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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 - 13. Chapter 13

Sun-filled Manor’s Messy Finances

It felt good to sit with Kastan and Rashan. Jihan listened to them talk about activities of the day. Kastan asked Rashan about his studies. Rashan talked about Master Safan and training. Kastan finished eating and Temu approached him to remind him of a meeting with the valley’s magistrate.

Jihan pushed his teacup away and watched as Rashan got up first.

“I should hurry too. I don’t want to be late to see Master Bero,” Rashan said. “Uncle Jihan, Master Bero teaches me the sciences. He has an academy in the main town. I’ll be back home in the evening. Can we have our evening meal together?”

“Absolutely,” Jihan said, glancing at Kastan before he said, “we’ll wait for you.”

Rashan beamed and Jihan wondered how often Kastan made it home for evening meals. Rashan left them with a happy wave, Safan leading the way out of the dining hall.

“Will you be home in time?” Jihan asked Kastan.

“I’ll do my best,” Kastan said, reaching for Jihan’s right hand. “Does it bother you when he calls you uncle?”

Jihan shook his head.

“It's not about me,” Jihan said. “Rashan doesn’t know me. He needs to learn to trust me in his own time.”

Kastan studied him for a moment, and then nodded.

“Alright,” Kastan said, though Jihan could see that it bothered him.

“Give him time, Kas,” Jihan said, reaching out to squeeze Kastan’s arm. “Before you leave for your meeting, I need you to check something with me. Can you spare me a few minutes?”

Kastan got up and held out his hand right hand to Jihan. Jihan placed his hand in Kastan's and turned to Firuz when he stood up.

Firuz hurried out of the dining hall to the doors leading to the kitchen.

Earlier, Yasmin had come into the dining hall to talk to Jihan. She had wanted to know what to do with the chest of spices sent by the Empress.

Jihan worried about the contents in that chest. Rushi was not his friend. She certainly did not like Kastan and thought him a threat. It would be folly to take a gift from Rushi on good faith.

Five minutes later found them in the expansive backyard of the manor. The cliffs Firuz had praised were a remarkable sight. There was a waterfall under a bridge between two steep cliffs. The river with the waterfall separated the manor from the cliff across.

Jihan wondered who lived in the cliff across. The bridge looked usable, but the height was enough to make Jihan unsure about crossing it. A fall from that bridge would end in sure death. Jihan shuddered and took in the scenery. The cliffs, while steep, were colorful and vibrant; flowers and bushes grew in wild force on different ledges. The open garden leading to the cliff was green with grass. Comfortable benches installed in little clusters around the large garden. It was perfect for a picnic or breakfast in the morning.

Jihan caught a glimpse of rooftops in the distance below. It looked like a glimpse of the town in a strange twist of geography. He could see how one might fall in love with Silver Shore Valley. The scenery healed the soul.

Water pouring into a bowl drew Jihan's attention. He dragged his gaze back to the wooden table in the middle of the garden. Firuz was putting water in five bowls he had gotten from Yasmin in the kitchen. The chest of spices from the Empress Rushi sat in the middle of the wood table.

Kastan was sat on the bench at the head of the table. Temu and Naveed stood behind him. Jihan reached up to braid his hair into a messy ponytail. He finished in time with Firuz and moved to open the chest of spices, pulling it closer to him. He pushed the lid up and stared at the yellow gauze covering the spices.

Jihan took the gauze and lodged it under the chest. Inside, he found an array of ground spices in small boxes. None of them packaged, just ready to use, the chest could be used as kitchen storage.

Jihan gave Firuz a wary glance and reached for the wooden spoon Firuz brought along with the bowls.

Jihan scooped out a spoonful of chili and poured it into the first bowl. Firuz handed him another spoon, which he used to scoop up cinnamon powder. He placed the cinnamon powder in the second bowl, and continued until he had three other bowls with sage, rosemary and ginger.

“What are we doing?” Kastan asked, curious as he leaned forward, watching Jihan help Firuz to stir the spices in their bowls.

“Are we hoping to cook with these spices later?” Naveed asked. “I’m partial to cinnamon bread.”

Jihan smiled and filed that away.

“No, we’re never cooking with these spices,” Jihan said, closing the spices chest.

“Why? They came straight from the palace,” Temu asked.

Jihan ignored the note of distrust in Temu’s voice and nodded to Firuz.

Firuz got a knife from a scabbard at his waist and used the clean water to rinse its thin sharp blade. He then held it up for Kastan to see.

“What’s that for?” Naveed asked.

“Our kind uses these knives to test for poison in food,” Firuz said. “It will detect even the slightest traces.”

Firuz dipped the blade into the cinnamon water. He lifted the blade up and Jihan sat on the bench in shock. Firuz’s blade turned into a sickening greenish color. He had hoped to be wrong.

Firuz used clean water to wash the blade and dried it on a small cloth. He then dipped it into the sage water, when the knife changed color again. Temu stepped closer to the table.

“I’m guessing the greenish color is not good news,” Temu said, his tone grim.

“The spices have traces of poison,” Kastan said, looking at Jihan. “She gave you this box?”

“Yes, the morning we left,” Jihan said. “She probably thought I wouldn’t check.”

“No one would think to,” Naveed said, also moving closer to peer into the bowls of water and spice. “It’s a gift from the Empress.”

Jihan shrugged and opened the chest again. He was careful to cover the ground powder with the yellow gauze. He didn’t want particles escaping the box. Jihan lifted the top tray and found a small scroll tucked underneath. He returned the tray, closed the box and broke the seal on the scroll.

“Imperial Prince Consort,” Jihan read aloud. “You’re either one of my people or you’re not. If you are, feeding these spices to your new husband opens a new world for you. If not, then it will be better for you to throw this box away. If I visit and find it, I’ll use it against you. Try to report this to Imperial Prince and see what happens.”

Jihan sighed and handed the note to Kastan.

Kastan read it and handed it to Temu who read it with Naveed.

Kastan folded his arms against his chest, his thoughtful gaze stayed on the bowls Firuz had prepared.

