“I know you like roasted chicken.Try this,” Kastan said, tearing pieces of roasted chicken from the platter in the middle of the table.He placed them on Jihan’s plate, and sat back to watch Jihan eat.
The sun was long gone.They were in the auxiliary palace, hidden away in Kastan’s personal suite.Music filled the air in the distance.Their wedding party was still ongoing.Kastan’s officers were free to drink the night away.He had even gone ahead and chased away Naveed and Temu to join the party.He had wanted uninterrupted time with his new consort but Jihan’s shadow guard had refused to listen to him.
Firuz waited in the waiting room outside their inner suite.Kastan was unable to convince him to go rest in his own chambers.There was a lot to prepare when they got home to Silver Shore.Kastan imagined he needed to find a place for Firuz that would keep him close to Jihan, as long as that place was not in their very sleeping quarters.
“You’re watching me,” Jihan said, his tone complaining.“Why aren’t you eating too?”
“I am,” Kastan said, picking up a piece of bread and bringing it to his mouth.“Watching you eat is also filling.”
Jihan choked out a laugh and covered his mouth as he tried to keep in the chicken he was chewing.He broke into coughs.Kastan poured water into Jihan’s goblet and pressed it into Jihan’s hands.Jihan took a sip, and then another until his cough was under control.
“Can you never say such lines with such a serious look?They don’t suit you,” Jihan said, rubbing his chest with his left fist.
“You don’t think I mean it,” Kastan stated taking a bite of the vegetable stew that had come with their meal.He chewed in silence watching Jihan compose himself, and then swallowed to say.“Jihan, you’re my husband now.I want us to have a harmonious life together.I am happy when I see you eating.”
Jihan sat back and stared at him.He sipped his water, and placed the goblet on the table.He looked around the elegant suite and a small frown danced on his forehead.
“How come Rashan was not here for the ceremony?” Jihan asked.
Kastan stared at his stew for a moment, and then placed his spoon down.He too reached for his goblet of water and sipped to buy time.When he looked up, he found Jihan watching him with a curious gaze.
“Did you want him here?” Kastan asked, sitting back.
“His family unit changed today,” Jihan said.“His Pa got married and brought in a new family member.He should have been part of the ceremony.”
“I know that and I wanted him here, but the situation we’re in doesn’t allow for him to be here, Jihan.”Kastan smiled at Jihan.“You are protecting Andiya.I’m protecting my son who is eleven.He thinks he can fight off an army with his little fists.I left him in charge of Silver Shore Valley.”
“Alone?” Jihan asked, his eyes wide with shock.“How could you do that to a child?”
“Rashan is never alone.He has capable help in Silver Shore’s Hidden Guard.The valley is locked down,” Kastan said.“Are you worried?”
Jihan stared at Kastan for a moment, then shook his head and stared at the food in his plate instead.
“I’m sorry,” Jihan said.“It’s sometimes hard to remember that other fathers are different from mine.I shouldn’t judge your decisions by my Pa’s standards.”
“He’s made you struggle,” Kastan acknowledged.“I’m sorry.”
“Don’t apologize to me,” Jihan said, shaking his head.“I’m the one who should apologize for assuming things.”
“Jihan, all this politeness is making me nervous.”
Jihan looked up to meet Kastan’s gaze.
When he spoke, his tone was shy.
“I never thought I would be someone’s Pa,” Jihan said.“Now that you’ve made me one, I promise to be a good one to Rashan.I will support you both as I would my own sister, Andiya.I will always protect Rashan.”
Kastan got up and cupped Jihan’s face in his hands.He kissed him hard, filled with joy that he could not easily explain.His heart believed in Jihan’s shy promise.Ending their kiss, Kastan sat in his chair grinning when he saw Jihan’s red ears.
Cutting another piece of roasted chicken, he placed it on Jihan’s plate and sat back to watch Jihan eat.Other than Kyra, he’d had no one else he could rely on to protect Rashan, to stand on Rashan’s side and help him with no prejudice.Now here was Jihan with his shy smile.
It was a gift.
Kastan picked up his goblet and decided on full disclosure.Jihan had stepped into his world now.It would be better for Jihan to know everything in order to survive.
“Jihan,” he said, his tone making Jihan look up at him with a slight frown.“There are things I need you to know before we reach Silver Shore Valley.Details you must know about my life as my consort and Rashan’s guardian.I want you to know that I will not keep secrets from you.”
Jihan studied him for a moment, and then nodded.
“You’ve met Kiyan and Kyra,” Kastan said, pulling up his left sleeve to reveal a small fig tree with three branches on his inner wrist.“We are bound by duty to the empire.This tree represents us three, and is only a shadow of the one the Emperor wears.As three, we must act for the benefit of the empire to ensure peace and prosperity. I wear it to remember my duty.Kiyan wears his to show him the state of the empire.”
Jihan wiped his hands on a napkin and moved his chair closer so that he could touch the tattoo on Kastan’s inner wrist.
“Why couldn’t I see it before?” Jihan asked, tracing his finger over the gold contours of the small tree, mesmerized by the gold leaves on three thick branches.
“You were an outsider,” Kastan said, studying Jihan.“You were outside the circle of trust.”
Jihan looked up to meet his gaze.
“And now?” Jihan asked.
“You are my consort,” Kastan said, “my partner in this life.”
Jihan touched the tattoo one last time and rolled down Kastan’s sleeve before he returned to his food.
“You must be tasked with protection and keeping peace,” Jihan said, making Kastan smile.
“Yes,” Kastan said, picking up his goblet to sip on his wine.“I grow our armies.Respond to the emperor’s call to war, and protect the empire from internal and external dangers.”
“Like West Nation’s war,” Jihan said.“So, Rashan is to take on your role in the future.”
“Yes, he is Silver Shore Marquis to be Duke of Silver Shore when I’m gone,” Kastan said.“It is my duty to make sure he is ready and equipped to face the future.”
“He’ll be ready,” Jihan said with such conviction, Kastan wanted to lean over and kiss him again.
Jihan finished his roast chicken and reached for a cup of water.He drank deep and sat back in his chair rubbing his stomach.
“Mm,” he said on a sigh.“I hadn’t eaten anything since morning.I could barely eat anything at the party earlier, so many people wanting to talk.Thanks for getting me food.”
“It’s what I should do,” Kastan said.
Jihan wiped his hands on a wet towel placed in a bowl on his left side and dried his fingers with his napkin.He drank the rest of his water and sat back in his chair, looking at Kastan, his gaze expectant.
“There is someone who wants my position in this empire,” Kastan said, keeping his tone light.“To create trouble, she’s formed the burning feather that attacked you.”
“She,” Jihan said, his gaze shifting to his empty goblet of water.“At the Raven Inn in Kin Town, the day you saved me, you knew who was behind the burning feather the moment you saw that robe.”
“Yes,” Kastan agreed.
“Why didn’t you tell me then?Why now?” Jihan asked.
“You didn’t have the power to face down a phoenix at the time,” Kastan said with a small smile.“You’re my consort now.My armies will fight to protect you.You can know that my sister in-law is the reason the burning feather exists.”
Jihan sat up in surprise.He remembered that soon after Kastan’s discovery, Lord Villes, the Empress’s father had died.Lord Villes was accused of treason during wartime.
