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The Reluctant Consort - 16. Chapter 16

Chapter 16

Jihan’s tears could start a war.

Kastan had never seen Jihan cry, not even when the burning feather tried to murder him. To think his Silver Shore Valley had brought Jihan to tears made Kastan want to break something or…someone. Kastan felt as though he might murder anyone who made his consort upset enough to cry.

Jihan let out a soft sigh and shifted in his arms.

“Andiya needs my help,” he said, sounding tired. “I need to go to Vasia in three days.”

Kastan closed his eyes, his talk with Neith filling his thoughts. It wouldn’t do for Jihan to leave this way. Not while he was upset with Silver Shore and its people.

“I have a request,” Kastan said, stroking his fingers through Jihan’s hair.

“What request?” Jihan asked.

“Please leave after the full moon,” Kastan said. “I want to give you a gift in three days.”

“What kind of gift?” Jihan asked. “Can’t you give it to me today?”

Kastan tipped Jihan’s chin up so that he could look into eyes stained red with tears. He brushed away a teardrop. Jihan’s brown eyes looked sad. The trip to Vasia was an escape. Kastan could not let him leave this way.

“No,” Kastan said, brushing his lips on Jihan’s cheek before he let go of him. He shifted on the bench and turned to find Firuz hovering a few feet away. “Firuz, will you bring us a pot of tea?”

Jihan wiped his eyes one last time and took in a deep breath.

“What gift needs two days to prepare?” Jihan asked, reaching for the box of letters. He made sure the lid was closed, as if he were guarding a treasure.

Kastan wondered if Jihan would ever stop missing Kamran Estate and take Silver Shore Valley as his home. Would he have to move Andiya to Silver Shore Valley to achieve this wish? What would it do to Jihan? Andiya and Kamran Estate remained intertwined. There was no separating them. Bringing Andiya here and neglecting Kamran Estate would only hurt Jihan.

“I’ll give you Silver Shore Valley,” Kastan said, thinking that the best outcome would be to make Jihan’s life easier at Silver Shore.

Jihan chuckled, a soft seductive sound that sent sweet tingles traveling down Kastan’s spine. He was addicted to the sound of Jihan’s voice in any form.

“We’re married, Kas. Everything you have is already mine, even your beloved Silver Shore Valley.”

“As it should be,” Kastan said, oddly happy to hear Jihan say that.

In the Capital City Akan, that truth was without question. The people there would recognize Jihan’s authority at first sight.

Silver Shore Valley was different.

The valley was home to armies of war-hardened men and their families. These men followed a strict chain of command. Their families deeply embedded into the army way of life. They believed in marriage dances because they thought marriage should be between lovers. A sacred vow taken between two people strong enough to face the ravages war brought to families. Wives and partners needed to be strong to face extended separation, severe wounds, attacks on the valley, and the worst of all, death.

Kastan had brought Jihan to this valley and not made any effort to show them that Jihan was his lover. His chosen partner, the one person he would trust with his only son, Rashan. This oversight made the valley’s people think less of Jihan.

Neith was right. Kastan was at fault.

“I’m sorry, Jihan, for not thinking about your place in this valley,” Kastan continued, giving Jihan a small smile. “Yasmin told me what happened at the fabric workshop. Master Rabo is overly cautious. He was only doing what he thinks is best.”

“It didn’t feel good,” Jihan said, clasping his hands on his lap. “It made me want to run away and I hated that. Then, I read Andiya’s letter, and I just felt lost. I can’t seem to find a balance, Kas. I keep clashing with everyone in this valley. I don’t know why and it’s going to drive me insane.”

“I’m to blame,” Kastan said, reaching for Jihan’s left hand. He rubbed Jihan’s cool fingers between his hands. “I should have already done something to fix this rift. I’ve been pushing the situation aside hoping it will change on its own. I’m sorry. I’ll solve this for us. Do you believe me?”

Jihan glanced at him. He gave a short nod, though it wasn’t enough to convince Kastan. Jihan still looked worried.

Kastan decided then to find Master Rabo and give him a piece of his mind.

Kastan looked to the manor in time to see Rashan carrying a tray from the kitchen. Firuz followed Rashan, close but not helping.

Rashan walked slow, careful not to spill the contents on his tray.

Jihan turned to see what he was looking at and started to get up to go help Rashan.

Kastan stopped him.

“Let him do it,” Kastan said, tightening his hold on Jihan’s hand when he started to protest. “He met me at the door, sad about upsetting you today. He wants to make it up to you.”

Jihan sat back, his eyes widening in surprise.

“What happened?” Kastan asked, curious, as he kept a watchful gaze on Rashan’s progress.

“Rashan wanted to go out to play this morning and I wouldn’t let him. He threw a dagger at the dining table in frustration. We argued a bit.”

“Did you chastise him?” Kastan asked, a frown creasing his forehead.

Jihan hesitated, looking down at their clasped hands on the table.

“I bargained with him,” Jihan said, his tone low. “I—,”

“Jihan, you have every right to discipline him,” Kastan said, squeezing Jihan’s hand. “You’re his guardian. He should show respect to his elders and throwing daggers on the dining table is misbehaving. Don’t let him get away with these things. I’ll talk to him.”

“No, don’t. I handled the matter and it’s over now,” Jihan said with a small shrug, closing the topic.

Kastan shook his head. It wasn’t over. He would have to find time to talk to Rashan. If they had any hope of getting closer, the distance between Rashan and Jihan needed to disappear. He didn’t like it that Rashan still called Jihan uncle.

“Jihan,” Kastan started, wondering what he could do to make things easier.

“Here is Rashan,” Jihan said, smiling as Rashan reached them.

Rashan stumbled at the last step, and Jihan took the tray from him, saving the tray’s contents.

Kastan moved the letterbox to the side.

Firuz moved to pick up the box and Jihan graced him with a wide smile.

For a moment, Kastan envied Firuz and the trust Jihan gave him.

“I’ll take this back,” Firuz said, giving Kastan a nod, and then turned to leave.

The simple nod from Firuz sent the envy scattering. He had earned Firuz’s confidence. Firuz had to be sure that Kastan would protect his charge; otherwise, Firuz would never leave Jihan alone.

The thought made Kastan smile, healing the sting of jealousy. He returned his attention to Jihan and Rashan.

Rashan stood pressed close to Jihan’s left side.

Jihan was studying the lemon tarts on the plate. Three round pieces looked misshapen with slices of lemon smudged on the top, almost falling off. Three more were in perfect circles and had neat slices of lemon.

Kastan suspected Rashan had insisted on shaping the messy lemon tarts. He glanced at Jihan in time to see a quick smile that had his heart fluttering.

Jihan had noticed too.

Jihan studied the messy lemon tarts before he picked one. He brought it to his mouth and ate it with his eyes closed.

Rashan watched Jihan, his gaze expectant.

Jihan made a show of chewing, and then he opened his eyes wide as he swallowed.

“Wow, this is so delicious,” Jihan said, reaching for another misshapen dessert. “Yasmin is really getting good at making them.”

Kastan could only stare at Rashan’s answering grin.

Jihan’s praise rolled over Rashan like an unrelenting fountain. His son looked pleased and happy. So happy, it took Kastan’s breath away.

“You know, I’m going to have to find Yasmin—,” Jihan started.

“I made those,” Rashan said, cutting in to point at the last misshapen piece. “Yasmin didn’t make them, I did.”

“Really!” Jihan reached for the last piece. “Are you sure, these are amazing.”

Jihan studied the small lemon tart, as Rashan leaned into him, smiling so hard Kastan thought he might light up the sky.

“Wow, our Rashan’s talents keep growing,” Jihan said, nodding with pride. “If this keeps up, Yasmin’s going to need to learn from you.”

Rashan laughed and Kastan’s heart sank deeper into the warmth Jihan wove into their family.

