely to keep Jihan for good. Kyra pointed at him to stop and Naveed hurried to place his palm over Kastan’s mouth to keep him from talking. Kyra then nodded to the women knocking the gates. “My sisters,” one of them said, her voice gentle. “Our Imperial Prince would not dare overlook your hard work. He sees Jihan and knows there are those who have taken care of him and only wishes to add to that care. He only asks to help you treasure Jihan.” “How would he help us when he is taking him away? All we can do is keep the gates closed to keep him away from our treasure.” Kastan’s gaze widened, and he pushed Naveed’s hand away. “Find my sword and I’ll help them open it,” Kastan said, glaring at the heavy Kamran Manor gates. “How dare they keep me from my consort?” “This is your wedding, Your Grace,” Naveed said, biting back a laugh as he blocked Kastan’s way. “Not a war, let the women handle it.” “My sisters,” came the response from his side. “To thank your dedicated efforts, we offer you the gift of essential oils and a box of treasure. On behalf of the Imperial Prince, we promise to give Jihan the same care you have taken. Might you open the doors for our Imperial Prince so that he may see his consort?” There was a long silence on the other side of the gate, and then the sound of locks on the gate came. Soon enough the manor gates opened to reveal almost twenty women blocking the way to the manor. They stood on the path, and one of them stepped forward. Kyra stood in front of Kastan while her ladies in waiting walked forward and handed the first box to the one waiting. The box was opened and inspected. When a nod of approval came, Kastan’s bridal party broke into shouts of celebration. The first hurdle was over, two remained. The women blocking the path moved to the side, and Kyra smiled, following her ladies in waiting. Naveed patted Kastan’s left shoulder and they entered the manor. They came to a stop when they reached the end of the path and were at the steps leading up to the front doors of the manor. Kastan stared at the thick rope tied between two pillars blocking the path up to the front door. Kastan remembered this hurdle well. A sibling had created this hurdle to ask Kastan’s intentions for Jihan. At Kyra’s wedding, Kiyan had been the one to face Kyra’s husband for this one. As expected, Andiya stepped out of the manor looking beautiful in a blue silk dress, the skirts decorated with tiny gemstones. Her smile ready when she caught sight of Kastan at the back of the bridal party. She paused at the top of the stairs and gave him a little nod. Kastan took comfort in the fact that one way or the other, he would be leaving this place with Jihan. Shaking his head at traditions, he reined in his temper as Andiya walked down four short steps to the rope. When she faced the women in charge of Kastan’s bridal party, her smile was gone. Silence filled the courtyard so that they could hear what Andiya had to say. “I heard an Imperial Prince is here to take my little brother away and make him his consort,” Andiya said. “The gates were closed, but the bridal party must have tricked our Jihan’s aunts. So,I tied this rope to block your way. All this time I’ve hidden the treasure that is my brother. How could I let an Imperial Prince take him away? What if I never get to see him again? What is this big sister to do but block the way? I will not be as easily tricked as our aunts.” Kastan hid a smile at Andiya’s words. She was really putting on a show. “My sister—” The ladies in waiting started. “I will not listen to a stranger,” Andiya cut in. “My, oh my, Imperial Prince must have no family members. How could I let my brother go with him? What if they come out of hiding and give my brother a hard time? No, this big sister won’t listen to strangers. The rope must stay.” Kastan stared at the ground to hide his wide smile. Andiya was good, even daring to poke at a queen for answers. Kyra took a step forward, and her ladies in waiting moved back to stand behind Kastan. Kyra remained the only one standing for Kastan. “I am no stranger to the Imperial Prince,” Kyra said, meeting Andiya’s gaze. “Kastan Miran is my brother, and I will vouch for him. He will not take your little brother away and keep him from you. I know that he will treat you in the same way he treats me, his sister. The same way I will treat Jihan, as I treat Kastan. For Kastan is my treasure too. Does Jihan’s dear sister believe me?” “I’m afraid you’re tricking me,” Andiya said. “This Imperial Prince’s bridal party has people talented with words. I ask for a token of promise. Only then can I find the courage to cut this rope of mine. Otherwise, what will I tell my little brother? I can’t be easily tricked.” Kastan smiled as he watched Kyra remove a gold bangle she wore on her right hand. It was a gift from him when she turned