“It’s a warning,” Kastan said, after a moment of silence. “The box is not enough to confront her. The spices could have been exchanged in transit. She's flexing her power.”

“We can’t keep this gift, Kas,” Jihan said. “Not in a house with Rashan.”

Temu gave Jihan a glance filled with complicated emotions. It made him wonder what Temu thought of him, but then the look passed.

“I’ll dispose of—” Naveed started to say.

“No need,” Firuz said, lifting a large metal bucket from under the table. He placed it on the table and reached for the box. He undid it piece by piece, placing the spices in their trays in the bucket. He broke the main box into pieces and put the wood in the bucket. He then poured accelerating oil inside and lit a fire.

The wood caught fire fast and Firuz moved the metal bucket away from the table. He made sure the wind was taking away the smoke before he placed the bucket on the ground.

Jihan turned his attention to Naveed.

“This is better, that way, no one has doubts as to what happened to these spices,” Jihan said.

“Jihan,” Kastan said.

“Our sister in-law is a bully,” Jihan said, angry that she would dare threaten him using a chest full of poison.

What if he hadn’t checked it? What if he allowed Yasmin to use the spices?

Gods, he hated to think what would have happened.

“She’s the worst kind, as she prefers using insidious attacks," Jihan said. "I’m letting you know that if she comes at me…at us…I’ll not lie down and take it.”

“Can’t you let me handle this?” Kastan asked.

Jihan watched Firuz manage the burning spices.

“Kas, she tried to turn me into an assassin with a chest of poison disguised as a gift. You’re not the only one in her sights now. We need to be careful.”

Kastan sighed as Naveed placed the scroll on the table.

“Fine,” Kastan said. “But don’t try to do anything right now. The valley is recovering from the war with West Nation. We can keep a distance from the palace for a while.”

Jihan nodded and got up.

“Is that what you wanted to show me?” Kastan asked.

“Yes,” Jihan said with a shrug. “I thought it was better if we all knew what was going on.”

“I would have believed you if you dealt with it on your own,” Kastan said, holding Jihan’s gaze.

Jihan felt warmth flood him at the solid trust he read in Kastan’s gaze. It was not Kastan’s trust he was trying to win though, but that of his two loyal men.

“It worked out this way,” Jihan said. “You should head to your meeting now. It’s not good for you to be late.”

Kastan stood up too.

“What happens if I’m late?” Kastan asked, enjoying bossy Jihan.

“I’ll have to think on that,” Jihan said, trying to move closer to Firuz.

Kastan intercepted him, taking his hand and leading him closer to the cliff.

The edge of the cliff was secured with a thick half wall made with rocks. Jihan figured it was built up to keep Rashan safe.

Jihan leaned on the wall, peering over the edge of the cliff. The drop down was interesting, filled with bushes and rocks jutting out.

“Thank you,” Kastan said, moving closer and wrapping an arm around Jihan’s waist.

Kastan pulled him into his arms.

Jihan found himself pressed against Kastan, and his breath caught in his throat. He looked up into knowing dark eyes.

“None of us would have thought to check that box,” Kastan said, shaking his head, “Especially since it came from Rushi’s workshop.”

“I’m cautious because I’ve met meaner bullies,” Jihan soothed.

Kastan squeezed him with a wince.

“I don’t like to hear that you have struggled,” Kastan said with a sigh. “It makes me angry.”

Jihan chuckled and reached up to rub the frown lines on Kastan’s forehead.

“I want to ask you to take care of the household matters,” Kastan said. “Yasmin knows what is needed for the manor to run. She has tried to help with the manor's ledgers, but she can only do so much. I’m always occupied with military issues and I’ve neglected the manor’s ledgers.”

“I’ll handle it,” Jihan said.

“About your Kamran network,” Kastan said. “I want you to know that they are welcome here, Jihan.”

“We’ll talk about it when you’re not so busy,” Jihan said, thinking Kastan did not need more problems right now.

“You’re always so...” Kastan trailed off, stroking Jihan’s cheek with a finger. “You can lean on me, you know. That’s why I’m here.”

Jihan nodded, knowing Kastan was serious. Still, it was difficult to let him in all the way.

Just in case, he was wrong.

Kastan brushed his lips on his forehead.

“I’ll see you later,” Kastan said.

“Mm,” Jihan said, as Kastan let go of him. “Try to make it for the evening meal. Rashan is looking forward to it.”

“Yes, my dear consort,” Kastan said, grinning as he walked away.

*~*~*~*

The two weeks that followed Jihan's first day at Sun-filled Manor were full of discovery.

Jihan could only watch and absorb the manor’s daily rhythm. Kastan woke up at dawn, dressing for the day and heading out to deal with the daily concerns brought by officials in the valley, and daily reports from outposts around the empire.

Rashan had a set schedule for his studies too, and an intensive physical training program with Safan. He spent his mornings reading or having a lecture from guest scholars from an academy in town. His afternoons were spent on the third floor practicing or in a training field outside with Naveed and Temu.

Jihan tried to get time in with Rashan at meal times. Waking up early enough to eat his morning meal with Rashan and catch up. He hurried into the dining hall at midday. If he was lucky, he found Rashan and Safan, other times he ate alone. The only time they all met and sat together was in the evening.

Jihan loved the hours they spent in the smaller sitting area just outside the dining hall. Rashan told stories of his day. Kastan sharing any pressing concerns he might have, including Rashan in finding solutions. Sometimes, Temu and Naveed joined them. In those few hours, Jihan felt like they were becoming a family, though they hadn’t quite reached yet.

Jihan returned his attention to the records he was reading. The ledgers of Sun-filled Manor were a complicated mess. There was a book filled with Yasmin’s careful account of money she spent on kitchen supplies. Her list was the easiest to deal with as it came from money given to her by Kastan.

The rest were old ledgers ran by Jian, and then Kastan, who was too busy to keep up.

Jihan created new records as he read the old ones. He tracked money coming in and out and frowned as he stared at the short list of incoming money.