“Kas, you want a taste?” Jihan asked, holding up the last lemon tart made by Rashan. “Or, should I keep this delicious morsel to myself?”

Kastan reached out to take the lemon tart but then Rashan grabbed Jihan’s hand and pulled it out of his reach.

“Pa, the other ones are yours. I made sure Yasmin gave you her best ones,” Rashan said, urging Jihan to eat the tart he held. “I made these ones for my Papa.”

Jihan gaped.

The tart he held stuck in midair, as he stared at Rashan.

Kastan grinned, feeling his heart swell with relief and love at the sound of Rashan calling Jihan Papa. It looked he hadn’t needed to worry after all.

It was wonderful to see Rashan accept Jihan this way. This was a gift at a time Jihan really needed it.

“Shan, what did you just call me?” Jihan asked, his voice soft and shaking with emotion.

“Papa,” Rashan said, his next words coming out in a wild rush.

“I’m sorry I yelled this morning. I just wanted to go outside. I heard Yasmin and Master Safan talking when you were sitting out here alone. They said you might end up leaving the valley if everyone keeps giving you a hard time. And-and I don’t want you to leave. Please, don’t leave us.”

Jihan blinked, a tear rolling down his left cheek at Rashan’s worried speech.

“Why would I want to leave you?” Jihan asked.

“Because you’re sad,” Rashan said, pleading now. “I don’t want you to leave even if you’re sad. I’ll make you happy. I like you here and you make Pa so happy. He’s even coming home early now. You even made it to my academy event day. I like how you take care of us. Please—”

“Rashan,” Jihan reached for the boy and pulled him into a tight hug. “I will not leave you just because we had a bad day. You don’t have to worry about that.”

“Promise?” Rashan asked, burying his face into Jihan’s shoulder.

“I promise,” Jihan said, placing the messy lemon tart on the plate so that he could rub Rashan’s back. He met Kastan’s gaze over Rashan’s shoulder with a small shaken smile. “I love taking care of you too, Shan. Why would I leave you?”

Kastan felt hope bloom at the sound of the word love on Jihan’s lips.

“Papa, you’ve made a promise to stay with us,” Rashan said, his voice muffled in Jihan’s shoulder.

Tears filled Jihan’s brown eyes. It seemed like an afternoon to be filled with Jihan’s tears.

Kastan was just grateful that these tears looked like happy ones.

“I promise not to leave you,” Jihan murmured, shifting Rashan in his arms so that he could kiss Rashan’s cheek.

Kastan picked up the teapot and busied himself with pouring a cup of tea for Jihan.

His consort held Rashan, both of them unwilling to let go. They sat like that for a period, and then Jihan shifted on the bench and urged Rashan to sit next to him.

Jihan sipped his tea with an arm around Rashan’s shoulders.

“Shan,” Jihan said, his tone gentle. “I know I’ve promised to stay, but I have to go on a short trip to Vasia.”

Rashan looked at Jihan, his gaze hopeful, as he asked, “Can I come along?”

“We’ll have to ask your Pa,” Jihan said, turning to Kastan.

Kastan frowned, wondering what he would do with both of them gone from Silver Shore. It was hard enough having Jihan gone.

“What about your studies, Shan?” Kastan asked, sipping his tea, hoping to distract his son from this new adventure.

“I can catch up,” Rashan said. “Plus, Master Safan says I should gain as much as experience as I can. I want to see what being a merchant is like. Papa can show me.”

“Are you sure you won’t get in your Papa’s way?” Kastan asked, stealing a glance at Jihan.

Jihan hid a smile and reached for the teapot. He refilled Kastan’s cup and placed the pot on the tray. His left brow rose when Rashan squeezed his arm. He met Kastan’s gaze and cleared his throat.

“I wouldn’t mind Shan’s company in Vasia,” Jihan said, suddenly shy. “I bet he’ll help us all out.”

“Are you sure?” Kastan asked, knowing this was an important moment for all of them.

He trusted Jihan with Rashan. He knew Jihan would not let anything happen to their son. However, letting them both out of his sight would be torture. So, he hoped Jihan would help him try to keep Rashan at Silver Shore.

“Yes, it will be an adventure,” Jihan said, giving Kastan a small knowing smile when Kastan’s gaze widened. “It will be nice having Shan with me.”

“Okay,” Kastan murmured, grinning when Rashan gave an excited shout and squeezed Jihan’s arm. “You must promise to behave, Shan. Don’t make trouble for your Papa.”

“I’ll be on my best behavior,” Rashan promised, grinning wide.

Kastan sighed, sipping his tea, he met Jihan’s amused gaze.

“We’ll be fine,” Jihan soothed. “It’s a small meeting. We’ll stay at the Eagle’s Claw, which is safe. Shan and I will watch a play together. It will be fun.”

Kastan nodded, suddenly thankful that his generals would be attending the marriage dance. They would leave the valley knowing they needed to fortify Vasia before they even thought of returning to their posts. He was not taking chances with his family.

*~*~*~*~*

Jihan sent a letter to Andiya through Yoru late in the evening. In the letter, he promised to be in Vasia Town the day after the full moon. He had delayed his departure for Kastan and a ceremony called the Marriage Dance. Jihan wondered what the ceremony would do to help him win the trust of the men and women in this valley.

After their evening meal, he excused himself to take a long bath. He needed a deep soak in hot water. It was the only way to wash away the stress of the day. When he was done, it was late, so he changed into his sleeping clothes.

Jihan stopped by Rashan’s room to wish him a good night.

Firuz met him in the hallway outside Rashan’s room after.

“Where is Kas?” Jihan asked, heading to the master’s chambers.

“Duke Silver is talking to Naveed, Temu and Safan in the receiving room downstairs,” Firuz said, stopping at the door. “They are anticipating the Generals in your husband’s army. This marriage dance sounds important.”

Jihan winced. He already had one marriage ceremony under his belt. It was funny to think a second ceremony would help his status. Now he would even have to meet Kastan’s Generals, it felt like added stress.

“Trust His Grace,” Firuz said, as though reading his thoughts. “Whatever the marriage dance is about, it is for your benefit.”

Jihan nodded and pushed a damp lock of hair out of his eyes. He opened the door into the master’s chamber.

“Firuz, go take a bath and rest,” Jihan said, stopping Firuz from following him. “I’m safe enough in here.”

“Won’t you be lonely?” Firuz asked.

“I need time alone,” Jihan said, reaching up to touch Firuz’s jaw. He scratched at the dark stubble on Firuz’s cheek. “You need time alone too.”

Firuz chuckled and nodded.

“Then, sleep well, Jihan.”

Jihan entered the master’s chamber and closed the door with a sigh. He ended up standing by the windows at the sitting area, watching a young man from the Hidden Keepers light the lanterns in the gardens.

His thoughts lingered on Rashan’s priceless gift. His heart still fluttered in excitement at the sound of Rashan calling him Papa. It was unexpected after the day he had had.

Rashan’s words filled him with hope.

Maybe, just maybe, this place might become home.

Jihan rubbed his right shoulder with a sigh and started to turn.

A strong arm wrapped around his waist and he closed his eyes at the pleasant shiver that raced down his back when Kastan pressed behind him.

“What are you thinking about?” Kastan asked, holding him tight.

Jihan smiled, and leaned his head back on Kastan’s shoulder.

“Nothing much with you holding me like this,” Jihan said.

“Hmm,” Kastan brushed his lips on Jihan’s left cheek. “You smell really good.”

“Took a bath,” Jihan murmured, placing his hands over Kastan’s hands at his waist.

“Rashan called you, Papa,” Kastan said, trailing kisses from his cheek to his left ear. “Are you happy?”

“Ecstatic,” Jihan said, breathing out the words. “I love him, you know that, right?”

“I do,” Kastan said, tightening his arms around Jihan.

Silence fell between them.