Jihan’s gaze’s widened.
“Lord Villes took the blame to protect the Empress,” Jihan said.
“Why is she after you now?” Jihan asked.
“My command of the empire’s armies intimidates her,” Kastan said.“Kiyan has tried to explain to her why she should sit still, but her past is hard to ignore.If she can’t kill me, she wishes to find a way to control Rashan through my consort.”
“Why are you telling me this?” Jihan asked.
“Rushi will try to win your cooperation,” Kastan said.“She was the one to push through the order of marriage with Andiya’s name.She met with your mother and convinced her of the merits, then urged your father to travel with the escort to Kamran Estate.Rushi has already done her best to place your parents in her web.She hoped to bring Andiya under her wing when we married and use Andiya to control Rashan later.”
“One wants my livelihood, the other my sister,” Jihan said.“This imperial couple is really too much.”
“Her focus has shifted from your sister to you,” Kastan corrected.
“Why would she want me?” Jihan asked, his eyes wide with clear confusion.
Kastan bit back a grin at the fact that Jihan still seemed oblivious of his new position.
It was both endearing and worrying.
“You’re my consort, Jihan,” Kastan reminded him.
He got up from his chair and moved to Jihan’s side.Crouching low on Jihan’s right, he took Jihan’s right hand.He rubbed his thumb over the black jade stone on Jihan’s ring.He shifted his thumb to the band under with ruby stones on its surface.Their marriage bond so clearly sealed.Kastan still couldn’t believe it was real.
Kastan squeezed Jihan’s hand and got up, urging Jihan to follow him.He led him to the four-poster bed set in the middle of their room.The headboard rested on the wall and red curtains were tied to the posts.The sheets were white, but the quilt over the bed was also red, carefully laid out for them.Kastan picked up Jihan when they got to the bed and placed his consort in the middle.He removed their boots and climbed on the comfortable mattress.He took his time untying the curtains and pulling them in place, sealing them in a world of their own.The lamp mounted on the ceiling above their bed was the only source of light.
Jihan shifted back until his back was against the headboard.He arranged pillows behind his back and crossed his legs, getting comfortable.He had long removed his overcoat, but he was still in his red ceremony robes.Kastan matched him, moving forward so that their knees were touching.
Jihan arranged the skirts of his robe, and then picked up the black jade tiger seal on his lap to play with as Kastan continued.
“My brother’s wife is from Giode Kingdom.He married her out of responsibility.We needed to stabilize the border in the Northwest of the empire at the time.Rushi is the sister of the Giode King.”
“Every child in their third year of school learns the structure of the imperial house,” Jihan said, shooting Kastan a short grin.
Kastan poked Jihan’s knee and got a smile in return.
“Well, Rushi has lived a life full of palace intrigues.Giode Kingdom’s royal house is messy and full of jealousy.Her father was pushed out of the throne by her uncle.This uncle then wanted to take over the throne from Rushi’s brother, who took over.There were attempts made on her and her brother’s life.When we intervened and helped them stopping the uncle, Rushi’s brother thought Rushi marrying into our empire would help heal some of the terrible things she has had to endure.”
“Experiences like that are hard to forget,” Jihan said.
“After Giode was stable, Kiyan brought Rushi back to our imperial palace as his wife.They have lived a quiet partnership until two years ago when I started noting little incidents,” Kastan shook his head.“They were minor uprisings in little towns in the Iron Lands.The issues were not large enough to warrant an army but serious enough to need my presence.The strife continued and escalated until we got to West Nation’s uprising.Lord Villes and his trusted aide, the Foreign Minister of Trade instigated that mess on Rushi’s behalf.Their goal was to make me fail in protecting the west border.”
“Which is why they interfered with suppliers,” Jihan said.
“Yes.When I examined all these incidences, it has become clear that Rushi is making an attempt to push me out of command.”
Jihan dropped the token he held on his lap and placed his hand over Kastan’s right knee.
“The burning feather’s goal is to change the commander of armies,” Jihan said.
Kastan noted that it wasn’t a question, but he felt the need to acknowledge the truth that they both could not avoid.
“Yes.Rushi is a thorn stuck on my side.She is empress, and the mother to the future emperor.I cannot harm her, only weaken her plans,” Kastan confessed.“And as my consort, Jihan, you’ll have to deal with the many trials she places me through.”
“Does the Emperor know about her?” Jihan asked.
“He does,” Kastan said.“He is handling it as best he can.She is his wife, and the mother of his children.Her presence in this palace is important for our imperial family’s stability.”
“His Imperial Majesty should be careful.Unchecked offenses may turn Rushi into a tyrant,” Jihan said, his gaze narrowed.“The most important part is knowing what she’s like so that we can be ready. Thank you for telling me.”
“I have kept these problems from my son.Rashan is only eleven,” Kastan continued.“He only knows how to train harder, and learn all he can.I want to protect his youth as long as I can.”
Jihan nodded, taking Kastan’s hand and squeezing it hard.He finally met Kastan’s gaze.
“I didn’t tell him about our wedding,” Kastan said.“He would have wanted to be here, but I was worried about what Rushi would do.Rashan loves his cousins and sees her as an interesting aunt.He would carry anything she tells him.”
“Then you did the right thing.We don’t want Rushi finding an opportunity,” Jihan soothed.“We can have a family celebration of our own when we get home.I’m nervous to meet him.Do you think he’ll like me?”
“He’ll like you,” Kastan promised, knowing his son was openhearted.Rashan would give Jihan a chance.“In time, he’ll come to love you.”
Jihan nodded and stared down at their clasped hands.
“The Emperor,” Jihan started, and then stopped.He swallowed hard and squeezed Kastan’s fingers.“He wants my Kamran network to work for him.That’s what he told me that day we met in his office.I’m worried.I’ve tried so hard to protect my people.I don’t know if I can keep them safe when the Emperor gets involved.”
“I never saw your estate working.Did all the people working with you live at Kamran Estate?”
“No,” Jihan said, shaking his head.“The easiest way to keep us underground is by keeping the many parts of the network separate.I—,”
Kastan leaned in and pressed his lips on Jihan’s cheek.Jihan stopped talking and held still.Kastan, remembering that the imperial palace had too many interested ears murmured in Jihan’s ear.
“Let’s talk about your network when we are at Silver Shore Valley.I promise to help you find a way to protect them all.”
Jihan relaxed and leaned into him, resting his chin on Kastan’s shoulder.Kastan tagged his hand out of Jihan’s hold and wrapped his arms around him.He rubbed Jihan’s back, his fingers tangling in silky black hair and a red ribbon that reminded him of the red string of fate.His heart ached in the sweetest of ways and he decided to ask a question he had wondered about for weeks.
“Why did you leave me at Kin Town?” Kastan asked.“I woke up after a wonderful night and you were gone, Jihan.Do you know I spent all those weeks looking for you?”
“How did you find the estate?” Jihan asked.
“Your eagles,” Kastan said, reaching up to untie the ribbon holding the circlet in place.
Once it was free, he let go of Jihan and moved back to take the circlet off.He didn’t like the slight red bruises on Jihan’s forehead from the metal on the circlet.