eighteen and was thinking of getting married. She held it up for Andiya to see. “Take this token given to me by Kastan,” Kyra said. “I’ll gift it to you, Jihan’s sister. Think of it as you holding Kastan’s affection for me in your hands. I promise to look after your brother and if you ever feel that our family is in the wrong, hold this token up and demand an explanation for our transgressions.” Andiya stared at the gold bangle. For a moment, her gaze shifted to Kastan and the truth of how they had ended in this moment filled the space between them. It was obvious that Andiya wanted to hold that gold bangle up now and demand an explanation as Kyra advised. But this was not the right time. Andiya sighed and took the gold bangle that Kyra offered and wore it on her right hand. She admired it on her wrist for a moment, then held out her hand to an attendant standing behind the pillar. The attendant handed her a pair of scissors. “I’ll have to trust in the Imperial Prince’s sister,” Andiya said, holding the rope and making ready to cut it. She smiled at Kyra. “I hope she knows to prepare a gift for the effort of opening this path to my brother.” Kastan grinned as one of the ladies in waiting hurried forward with the second box. Andiya spent a few minutes cutting the rope between the pillars. When she was done, Kastan’s bridal party once again shouted in excitement. Kyra handed Andiya the box filled with gold pieces as her reward. Andiya handed it to her attendant and held out her hand to Kyra. “I’ll lead the way into our home, but the groom will have to face our Jihan’s Ma,” Andiya announced leading Kyra to the manor doors that opened with no trouble. Andiya led them to the greeting room that Kastan remembered. They found Duyi and Laner waiting for them. Kastan then remembered he had tricked Laner into meeting the Emperor in a casual day dress. She had taken no chances this time and was dressed in beautiful deep blue dress with pretty embroidery on her skirts. She wore flowers in her hair, which was left to flow down her back. The gray streaks in it shimmering in the morning light. She was pretty and confident in her role as Jihan’s mother. Her husband on the other hand was sullen, and even in his festive clothes, Kastan imagined Duyi still wished his daughter was getting married today. “Ma,” Andiya said, letting go of Kyra’s hand. “Look, I’ve brought Jihan’s groom. He’s here to ask for Jihan’s hand.” Laner stood, as Jihan’s mother she would be the one to give permission for her son’s marriage. Since they were following tradition. Kastan wondered how Jihan had managed Andiya’s traditional rites without their parents. He would have to ask Jihan later. Laner was nervous as Kyra took Kastan’s hand and led him forward. Once again, Laner faced him and she bit her bottom lip as Kastan’s intimidating bridal party looked on. “I-I heard an Imperial Prince is here to wed my son, Jihan,” Laner said, her voice shaky but strong. “He must have seen my son’s charms and means to take our Jihan into his household. How lucky the Imperial Prince is to have charmed Jihan’s aunts and even Jihan’s big sister. I have set no hurdles for you, Imperial Prince. I only have one question for you if you want my permission. Does Imperial Prince dare to answer it?” “I will answer your question,” Kastan said. Laner pressed her palms to her stomach and took a step closer to Kastan so that she was standing right before him. She looked up and he met her gaze. “You might have seen my son’s charms and thought they were attractive, but have you seen his many faults? If you discover all those faults he has learned to hide, will you invite this same bridal party and return him to me?” Laner asked. Laner was asking him if he understood the commitment and responsibility needed in a marriage. After having married Jian and buried her, then taken care of the son she left him, Kastan was no stranger to responsibility. Yet with Jihan, he now had love added in, his worry was not returning Jihan, but how to keep him after all the palace intrigues and betrayals. “Kastan answers Jihan’s Ma,” Kastan said. “I will not return him and mean to keep him. Jihan’s faults or charms, it doesn’t matter. He is just Jihan to me. I hope you see me as your son too and listen to me when I find you to complain a bit and eat food made in your kitchen and you take it as supporting our family.” Laner studied him for a minute and then she nodded and stepped back. Naveed handed Kastan the last box. It was filled with rare medicinal herbs, each one carefully chosen and placed in the box by the imperial infirmary. The highest compliment to give to parents was to wish them healthy years ahead. Kastan took the box and held it out to Laner. “It is my hope that you will watch over Jihan and I for a long time,” Kastan said, bowing his head when Laner