Jihan closed his eyes, sinking into the pleasure of Kastan holding him. These moments made the rest of this valley worth it. In Kastan’s arms, it didn’t matter whether Master Rabo’s workers chased sixty rabbits or one. He could forget the problems and only focus on the pleasure.

Jihan turned in Kastan’s arms and met dark eyes. The words he should say to Kastan lodged in his throat. His heart beat too fast, and he wondered if Kastan knew what he felt.

Could he see how much Jihan wanted to declare his love for this fierce duke?

How afraid he was that the love he gave would not be enough. That it wouldn’t be enough for him to win over Silver Shore Valley and remain within the halls of Sun-filled Manor. How afraid he was that Kastan might turn him away at the end of it all.

After all, if Jihan failed the Emperor’s ambitions, there was no telling what would happen.

Would Kastan ever choose him over his Emperor?

The answer scared Jihan, terrified him because he was starting to want to keep this manor and the family he was making in it.

Jihan reached up to trace the scar on Kastan’s right eyebrow. He rubbed the slight frown on Kastan’s forehead, filled with love for this man.

Jihan leaned up on his toes to press a kiss on the scar and Kastan tightened his arms around him.

Kastan took Jihan’s lips in a long thorough kiss, moving to press him against the window. Their kiss full, open mouthed, drugging. Jihan returned it with a desperation he could not define, sinking all his unsaid words into their igniting passion. He almost cried in protest when Kastan broke their kiss, opening his eyes he met a knowing dark gaze. His heart squeezed tight when Kastan breathed out.

“What about me?” Kastan asked, brushing his lips over Jihan’s, but not giving them both the kiss they needed. Jihan sighed, his gaze on Kastan’s lips. “Do you have words for me?”

Jihan closed his eyes at that question, feeling cornered. He took in a breath and opened his eyes to answer only to have Kastan kiss him again. Kastan pushed the gown he wore off his shoulders and Jihan let it drop to the floor. He moaned when Kastan untied the white robe he wore inside, and in mere seconds, he was naked. Bare, Kastan’s rough hands traveled over his skin, sending delicious shivers, igniting a raging desire. Their kiss turning hungry now, he was hard with want. Kastan held him with possessive heat, as though he never wanted to let him go.

Yes, I have words for you,’ Jihan wanted to say. My heart is always yours.’

Yet, when Kastan broke their kiss with a moan and Jihan shook with need for Kastan, he still couldn’t make the words leave his mouth.

So, he reached for Kastan’s leather belt, and decided giving himself to Kastan would have to do for now. At least he didn’t have to hold back in their shared passion. He gasped when Kastan leaned in and sucked that most sensitive spot on his neck that left his cock weeping with need.

*~*~*~*

A day later, Nisa stood on an arched pedestrian bridge a mile away from her home.

The bridge was built over a river that flowed around the Silver Meadow, and into Silver Lake in the horizon.

She liked watching the sunrise here when she needed to think. Her intentions to have a restful morning had disappeared when she caught sight of the scenes unfolding in the meadow. Her frown deepened as she watched tents come up in the Silver Meadow. The lantern stands decorated with red silk and tables and chairs moved into the festive tents.

There was excitement among the workers as they put up the tents and decorated the meadow. Their pace so fast, she wondered what they were getting out of this exercise. The longer she watched, the harder it was to walk away. It looked like the meadow was going to host a marriage dance.

She watched a basket filled with red petals go up on a string that would be cut during the ceremony. The basket would then scatter the petals over the dancers below. The flower petals were a blessing that despite the bitterness of life, the married couple would always find happiness if their bond was true. The dance was the highlight of the marriage dance. She had always loved watching the lucky couple dancing on the red carpet under the basket. Red petals would cascade around them, turning it magical.

She could not believe Prince Kastan was giving that merchant a marriage dance. It would ruin all her plans.

Hissing, she turned away from the site below and started the walk back to her courtyard.

“Lady Baiza, we have news,” Muge, her longtime nursemaid, said keeping up with her. “Yasmin was talking to the washing ladies. She says Imperial Consort hopes to leave Silver Shore Valley on the full moon or the day after.”

“That’s two days after the marriage dance,” Nisa said, stopping to look at Muge. “How long will he be gone?”

“No one knows, but it’s a trip to Vasia Town,” Muge said. “He is a merchant. It might take two or three days to return to the valley.”

“How lucky we are,” Nisa said, continuing her walk back to her courtyard gates.

Her home was built against a backdrop of a mountain cliff. The soldiers opened the gates and she entered her courtyard, taking in a deep breath of relief. Black flags flew above the turrets of her home. She wore white, still in mourning for her father. His memorial date was still waiting. With this news, she smiled; surely, the gods were on her side.

“Set the date for my father’s memorial date to the day after the full moon,” Nisa said. “Make sure all the Generals know the date. General Baiza deserves the respect of the Council of Generals. His Imperial Highness will not dare to interfere if the generals attend the memorial.”

“Yes, my lady,” Muge said. “Your idea will force Imperial Prince to enter our courtyard gates.”

“This is my only chance,” Nisa said, rubbing her hands together in anticipation. “The valley will turn soft on the merchant after the marriage dance. The Generals will swear fealty to him, and there will be no doubt that he is now part of the valley. My plans cannot delay longer. Get the remaining details for the memorial ceremony arranged quickly and keep it quiet. It won’t do if Imperial Consort discovers my plans.”

“Yes, my lady,” Muge said, breaking into a run to get to the main house first.

Nisa stopped in the middle of her courtyard.

Her gaze settled over the turrets to the high cliff behind her home. The cliffs guarded by the Hidden Keepers with a lifetime pact. No one could influence them. She had tried and failed. They kept her from climbing the cliff and crossing the bridge into the back gardens of Sun-filled Manor.

The only person Prince Kastan had given that privilege to was her father, General Baiza.

If Kastan gave that honor to someone else, Nisa shuddered, her gaze returning to the house. She would have to move. Give up a place she had called home all her life in order to make way for the new general. The thought made her want to scream. The life of a General’s family was not easy on his loved ones.

“My Lady,” a gruff voice said, and she turned to find Ferino, the butcher, standing behind her.

It surprised her that even with all the training she had gone through, and a stint at war, she still could not hear him approach her. This was the problem with working with war merchants. Added to this surprise was irritation.

Straightening her shoulders, and clearing her face of any emotions, she faced Ferino.

“It’s dangerous of you to come here,” Nisa warned, wondering why the butcher could not think for himself. They were facing dangerous times. “Why would you visit me here?”

“It’s getting harder to hide our business from Sun-filled Manor,” Ferino said, his tone low, his gaze roaming their surroundings. He was wary of people noting that he visited her. “Duke Silver’s Consort is not an easy man. His shadow guard is also too observant.”

“I’ve heard you tangled with his shadow guard,” Nisa said, that bit did not amuse her. “What did the merchant want?”

“His Grace wanted to know why my shop is not paying rent,” Ferino said. “We’ve gotten by before because Yasmin was in charge of accounts. She had no power to dig deeper into the ledgers. She listened to the stories we gave of debt due to the war. It was easy to claim families on welfare owe me. These stories will not work on His Grace.”

“How so?” Nisa asked, wondering how a simple merchant would play the role of a detective. She had worked to cover her tracks. Still the butcher was half-right.

Duke Silver’s Consort controlled the manor’s finances. Someone smart in that position would be deadly. Which meant she needed that power. Her plan to become Duke Silver’s consort was important because she wanted to escape scrutiny. Wanted to hide the wrongs she had started.

“I can’t explain how he is different,” Ferino said, shaking his head, a deep frown on his forehead. His uneasiness struck an alarm in Nisa. “I just know it.”

She had never known Ferino to be wary.

“Alright,” Nisa said. “Let’s stop our dealings until I have found a way to manage the Imperial Consort. Ask the Welfare Office to slow down too. I’ll send a message through our usual channels to let you know when we can start again.”

“Yes, My Lady,” Ferino said, giving her a short nod, he turned and walked out of her courtyard.