Jihan reached up to rub at the bruised skin, and Kastan took his hand hostage.He blew on the red skin on Jihan’s forehead and shook his head.
“Don’t wear things that will hurt you again,” Kastan said, hovering his fingers over the red marks.“We should find an alternative if you must wear it.”
“The circlet was a gift from your sister,” Jihan said, taking the headdress and studying it.“She asked me to marry you with an open mind.”
“I did,” Jihan said, surprising Kastan.He placed the circlet over the headboard, and turned to look at Kastan.“I left you in Kin Town because your sister joined you at the border.She was actively searching for my network and since I didn’t know what they wanted, I had to protect my people.If she found me there, I would have had no choice but to cave to His Majesty’s demands.”
“You still ended up here with me,” Kastan pointed out.
“Yes,” Jihan nodded, looking around the red curtains of their bed.“But you only have me, and my people are safe.We were too exposed in Kin Town.I would not have been able to hide them from Kyra fast enough.”
“You could have written me a note,” Kastan said, oddly annoyed.“I don’t know what was worse, the silence or you walking away so easily.”
“It wasn’t easy,” Jihan said.“I—,”
Jihan broke off and stared at their clasped hands on his lap.
“You are Imperial Prince and Duke Silver.I’m a common merchant.I didn’t think I would get to keep you even if I stayed and begged to follow you to Silver Shore Valley.”
Kastan smiled at that, and breathed out relief.At least he wasn’t alone in his affections.Jihan felt something for him.It was more than enough to give him hope.
“I would have let you come with me,” Kastan said, making Jihan look up at him.“If you’d begged to follow me, I would have let you.”
Jihan gave a soft chuckle and shook his head.“Instead, you followed me.”
“I did,” Kastan said, then asked a question he had hoped to avoid for the rest of his life but just couldn’t.“What about Swallow?Temu says you looked close.I believe him as I doubt you would entrust your precious sister with someone you didn’t care about.”
Jihan squeezed Kastan’s hand.
“Swallow is married to a lovely woman.She’s pregnant, as we speak,” Jihan said.
“Yes, but he was your lover at one time,” Kastan insisted.“Do you still have feelings for him?”
Jihan frowned, looking thoughtful.It gave Kastan a bad taste in his mouth.
“I love him as my best friend, Kastan,” Jihan said, giving him a reason to breathe easier.“Swallow has supported my family for ages.He helped build our business and protected Andiya when I couldn’t.He saw me grow up.He’s important to me.”
“I can do all those things for you too,” Kastan said, hit with inexplicable jealousy.
It came at him hard.Born from the clear warmth and affection Jihan had for this Swallow when he spoke.
Jihan chuckled and reached up to touch Kastan’s crown, tracing his fingers over Kastan’s forehead and the frown lines there.
“Are you jealous?” Jihan asked, with wide eyes.
“No.” Kastan shook his head, unable to hide his annoyance.
Jihan laughed and fell back on his pillows.
“Duke Silver surprises me at every turn.Swallow hasn’t kissed me for three years now.He let me go when he found his wife.I have since moved on.”
“Then, he hurt you.”
The pain of old separation still lingered.It was all over Jihan’s face.Jihan shrugged as though to shake it off.
“We all get hurt by love,” Jihan murmured.
Kastan agreed, thinking of the betrayal he had felt when Jihan left him at Kin Town.The endless weeks of Jihan hiding and staying at Kamran Estate.Kastan had worried he would never get to have this moment.Yet, somehow, all that waiting felt worth it for this moment, he decided.Jihan was now his to keep for a lifetime.He would make Jihan forget all the hurt he carried.
Kastan smiled at the thought and took in Jihan.
“There’s one thing we haven’t done,” Kastan said, reaching for the belt he had placed around Jihan’s waist today.“It must be done well otherwise we’ll have bad luck in our marriage.”
“What’s that?” Jihan asked, sitting up and making it easy for Kastan to remove the gold belt.
“Consummate our union,” Kastan said.
He flung the belt away, and captured Jihan’s lips in a kiss.He took in Jihan’s surprised gasp and sipped at Jihan’s lips before he deepened their kiss making Jihan cling to him.
Jihan met his kiss and returned it with equal hunger.
It was all Kastan needed.Tortured by weeks of waiting for this moment, Kastan felt crazed with need.He wanted to feel Jihan’s skin, and sink his cock into him just to get back his sanity.He tugged at robes, pulling on ties, tearing at them when they caught and refused to part, until they were both naked.
He broke their kiss, trailing his lips along Jihan’s cheek to his neck where he bit into the curve of Jihan’s shoulder.He grunted with satisfaction when Jihan arched into him and his fingers dug into Kastan’s back.There was nothing headier than Jihan wanting him back.He moaned when Jihan started his own exploration.Gentle fingers caressing down his back, sliding to his waist, a bold hand slipping between them.Kastan braced his hands above Jihan as those gentle fingers circled around his cock.He was swollen with need and Jihan’s touch added to the maddening heat.He met Jihan’s gaze.
“I’ve been weeks without you.”Kastan warned with a hiss when Jihan stroked him.“I don’t think I can take it slow.”
Jihan brought his free hand up to tag Kastan down to him.
“I don’t want you to be,” Jihan murmured, then fit his lips to Kastan’s in a kiss.
It felt like coming home when he sunk himself into Jihan, gasping as his cock was engulfed in white-hot heat, listening to Jihan’s passion filled moans.Kastan held on to his consort and lost himself on their quest for pleasure.
Jihan shifted on comfortable sheets, loving the feel of them on his skin.He ached in secret places, his cock filling at the memory of why he ached.Kastan had taken him like a man possessed and he had loved every minute of it.
Three days ago, he had been angry with Kastan and the imperial family.Now, he was high on lust and old affection for Kastan.
It felt good having someone who could bring him to ecstasy with dedicated determination.It felt satisfying to come hard when Kastan took him, possessed him and left him with no doubt that he was wanted.He enjoyed Kastan’s drugging kisses, and the way Kastan held him as if he mattered.
He was a brazen fool for wanting to hold on to this mad ecstasy and he wasn’t sorry about it.
Jihan had missed Kastan in their separation.
He shifted his head on Kastan’s chest, tangling his hair in Kastan’s fingers.Their red quilt on the floor, their sheets tangled around their feet.Kastan watched him, as he ran his fingers through Jihan’s hair, the motion soothing.
“When I first saw you,” Kastan said after a while.“I wanted to see what you looked like naked wearing nothing but your hair. I’m a lucky man to have you in my bed.”
Jihan blushed and shifted on his right side, looking up at Kastan.Kastan continued arranging Jihan’s hair over Jihan's arm, making the long strands cover his stomach.
“You have a curious obsession with hair,” Jihan said with a small smile.
“Not any hair,” Kastan corrected.“Yours, Jihan.”
Jihan reached up to trace his thumb over Kastan’s scar.
“Will you ever tell me how you got this?”
“No,” Kastan said, shaking his head.
“Because,” Kastan grinned.“I would prefer it if you thought I got it during a battle.”
Jihan chuckled and dropped his hand away with a short caress.
“Meaning you got it elsewhere.Kas, your pride is showing,” Jihan teased.
Kastan’s fingers stilled in his hair, and Jihan looked at him to find him staring.