took the box. Laner stared at the box of medicine for a moment then handed it to the attendant closest to her. She swiped her hand over eyes and looked to Kyra. “I accept the Imperial Prince's answer. I’m willing to give Jihan to the Imperial Prince. Andiya will show you the way and you can escort our Jihan back,” Laner said, and opened her arms wide to give Kastan a hug. Kastan stepped into her embrace bending his knees so that she could hug him easily. “I wish you both eternal happiness, Prince Kastan,” Laner said. *~*~*~* Firuz stepped away from the door of the small sitting room Jihan was using to wait. He turned to Jihan and grinned. “Duke Silver answered your mother’s question. She has given consent to get you,” Firuz said. “Your husband has a silver tongue. He said your faults and charms are not important, you’re just Jihan to him.” Jihan closed his eyes, feeling anxious. He had thought this ceremony would mean nothing to him, just a formality to make sure Andiya was safe. Yet with each step completed, each tradition rite passed, it was starting to matter. This marriage was turning him and Kastan into a unit that the rest of the world would see and have expectations. Jihan let out a soft breath and opened his eyes. His hands clutched the red silk of the embroidered skirts of his ceremonial robes. His gaze rested on the ring on his right hand. His heart thundered in his chest and for a mad moment, he wondered if he should run out through the back door. Then, Andiya entered the room and there was no running because Queen Kyra followed his sister wearing a wide smile. While his family had chosen blue for their clothes, Kastan’s sister was in forest green. Kyra was beautiful in her green dress that spotted little flecks of gold embedded in the silk. Kyra walked to the chair where he sat, stuck in place, paralyzed by apprehension. She crouched before him and took his hands in hers. Kyra looked up at him and smiled. “I know our Emperor Brother had words with you when you met him two days ago,” Kyra said. “He must have left you unsettled. I know because that is his way. So, listen to me, Jihan of Kamran. Kastan cares about you. This wedding would not happen if he did not. I know you know that.” Jihan breathed out and held Kyra’s gaze. He had suspected Kastan’s feelings ran deep after he walked out of the emperor’s office. The fact that Kastan had done his best to protect him from the Empress was hard to ignore. “Strip away the rest,” Kyra advised. “The method you got here doesn’t matter. Focus on the future, Jihan. If you walk out that door with your sister, and me, let it be because you want a life at Kastan’s side. Not because of a deal my Emperor Brother has created. Do you understand me?” Yes. He understood. Kyra was right. Hadn’t he cried himself to sleep once with missing Kastan? Now, here he was, about to marry Kastan. Jihan squeezed Kyra’s hands tight in answer. “Alright,” Kyra said, getting up. She picked up the first piece of jewelry of his wedding attire. A circlet made with thin gold wire coiled in intricate shapes. The front of the circlet showed off a large black jade stone to match his ring. The back of the circlet had a red ribbon to secure it to Jihan’s hair. Kyra was gentle as she placed the circlet on Jihan’s head, and tied a small chunk of his free hair with the long red ribbon, letting it flow down his back. Finished, Kyra stepped around the chair. Jihan stood up and Andiya hurried forward to adjust his robes. She made sure the collar of his red long-sleeved top was neat. The red plain belt at his waist blended the transition of his top to the heavily embroidered red skirts of his robes. Underneath it all, he wore white trousers and red boots with gold embroidery. He felt overdressed compared to his usual light robes meant for running errands and riding horses. Andiya pinched his cheeks, pulling him out of his thoughts. “Stop sulking, it’s a happy day,” Andiya said. “I want to remember that you smiled on your wedding day. You know Deona is going to need full details of this. It won’t work if you’re not smiling, An.” Jihan gave her a tentative smile. He must have looked funny because Andiya laughed and shook her head. Jihan smiled when she took his hand and urged him toward the door, pulling him out of the safety of the little sitting room. Andiya led him to the greeting room that his parents liked to use for occasions. She felt his slight hesitation when they reached the entrance and he saw the number of people in Kastan’s escort party. His sister squeezed his hand and gave him an assuring gaze as she led Jihan into the greeting room. The silence that followed his entrance was unsettling. Jihan clenched his free hand and hoped he didn’t look too much of a fool. He’d always been too skinny and his skin too pale to ever look stunning. He concentrated on