Nisa watched him disappear, a strange knot forming in the pit of her stomach.

Everything she had done in this valley was for the sake of Prince Kastan and his well-being. It was too bad that an interloper had appeared to ruin her plans. She had not meant for her meddling with the welfare office to go on for so long.

She had hoped her father would help her marry Prince Kastan and then, everything would be fine. She was eternally wounded that her father was not here to help her.

Still, it wasn’t as if she could not help herself. General Baiza’s daughter was no weakling.

Shaking her head, her lips tightened in resolve.

If she could not marry the Imperial Prince, she would at least get him to take her on as a concubine. She was willing to take that role, even bow her head to a merchant to win a part of Prince Kastan. Once in that manor, she would find a way to make it all hers.

*~*~*~*

On the day of the marriage dance, Jihan woke up too early. Leaving Kastan in bed, he dressed for a full day of work surprising Firuz.

They arrived at the farms without having their morning meal. Firuz watched Jihan move from one farm to the next in a state of frenzy.

Firuz managed to wrangle them some food from the farm manager, which Jihan barely touched. He continued working until Firuz worried his little master was trying to escape the important ceremony happening later that evening.

As the hours progressed, Firuz started receiving messages from Yasmin. Each message sounded more urgent, as the afternoon came and the sun started lowering.

“You’re supposed to be getting ready,” Firuz said, watching Jihan kneel on the edge of the pond in the middle of Antac farm.

Weeds had overrun the pond. Jihan wanted to find a way to clean it up and start a fish farm. Firuz grimaced watching Jihan kneel on mud and reach deep into the pond to tug out bunches of hyacinth. Jihan sat back on his haunches and studied the mud on the roots.

“This is a great pond,” Jihan said, taking the mud from the roots to rub it between his fingers, studying it with interest. “It’s just neglected.”

Firuz grabbed Jihan’s hand before he brought the mud on his fingers to his mouth to taste it.

“You’re not eating dirt in front of me,” Firuz said, when Jihan scowled at him. He wrapped gentle fingers around Jihan’s left wrist and took the weeds out of Jihan’s other hand.

Sometimes, he needed to protect Jihan from himself.

It was late in the afternoon.

Yasmin’s last messenger had sounded like an angry demand, insisting that Jihan get back to the manor. She wanted to make sure he was ready in time for the marriage dance.

An occasion Jihan was doing his best to ignore.

Firuz thought it was because Jihan was wary of the town’s people.

Maybe, Jihan was afraid of making yet another commitment that would cement his place in the valley. Once Jihan met Kastan’s Generals, it would be difficult to walk away from this place. Not that he could right now.

Firuz shook his head. He couldn’t figure out why Jihan was so anxious.

Jihan had worked nonstop these past two days to escape thinking or even talking about the marriage dance.

“You’re needed back at the manor,” Firuz said, urging Jihan to stand up. “Leave the farm in your manager’s hands. It’s his job to check the state of the pond and make sure it’s good enough for fish farming. He is willing to work. You made sure of that with the amount of money you’re paying him. You have an occasion to prepare for.”

Jihan sighed and allowed Firuz to drag him to the muddy path leading up the slope to the top of the farm and the main gate. Every worker they met greeted Jihan with warmth. Halfway there the farm manager met them, running to intercept them from the herb patches.

Jihan launched into instructions on getting the pond clean.

“Do you know how to set up a fish farm, Aleka?” Jihan asked, clinging to Firuz’s back when he slipped on a slick spot.

Firuz steadied Jihan and helped him keep walking up the muddy path. Both their boots were heavy with mud. The farm needed steadier paths. Firuz did not mention it, lest Jihan stop their progress to start on another project.

“I know the basics,” Aleka answered Jihan’s question, following them to the front of the farm and drier ground. “Although, I don’t have experience making it work.”

“Ask Set to connect you with Vion from Kamran Estate,” Jihan said. “His methods work using a small river running through the estate there. You have a large pond. I’m sure Vion’s ideas will excel here too.”

“Yes, Your Grace,” Aleka said.

“Get three new people to tend to the pond and the fish project,” Jihan said. “The rest need to keep working on the herbs and vegetables. We also need to build a workshop for the herbs. Send messages to the manor if you have any pressing issues on building the workshop.”

“Okay, enough instructions,” Firuz said, leading Jihan to their horses. “Master Aleka, we’re leaving you to it. Tell His Grace you have the farm under control.”

“I do, Your Grace,” Aleka said, amused when Jihan turned to look at Aleka. He must have read confidence in Aleka, because Jihan nodded and mounted his horse without fuss.

“Keep your pressing issues until after this marriage dance,” Firuz said to Aleka, who grinned and nodded.

Firuz waved at Aleka, and mounted his own horse. He was glad when Jihan led the way out of the compound, heading to Sun-filled Manor.

*~*~*~*~*

Yasmin finished pressing the rich red brocade overcoat. She traced her fingers over the delicate gold designs and nodded in satisfaction. She hurried from the kitchens, breaking into a short run until she reached the stairs.

Fara was coming from her room adjusting a pin in her hair as she turned the corner.

“Has Prince Jihan returned?” Fara asked, her tone anxious. “It’s almost evening. He won’t get to meet the Generals before the ceremony.”

“He is not back yet,” Yasmin said, matching Fara’s worry. “The Generals are already waiting in the receiving room. They’ll have to meet His Grace during the ceremony. I’m afraid Duke Silver will have to occupy them so that we compensate for the delay.”

“What is Prince Jihan thinking?” Fara asked, and then shook her head. “We’ll just hope he gets here soon. I’ll go help serve the generals refreshments. You get that overcoat to Duke Silver.”

“Thank you, and add water to the large cauldron in the kitchen. Hopefully, Prince Jihan makes it in time to take his bath,” Yasmin said, continuing up the stairs.

She paused at the top when she saw Rashan coming out of his rooms. The little prince raced by her heading to the open doors of the master’s chambers. She smiled, noting that he was already dressed for the occasion in handsome green robes.

Yasmin entered the master’s chambers, and stopped when Kastan turned to look at her, his expression expectant. He was not even in the dressing room. Instead, he stood by the large bed.

She felt stung when Kastan sighed with disappointment at the sight of her.

“Have you seen Jihan?” Kastan asked, making it clear he was anxious to see his consort. “He should be here by now. We’re running out of time.”

Yasmin winced, not wanting to say that Prince Jihan had left the manor this morning and no one had seen him return. She had sent so many messages to the farms; it was starting to look as though Prince Jihan was ignoring her. She could only hope that Prince Jihan was on his way home.

Duke Silver must have read the truth in her eyes because he cursed under his breath, and adjusted the red tunic he wore. It was long to his ankles, the hem embroidered with fine gold thread. Duke Silver was always handsome to look at, but today, he looked especially approachable.

It was his hair, Yasmin decided. It was left to flow down to his shoulders. The thin gold crown with a black jade centerpiece on his head announced his status as Imperial Prince and Duke of Silver Shore. His marriage dance would have many in mourning.

“I asked Master Rabo if Jihan returned to the fabric workshop, and he said no,” Kastan said. “Jihan has refused to go back there. Not even when I told him that Master Rabo would make sure the workers would meet him. Do you think he’s afraid to meet the valley’s people? Do you think that’s why he’s late?”

Yasmin caught Naveed’s concerned gaze. The general was cautious about Kastan’s mood.

“His Grace is too brave to be afraid. I’m sure His Grace is at one of the farms caught up in a project,” Naveed said, his tone soothing. “Yasmin sent him a message to remind him. He will be here soon.”

“He didn’t need to work today,” Kastan said, though it sounded like a complaint. “I’m doing this marriage dance for him. I want him to love living here. It’s not good if all he does is work, and on the day of our marriage dance.”

“I’m sure he knows how you feel,” Naveed said, glancing at Yasmin.