Sun-filled Manor had an interesting money route. The manor owned twenty shops on the main street in town, three farms and a salt mine. If all of them worked right, the manor would have a solid source of cash flow.

At the moment, it seemed like only six of the twenty shops brought in money for their rent. One farm was working, growing rice and nothing else. It paid its monthly dues by providing rice to the manor. The other two farms had gone quiet. Jihan wondered what had happened. The salt mine was the only steady source of income.

Jihan picked up the list of bereaved families that the manor was supposed to pay monthly. It seemed as though the manor was taking on the compensation of soldiers who had fallen during the war. Yasmin had told him that Kastan’s personal pay from the army ran most of the kitchen’s needs. Everything remaining went toward the compensation fund, including income from the salt mine.

Jihan rubbed his forehead, feeling a headache start.

The Emperor should have told him that he was to perform a miracle at Silver Shore Valley.

The state of Kastan’s finances made him want to cry.

He was lost in farmland deeds and a Silver Shore Valley map when the window opened behind him. A figure slipped into the master’s chambers dressed all in back. Jihan spared a glance at the intruder, and then returned to the maps.

“You’re going to damage your relationship with my husband,” Jihan said. “He takes protection of this manor very seriously, Set.”

Set moved to the large table Jihan was using to go through the manor’s records.

Jihan had tried different spots in the manor, including the household office downstairs. Yasmin needed to come in and out of that office during the day. His presence in that office made her nervous, so he had moved to the cozy sitting area. He had spent most of his time checking out the many books on the shelves instead of working. In the end, setting up in the master’s chambers had given him the peace he needed to concentrate on the records.

Set looked to his left and gave an impressed whistle at the sitting area with the many windows showing off the silver lake in the distance. He turned to his right and took in the large bed in the far right, with its impressive headboard. Jihan loved the tiger head carving on the headboard most.

Set shifted his gaze to Jihan and removed the covering over his mouth. He sat down in the chair opposite Jihan.

“Master Jihan, your new role suits you so well,” Set said, his grin wide as he took in Jihan’s emerald robes. “You look like royalty.”

“It’s because you’ve never seen me at home. I’m not in traveling clothes,” Jihan joked. “Every time I met you, I was going somewhere.”

“True,” Set agreed with a sigh. He was dressed light for travel.

Jihan dropped the farm invoices on the map and met Set’s gaze.

“It’s good to see you,” Jihan said, smiling at Set. “I’m assuming this is not the first time you’ve been in this compound.”

“You’re right. It’s also the first time you’ve been alone in days,” Set said with a frown. “Your husband’s Hidden Keepers are quite vigilant.”

Jihan’s brow lifted and he looked to the open window behind him. e had kept it unlatched because Firuz asked him.

“Firuz knows you’re around,” Jihan guessed, sitting back in his chair.

“Nothing gets past him,” Set shuddered. “How are you doing, Jihan? Are you okay? Should we mount a rescue? You’ve barely left this manor since you arrived.”

“There is nothing to worry about,” Jihan said. “No problems, except from the Imperial Family. And the only reason I’m not leaving is because I’m trying to understand the manor’s position in this valley.”

“You’re one of the Imperial Family now,” Set pointed out.

Jihan shrugged, still unwilling to think of being related to the Emperor and his Empress.

Set nodded and pulled out a large black bag from a bag on his back. He placed it on the invoices before Jihan with a wink.

“Your sister wanted to send Yoru, but I told her to wait. Yoru is a secret I’m not sure you’re ready to share. So, she gave me that bag for you.”

“Thank you,” Jihan said, lifting the heavy bag and placing it back on the table.

“You can count after I’m gone,” Set said. “Andiya is doing well but there are decisions to be made by you, Jihan. First, are we still keeping the network hidden? Should we return to normal business?”

Jihan worried his bottom lip for a moment, and then shook his head.

“Business may return to normal, the smaller suppliers need the business connections working,” Jihan said. “Your network of information is what the Emperor is after. I want to protect that, and your people.”

“Then, we’ll act accordingly,” Set nodded. “We have always kept to ourselves anyway, so you have nothing to worry about. As you’ve been in here, I’ve spent my time collecting information on your valley. It is financially ill. You know this, right?”

“I’m discovering it,” Jihan said, nodding to the ledgers on the table. “This manor is carrying the burden of welfare compensation.”

“Yes, the people are relying too much on that welfare office,” Set said. “Staying closed off from the outside world is stunting their growth. It is a prestigious place to live, but only if your family has a member in the army. Anyone else is dependent on welfare. You need money flowing in the villages.”

“The valley remains a command point filled with state secrets,” Jihan pointed out.

“You’re right. It doesn’t need to open its gates. The same way we get salt from the valley’s salt mine. The valley can sell its products that way,” Set said. “Garren can send a business troop and trade with interested merchants. We can set up a trading station near the valley’s gates.”

“Can Kamran afford it?” Jihan asked, thoughtful.

Garren and Andiya handled his business’s finances, leaving him to worry about logistics and new business plans.

“I believe that is why Andiya sent in that bag for you,” Set said, with a small smile. “She says you have a personal fund at your disposal if you need it. However, the bag you have there is startup capital.”

Jihan chuckled and patted the black bag.

“I guess I’ll use this startup capital to build the trade station,” Jihan said, “after I talk to Kastan.”

“Is he controlling you?” Set asked, his brow raised in question.

“No,” Jihan said, making sure his tone left no room for doubt.

Set was protective of personal freedoms. He had freed hundreds of children and women from abusive homes. Bringing them under his care and helping build his network of information. Jihan could not blame him. Set had come from a very harsh family setting. His father had controlled everything his mother did, and when she did something wrong…

Jihan sighed.

Set had lost his mother to his father’s beatings.

“My husband is kind to me, Set,” Jihan said, holding Set’s gaze. “You have nothing to worry about.”

Set took in a deep breath and let it out. He looked around the expansive master’s chambers, before he returned his gaze to Jihan.

“Garren and I were talking.”