“It’s the first time I’ve heard you call my nickname,” Kastan said.“Kyra is the only other person who dares.”
“Do you like it when people call your nickname?”
“Sometimes,” Kastan said, bunching Jihan’s hair and letting it go.“My mother used to call me Kas.In a way, hearing that name reminds me of the simpler times, when I was young and didn’t know responsibility to the empire.”
Jihan then realized that he didn’t really know much about Kastan’s mother.The empire’s founding father was over documented, but the emperor’s mother remained a mystery.
“What was your mother like?” Jihan asked, wanting to know.
Kastan kept his silence for a while and Jihan wondered if he had asked a sensitive question.
Jihan didn’t like talking about his parents either.But that was because they disappointed him more times than he dared say.
“My Ma had a beautiful smile,” Kastan said, his tone lost in memory.“I remember her cooking in a kitchen at the house we lived in when I was no more than five.It’s a faint memory, but it always fills me with joy when I think of it.Kiyan and I would be watching Kyra in the courtyard.When food was ready, she called our names.‘Kiyan, Kas, bring the baby.Come eat.’Kiyan would pick up Kyra and we would run to the house.She would laugh hard when she saw us and do her best to hug us all at once.”
Kastan smiled and shook his head.
“The memory is old, but it’s the best one I have of her,” Kastan said.“When we moved into the palace, I didn’t get to meet her as much.Pa wanted us in training all the time.She died when Kyra turned three.We didn’t know that her health was deteriorating at the time.My father said she had a hard time carrying Kyra to term and after Kyra’s birth, her health got worse.We all had a hard time after she was gone.”
“Why is she not written in the records books?The people don’t know about her,” Jihan said.
“It was a decision my father made.Our private records have her name and her lineage,” Kastan said.“But, my father was very protective of her and wanted to keep her memory intact and pure.You see, he loved her dearly and losing her broke a part of him.We did our best to keep the memory of her alive for Kyra but it wasn’t enough.Kyra calls me Kas, because I once said that I remember Ma calling me that.”
Jihan pressed a kiss on Kastan’s chest.He wrapped his arm around Kastan sensing hidden grief.
“Kas,” he said.“What is your mother’s name?Will you tell me?”
“If you wish it,” Kastan said, stroking his fingers through Jihan’s hair.“Shana Miran.She was Empress for less than a year, so she is only known for having borne three children during her reign.”
“She gave birth to three very powerful children.Her legacy is quite impressive,” Jihan mused.“Where is she buried?”
“Because, I’m your Consort, Kastan,” Jihan said.“I should pay my respects to your mother and ask for her blessing now that I’ve entered your house.”
Kastan chuckled and rubbed his back.
“Ma was a gentle soul, and would not mind you visiting her after you’ve been in my bed,” Kastan said.“Besides, it is already too late.I’ve already tied you to me and made you mine in every way that matters.She would know it with one look at you.”
“Kas,” Jihan sat up and yelped when strands of his hair tangled in Kastan’s fingers.“Stop teasing me, I’m being serious here.”
Jihan scowled at his husband, and would have moved away only to have Kastan pull him back in place.
“What’s wrong with her knowing you belong to me?” Kastan asked.
“Nothing,” Jihan said, shaking his head, hiding his face into Kastan’s shoulder.
“She would love you just as you are,” Kastan promised, wrapping his arms around Jihan. He held him tight.“Speaking of which, Jihan, I want you to know that you don’t need to impress anyone but yourself from now on.No matter the situation we find ourselves in, no matter what, do what you feel like doing.Promise me.”
Jihan lifted his head from Kastan’s shoulder to meet Kastan’s gaze.
“What about you?” Jihan asked, thinking of Kastan’s obligations to his brother.“Can I make such a promise when you’re my husband, Kas?We’re considered one.”
“Promise me,” Kastan insisted, squeezing Jihan against him.“Don’t worry about my brother.I’ll handle everything he brings on.”
Kastan sounded quite confident in his promises to deal with Kiyan, but Jihan remembered Kiyan’s gaze.
The Emperor was not an easy target.He looked like someone who got what he wanted.Jihan could see him coming after their house if they failed to deliver on expectations.Still, Kastan wanted him to do what he felt like.
“I promise,” he said, smiling at Kastan.
Kastan narrowed his gaze at him.
“Are you being serious?”
“Can’t you tell?” Jihan asked, raising his brow.
Kastan touched Jihan’s right brow, tracing the arch in a gentle caress.
“I believe you’ll do what you want,” Kastan said, “even if it’s something I don’t approve.Just don’t leave me again.I couldn’t take that.”
Jihan felt his heart slam against his chest at the simple request.His heart ached for some reason and all he could do to soothe it was kiss Kastan, kiss him to heal them both after their separation.Kisses turned to more and once again, they were wrapped in each other’s arms.
“Wake up, Jihan.”
Firuz’s voice cut through the haze of sleep, and Jihan groaned, rolling himself in the red quilt tighter.
“Come on, the Empress invited you to eat your morning meal with her,” Firuz said.“Her attendants are waiting in the hallway outside.Jihan, wake up.”
Jihan groaned, hating the idea of leaving his bed.Kastan had kept him up until the early hours of morning.Just before he faded to sleep, he remembered a kiss on his forehead and Kastan’s promise to let him sleep in.
“Kas said I could sleep in,” Jihan said.
“Your husband is on the practice grounds with his two sentinels,” Firuz said.“I’m not about to go get him to fight off the Empress’s attendants.It will look like you can’t face her alone.Jihan, come on.”
Jihan sighed and sat up, still clinging to the quilt, his hair a wrecked mess.He rubbed his eyes and winced at the sunlight streaming into the bedroom.Firuz noted his discomfort and moved to block the light.Jihan smiled and looked up at his Shadow Guard.
“You look happy,” Firuz said with a small smile, “like a contented consort.”
Jihan blushed and pushed the quilt away.He was in a light pair of sleeping trousers.Kastan must have helped him wear them.He couldn’t remember.Pushing his hair out of his eyes, Jihan started to get out of bed, only to stop when he heard Firuz’s gasp.He turned to find Firuz staring at him.
“Did he-he do that to you?” Firuz asked, pointing at his left shoulder.
Jihan frowned and looked to his left.He saw the red mark on his shoulder, and remembered Kastan’s mouth sucking on his skin when Jihan took him all in.Heat flooded his cheeks and he got off the bed.He rushed to the mirror by the dressing table, and pushed his hair to one side.His neck was full of red marks, unmistakable love marks and there was no way to hide them.
“We were all at the wedding,” Firuz said, behind him.“He didn’t have to make his claim so darned obvious.”
“They are for me,” Jihan said, touching the darkest one on the curve of his shoulder and neck.
Kastan seemed on a strange mission to remind him that they were now bound for life.
“I better get dressed,” Jihan said with a sigh.“The Empress is waiting.”
Thirty minutes later, bathed and dressed in his day clothes, Jihan followed the Empress’s attendants out of Kastan’s auxiliary palace.
Firuz walked next to him, still fuming over the marks Kastan had left on Jihan.One of them was clear above Jihan’s collar.Firuz had searched his clothes trying to find a scarf to hide it, without success.