breathing and taking his steps, tripping would be too embarrassing while everyone was watching. They came to a stop before his parents and Jihan let go of Andiya’s hand to stare at his sulking father. Duyi still could not believe Jihan was to be Prince Consort. He probably would not accept it until Jihan left for Silver Shore Valley. Laner stood and asked Kastan— Jihan turned to his left to find Kastan standing a few feet away. Dark eyes held his and everyone in the room faded away. There was only Kastan standing a few feet away from him looking even more nervous than Jihan. Kastan with his rakish beauty and intense gaze. Jihan had often traced that scar on Kastan’s right brow. He still did not know how Kastan had gotten it. There was so much unsaid between them, yet they knew the worst of each other. Kastan had seen him on his knees begging for his family’s lives. Jihan had then met the man who dared treat Kastan like a puppet and been so afraid that he stopped getting angry with Kastan. “Imperial Prince?” Laner’s voice filled his head, and Jihan dragged his gaze away from Kastan to look at his mother. “Is this the man you wish to wed?” Jihan looked around the room when chuckles started behind Kastan. It seemed as though this was not the first time Laner had asked that question. Naveed touched Kastan’s left arm and Jihan smiled when Kastan stopped staring at him to scowl at Naveed. “What?” Kastan asked, and Naveed nodded to Laner. The chuckles turned into laughter and Jihan felt his cheeks flame. Kastan cleared his throat, making Jihan look at him. Kastan’s cheeks were red too. Jihan smiled as Kastan stared at Laner waiting for her to ask her question again. He had no clue what she had said. Jihan relaxed amid the laughter and as the room quietened down, Laner shook her head. “Imperial Prince, is our Jihan very handsome today?” “Very,” Kastan said, making everyone laugh and Jihan blushed when Kastan gave him an appreciative glance. “You must be dying to take him away,” one of Jihan’s aunts called out. “As soon as I can marry him,” Kastan said, his tone very confident, it had the laughs rolling. Jihan shook his head and scowled at Kastan to make him stop. “Then answer my question,” Laner urged. “Is our Jihan the man you wish to make your consort?” “Yes,” Kastan said. Duyi got up to join his wife, and Andiya urged Jihan to move closer to Kastan. “Our Kamran family has no objection to this union. Imperial Prince you have a consort,” Laner said. Kyra took Jihan’s left elbow and led him to Kastan’s left side. She stepped back behind them. “Imperial Prince and Prince Consort shall bow to the parents to show their respect,” Kyra said. Jihan followed Kastan's lead as they both lowered their heads to first his father and then to his mother. When it was over, Kastan’s party broke into celebration songs. Jihan knew that after this they would head out to the carriage outside and leave for the palace. Before that, he turned to find Kastan holding his second piece of jewelry. A gold belt with a red tassel and a token with the black tiger seal. Kastan placed it around Jihan's waist, over his plain red belt and secured it. Jihan smiled when Kastan touched the red ribbon on his hair. Naveed then handed Kastan the last piece of Jihan's wedding ceremony clothes. It was a red wide sleeved coat, long enough to sweep the ground. Jihan felt some of his nerves dissipate when Kastan gave him an assuring smile. He held out his hands and wore the coat with Kastan’s help. Gasps filled the room at the sight of the gold tiger seal on the back of the coat marking Kastan’s house, now his too. When it was done, Kastan held out his left elbow for him to hold and Jihan slipped his hand into the crook of Kastan’s arm. Guests lined the path out of Kamran Manor, showering them with red petals on the way to the open carriage. “I want to kiss you,” Kastan said, when they were in the open carriage, heading to the palace. “Will you let me?” Jihan shifted in his seat to face Kastan. Kastan held his right hand tight with his left. The warmth of Kastan’s hand holding his melted some of the ice around his heart. “You never had to ask before," Jihan murmured. Kastan nodded, and held his gaze for a moment. Then he leaned in and pressed a chaste kiss on Jihan’s left cheek. The small brief kiss left an interesting pang of disappointment in Jihan’s heart. Kastan leaned back and gave him a small smile before he leaned in again and brushed a soft kiss on Jihan’s right cheek. This time when Kastan leaned back to meet his gaze, Jihan made a face at him making Kastan chuckle. Jihan smiled at the sound of it, and then Kastan leaned in and took his lips in a sweet, demanding kiss. Jihan closed his eyes then, feeling as though he had been deprived for years. He had missed Kastan’s kisses so much he felt like he might cry if