“And?” Jihan asked, tugging open the strings on the black bag from Andiya.

He found a note inside that he pulled out, smiling when he saw the funny drawing of a laughing cat. His sister always knew how to lift his moods.

“We would like you to introduce us to Duke Silver,” Set said, making Jihan look up. “You made us, Jihan; everything I am today would not have come to be without you. It’s not fair that you have to take on the weight of protecting us alone. Let us help you.”

Jihan returned Andiya’s note into the bag and studied Set. The heavy weight resting on his shoulders tightened every time he thought about exposing his people to Emperor Kiyan.

“Duke Silver is not the problem,” Jihan felt compelled to say. “I’m in deep debt with a dragon. I’m afraid I’ll burn to a crisp at the slightest misstep. I’m only a pawn in his deadly game at the moment.”

“They still made the pawn a Prince Consort,” Set said, his tone very low. “We’ll make you worthy of their game. Please think about it. You’re not a weak pawn, Jihan.”

Firuz entered the master’s chambers, making Set look back at him.

“Your time is almost up,” Firuz told Set.

Set sighed and got up. He turned to Jihan.

“Can we send Yoru?” Set asked. “He misses you.”

“Yes,” Jihan smiled, missing Yoru too. “There is a beautiful cliff behind the manor. He would love it. I’ll wait for him in the morning.”

“Okay, give him your answer to our request to meet Duke Silver,” Set said. “It’s always better to be prepared than to defend yourself, Jihan.”

“Thank you,” Jihan said, as Set started to leave.

Set paused, looking down at the map on the table. His gaze on the three dots Jihan had marked, for the three farms owned by the manor. He pointed at the first dot, on the outskirts of the main town.

“The rice farm is understaffed,” Set said. “Their output is a quarter of what it should be. They have an invasive weed in their main pond. It makes watering a problem. They have twenty acres, but only five are in use.”

“You’ve been hard at work,” Jihan said, noting down Set’s remarks.

“Your interests are mine,” Set said, then pointed to the two dots. “These two farms are lying waste. I found old farmhouses with old caretakers. They need investment.”

Jihan nodded and Set left through the window as fast as he appeared.

Jihan turned to Firuz.

“How is it with Temu and the others?”

“They are frustrated,” Firuz said, placing a tray with a pot of tea and a cup on the table. “Have tea first. Those ledgers will still exist tomorrow.”

Jihan pressed his palm on the black bag from Andiya. He pushed the bag to Firuz.

“We don’t know enough about the valley to start pushing money in. We’ll start slow and inject money into the farms. The rest will wait to see.”

“What about Set’s suggestion?” Firuz asked, taking the bag as he sat in the chair Set had used. “It will restore some peace to Temu and Naveed. Set has been playing with them as he comes in and goes. He is also right; you don’t have to do this alone.”

Jihan rubbed his temple and looked away from Firuz. He stared at the windows, and the sunny view beyond the windows.

“I’ve been Kamran’s caretaker so long,” Jihan said, shaking his head.

Kamran was in his blood. He had protected his business so long, that it was difficult to share it even with Kastan.

“It’s not a sin to lean on him,” Firuz said, as though reading his thoughts. “You’ve done it alone too long, Jihan. Take a step in his direction. He might surprise you.”

Jihan sighed and returned his attention to the tray Firuz had brought. He reached for the teapot and poured himself a cup of tea.

“Pushing aside matters of trust, why do you think two farms are lying waste? Also, fourteen shops are not paying rent. I wonder why…”

*~*~*~*~*

Later that day, right after lunch, Kastan was at the Duke’s office handling reports from the West Nation border. His attention should have been on the number of soldiers needed to staff the checkpoints both empires had created.

Instead, his thoughts were firmly rooted on his consort.

Jihan had spent most of his time since he arrived at the manor reading ledgers, and asking Yasmin endless questions. His questions centered on running the house, and how many people it would take to make tasks in the house simpler. His questions had made Yasmin so worried about her position that she had come to look for Kastan in his office.

Kastan promised her nothing would happen to her job. When he tried to ask Jihan his thoughts on the matter, Jihan told him not to worry. He turned into the perfect lover at night, and Kastan forgot to push the matter. He could not resist a willing Jihan. He got hard thinking of Jihan’s drugging kisses. The fact that he could get them whenever he wanted now made him smile wide.

Still, Jihan was on a strange mission that he refused to share with Kastan.

This afternoon, Jihan had decided he would accompany Rashan into the main town to see where Rashan went to school.

His son was ecstatic with this news, and even offered to give Jihan a personal tour of the academy. Kastan was beyond happy at the sight of them getting along so well. It made him believe that they could be happy together.

Shaking his head, he forced his attention back on the reports on his desk. His mood lowered when he found a note from the palace. It was from Rael, who was interested in visiting the valley. He wanted to discuss the Emperor’s plan of having the valley support the palace in six months.

Kastan rubbed his forehead at the ambitious goal. He was straining all their financial resources at the moment. He truly doubted he would manage sending extra supplies to the palace, unless Jihan came up with a new plan. He pushed that thought to the back of his mind and concentrated on what he could solve.

Kastan was busy making a reply to the General in charge at the border when his door slid open and Temu ran in.

“Your Grace,” Temu said, his voice full of panic. “We need you on the main street in town. His Grace went to visit the academy with the Little Prince. All was fine, until he left with his Shadow Guard. His Grace decided to carry out an inspection of the shops owned by the manor. He ran into Ferino, the butcher—”

“Is he alright?” Kastan asked, getting up, heart pounding in his chest.

The idea of Jihan running into Ferino left him weak with worry.

Ferino was a butcher, who worked out of one of the shops owned by the manor. He was supposed to pay rent to the Duke’s office, but that had never happened as he had multiple welfare families who took meat from him on credit. Kastan had listened to his case once and thought it better never to push for rent. It would aggravate the welfare of several bereaved families.

“Ferino pushed His Grace out of the shop, which triggered the Shadow Guard. They are now fighting in the middle of the street,” Temu said. “None of us can stop a Shadow Guard, Your Grace.”