“Stop smiling so hard,” Firuz said, reaching out to tag on Jihan’s collar.
The red outer coat Jihan wore was a new version of the one he had worn when he arrived at the palace.He was still very curious about the fabric made in the royal factory.He had thought to ask the Emperor, but the man did not look open to discussion.Jihan had decided he could wait until he discovered who worked with the weavers.
Jihan took Firuz’s hand and squeezed it.
“Stop worrying,” Jihan said.“My husband left those marks on me.It’s perfectly reasonable to show them off.”
Firuz gaped and the two attendants ahead giggled hard.
Jihan clasped his hands behind his back, as he walked, his steps light.The sun was up and he was in a great mood this morning.
Firuz swept a lock of Jihan’s hair over his shoulder obscuring the visible love mark and Jihan chuckled at Firuz’s obvious concern.
The empress’s attendants led Jihan to the back of the main palace.
The path they took had a ton of palace staff who stepped aside as he passed and gave Jihan little nods in greeting.Jihan acknowledged each one, unused to the attention. He wondered if it was busy hour on this path.He was aware that most of them just wanted to have a good look at an Imperial Prince Consort.
Kastan had made an interesting decision marrying him.It was not common for a prince to choose to marry a man, instead of a woman.
Jihan had only heard of the custom in the old kingdoms and but not in the new empire.Then again, Kastan was setting precedent for future generations.Jihan sighed as he greeted a new influx of staff on the way around the palace to what looked like a workshop.
The heavy scent of spices drifted into Jihan’s nostrils and he sneezed.The reaction was immediate, as he smelled pepper in the air.He stopped to sneeze and get it out of his system.
When it was over, his nose was irritated and his eyes were teary.Getting a handkerchief from his pocket, he wiped his eyes and looked to Firuz.Firuz gave him a concerned glance and he shook his head.
The empress’s attendants slid the workshop doors open, inviting him in.Jihan wiped his eyes and blew his nose hard hoping to control his reaction to pepper.When he was sure he was okay, he clutched the handkerchief in his left hand and entered the workshop.
Firuz followed him, glaring at the attendants who tried to stop him.The attendants stepped back, not wanting to tangle with a shadow guard.Jihan forgot his irritated nose when he saw the large tables in the workshop.There was an assembly line workflow.Fresh herbs set out to dry.The dry herbs bundled in a bunch and then sent to packaging or grinding worktables to make powders.The staff was made up of women dressed in flowy dresses made of silk, all designed to keep them cool in the busy workshop.
Jihan slowed his steps taking it all in, his gaze lingering over the final product.The ground herbs were packed into neat green bags made with parchment paper and secured with twine.Each package was marked with care.Jihan was enchanted by the setup.His business sold healing herbs but never herbs for use in the kitchen.
Why had he never thought of selling cooking herbs?
“Prince Consort has finally made an appearance,” a soft feminine voice said, drawing his attention to a dais set up in the farthest corner of the workshop.
A large lounge chair was set before a low table holding a grinding stone.Comfortable stools were set around the low table.Sitting on one of those stools was the Empress Rushi.
She was a petite woman, plain-faced with dark hair flowing down her back. She made up for her lack of height with attitude.Jihan wondered if it would be rude to congratulate her on how straight her back was as she sat on that stool.She was dressed to impress in a deep green gown.The colors of the groom’s family were still required on the day after the wedding.The fabric of her dress was in excess as it flowed around her stool, sweeping the gleaming wood floors.
When Jihan got closer to the low table, he brought his right hand to his chest and bowed his head.
“Jihan greets Her Imperial Majesty and wishes her a good morning,” Jihan said, sneaking a glance at her.
Rushi stopped grinding the herbs she had under her grinding stone and looked up at him.Her gaze was cursory.She did not find him a threat, which was a plus, Jihan decided.
“You’re very beautiful for a man,” Rushi said.“I suppose I can see the appeal Kastan has for you.I heard you are a merchant.What do you think of this spice workshop?”
Jihan absorbed the jab about Kastan’s preferences and made a show of looking around the workshop.
“Her Imperial Majesty’s workshop is very impressive.Do you sell these herbs?” Jihan asked.
Rushi glanced at him in shock as though he had insulted her at the suggestion.
“We use them in our imperial kitchens,” Rushi said, her tone enough to tell him she thought his opinion of selling too unrefined.“The imperial kitchen cooks for a large number of people on a daily basis.Our spice workshop supplements their meals, and makes sure we always have a constant supply.”
“Oh,” Jihan said, looking around the busy workshop.What an idea though.He wondered if he could replicate the same setup out there, either at Kamran, or maybe Silver Shore.Fresh herbs were easy to get, packaging them for food would be interesting to some.
“May I ask Prince Consort a question?” Rushi asked, bringing his attention back to the present.
“Yes, Your Majesty,” Jihan said, with a small nod.
“How is it possible for a merchant to gain the trust of a shadow guard when an Empress cannot?”
Jihan clasped his hands behind his back, and gave Firuz a short glance.Shadow Guards were notorious for being very discriminating when they chose a charge.Jihan had long decided never to pry into their secrets.Firuz never shared much about the process of selection.
“I chose Master Jihan when he was too young to understand the reasons himself,” Firuz answered.
Rushi glanced at Firuz, and for a moment, Jihan thought he read envy in her eyes.The moment disappeared as fast as it appeared, and then she was studying the rosemary herbs under her grinding stone.
“Shadow Guards remain a mystery,” Rushi said, with a sigh.“There are now two in the family.Queen Kyra’s and now Prince Consort.I wonder if the next generation in this family will be lucky to gain a shadow guard’s loyalty.”
Was she talking about her sons?
Imperial Princes were taught to fight shadow guards at the very least ghost warriors.When they couldn’t hold up in the fight, they had tons of ghost warriors to protect their lives.Why was Rushi so concerned?He wished he had brought Kastan along to this inquiry.He certainly knew more about training princes than Jihan.
Jihan heard Firuz clear his throat, and he brought his attention to Rushi who was watching him with an expectant gaze.
“I’m sure they will be very lucky,” Jihan said, only to get giggles from the attendants taking the finished herbs in response.
“Her Majesty wonders if you would like to take herbs to your new home for your table.” Firuz said, making Jihan’s gaze widen.
“Are you saying my herbs will be lucky to be on your dining table?” Rushi asked, pushing.
Jihan cursed inside and smiled at the Empress.
“I mean that we will be very lucky to have spices made by Her Majesty on our table,” Jihan said, hoping that saved him from his blunder.
“You’re an interesting man,” Rushi said, getting up from her stool.
Jihan stepped back to keep a distance from her.Rushi adjusted the skirts of her dress and smiled at him.
“Did you know your mother visited us before your wedding?She asked me to watch out for you in our imperial palace.I told her I understood her worry.Our imperial family has so many rules and expectations.Naturally, as Empress, I should make sure you are able to keep up.”
Jihan fought the urge to roll his eyes.
Rushi had missed a mark if she thought mentioning his mother would make him do anything.Laner Kamran was a follower.She would never request anything of an Empress.She wasn’t brave enough to do it.So, all that Rushi had said was a lie.
“Her Majesty is generous,” Jihan said, keeping his tone light.“I will be glad to discuss this matter with my husband first.We just married and I don’t want to overstep.”