Yasmin hid a grin when Naveed winked at her. It looked like Duke Silver was nervous and a bit disappointed that his consort was not taking their marriage dance seriously. Naveed approached her, and Yasmin handed the red overcoat to Naveed.

“Don’t worry, Duke Silver,” Yasmin soothed. “Prince Jihan will be here soon. He won’t let you down.”

Naveed gave her an assuring nod, and she turned to leave, giving Rashan a small wave as he went to sit on the neat bed close to his father.

*~*~*~*

“Pa, do you think I’ll ever have a marriage dance?” Rashan asked from his perch on the bed. He was playing with the green token on his belt, his gaze on his father, watching Kastan wear his overcoat.

“Of course, you will,” Kastan answered, sparing his son a short glance. “I hope it is with someone you care about.”

“Do you care about Papa?” Rashan asked, propping himself up on his elbows to see his father’s face.

“Deeply,” Kastan said, a small frown dancing his on his forehead.

He fastened the clip holding his overcoat together, and lifted his arms to allow Naveed to help him with his gold belt. The round gold ornament on the belt was carved in the shape of a tiger’s head.

“Why are you frowning?” Rashan asked, noting that the small frown had not disappeared.

“Hm…I’m not frowning,” Kastan said, adjusting the belt at his waist.

“You are, Pa,” Rashan insisted, watching Naveed step away from his father.

Kastan walked around the large bed to the bedside table on the left. There Rashan watched Kastan pick up a gold round medallion on a chain. It looked like a thick round coin with intricate carvings on each side. Rashan sat up on the bed and moved closer to see.

“What do you think?” Kastan asked, handing it to Rashan.

Rashan knelt on the bed, turning the hefty medallion in his hands. One side had a snarling tiger, the other a calm tiger. There was a seam on the sides. Rashan studied that seam for a moment, and then turned the snarling tiger to the right and the underside to the left. They unclipped and separated, leaving him with two sides.

“Do you understand what you’re holding?” Kastan asked, sitting next to Rashan.

Rashan met his father’s gaze, and then nodded, holding up the round pieces.

“Master Safan explained it when we were learning army commands and who can give them. This is a family seal. A commander may create a seal for his life partner,” Rashan said, reciting what he had learned in his studies. “This seal is used to protect or create sanctuary, if the commander is not close, or indisposed. The Imperial House allowed it in case of hostile action against a Commander of the Armies’ family.”

Kastan nodded, his eyes shining with approval.

“You understand you may only grant this seal to someone you trust with everything you love,” Kastan reiterated. “Do you understand me, Rashan?”

“I do, Pa,” Rashan said, snapping the pieces back into one. “It wouldn’t do if you gave it to a fickle partner. Then we would run the risk of a revolt or war within our borders. The Commander of Armies must always protect the empire first.”

“I’m proud of you,” Kastan said, dropping a kiss on the top of Rashan’s head. He took the gold medallion from Rashan. “Now, if only your Papa can get here in time. I can then entrust you and this valley to him.”

Kastan stood and helped Rashan off the bed.

“Your Grace, the Generals are waiting for you,” Safan said, appearing at the door. “They have requested to meet Prince Rashan.”

Kastan nodded, and Rashan smiled when his father placed his arm around his shoulders. He loved it most when he accompanied his Pa to meet the important Generals. It didn’t happen often, but since his Papa moved in with them, special things kept happening.

As they left the master’s chambers, Rashan hoped that his Papa would stay with them forever.

*~*~*~*

Kastan entered the receiving hall with Rashan beside him. The moment his Generals saw them, they stood and saluted, pressing their right hand to their chest and their heads bowed in respect.

They were all dressed in formal robes today, no armor in sight, but each of them spotted a ceremonial sword at their waist. Kastan walked the length of the room and took his seat on the dais. Rashan stood on his left side, arms folded behind his back.

“Thank you for riding hard to attend the marriage dance,” Kastan said in greeting, waving the Generals to take their seats.

“We have been waiting for your call,” General Condi said, with a small smile.

Condi was a bulky man, wore his hair cut close to his head, and loved wearing bright billowing overcoats. Today, he had chosen a bright blue. His style, no matter how flamboyant, hid a sharp mind. Condi’s war strategies had kept his men alive on more than one occasion.

“We thought you would call us days after the formal wedding in the Imperial City Akan,” General Faiza said.

Faiza was a brute and loved the viciousness of war. With the right direction, Faiza became an unstoppable fighting machine. Kastan valued his knack for creating effective weapons. It was also important to have someone like Condi who could refine Faiza’s thirst for blood. Otherwise, Faiza was bound to go on a rampage in the wrong direction.

“It would have taken His Grace a moment to recover from the heat of war to a political marriage,” Kigaru said. “Also, Kamran would not have been easy to conquer.”

Kigaru was big on loyalty and information. Where Jihan had Set, Kastan had Kigaru. His men trained on infiltration and becoming spies. Kigaru was a tall thin man. His stature fooled many into thinking he was not strong enough to hold his own in a fight. Kastan hid a smile, at the memory of Kigaru carving up an unsuspecting assailant with his hidden daggers.

Firuz would most identify with this General.

“Your Grace, where is your Consort?” General Niku asked, looking to the door, her gaze expectant. “I’ve wanted to meet him since I heard he was in Kin Town with us. There are not that many civilians brave enough to stay at the warfront.”

Niku was the only woman at this level of his army. Her rise to this position was not easy. She was the daughter of his mentor. A master swordsman who had died of old age before Rashan was born. Her full name was Celi Niku, but she preferred to be referred to as Niku. She thought it sounded more masculine. Niku trained hard and fought dozens of men for the rank of General in her father’s command. She led wild souls who preferred nomadic lives.

Kastan often sent her on missions to the borders of the empire, as needed. She loved the freedom it gave her. Freedom to do anything she wanted was the price she asked for when she knelt to give him her allegiance.

“Jihan is still out checking on the farms,” Kastan said honestly, having never lied to his Generals. Theirs was a bond of trust. Without that trust, rot grew and stained their intentions. “I’m half afraid he won’t make it to the Silver Meadow to dance with me.”

Niku chuckled, and shook her head.

“He has stayed married to you these last months. He won’t leave you easily,” Niku soothed. “I’m excited that Your Grace has a partner at Sun-filled Manor now. You won’t worry for Prince Rashan.”

Kastan nodded, agreeing with her assessment.

“Dare I say you look happier, Silvershore,” Kigaru said.

“How can you tell?” Faiza asked.

“He hasn’t launched into discussing our assignments and progress of recruitment,” Condi said, with a small laugh. “By now, we would have planned out new strategies of dealing with insurgencies.”

They laughed and Kastan shook his head at their teasing.

“Speaking of which,” Kastan said. “There are refugees in the caves outside the valley. They ran from the Iron Lands after Lord Revi seized their properties. The Hidden Keepers are looking into their application to join the valley.”

“The Imperial City Akan also has seen a lot of new residents,” General Kigaru said. “There are reports of newcomers asking for permission to sell in the markets there. A fight broke out between the existing merchants and the newcomers. The city guard requested help from our barracks.”

“Three days ago, my men caught a group of fifteen young men who had turned to plundering travelers on the road. They were from the Iron Lands. They were starving so I had them fed and have recruited them as foot soldiers,” Condi said, his gaze speculative.

“Should we turn our attention to the Iron Lands?” Niku asked, leaning forward, her grey overcoat was neat and embroidered with silver thread. The evening light made it shimmer. Her sharp dark gaze narrowed. “West Nation is under control. Their prince is in our Capital, and His Majesty is satisfied with our defenses there. We can shift the army.”

“What do you think, Rashan?” Kastan asked, not glancing at his son beside him.

