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Stories posted in this category are works of fiction. Names, places, characters, events, and incidents are created by the authors' imaginations or are used fictitiously. Any resemblances to actual persons (living or dead), organizations, companies, events, or locales are entirely coincidental.
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The Reluctant Consort - 10. Chapter 10

Jihan Weds Kastan

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 too 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 shaking 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 beyond 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 or 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 sunrays 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 bunched the covers on his 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 chamber. 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 tighter 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 the ring 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 Deora 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 any he and Andiya had sourced.

It had to come from the imperial 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, and 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,” 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. 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 operated 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 imperial 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 man 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.

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 Prince 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, lift it and 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 Jihan 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 Imperial 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 Prince 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 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.”

“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 nagging parents. What did they do about it?

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 follow them to the capital tomorrow, thanks to Duke Silver's planning.

“I suspect it will take Jihan 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 Imperial 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 particular tasks, like a war supply. It would disappear once the task was complete. This model worked with every aspect of the merchant network.

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 bring 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. 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 imperial 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. I know that you made a conscious effort to ignore an imperial 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 an imperial 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 of Kamran. I’m also asking you to help Kastan keep his promises to you. Your sister and her husband live to continue 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 looks 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 ruling class.

“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 Imperial 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 the nightmare he had jumped into with no rescue plan. 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. Anxiety and excitement assaulted him in equal measure. He was anxious to get home to Rashan, and excited to take Jihan with him.

Kastan dressed in his ceremonial wedding robes with a sense of exhilaration. He ate little, eager to get the ceremony started.

Kyra kept throwing him knowing glances during 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 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 on his head.

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 of the carriage.

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, and 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 left 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 pockets.”

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 Imperial Prince 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, 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 strangers,” 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, and 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 a beautiful deep blue dress with pretty embroidery on her skirts.

She wore flowers in her hair and it was left to flow down her back. The gray streaks in it shimmered 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 were 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. His worry was 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 Deora 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 again 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 in 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 Imperial 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 leading to the 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 the majestic dais at the very front. There, three figures stood in white robes: one woman, a short man and a tall man who looked like he could not stop smiling.

Jihan’s grip on Kastan’s hand tightened when he passed the front row 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 willing,” he said.

“Good,” Neith smiled and turned to Kastan. “Kastan, are you willing to be here?”

“Yes, I am willing,” 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 of 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 the two locks of hair turned into one.

The strands of hair turned into a shimmering gold and then into 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.

*~*~*~*

I decided to play with a bit of culture in their wedding, :blushing: :glomp: Jihan and Kastan are now married.  *confetti*
Part II - Married life at Silver Shore Valley coming up!
Character List to track everyone
Love,
Sui.
Suilan Lee, 2019-2021
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Stories posted in this category are works of fiction. Names, places, characters, events, and incidents are created by the authors' imaginations or are used fictitiously. Any resemblances to actual persons (living or dead), organizations, companies, events, or locales are entirely coincidental.
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The tangle of events have left both Jihan and Kastan exactly where their hearts demanded. It all wasn't without some pain and uncertainty.

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Wow. traditional wedding rites. Typical in the olden days especially from rich big houses. I find it interesting that many other cultures have these traditions. I used to think it was a Chinese thingy but having lived with various cultures, I found we have similar customs and cultures and traditions. Fantastic chapter! I have been waiting anxiously. You TRULY never disappoint!!!!!  Waiting for the beginning of part 2. And thank very much for your stories.

 

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What a delightful ending to the first book; but have to admit that I can't wait for the second one.  

The Emperor got the best of the first meeting with Jihan, but not sure that will always be the case.

Have to admit, I expected a confrontation with the Empress Rushi over this.  But that may still be to come.

Andiya can "now" be married and her child can inherit the new family titles.  

Have to wonder how Jihan will like being a step-father???

Bravo...

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 Am I a terrible person if I want to see the Emperor on his knees to Jihan? The Empire and the Miran family seems to have forgotten the between reigning for their people, and tyrannically ruling them. He threatened Jihan, and the life of his sister. Jihan has a merchant mind, he said that a transaction had to benefit him as welyan had the opportunity to at least ask what he wanted, maybe appease him and start a good relationship. He chose to immediately threaten Jihan. If I was Jihan, I would silently use all my power to weaken Kyan, maybe by exposing the treacherous Queen.

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17 hours ago, Paideia said:

Your stories never disappoint. They are among the very best on GA.