“Prince Consort has his place in Imperial Prince’s house,” Rushi said.“You will be in charge of managing Imperial Prince’s household while he handles matters of state.You will tend to Prince Rashan too.It is not that hard to see how overwhelming your task will be and it’s best if you lean on someone with experience to help you cope.Don’t be afraid to count on me, Prince Consort.”
Jihan gave an internal scoff.Did he truly look like a weakling for her to make this suggestion to his face?Biting back a bitter remark, Jihan gave her a short nod.
“Jihan thanks Her Imperial Majesty for her kindness,” he said, keeping his tone polite.“I promise that if my husband agrees, I will come running for aid at once.”
Rushi glared at him and Jihan hoped she would not offer him food.He doubted he could swallow it.Her gaze made him edgy and her intentions were all too clear.He could see the wheels turning in her head as she tried to find a way to control him.
“Prince Consort is really here,” Kyra’s voice filled the room, and Jihan turned in relief, insanely glad to see her.
She was also in green, a lighter color than the sparkling dress she had worn the day before.Kyra smiled and rubbed her hands in a show of excitement.
“I’ve been looking for you all over the palace.I had no idea that Her Imperial Majesty would also be eager to meet you today.You’re so popular,” Kyra said, taking Jihan’s right arm when she reached him.She stepped back and took in his outfit.“Look at that, you’re so handsome this morning too.You’re glowing with happiness.I think its mission accomplished on Kastan’s wedding, don’t you agree, Sister In-law?”
Kyra turned to Rushi with an expectant look.
Jihan wanted to cling to Kyra when Rushi turned away from them and moved to sit on the elegant chaise.She made a show of arranging her skirts before she gave Kyra a very forced smile.
“Queen Kyra is always so optimistic in the morning,” Rushi said.“Why are you looking for Prince Consort?”
“Because, we’re all leaving the palace today and I want to give him something,” Kyra said, squeezing Jihan’s hand.“We might not see each other for a few months.Unless,” Kyra turned to Jihan, “you can convince Kas to bring you to Tanad Kingdom.Oh, I would love to have you over.”
“I’ll have to talk to Kas first.”
“Of course,” Kyra said, with a nod.“The war just ended and your Silver Shore is carrying the weight of the war expenses.I’ll see if I can arrange a visit to see you in your new home.I’m sure Rashan will enjoy playing with his cousin when I bring my son.”
Jihan nodded and relaxed when Kyra patted his arm.She turned to Rushi, this time her smile disappearing.
“May I steal Prince Consort from you?” Kyra asked, her tone hard, she was not asking to take Jihan.Merely, stating that she was taking Jihan along.
“Queen Kyra may do whatever she pleases,” Rushi answered with a wave of her hand. “Prince Consort, I’ll make sure the attendants get you that spice package for your table.”
“Her Imperial Majesty is very generous,” Jihan said, and brought his hand to his chest bowing his head.
Kyra did not give him time to say more.She took his right hand and led him out of the workshop with fast steps.She did not talk until they entered the main palace and had reached a spectacular courtyard decorated with red roses growing in large white pots.
Kyra stopped and turned to look at Jihan.
“Are you okay?” she asked.
She swept her palm over Jihan’s shoulders removing invisible specks, a frown creasing her forehead.
“I wasn’t late, was I?” Kyra asked, her voice filled with concern.
“No, you were on time,” Firuz said, relief clear in his voice.
Kyra nodded and smiled at Firuz.
“It was smart of you to let my shadow guard know,” Kyra said.“He came running to get me instead of sending a message to Kas.That would have taken longer.”
“Thank you for your assistance,” Firuz said, giving her a short bow before he stepped back.
“Rushi is not the friendliest family member,” Kyra told Jihan, pushing the lock of hair over his shoulder to his back.
She grinned when she noted the large love mark on Jihan’s neck.
“It’s a good thing you knew to hide that.She would have needled you over it out of jealousy.”
“You’re not what I expected,” Jihan said, surprised that he liked Kyra.She seemed like the most decent relative Kastan had.
“What were you expecting?” Kyra asked, grinning at him.
“I don’t know,” Jihan said, clasping his hands behind his back.He kicked the ground with his white boots, the red embroidery on them a startling contrast.He remembered running from Kin Town afraid of meeting Kyra.Now they were family.
“You’ve been good to me twice now,” Jihan said, remembering her advice before his wedding.“Plus, you just saved me from the Empress.I wasn’t sure what I should say to her.She kept calling me Prince Consort.I have never heard so many Prince Consorts in one comment.”
Kyra laughed, and then leaned closer to whisper in Jihan’s ear.
“She insists on using our titles to address us,” Kyra said.“Imperial Prince for Kastan and Queen Kyra for me, there are times I stare at her in awe.It can’t be easy keeping that up.”
Jihan sighed, the sound accompanied by his stomach growling loud enough to embarrass him.He pressed his right hand on his stomach with a hard blush and a mortified expression on his face.
“She promised me food,” Jihan said, when he met Kyra’s surprised gaze.“I didn’t get any but I’m not sad about it.I was too nervous to eat.”
Kyra burst out into another laugh, filling the courtyard with the sound of it.She was beautiful when she laughed.Her spirit so carefree, she reminded him of Andiya.His stomach growled again, and Kyra took his left arm.
“You poor thing,” Kyra said, heading into a corridor that led to the west side of the palace.
Along the way, Kyra gave him a detailed tour, explaining rooms and their uses when she could.There were turns that left Jihan hoping that Firuz had memorized them.He had no hope of getting back to Kastan’s palace on his own.
Kyra led him down another long corridor and opened a door.The scent of food hit him hard, and his appetite almost had him shaking with hunger.They had entered a neat dining room.
“These are my personal living quarters.I had breakfast prepared for you and Kas,” Kyra said, leading Jihan to a chair at the small table.“I’d just asked my attendants to invite you over when my shadow guard brought me news of Rushi calling you. Rushi moved faster. Sit, Jihan, relax.Rushi won’t send anyone here.”
The next hour was pure fun with Kyra. She talked about his business and her family in Tanad Kingdom.How it was like for her to get used to living in Tanad Kingdom and then, falling in love with her husband.
“It wasn’t easy,” Kyra said, pushing a plate of sliced apples to Firuz and her shadow guard.“I had a hard time getting used to Tanad customs and wanted to return home.But I was married, and my husband tried his best to make sure I was comfortable.In time, I fell in love with him and we got a son.”
“You sound happy,” Jihan said, drinking his tea.“Do you miss them?”
“I miss them very much,” Kyra said.“I wished I could bring them here with me, but we were facing a war. It was better for me to come alone.Speaking of sons, Jihan, I really want you to meet my Byul.He is so cute.I just want to keep hugging him but he won’t let me anymore.He says he is too grown up now.I don’t know how to tell him that I’ll always see him as my baby.”
Jihan laughed charmed by Kyra.
Later, Firuz led the way back to Kastan’s auxiliary palace.Jihan walked up the front steps and paused when he saw Kastan pacing outside the front doors.His husband was dressed in dark travel robes, his deep red cloak sweeping the ground as he paced.Kastan wore his sword belt and the silver vambraces he wore glinted in the mid-morning sun.Kastan clenched his hands in fists and shook his head.