“The Iron Lands are unique because unlike Sun Kingdom, Blood Nation and Silver Kingdom, they were a large fiefdom ran by a governor before the empire,” Rashan said. “When the kingdoms came together to form Akasha, the Iron Lands continued along with their governor. The current one, Governor Tian, sent Lord Revi to represent the Iron Lands in the Imperial City Akan. However, this subordinate has grown too strong. Lord Revi is now a notable land baron.”

“It is quite disturbing how much land Lord Revi has acquired,” General Kigaru said.

“Imperial Prince Father has the mandate to protect the empire as Commander of Armies. However, he cannot deploy a single troop into the Iron Lands without clear evidence of abuse, insurgence, or disloyalty to the Empire. If he wants to deploy, he needs permission from the Governor, or a direct order from His Majesty,” Rashan said, his voice loud and sure.

“What would be Prince Rashan’s solution?” General Condi asked.

Rashan kept his silence for a moment, and then shifted his feet, glancing at Kastan for a second, before he met General Condi’s gaze.

“There’s an exception to the restrictions,” Rashan said. “That is, if the Empire was already in wartime, then the Commander of Armies has mandate to deploy to protect.”

“Too bad we just resolved West Nation’s crisis,” General Faiza said in annoyance.

“Yes, the West Nation problem is solved,” General Condi said, his gaze thoughtful as he smiled at Rashan. “But, His Majesty has not shifted our status to peacetime. Well done, Prince Rashan.”

Rashan nodded and Kastan grinned in pride.

“While I do have the power to send in an army into the Iron Lands, they are still our neighbors,” Kastan said, looking at Rashan. “You must remember that most of our people prefer to have peaceful lives instead of enduring the pressures of war. We want to keep peace.”

“Then, Imperial Prince Father can send in a small troop to find a reason to send in an army,” Rashan said, with a frown.

Kastan nodded, and turned to face his Generals.

“After the ceremony tonight, General Kigaru and General Niku, go into the Iron Lands,” Kastan said. “Take only essential men with you. Discover the source of unrest and send a report as quickly as you can. I would prefer no direct altercations with Lord Revi. If you can, connect with Governor Tian. Try to keep a low profile with him.”

“Your order is received,” Niku and Kigaru said in reply.

“Meanwhile, I’ll talk to His Majesty, and see what his thoughts are,” Kastan said, a frown appearing on his forehead when he remembered Neith’s warning. He hoped the Burning Feather was not the source of trouble in the Iron Lands.

“Duke Silver,” General Faiza said. “I thought I caught a glimpse of His Majesty’s man, Rael, on my way here. Officers from the Royal Investigative Bureau were staying in the accommodations at the trade station. We keep a distance from them so I did not stop.”

“I saw them too,” Condi said.

Kastan sighed.

“Rael wants to connect with Kamran. Jihan has not mentioned any contact. Let’s wait and see,” Kastan said, sitting back in his chair. He looked at the sundial by the window and took in a nervous breath.

“Shall we discuss the evening’s events?” Condi asked, with a small smile.

“What’s there to discuss?” Faiza asked. “Which one of us hasn’t had a marriage dance before?”

Niku scowled at Faiza and he laughed

“Before you scratch my eyes out, you blazing spitfire, it was a genuine question,” Faiza defended when Niku bared her teeth at him. “You might not have married, but you have attended all of ours. Nothing’s changed. A consort walks along a path lined by our soldiers and meets the groom at the end of that path.”

“Except this is our Commander’s Marriage Dance,” Kigaru commented. “Not only are we accepting His Grace into our armies, we are also swearing fealty to him.”

Kastan once again gripped the round gold medallion he held. All eyes fell on him and the powerful token he held. The Generals all knew what it meant.

“I’ve never been in such a ceremony,” Niku confessed. “So, Imperial Consort will walk down the path of soldiers, until he reaches the generals. Then, all I have to do is take a knee right?”

“Yes, take a knee and accept the jade token he gives you,” Condi said, standing up. He swept back the fabric of his wide sleeves to point at the two jade tokens on his belt. “We all have a black one and a green jade, one for Duke Silver, the other for Silver Shore Marquis. We shall now have three.”

“What color is His Grace’s token?” Niku asked, adjusting the tokens on her belt to match General Condi’s display.

“Red jade,” Rashan said with pride. “You must promise to protect my Papa, especially when he is out of our valley. I really like having him around.”

Niku grinned and nodded. “Alright, little prince, I promise nothing will happen to His Grace on my watch.”

Rashan nodded, satisfied and leaned on the armrest. Kastan took his arm and pulled him to sit on his lap.

“We have one last matter to discuss before we head out,” Kastan said, hoping Jihan had made it back to the manor.

This discussion should have given him enough time to return and start getting ready.

“General Baiza and the estate at the bottom of the cliff,” General Condi stated.

Kastan nodded.

“He was a great general,” Faiza said, a note of sadness coloring his voice. “It’s a pity his daughter is still living in that estate. Baiza should have moved her into a private house, as he had promised.”

“Nisa is too ambitious,” Kigaru hissed, giving Kastan a knowing glance. “She wants to be Countess, and reach above to take on a role as Duchess.”

“That’s harsh,” Niku said.

“Hardly,” Condi said, shaking his head. “Whatever the case, the moment General Baiza’s memorial is complete; a new General must be named for his army command. A man he led, that his soldiers trust, someone young and willing to relocate into the Bottom-cliff Estate.”

“Moran,” Kigaru suggested. “He was General Baiza’s lieutenant general.”

Kastan knew Moran. He was war-hardened, and had managed to save a dozen men out of the caves of Mount Kin.

“Won’t his loyalty be compromised by Nisa?” Faiza asked.

“No,” Kigaru shook his head. “Moran is a son of Blood Nation. Blood Nation protects their own. He is like a wolf. He is loyal to Duke Silver and Silver Shore Marquis.”

“Wolves tear their prey apart,” Niku said, getting agreement nods from everyone in the room.

“What do we do about moving Nisa?” Condi asked.

“She has family living on the west side of the valley. Her father’s sister has a home large enough to accommodate all those living with Nisa,” Faiza said. “She won’t like moving.”

“Bottom-cliff Estate can stay empty for a period when she moves out,” Kastan suggested. “This way she won’t feel insulted.”

“It’s a risky move,” Condi said. “Your family’s lives are important. Without you, or them, this valley would not exist. Unless you move in the keepers, one of us must occupy that estate. It is your tactical post.”

“The keepers refuse to live in temporary quarters,” Kigaru said, shaking his head. “Something about needing a home to call their own.”

“Then it seems like Nisa will have to understand,” Faiza said with a shrug.

“She is a decorated general’s daughter and a countess,” Niku said. “She should know military rules and what they exert on families. Bottom-cliff Estate is not a home. A general must occupy it and she’s not one.”

“So, what’s the consensus?” Kastan asked.

“Moran becomes General Moran after Baiza’s memorial. The moment he is inducted into this General’s Council, Lady Baiza will receive a letter of notification to vacate the estate,” General Condi said. “I’ll take responsibility for her move to her aunt’s home. Then we go in search of a suitable groom. The least we can do for her is get her a good match, as her father would have wanted.”

Kastan nodded, glad that he was not the only one who thought Nisa needed someone to support and protect her.

“It’s very typical of men to assume that what Nisa needs is a husband,” Niku commented. “Have you bothered to ask her what she wants? She might want to travel, or continue her work in the healing arts. She’s quite gifted. She also helps run the academy in the valley. Your sons all learn from her.”

Kastan adjusted Rashan’s weight on his lap, finding the silky length of Rashan’s hair quite fascinating in that moment.

Someone cleared his throat, then Kigaru spoke up.

“Niku, we’re not being unfair,” Kigaru said. “It’s just that we’ve all seen her try to trap Duke Silver into marriage. Before the war, it would have probably worked out, I don’t know. Duke Silver might have fancied her and ended up with her as his Duchess. Right now…”

Kigaru trailed off.

“His Grace has a consort, and you think Nisa will make trouble for them,” Nisa guessed.