Thank you so much for this.

17 hours ago, Paideia said:

Having just finished reading Mo Dao Zu Shi for the first time (and loved it) there are actually some cultural references that I'm starting to recognize.. I'm afraid I'm developing quite the addiction to xianxia (or would your stories be considered wuxia instead?). Don't let that stop you from writing more modern stories too, though.. 😉

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.

16 hours ago, drpaladin said:

The tangle of events have left both Jihan and Kastan exactly where their hearts demanded.

So true.  Guess the next part is all about getting to know each other.

 

11 hours ago, Philippe said:

While the end results of this union are yet to be revealed, the promises of their pledges and the blessings of the ancients would seem to promise rewards for the combined forces of the warrior and the merchant.

Thank you for this intriguing and power hungry story.

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.

3 hours ago, andrew35 said:

Wow. traditional wedding rites. Typical in the olden days especially from rich big houses. I find it interesting that many other cultures have these traditions. I used to think it was a Chinese thingy but having lived with various cultures, I found we have similar customs and cultures and traditions. Fantastic chapter! I have been waiting anxiously. You TRULY never disappoint!!!!!  Waiting for the beginning of part 2. And thank very much for your stories.

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.:gikkle:

3 hours ago, centexhairysub said:

I expected a confrontation with the Empress Rushi over this.

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.

3 hours ago, centexhairysub said:

Have to wonder how Jihan will like being a step-father???

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.

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29 minutes ago, Sweetlion said:

 Am I a terrible person if I want to see the Emperor on his knees to Jihan? The Empire and the Miran family seems to have forgotten the between reigning for their people, and tyrannically ruling them. He threatened Jihan, and the life of his sister. Jihan has a merchant mind, he said that a transaction had to benefit him as welyan had the opportunity to at least ask what he wanted, maybe appease him and start a good relationship. He chose to immediately threaten Jihan. If I was Jihan, I would silently use all my power to weaken Kyan, maybe by exposing the treacherous Queen.

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!

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24 minutes ago, lilansui said:

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!

It is also a very interesting conundrum. The Emperor assumed a tyrannical position, even with his own brother, and abused the his brother's devotion (since I believe Kastan and Kyra are the only ones that could have stand up to Kyan and told him NO. Due to their mystical connection, explained in Kyan tattoo, their can't be hurt or separated without killing the Empire, so I Kastan ever rebeled and said NO to Kyan, there was not much he could do without risking the Empire's ruin). However Jihan understands now that Rushi is dangerous too, do he can't  weaken Kyan if that leaves a powerful and uncontrolled Rushi. Destroying or weakening Rushi publicly would humble and humiliated the Emperor, without hurting the rest of the siblings much (the Sage Queen and the Protector Duke). Even Kastan should be put in his place for playing with Johan's life, but you can't win all, and Kyan is a better Target for Jihan ire.

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Sui,  I don't think I have commented since chapter1, not that I have not thoroughly enjoyed this very entertaining tale. Your writing, as usual is fabulous. The story you weave enthralling. I eagerly keep an eye out for my update notification for the next chapter. Thank you for sharing your vision with us. I look forward to more.

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Excellent chapter! The wedding ceremonies have concluded, Jihan and Kastan are now married. The emperor and Kyra are very happy for their brother. The empress however is not pleased. What treachery is she now plotting? I’m hoping that the newlyweds will be happy and at peace for a while. I’m definitely looking forward to the next chapter! 😃❤️

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hhmmm i think the story is more and more interesting. this chapter must be the calm before the coming tempest ! still a lot of questions to be answered. can’t wait to read the next chapters 😍

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I'm very happy for Jihan and Kastan. The wedding ceremony was perfect, beautiful a with a sprinkle of humor.

How will empress Rushi react?

Edited by Aditus
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Great chapter!  I did notice almost from the beginning the cultural influences in this story.  I have lived in Asia for almost two decades and love the culture of the eastern Asian countries.  Things I noticed went beyond the clothes, agriculture and personality traits.  I loved the before the wedding fetching of the consort.  It reminded me of the first Thai wedding I attended.  The only difference would be in one of the challenges to the groom.  In Thailand the groom is challenged to prove he has enough sexual equipment to satisfy the bride.  It brings out a lot of laughter over the questions and claims made by the groom and his family.  I do love this great tale.  I don't think Jihan will have any problems as a father.  I doubt the term step father will be applied to him in his new family. 

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