Kastan ran out of his office, hurrying out of the Duke’s Office to mount his horse. He was on the road heading to the main street in minutes. He worried for Jihan’s safety. Ferino was a bull of a man who had handled knives and axes all his life. He came in handy at war. When he wasn’t fighting, he stayed at his shop chopping meat.

Kastan shuddered, hoping he would make it in time to save his consort from an angry butcher.

*~*~*~*

Jihan wiped dust off his dark outer robe, his gaze on Firuz and the hulking man holding an axe. Firuz had moved the fight to the street and there was now a growing number of spectators. This was not how he had hoped to introduce himself to the valley.

Still, it seemed extreme for Ferino to respond with violence when Jihan asked a simple question about rent.

Shaking his head, Jihan noted that the butchery’s door was wide open and the place was empty. Knowing that Firuz would keep the butcher occupied, he ducked into the butchery in search of an office with records. It took him a few minutes, but he found a ledger behind a counter in the shop. Crouching on the floor, he placed the book on a small stool and started going through each page.

Grabbing a paper used to wrap meat, Jihan got a stick of charcoal and scribbled information as he read. He was on the final page when he heard footsteps entering the butchery. He folded his piece of paper and stuck it into the pocket in his sleeve. Closing the ledger, Jihan returned it to its spot and crawled to the end of the counter. He looked around to see if Ferino was back. He hoped Firuz had not gotten hurt. Heart pounding in his chest, he froze when fine leather boots with silver designs stopped a few feet away.

Jihan swallowed and looked up to find Kastan watching him.

Breathing out relief, Jihan sat back on his haunches and smiled at Kastan.

“Do you want beef tonight?” Jihan asked, looking back at the chests filled with preserved meat. “I’m sure Ferino will not be averse to selling you a few pounds.”

“Jihan, why are you kneeling on the floor?” Kastan asked, his tone gentle. “I’ve never known you to hide.”

“I hide very well, thank you,” Jihan boasted with a short grin. He held out his right hand to Kastan who helped pull him up.

Jihan wiped at his knees, peering around Kastan to the commotion outside. The sound of Firuz’s sword had stopped. He could hear Ferino complaining about being ambushed in his place of business.

Jihan winced and straightened up, meeting Kastan’s curious gaze.

“Why are you always in trouble when I find you?” Kastan mused, rubbing Jihan’s right cheek with his thumb. He leaned in and pressed a soft kiss on Jihan’s forehead. “Tell me what’s going on? I thought you were going to Rashan’s academy.”

“I did go to the academy,” Jihan said. “Rashan showed me his class and I met his Master Bero. Then, I left because I didn’t want Rashan to miss his lecture. When Firuz and I came out of the academy, we decided to explore the town. I happened to remember that the manor owns a few shops. I entered this one to ask why there has been no rent. The butcher lost his mind and pushed me outside. Firuz reacted.”

“Why didn’t you ask me?” Kastan asked.

“Because, you’re busy with military matters,” Jihan said, dropping his gaze to the gold embroidery on Kastan’s collar. “And, you asked me to take care of household matters.”

“I did ask,” Kastan said, touching Jihan’s chin, smiling when Jihan looked up.

“You won’t ask more?” Jihan asked.

“I’m always on your side,” Kastan said, taking Jihan’s right hand.

Temu appeared at the butchery door, followed by Ferino and Firuz who pushed Ferino into the butchery. Kastan turned, facing the door, effectively placing Jihan behind him.

Jihan stared at Kastan’s back in surprise. He remembered doing this for Andiya when they were in trouble. He had never had anyone stand in front of him to protect him, other than Firuz. Kastan still held his hand. Jihan closed the small distance between them and pressed his forehead on Kastan’s back. Kastan inhaled sharply and squeezed Jihan’s hand, holding it against his stomach.

Jihan smiled.

“Your Grace,” Ferino said, his voice full of anger. “I did not mean to offend you, but—”

“A Shadow Guard will only react if you touch his charge with aggression,” Kastan said. “There is no doubt that you touched my consort with violence in mind. What I want to know is why?”

“He came in to ask about rent,” Ferino said, his anger still high. “I don’t take kindly to such questions here, in front of my customers. He wouldn’t take my answers—”

“You offered no answers,” Firuz stated. “His Grace asked you if he could help you solve the problem, but your answer was to grab his arm and push him out the door. You would not let him go until he fell down the steps.”

Jihan winced as Firuz’s anger rose.

“I’m fine, Firuz,” Jihan said, from behind Kastan. “My clothes got dusty. I’m not hurt.”

“That’s not the point,” Firuz said.

“Alright,” Kastan interrupted. “Ferino, you have wronged my consort.”

Jihan pulled at his hand and stepped around Kastan, so that he could see Ferino.

The butcher was a hulk of a man, standing tall with his shoulders straight. He had a busted lip, thanks to Firuz, and there were cuts on his arms where Firuz had cut him with his sword. Jihan imagined here would be other injuries on his body. Firuz’s hits were calculated, and designed to be remembered.

Ferino scowled at him, though he lowered his gaze after a moment.

Jihan sighed.

“Ferino, I’m not interested in being your enemy,” Jihan said, drawing Ferino’s surprised gaze. “I was not here to ask for money from your pocket. I just wanted to talk to you about your business. I’m sure there are many reasons why you would be unable to pay rent. With some help, we could figure it out together.”

“You don’t know me. Why would you help me?” Ferino asked, accusation clear in his voice.

Kastan shifted, and Jihan squeezed his hand to stop him from defending him.

“Why wouldn’t I?” Jihan asked.

Ferino blinked and stared at him.

“Kas, don’t hold a grudge over Ferino’s reaction to me,” Jihan said. “Firuz has also solved the matter. We should let it go.”

“Is that what you wish?” Kastan asked, never looking away from Ferino.

“It is,” Jihan said, hiding a smile at the glare that Kastan was giving Ferino.