“Do you think I’m wrong?” Kigaru asked, looking at Niku.

Niku gave a tired sigh.

“I don’t think you’re wrong.”

“What’s the solution?” Kigaru asked.

Niku kept her silence and Kastan looked up from his son’s hair to find Niku watching him.

She smiled and he shrugged.

“Fine, maybe Lady Baiza needs a lord to curb her ambitions,” Niku said in agreement.

Kastan urged Rashan up and followed suit. He stretched his arms above his head, and glanced at the sundial again.

“We should head to the meadow,” Kastan said, his anxiety hard to hide.

Safan, Naveed and Temu entered the receiving room and the generals all nodded in their direction. Kastan met Safan’s gaze.

“His Grace is in the manor,” Safan confirmed, and soft chuckles filled the room when Kastan gave a relieved sigh.

“I never thought I would live to see a day when Duke Silver looks so nervous,” Faiza said.

“Look who is talking,” Niku teased as she got up. “I remember your marriage dance. You were so confused, I had to guide you to the meadow and keep you in the right spot for your bride to find you.”

“Take that back,” Faiza warned. “Whose fault was it that I was so confused? You made me drink a large barrel of Gura wine for courage that afternoon. You promised never to speak of it.”

“I lied,” Niku said, laughing, and a round of teasing started as they made their way out of the manor.

Condi took Rashan’s hand, leading him outside, as Rashan asked about Condi’s adventures during the war.

Kastan hang back, his gaze wandering to the wooden screen and the corridor behind it. He wondered if Jihan was watching him. He started to head that way, but Naveed grabbed his elbow.

“Your Grace, your consort will meet you at the Silver Meadow. Temu will make sure of it. You on the other hand, need to make it first so that the people can see you’re happy to be married to him.”

Kastan started to protest but Temu hurried ahead of him.

“I’ll watch over him until you see each other,” Temu promised.

Temu gave him a short salute, and then ran to the corridor, turning in the direction of the stairs. If Jihan was dressing, then heading to the meadow would be better.

Kastan gave in and allowed Naveed to lead him out of the manor.

*~*~*~*

Jihan arrived at Sun-filled Manor with a sense of anxiety growing in his gut. He jumped off his horse and wasn’t surprised when Firuz grabbed his arm. Firuz led him around the manor to the back. Jihan paused when he noticed a dozen or so stewards strolling around the back gardens. Their faces were new. Jihan had stayed at the manor long enough to recognize the gardeners and the men Temu and Naveed allowed on to the grounds.

“Who are they?” Jihan asked, even as Firuz rushed him to the large bathhouse in the back of the manor.

“The Generals have arrived,” Firuz said. “I’m guessing they work for them.”

Jihan bit his lip to stop himself from asking more questions. All this time, he had known he would need to interact with Kastan’s Generals. Temu, Naveed and even Safan, whose sole duty was Rashan, were easy to understand. Eating, sleeping and living in the same house tended to resolve distance. The other generals were a mystery, a force he feared.

What if they treated him like Master Rabo or Ferino had? Thinking about it made him shudder.

Yasmin seemed to have a sixth sense because she burst into the bathhouse from the kitchen. She launched into complaints about Jihan’s lateness. She urged Firuz to help Jihan strip out of his dirty day clothes.

“What took you so long, little Duke?” Yasmin asked, when Jihan was neck deep in the huge tub. The water felt hot enough to make his skin tingle. “I sent so many messages to you. Weren’t you worried about missing your own marriage dance?”

Jihan started to answer her, but she dumped sweet smelling soap on his head. He closed his eyes as her fingers sunk into his hair and she started a hard scrubbing. Minutes later, his hair was rinsed in water filled with rose petals.

Jihan wiped his face, hoping to escape drinking a mouthful of soapy water.

Yasmin finished with his hair and Jihan sighed in relief.

“Firuz, make sure he scrubs every inch of his skin,” Yasmin said, getting up from the platform on the rim of the bathtub.

Her apron was soaking wet, she had clearly washed Jihan’s hair with too much vigor. Yasmin picked up a pail and started heading to the kitchen.

“If I discover your haven’t done it, I’ll be the one to help you with a brush,” Yasmin threatened, as she disappeared into the kitchen.

“Who is the boss and who is the servant?” Jihan complained, wiping water from his eyes.

Firuz chuckled and pushed him deeper into the large tub. The stonewall was built high to accommodate the rise of bath water. Jihan loved soaking in here, but that luxury was not happening today.

Firuz made sure he scrubbed every inch of his skin, as ordered.

The process moved faster when Firuz washed his back for him.

“Yasmin is irritated with you,” Firuz said, moving strands of Jihan’s hair from back so that he could scrub the curve of his neck. “You’re really very late.”

Jihan sighed.

“She can join the list of valley people irritated with me. I’m not sure what Kastan is thinking,” Jihan said. “It won’t change what the valley’s people think of me.”

Yasmin must have heard him on her return. She placed a bucket of clean water on the platform and moved around the tub to look at Jihan. Her gaze was kind, her expression somber as she held Jihan’s gaze.

“Your Grace,” she said. “I’m sorry it has been difficult for you. It’s just that, we’ve all taken care of Duke Silver and his son for ten years. We’ve seen him struggle to raise his son alone. We hoped when he did find a partner that it might be someone from this valley.”

“That someone being Lady Baiza,” Jihan guessed, dropping his gaze to the water.

“Yes, there was such a hope,” Yasmin agreed, but then she reached out to touch Jihan’s cheek. Her hand ducked away as fast as she touched him. “We were wrong. Duke Silver is happier than I’ve ever seen him. You’re what he wants, so everyone will accept that. That’s what a marriage dance is about, staking a claim on your chosen partner.”

Jihan looked up to meet her smiling gaze and felt a bit of confidence dilute his anxiety.

“Now, stand up, we’ll get you rinsed and dressed in no time,” Yasmin said, clapping her hands. “Duke Silver is delaying the generals in the receiving room. They’ll leave when we’re on our way upstairs. You can be a few minutes late to the Silver Meadow.”

Jihan pushed wet hair out of his eyes, and Yasmin grabbed his right hand with a short cry.

“What is this?” she said, studying Jihan’s nails. “Your Grace, were you digging mud with your hands?”

Jihan didn’t get a chance to explain.

Yasmin produced a small brush from her apron pocket and started scrubbing his nails clean.

“Woman, you must have been a tyrant in a past life,” Jihan shouted in protest.

Upstairs, Jihan stood by the bed he shared with Kastan in contemplation.

This was the third time he was dressing up in ceremony.

The first was the day he met the Emperor’s agent, Rael. That day, Kastan declared he would be consort. Jihan then met a frightening Emperor and realized a soul existed that he could not sweet talk into a deal.

The second time was his wedding day, when he officially left his father’s home to help start a house with Kastan. That day, his name changed from Kamran to Miran. He moved into this manor, and faced a valley that looked at him like a villain.

Now, here was a third time.

A sigh escaped and he wondered what would change after this marriage dance.

“Your Grace, Set left a message for you,” Temu said, coming into the master’s chamber. He stopped at the large table in the middle of the room, holding up a scroll. “He says it has to do with the Welfare Office. May I ask? Do you have him spying on our valley?”

“What would General Temu do if I said yes?” Jihan asked, lifting his arms so that Yasmin could held him wear his overcoat over his plain red long tunic.

He was in red again the fine silk brocade fabric woven to perfection, the gold embroidery on the hems once again drawing Jihan’s interest. He wanted to turn that fabric workshop into a business. He winced at the thought of Master Rabo. His heart was still stinging over that encounter.

Yasmin overlapped the coat’s lapels, and took the wide leather belt on the bed. Jihan helped her adjust the right tension on the ties, before he turned his attention to Temu.

“I’m quite aware that you would not do anything to harm His Grace, and the little prince,” Temu said. “I have heard from His Grace that the Emperor hopes you would turn this valley profitable.”