Jihan smiled and hurried up the steps, his heart skipping when Kastan saw him and changed direction heading for him.
“Kas,” Jihan started, only to have the air squeezed out of him when Kastan grabbed him in a desperate hug.
“Are you alright?” Kastan asked, holding Jihan tight against him.“I swear if she touched you, I’ll find her right now and we can have it out.”
“Kas,” Jihan said, wrapping his arms around Kastan.
“I shouldn’t have left you alone this morning.I should have stayed and then they wouldn’t have sent people to get you,” Kastan said, his voice sounding shaky.
“Nothing happened,” Jihan said, doing his best to pull back but getting nowhere when Kastan tightened his arms around him.So, he leaned up and pressed his lips to Kastan’s left temple and whispered into Kastan’s ear.
“Kas, calm down,” Jihan said.“Kyra came on time; Firuz sent for her, as she was closer and would move faster.The Empress did nothing to me other than give spices for our table.”
Kastan breathed out in relief, squeezed him once more and leaned back to study him.
Jihan smiled wide and reached up to rub out the frown lines on Kastan’s forehead.
Kastan kept his right arm around Jihan as he took Jihan’s hand with his left, pressing a kiss on Jihan’s palm.
“Stop smiling.I was so worried, I thought something would happen to you,” Kastan said.
“You could have come to mount a rescue.I would have thought it very sexy,” Jihan teased.
“My not coming made you look strong,” Kastan started to explain.“If I had shown up…”
Jihan pressed his fingers over Kastan’s lips.
“I know,” Jihan said with a small smile. “It’s over, Kas.There was no damage to us.”
“If there was any damage, I would expect you to call me,” Kastan said, then turned to Firuz who stood a few feet away.“You make sure I get news about him in time.”
“Yes, Your Grace,” Firuz said with a nod.
Jihan sighed and patted Kastan’s shoulder.
“We should leave this place now, before they think up another way to get me to meet Her Imperial Majesty.”
Kastan grinned and kissed Jihan, a lingering kiss on his lips.
“My consort is right. The horses and carriages are ready.I’ve said goodbye to all that need to hear it.I’ve gained what I wanted in this palace,” Kastan said. “We should go, Rashan is waiting for us.”
“What are you looking at?” Andiya asked Jihan when they were on the road that would take them to Silver Shore Valley and Kamran Estate for Andiya.
Jihan had chosen to ride in the carriage so that he could spend time with Andiya.Kastan was riding a horse, leading the unexpected large convoy.Firuz rode alongside their carriage.
Jihan held the dark box Kyra had given him as a gift.It was open on his lap to reveal a neat book bound with leather.Taking the book out, Jihan untied the leather straps to reveal the pages.
“Kyra gave it to me as a wedding gift,” Jihan said, looking at his sister.“It’s a journal on how to keep a noble household.Do you think she’s worried I’ll fail at running her brother’s house?”
Andiya chuckled and reached for a purple bag she had boarded the carriage holding.She held it out to Jihan and sat with her hands clasped on her lap when he took it.
“It will take time to get used to being related to the imperial class.My gift is not as fancy as Queen Kyra’s,” Andiya said, with a nervous laugh.
“I love your gifts more,” Jihan said.
They were the best compared to those of his in-laws.The Empress had given him spices, which were stowed away with the rest of the gifts for their wedding.Jihan tried not to think of the Emperor’s gift.His was verbal, and sounded more like an order.Kiyan had pulled him into a short hug before he boarded the carriage and it had almost given Jihan a heart attack.
Kiyan wanted him to work hard at making Silver Shore Valley profitable.
‘Rael of the royal bureau of investigation will reach out to you, as needed.Meanwhile, I charge you with making Kastan a wealthy man,’ Kiyan said into his ear.‘It is my wish that he is able to sustain our imperial palace.Don’t disappoint me, Prince Consort Jihan.I can’t wait to see what you can do.’
Jihan shuddered at the knowing glance Kiyan gave him when he let go.It reminded Jihan that his marriage came with consequences and burdens.Andiya spoke as though noting his mood.
“You were always gone at Kamran Estate.You spent your time worrying about how to make money, dealing with the business and all that.You never got to stay at home enough,” Andiya said, her tone that of an older sister advising her younger sibling.
Jihan placed Kyra’s box on the bench next to him and opened the bag his sister gave him.Inside was a smaller book bound with fine cloth.The pages looked new, and it was thick, which meant Andiya had spent considerable time putting it together.Jihan opened the cover and found an inscription on the first page.
‘For Jihan’s household, so that he may always have a warm home.’
“I don’t know about complicated political and business matters,” Andiya continued.“But I know about running a household.Making sure everyone has good food in the morning, at lunch and evening.Making sure there are clean clothes to wear and keeping household finances.You’re Consort to an Imperial Prince.You’ll now have a large household to manage.There is staff, suppliers, guests and your husband’s status to manage.You need a plan so that you don’t drown under pressure.”
“Andiya,” Jihan started, awed by the careful notes he found in the book she gave him.
“Your sister won’t be there to help you,” Andiya said, scooting closer to him.She took his hand and squeezed.“You only have Firuz to rely on when things get hard.I’ve written down all I know, all I’ve done for our home and what I learned from Ma when she was with us.If a situation seems impossible, Jihan, you can write me.There is still Yoru who will get the message to me very fast.I’ll do my best to help you solve the problem.”
Jihan felt tears fill his eyes as he stared at his sister.Andiya continued her sage advice about running a large household.Warnings like watch out for the women who will surely come to tempt the husband, and suppliers who try to deliver less pounds of flour.Jihan listened to it all, clutching her book with one hand as she held his other hand.When she was done, she pulled him into a tight hug.
Andiya patted his back.
“Kastan is too striking for his own good,” Andiya said.“He also has too much power, and is a warrior.He has been good to you as a lover.You’re now a consort, which is different.If he tries to bully you, don’t sit back and let him, An.You push back, and hold your own.If you think he’ll break you as it sometimes happens, come home to Kamran Estate.You’ll always have a place there.Promise me.”
“Andiya,” Jihan started to protest.
She tightened her arms around him and shook him.
“Promise me now,” Andiya said.“You promise me that you’ll come home to Kamran Estate if you can’t bear it anymore.Do it, An.”
Jihan closed his eyes and felt the tears he held in fall.The carriage came to a stop and he buried his face into her shoulder.It seemed like they had come to the intersection of roads, one road going to Kamran, the other to Silver Shore Valley.Jihan breathed in, then out, wondering when he would feel Andiya hug him again.
Would he get to see his nephew or niece born?
“I promise,” he murmured to Andiya, knowing he might break it. After all, he had promised Kastan he would not leave.
“Good,” Andiya said, rubbing his back.“We’ve never had anyone but each other at Kamran.Your title means there will be more troublesome happenings for both of us.I promise to get stronger, Jihan.”
Jihan hugged Andiya back.
Firuz knocked on the carriage door, making Jihan’s heart squeeze with anxiety.He pressed a kiss on Andiya’s cheek and moved to place the book she had given him in the box Kyra gifted him.Firuz knocked again, and opened the door this time, peeping in.