Ferino took in a relieved breath and his shoulders relaxed.

Jihan nodded and looked around the empty butchery.

“Think about my offer,” Jihan said, letting go of Kastan’s hand. He took a step forward so that he was standing in front of Ferino. Meeting an unsure dark gaze, Jihan continued. “You can find me through the Duke’s office, or send a message and I will find you. Thank you for your time, Ferino.”

Jihan nodded at Ferino and stepped out of the butchery, Firuz following him closely. Outside, Jihan waited on the verandah until Kastan came out. Jihan started for his horse, so that they could go home, but Kastan stopped him.

“Walk with me,” Kastan said, holding out his hand to Jihan.

“To where,” Jihan wondered, looking around the busy main street.

“I want to show you around,” Kastan said, with a playful grin.

Jihan hesitated for a moment, but then he took Kastan’s hand and allowed himself to be led down the steps to the path on the side of the road. He could not remember going out with Kastan. They had spent all their time indoors in Kin Town.

This felt new and oddly satisfying.

Their walk was more of a stroll along the main street.

Kastan held his hand, pointing out shops of interest. Jihan soon realized Kastan was showing him the shops the manor owned. About five were open, the rest were closed for the day, and Kastan was not sure what the owners sold.

Jihan wondered if the closed shops ever opened for business.

They stopped by a fruit vendor on the street and bought grapes. Kastan had them washed and held them for Jihan to eat at his leisure. Jihan was sad to discover there was no actual market. He loved walking through open markets, and the valley had none.

“What if we set one up?” Jihan asked.

“Why? The valley’s people can get anything from the existing shops,” Kastan said, pausing at an intersection.

Jihan frowned, watching an empty cart pass followed by a carriage.

“Markets give smaller merchants a livelihood,” Jihan said. “Are you saying the valley doesn’t have small farmers or traders?”

“They take their produce to the welfare office for purchase,” Kastan said. “The officers there do the best they can to buy the produce, if they can’t, the manor takes on the burden.”

No wonder the manor’s two farms were lying waste. How could the manor make the two farms work if they were taking on produce from the valley’s people? It would be a betrayal.

Jihan sighed and pulled his hand out of Kastan’s hold. He folded his hands against his chest, and turned to face his husband.

“Your valley is insane, is what it is. This utopia is not sustainable. The Welfare Office needs relief from all that stress. Its purpose should be to help the people who are truly struggling, not to be a warehouse of sorts. This valley’s people should have the choice of making their own money if they can. Have you ever thought of that?” Jihan asked.

“Is this an argument you’re starting? Why change what is working for the valley? My people have never complained to me that they were unhappy with how things are running—”

“Who would dare complain to Duke Silver?” Jihan asked, throwing his hands up in disbelief.

He shook his head, and because the street was clear, he crossed the road first.

“Jihan,” Kastan hurried after him.

“That butcher has so many debtors, I don’t know if he can ever recover that money. It makes me wonder how he is still able to sell meat at his shop.” Jihan shook his head. “I don’t know that he will ever pay the manor the rent due. I’m sure the other fourteen shops not paying you will have the same problem. Your manor is barely surviving. If I were this valley’s creditor, I would buy you all off and make you work for me. You’re in debt, Kas.”

“Which is why the Emperor brought you here,” Kastan pointed out.

“Don’t remind me,” Jihan said, stopping to glare at Kastan. He pressed his right index finger into Kastan’s chest. “How dare you mention your brother right now?”

“I’m sorry. Tell me what you need me to do,” Kastan said, capturing Jihan’s finger.

“It’s not that simple,” Jihan shook his head. “This might be more than I can handle, Kas. I don’t know that I can fix it. It’s—”

“A problem you need to solve,” Kastan cut in. “I didn’t want to tell you like this, but the Emperor sent a request that the valley should support the palace financially in six months. I don’t think this valley will manage it, if it stays the same.”

Jihan gaped.

“You can barely support your manor,” Jihan felt compelled to remind Kastan. “How can His Imperial Majesty imagine that you’ll manage his luxuries?”

“He has his reasons,” Kastan continued, trying to justify his brother’s tyranny.

Jihan had no words. White-hot anger filled him and for a moment, he felt like the top of his head might blow off. He understood love toward a sibling, he had it for Andiya, but the insane loyalty Kastan had for his Emperor Brother was destructive.

All Kastan did was give, and all Kiyan did was take, when did it balance out?

Jihan turned to keep walking, but then Set’s idea filled his mind. He looked at Kastan.

“What would your Hidden Keepers think about having outsiders coming in to the valley to trade?” Jihan asked.

Kastan winced.

“We track every person who enters this city, Jihan. It’s hard enough to do that with the city’s residents and their families. Imagine if we had an influx of merchants.”

“Fine, then I’ll ask for a trade station to exist outside the gates,” Jihan stated. “Give me that much.”

“What will you do with a trade station?” Kastan asked.

“Trade,” Jihan said, with a small grin. “Kas, why would you ask an obvious question?”

“We can’t afford it,” Kastan countered.

“I’ll build the trade station,” Jihan said.

“That’s not right—”

“Your brother wants contributions to the palace in six months. Where do you think they’ll come from if the valley is not producing enough income?” Jihan asked.

“Silver Shore is not taking your money, Jihan,” Kastan glared at him, and Jihan shrugged.

“Fine, then the valley can take me on as a lender,” Jihan said. “I’ll build the trade station. The valley is drowning in debt. It needs an influx of trade from outside. Silver Shore can pay me back when it’s back on its feet.”

“Jihan.”

“You said you’d let me make my choices,” Jihan reminded Kastan. “I want to do this, you should let me.”

Kastan sighed, his gaze shifting to the shops on each side of the street. The doors of the shops were open, the traders all leaning on counters or sitting on stools outside chatting. There was no sign of active trading, just gossiping and lazy afternoons. He thought it a sign of peace.

Jihan on the other hand looked at the idle traders and saw a stuck economy.

An empty cart drawn by an old man drove by, before Kastan spoke again.