Kastan broke this kiss. Tears filled his eyes when Kastan ended the kiss and Jihan looked down to hide them. Kastan wouldn’t let him. He cupped Jihan’s cheek with his free hand and raised Jihan’s face. Jihan closed his eyes when Kastan kissed away his tears. “You’re not alone,” Kastan said, squeezing his hand. “We’ll face it all together.” *~*~*~* At the palace sanctuary hall, Kastan helped Jihan out of the carriage, stopping to make sure the long coat Jihan wore fell just right behind him. Holding Jihan’s right hand with his left, Kastan and Jihan walked up the many steps in front of the palace sanctuary hall followed by Firuz and Kyra. The hall was filled with noble lords and ladies of the realm. Jihan’s family joined their ranks and watched as Jihan walked with Kastan down the long aisle to a dais at the very front. There, three figures stood in white robes: one woman, a short man and a tall man who seemed like he could not stop smiling. Jihan’s grip on Kastan’s hand tightened when he passed the front seat and he saw the Emperor. Their conversation was still so fresh in his mind. Kastan returned his squeeze, drawing Jihan's attention and the moment passed. Suddenly, they were in front of the three ancients who watched over the empire. They climbed up two sets of steps and stopped. Jihan took in a deep breath and let it out slow. “You stand before Bast,” the woman stated, nodding to the short man holding a fan, “and Ha,” she nodded to the tall man with long gray hair, “and I am Neith. They call us the ancients, but we are only guardians and watchers. Jihan of Kamran, are you willing to be here?” Jihan stared at Neith because she was quite beautiful and her long dark hair almost reached the floor. She gave him an encouraging smile and he answered her question truthfully. “Yes, I am,” he said. “Good,” Neith smiled and turned to Kastan. “Kastan, are you willing to be here?” “Yes, I am,” Kastan said. “I told you it would work out,” Ha whispered to Kastan with a grin. “Since you are both willing, then face each other,” Bast said, scowling at Ha. Ha shrugged at Bast and produced a small pair of scissors. He moved to Kastan’s back and spent a few minutes cutting two inches of hair. Then he moved to Jihan and ran his fingers through Jihan’s long hair. “The god of war certainly has a good eye,” Ha said, keeping his voice low for Jihan to hear. Ha chose a chunk of hair from under the heavy mass and cut a two-inch length. “He thought you his consort long before you left him.” Ha then moved to join the other two leaving Jihan to mull over his words. The god of war was Kastan’s nickname. What did Ha mean by before-you-left-him? Ha handed Jihan’s hair to Neith and held Kastan’s hair in his right hand. “Hold hands,” Bast instructed, standing between Jihan and Kastan. “We stand here to witness the union between Kastan and Jihan.” Kastan held Jihan’s right hand with his and looked to Neith and Ha. Jihan followed suit and gaped when they both let go of the lock of hair they held. The magic Firuz had spoken off came to life as Neith waved her hand and two locks of hair turned into one. The strands of hair turned into a shimmering gold then light that broke into two thin strands. Jihan stared as one strand of light shot to his right hand and wrapped around the finger with the ring Kastan had given him. The second light did the same to Kastan’s right hand, wrapping around Kastan’s middle finger and shimmering for a moment. When the light faded away, it left a thick gold band inlaid with red stones on Kastan’s finger. Jihan’s gaze shifted to his own finger and he saw a matching ring form under the promise ring from Kastan. “The connection is true,” Bast announced to their guests. “Imperial Prince Kastan and his Prince Consort shall now bow to the heavens and earth to seal their vow.” Jihan looked to Kastan for direction. Kastan took his right hand and they took the steps down to mats laid out on the floor in front of a small altar with offerings. Jihan followed Kastan’s example as they knelt on the mats and bowed low. They got up and then knelt again, bowing a second time. They got up again. As they knelt and bowed for the third time, Jihan felt his new ring fill with warmth sealing their vows. Jihan then got up and faced Kastan as his Prince Consort in front of a roomful of people watching. Some congratulated them with genuine sincerity, clapping and shouting words of congratulations; others stared at them with envy. At the front row in the most prominent seat, The Emperor’s gaze was full of expectations, while his wife, the Empress Rushi, watched them with an interesting mix of bitterness. In that moment, Jihan decided to take Kyra’s advice. Kastan was his husband now. Jihan vowed to find a way to forge a path that worked for them. *~*~*~*
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