“It’s time, Jihan,” Firuz said.“Andiya, will you step out for a bit.His Grace wants to talk to you.I’ll help you down.”
Andiya squeezed Jihan’s shoulder, and then got up moving to the door so that Firuz could help her step out of the carriage.Jihan wiped his eyes, and took in deep breaths to control his emotions.Gulping in air, he blew it out when Firuz peeped in again.
“Are you coming?Your husband is getting worried,” Firuz said.
Jihan picked up the box and moved to the door, hugging the box tight when he stepped down the carriage.The sun was high above them.Jihan stood staring in awe as he watched Kastan take Andiya’s hand and tuck it into the crook of his arm.They walked together, heading to the back of the carriage.
Jihan followed them, curious as to what Kastan wanted to tell his sister.
“I know we haven’t had the best experiences with each other,” Kastan was saying when Jihan caught up with them.“My men were rough with you when we first met.”
“That’s an understatement,” Andiya said.“You pointed a sword at my brother.”
Kastan winced at the bitter note in Andiya’s voice.
“I was wrong,” Kastan said.“I should never have done that but I was jealous and lost my mind that night.Let’s think of it as the past.”
“Swallow is old news,” Andiya said, making Jihan bite back a chuckle.“Had you asked me nicely, I would have told you that An was pining for you for weeks.”
“Andiya,” Jihan said, compelled to stop her from exposing him.
“Tell me more,” Kastan said, patting Andiya’s hand where she clutched his left elbow.
Andiya laughed and she winked at Jihan.
“I’ll let you discover those truths on your own,” Andiya said.“Duke Silver, what are we doing?”
“We’re family now, Andiya.I know Jihan worries most about you.I want to ease his mind by giving you a unit of ghost warriors loyal to Silver Shore to help keep you safe.”
“We have always had them invading, never had some on our side.Are you sure about this?I mean this is—,” Andiya started to protest.
“Don’t refuse them,” Kastan said, stopping before men dressed in full black riding at the back.“Their main priority is keeping you, your husband and children safe.If you need to use them to reach me, do it.I’ll drop everything and come running to Kamran Estate.”
“Your Grace, surely, you can’t be that idle,” Andiya said, her surprise hard to miss.
“I’m taking away your little brother,” Kastan said, looking at Jihan.“I’m just making sure he’ll be able to sleep without worrying.So, don’t hesitate to ask for my help. I’ll come running.”
Andiya shook her head at Kastan’s words and turned to the unit of ghost warriors who faced her and bowed as one.Kastan and Andiya talked a few more minutes and then it was time for Andiya to leave.
Kastan helped Andiya back into her carriage.
“Write me,” Andiya told Jihan, pausing at the carriage door.
“I will,” Jihan promised.“Take care of yourself and the baby.”
Andiya nodded and waved.She entered the carriage and pulled back the curtains at the window so she could lean out.Kastan gave a nod and the ghost warriors moved into place, to protect the carriage.Andiya smiled at Jihan and panic filled him.
“Andiya,” he said, his voice barely above a whisper as he took a step forward.
She waved and his hands couldn’t move to tell her goodbye.It was strange not going home with her.It was worse watching her leave him with a smile on her face.
Kastan moved closer and placed his arm over Jihan’s shoulders, waving at Andiya on Jihan’s behalf.
“You’ll get to see her again,” Kastan said.“You can visit her as much as you like.”
“Can I?” Jihan asked, clutching the box of books from Andiya and Kyra.
“Of course,” Kastan said, squeezing his shoulders.
Jihan wanted to believe him, but there was no knowing when he would have time to return to Kamran Estate.He stood watching Andiya’s carriage drive away.She leaned out the window again to look at him until she couldn’t anymore.Then all he could see were the ghost warriors and the back of the carriage.
“Do you want to keep looking?” Kastan asked.
Jihan clutched the box he held and nodded, unwilling to move.
“Alright, we’ll stay until you’re able to leave,” Kastan said, squeezing his shoulders, and moving away.
Jihan closed his eyes as Kastan sent the rest of the convoy moving, heading toward Silver Shore Valley.Jihan had taken this road thousands of times.He had never hesitated at this intersection, always taking the left side in a mad rush to get to Kamran Estate.He had never imagined there would come a time he would take the right side, heading to Silver Shore Valley.
“Should I help you mount your horse?” Firuz asked, after an inordinate amount of time.“The sun will go down soon.You can’t keep standing here.”
Jihan hugged the box he still held and shook his head, not ready to listen.
“You’re a married man now,” Firuz said.“You even have a son to take care of and you’re standing here pining after your sister.Don’t you think you’re being too much?”
Jihan slid his gaze to his shadow guard and scowled.
“I’ll stand here all night if I want,” Jihan said, annoyed.
His heart was aching with the idea that his loyalties would now have to include Silver Shore Valley.A valley full of people he did not know, and who would probably give him a hard time at first.All in the name of him marrying their master and becoming a consort.If he had to endure all of that, they could afford a few minutes for him to stare after his sister.He had protected her all his life.
“You’re sulking.It’s not pretty,” Firuz said.
“I don’t like you right now.I thought you liked Andiya?”
“She’s married now,” Firuz said.“She’s happy with Ishan.I can only support her like you.Jihan, we’re moving into a new world.Don’t hesitate like this. Otherwise, it will get harder.Look behind you.”
Firuz turned Jihan when he wouldn’t move and he blinked when he saw Kastan talking to Temu and Naveed.Kastan stood next to two horses.One was his, the other Jihan’s horse.The last of the convoy had already passed them and was in the distance.
“Those two men are Kastan’s most trusted. They take care of him and all he cares about, which now includes you. The longer you stand here looking unwilling, the more you’ll lose ground with them.From what I can tell, this hasn’t been easy for their side either, Jihan,” Firuz said.“You’re now ranked higher than them.They’ll have to take your orders.Don’t give them reasons to give you a hard time about it.”
Jihan sighed and looked in Andiya’s direction one last time.
Firuz was right.He was always right.
Jihan had no time to sulk.Even with Kastan’s ghost warriors, Jihan still needed to get stronger so that he could make sure Andiya stayed safe.There was no telling what the Emperor would do if Jihan failed to impress.Handing the box he held to Firuz, Jihan took in a deep breath and walked toward Kastan.
His husband stopped talking to Temu and Naveed and turned to face him.
“Ready?” Kastan asked.
Jihan glanced at Temu and Naveed, who had their gazes lowered and had turned away from him. It was clear his little meltdown had not impressed them. Firuz’s warning about gaining their trust filled his head.
“Yes, I’m ready,” Jihan said to Kastan.
Kastan held out his hand and Jihan took it without hesitation.Kastan helped him mount his horse and handed him the reins.When everyone was mounted on their horses, they all turned as one headed to Silver Shore Valley.
Jihan could see the excitement to get home on Temu, Naveed and even Kastan’s faces.Their eagerness made him anxious.His anxiety had him wondering what was waiting for him at Silver Shore Valley now that he was Duke Silver’s consort.
Part II is here. Sorry for the delay. There was a lot of editing on this chapter. I just realized the chapters in this story are ending up at 10k words and that's taking an insane amount of edits. The writing is fast, it's the editing that's painful. I'll keep working away.