“Alright, fine, you can build your trade station,” Kastan said. “But you’ll have to take on a troop of men from Naveed.”

“I have Firuz,” Jihan pointed out.

“The troop of men for your trade station or nothing,” Kastan insisted.

“Fine, as you wish. Now that we’ve settled the Emperor’s issues, I have one of my own,” Jihan said, when Kastan took his arm and started leading him back to their horses.

Kastan kissed Jihan’s right cheek as they walked, making Jihan pause.

Kastan smiled, kept walking, urging Jihan forward.

“What problem may I solve for my consort?” Kastan asked.

Jihan bit his bottom lip. He gave Firuz a quick glance then decided to take a leap into the unknown.

“My Kamran business has two important people I would like to introduce to you.”

“Is one of them driving the Hidden Keepers crazy?” Kastan asked, squeezing Jihan’s hand.

“I have no idea,” Jihan said, with an internal scowl. He had warned Set not to play with the keepers. It was very easy for him to come in without notice. “You can ask them when you meet.”

Kastan stopped, his hold on Jihan’s right hand jerking him to a stop too.

Jihan looked up to find Kastan studying him with a complicated expression in his eyes.

“What?” Jihan asked.

“You have decided to trust me with an important part of your life,” Kastan said. “Thank you.”

Jihan shrugged.

“It’s nothing—” Jihan started to say.

“Don’t brush it off,” Kastan said, squeezing Jihan’s hand. “I’ll be glad to meet your people. When can we expect them?”

“We’ll know tomorrow,” Jihan said.

“What’s happening tomorrow?” Kastan asked.

Jihan smiled hard at the thought of seeing Yoru after so long. He had really missed Yoru.

Kastan stopped.

“Who else has the power to make you smile that hard?” Kastan asked.

Jihan blinked.

“Are you jealous?” Jihan asked, amused by Kastan’s fierce gaze.

They had reached their horses. Temu and Firuz waited with them, and Jihan started to mount his horse.

“No,” Kastan said in answer to Jihan’s question, reaching for the reins of Jihan’s horse. He held the horse steady, as Jihan mounted and handed Jihan the reins. “Are you really not going to tell me?”

“I’ll have to show you, Kas,” Jihan said, reaching down to stroke his index finger over the dark stubble on Kastan’s jaw. “You have nothing to worry about.”

Kastan made a face, and Jihan chuckled, charmed that Kastan would be jealous.

*~*~*~*

Kastan watched Jihan walk to the edge of the cliff at dawn the next morning.

Jihan moved with a sense of excitement, his steps fast, his gaze riveted on the horizon. Kastan adjusted his heavy cloak over his shoulders and moved at a slower pace.

Firuz lounged on the table in the middle of the garden. Legs crossed under him, eyes closed in meditation, Kastan marveled at his presence.

Rashan was still asleep in the house, and Yasmin was busy in the kitchen.

Kastan stepped down two steps and walked on the grass heading to Jihan. When he was a few steps away from his consort, Jihan extended his left arm out, and Kastan stopped when he looked out and saw the largest eagle he had ever seen.

His gut reaction was to reach for his sword, worried that it would attack Jihan.

The eagle circled above them, before it landed on Jihan’s left arm as gently as it could.

Kastan breathed out when it turned to look at him, and lowered its head at him in a display of respect. A sense of recognition filled him, and his gaze shifted to Jihan who was looking at the eagle.

“Welcome to Silver Shore Valley, Yoru,” Jihan said, smiling that happy smile that had Kastan feeling insanely jealous.

Jihan had smiled at him like that when they were in Kin Town. After their wedding, he had yet to see that smile directed at him. It was insane that he was jealous of an eagle, but he could not help it.

“I’ve missed you,” Jihan said to Yoru, his sincerity clear in his voice.

Kastan held still realizing Jihan placed his affections for this eagle at the same level as those he had for Andiya. A spot he had hoped to reach himself, he wondered if he ranked below the eagle.

Silence fell and Kastan realized the eagle was having an exchange with Jihan. A thread of excitement raced through him at the realization that Yoru was one of the clan he protected. He could not talk to Yoru, unless Yoru wanted it, so Kastan took another step closer to Jihan.

“Jihan?” Kastan called out, keeping his tone calm, not wanting to annoy the predator on Jihan’s arm.

Jihan turned to him, and he frowned when saw the drop of blood on Jihan’s lip.

“Kas, this is Yoru,” Jihan said. “He’s the oldest eagle at Kamran Estate. I’ve protected his kind all my life. Yoru, this is my husband, Kastan Miran, the Imperial Prince. I hope you’ll accept him as my life partner.”

Kastan turned to Yoru.

“It is my honor to meet one as majestic as you. Your kind has lived long in our valley,” Kastan said, concerned by Jihan’s nosebleed. “If you speak to Jihan, the eagles in the Silver Shore eyrie are your kin. You will always have my protection.”

Jihan’s gaze stayed on Yoru, and after a moment of silence, Jihan spoke.

“Kas, Yoru thanks you,” Jihan said. “He says he can only accept your protection after he meets with the eagles in your eyrie.”

“Why does he make you hurt?” Kastan asked, hating the blood coming down Jihan’s right nostril.

“It’s not his fault,” Jihan said. “He says there is a way not to make it hurt, but he never learned how.”

“Then, he should meet the elder eagles in the eyrie,” Kastan said. “They know a way. I’m sure they will teach him. I don’t like seeing blood coming out of your nose, Jihan.”

Jihan stroked Yoru’s neck with a finger.

“Don’t worry about him, he gets grumpy,” Jihan soothed the eagle. “Yoru, go to Set, and tell him to come to Silver Shore Valley with Garren. Duke Silver will be waiting to meet them. Our Kamran network is spreading its wings.”

Yoru spread his wings in answer, ready to take flight. He turned to Kastan and inclined his head one more time before Jihan helped launch him into the air. Yoru gave one long call, circled the manor, and then flew in the direction of the eyrie at Silver Shore.

Kastan hoped Yoru would find his kin among the eagles of Silver Shore Valley. He was eager to see the smile Yoru put on Jihan’s lips again. He wanted to keep Jihan that happy, considering the many burdens now placed on Jihan’s shoulders.

Jihan reached into his pocket and got a handkerchief. He pressed it to his nostril to wipe away the blood.

“Yoru is magnificent,” Kastan said, taking the handkerchief from Jihan.

He pulled Jihan closer and concentrated on helping Jihan clean his nostrils.

“He trusts you, so you must have been good to him and his clan.”

“He has been good to me too,” Jihan said, tilting his head back, to help Kastan.

“I don’t like to see you bleeding though,” Kastan said, wiping the last of the blood away.

Kastan folded the handkerchief and placed it in his pocket. He wrapped his arms around Jihan and held him.

“I’m happy you’re feeling comfortable enough to invite your people here. Bring them more often, Jihan. Fill this place with your joy.”

Jihan brought his right hand up and pressed his palm on Kastan’s left cheek. The touch had Kastan’s heart racing in his chest. Warmth filled his heart and he held on to Jihan, closing his eyes when Jihan smiled. Watching Jihan run around the estate, hard at work, had him worried. It was a worry that refused to dissipate no matter how many times he held Jihan, or kissed him, or made love.

“Your Grace,” Temu’s voice interrupted the moment.

Kastan opened his eyes, pressing a kiss on Jihan’s cheek. Jihan’s hand dropped away, and Kastan let go of him, turning to find Temu standing a few feet away.

“There is a visitor we cannot turn away,” Temu said.

“Who would visit us this early in the morning?” Jihan asked, a frown creasing his forehead.

“Renai Countess, Lady Nisa Baiza,” Temu said in answer. “She would like to meet Your Grace, to report on matters at the border, and visit with the Little Prince.”

*~*~*~*

A Character List is here to help you track the many people in The Reluctant Consort.
Marriage is like managing an institution for Jihan, :)
 
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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Chapter Comments

Aah. yes, the long awaited chapter (after many sundays). You did not disappoint:gikkle:. As always, will wait for your next chapter. Thank you once again.

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lol i’m among those who are waiting with impatience 😜  great chapter 👍

wonder what Jihan found about the butcher 🤔

finally Kastan is going to be introduced to the Kamran network 

hon hon, troubles are coming with that Empress envoy 🙈

please don’t wait too long for the next chapter 😆

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I am glad I am not the only obsessive about new chapters. I sometimes wonder if Dicken's readers had the same agonies waiting for another pamphleted chapter to be hawked in the streets.

I agree The empress is too transparent. She wanted Firuz and Jihan to find the poisons, but why?

Financial strength always attracts attention and politics always rears its ugly head. 

Edited by Theo Wahls
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Excellent chapter; the wait was well worth it.  I have no doubt that this envoy from the Empress, which is really who it is from, is any more pleasant than the spice chest was, maybe less so.  Kastan is going to have to let Jihan have a free hand to some extent if he wants to make Silver Valley what it needs to me.  Have to wonder if there is another secret that the Emperor and Kastan is sharing about why they need the Silver Valley to support the palace so soon.  

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FanLit

Posted (edited)

On 6/18/2020 at 9:11 PM, Buz said:

The Countess' visit will be interesting. Jihan couldn't be as successful as he is in regards to the Kamran Estate and Network if he didn't have some "gumption". I am hoping that the Countess (and therefore the Empress) will be dealt a quick and decisive blow. 

 

The Empress’s childhood no longer holds as an excuse, she is Empress and instead of shoring up her husband and “their” court, she consistently undermines him and keep things divided.  (Even though I’m no big fan of Kiyan) Her father’s death in her stead for her perfidy wasn’t enough?  Soon her actions will be such that it won’t matter that she is empress and mother of the next ruler;  She has met her match in Jihan.  
The only satisfaction I will have for Renai Countess if she chooses to do the Empress’s bidding is her falling of one of the cliffs at Silver Shore.

It took me about 36 hours off and on to binge read this story so I am now caught up and ready for more, 🙂. lilansui has a wonderful hand creating chemistry between her couples and their family and friends as well.

Edited by FanLit
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Outstanding chapter! I love the fact that Jihan has jumped into restoring the manor, he’s very dedicated and determined to understand the inner workings and financial situation. He’s also making the household staff and the overall community a bit nervous by his direct questions about how their businesses are running and why rent is not being paid. The butcher found out the hard way that the Prince Consort cannot be easily bullied. His shadow guard put him on notice that touching Jihan is dangerous, possibly fatal. Jihan extended an olive branch by offering to help with making the butchers business more successful. The Empress’s next attack is about to take place, the “Lady” is going to be a very difficult problem to control. Jihan and Rashan should be capable of putting her in her place with veiled courtesy and civility. I love that Kastan got to meet Yoru, and will soon meet two key members of Jihan’s network. I’m definitely looking forward to the next chapter! 😃❤️
 

p.s.: take all the time you need on these creative and amazing characters! I will wait patiently because I truly enjoy and appreciate all of the hard work involved in bringing these chapters to us. 

Thank You!

👏👏👏

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I am being patient about new chapters though obsessive about most things. Just a touch of OCD about new chapters. I know how hard it is to write a well written story and I do appreciate the hard work. Crown Prince Yoshi and Seiryu Spirit are favorites. I will bide my time reading her other stories and enjoying a little romance now and then.

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Jihan is trying to do his duty to his lover.  I think with Jihan's skills as a merchant, the financial problems of Silver Shore Valley will soon be in the past. The money sent by Andiya will be well invested by Jihan to make the changes needed to the economy of the valley. The meeting with Yoru went well, and I hope he gets to meet and learn from Kastan's eagles how to communicate without hurting Jihan.  It is sad that Kastan still does not have the level of love from Jihan that he experienced before.  I hope that this issue will be resolved soon.    The announcement by the Lady Nisa was glaringly rude by not including a request to meet Jihan.  I hope that this does not go unnoticed.   

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