“And?” Jihan prompted when Temu stopped talking.

“The Hidden Keepers take care of the valley’s security. You don’t need to spy on the valley. You’re safe,” Temu said.

Jihan chuckled.

“The Hidden Keepers keep outsiders out of the valley. They protect those within the valley, from intruders and petty crimes,” Jihan agreed. “I see their value. Set’s value is different. He gains information that you, nor I, would manage to get out of the tiniest village.”

“Information?”

“The most valuable thing if you want to turn a profit,” Jihan said with a small smile. He frowned as he watched Yasmin start clipping seven of the red tokens he usually wore on his belt. “Why so many?”

“Seven tokens for each general,” Temu answered.

Jihan gaped and touched one. “What if I lose them on the way?”

“Then the Generals will not be amused,” Temu said. “Why are you so interested in the Welfare Office?”

Jihan started toward Temu, only to have Yasmin stop him. She held up a silver ivy and oak leaves circlet. The tangled leaves framed a black jade stone. Jihan sat on the edge of the bed and closed his eyes. Yasmin placed the circlet on his forehead, weaving the silver threads on the ends of the circlet into an intricate knot on the back. She pinned it all with the red jade pin Rashan gifted him.

The weight of Jihan’s hair then fell down his back combed to a shine by Yasmin’s brush.

The only other jewelry Jihan wore was his pair of rings: the wedding one and his engagement ring. Jihan touched them for a moment, rubbing his thumb over the black stone, and then got up. He thanked Yasmin for her care and joined Temu at the table.

“Let me read Set’s note,” Jihan said, holding out his right hand for Temu to give him the note from Set.

The trust growing between him and Temu was delicate. This man had once looked at him with suspicion the night of Andiya’s wedding. Jihan now stood with patience. Temu studied him for a moment, and then placed the note in Jihan’s palm.

Jihan gave him a short nod of thanks and unrolled the note.

‘Ferino’s books match a list of welfare benefactors in the Welfare Office. The office sends money to Ferino as though paying these welfare benefactors’ debts. It is likely that excess funds are flowing to the butchery and disappearing. Ferino must be working for a bigger fish. You’ll have to set out a large enough bait to catch this fish.’

Jihan handed the open note to Temu. He watched Temu read the note, and step back to lean on the sturdy table Jihan used to work.

“What does this mean?” Temu asked.

“That this valley is too large to be in debt,” Jihan said. “Kas receives money from the imperial government to fund his armies, and the welfare office is supposed to disburse it according to need,” Jihan said. “Such monies are easy to embezzle without a full proof plan. The existing gap needs to be plugged. I can’t touch the welfare office, but you and General Naveed can.”

Temu stared at the note.

“How could we not know?” Temu asked, surprise clear on his face.

“Your organization is based on trust,” Jihan said, then picked up his fan from the table and tapped Temu’s right arm. “Mine is built on mistrust.”

“Your Grace,” Temu said, when Jihan started heading out of the master’s chamber, his red boots silent on the polished wood floors.

“How can you build a business on mistrust?” Temu asked, hurrying after Jihan.

Firuz who stepped in behind Temu chuckled.

“His Grace’s philosophy is that you hand a man a position in full trust, but place another next to them to mistrust,” Firuz said.

“Isn’t that counterproductive?” Temu asked.

“One person receives the money,” Jihan said, walking down the stairs in leisure. He opened his fan, studying the blank side of the fan, and then turned the fan to the drawing of Kamran Estate. “The other man records the money. They are never in the same place at the same time, and they don’t know each other but their records must always match. What makes that counterproductive? If one has wrong numbers, naturally, someone has lied and the problem must be solved. It has worked well for Kamran, why not the army’s affairs?”

Temu stopped walking, his gaze on Jihan, who continued walking down the stairs. This young merchant was more ruthless than he seemed.

Why had he ever thought Jihan was weak?

He caught Firuz’s smirk, and Temu scowled at the loyal shadow guard. Firuz always looked like he knew more than he was telling. As though saying, ‘Ah, there is a reason I chose to follow his footsteps. My master is more remarkable than he looks.’

Temu scoffed under his breath at the thought. In this case, he needed to congratulate Firuz. Jihan Kamran had an interesting mind. They were lucky he liked Kastan so much.

“General Temu,” Yasmin touched his arm, and he looked up to find Jihan had already disappeared down the hall.

Temu broke into a run down the remaining stairs.

“Don’t forget to explain the ceremony to His Grace,” Yasmin called after him.

*~*~*~*

I'm back after disappearing, but I was writing, which is good, I hope.

My hiatus was because of personal struggles, but this excuse at this time is very common.

It's not easy for anyone in the world at the moment, so all I can say is I'm working on it, and getting there bit by bit.

All my love,

Sui.

I've made a character list to track it all. Find it here.

Suilan Lee, 2019
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Glad you are back, hope things are better. Good chapter, and the map on the blog is appreciated, I was having a hard time separating the "kingdoms" that are provinces of the empire from the independent kingdoms. 

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You made my day today with this new chapter. I've been checking consistently everyday, and was so happy to see the new chapter alert. It was worth the wait too. This chapter had so many awesome moments. Such as, Rashan calling Jihan Papa, meeting the generals and seeing how awesome and loyal they are, Rashan showing his smartness, and Temu finding out how intelligent Jihan is, and that he's not just a pretty face. I'm happy Jihan found out about Ferino, being that he works for that witch Nisa. Also, I hope her plan backfires. She hasn't realized she's lost already, because everyone already love and support Jihan being with Kastan, seeing how happy he and Rashan are. I can't wait for her to be exposed. I bet it's gonna be so explosive, and I hope the empress also gets it too. I can't wait for the next chapter. looking forward to the marriage ceremony and Rashan and Jihan's trip to visit Andiya. Thank You so much, and be well. :heart::thankyou:

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Really loved this chapter, the pacing was perfect and the writing as well.  So happy that Jihan has a new title of Papa.  I had to wonder why the valley was doing so poorly; we know now, Lady Nisa has been embezzling the money, now we just have to find out why.

Hope the trip with Jihan and Rashan goes well, with no major upheavals.  

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hi Sui,

thank you for finding the strength to overcome the issues you have been faced with - i truly hope your writing is helpful for you personally as you navigate our new reality.

please know your creativity, your abilities and the sharing you bestow on us consumers are much appreciated 😉

thanks for making my week - hope someone/something has made yours!

d

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Blessings to you, every day.

This chapter was welcome, both for the length of time since the last one and the content.

It was heartwarming to see Jihan, Kastan and Rashan bond further as a family.  Yes, Jihan loves Rashan as his own, he loves his father as his own, too but I feel that declaration should come from Kastan first.  
Kastan’s inner circle is seeing the true value of his husband- Jihan’s good heart, loyalty, intellect and excellent commerce skills are assets as valuable as the accoutrements associated with being a member of the Royal family.  I view this union as a marriage between equals, with a fortunate factor of love involved.

This chapter also exposed the depths of Nisa’s perfidy (among others in the village).  Embezzling from the village you live on the pretext of making things right when she married Kastan just proves she was never worthy to be his bride;

“Everything she had done in this valley was for the sake of Prince Kastan and his well-being. It was too bad that an interloper had appeared to ruin her plans. She had not meant for her meddling with the welfare office to go on for so long.”

 Like Rushi, her loyalty is to herself with whatever love she may feel for Kastan a twisted extension of her own vanity. I am anxious of her plans with her father’s memorial, as I still feel Kastan underestimates the depth of her duplicitousness:

If she could not marry the Imperial Prince, she would at least get him to take her on as a concubine. She was willing to take that role, even bow her head to a merchant to win a part of Prince Kastan. Once in that manor, she would find a way to make it all hers.”   How little she knows Kastan to think he would willingly have her as his concubine....perhaps willingly or unwillingly is of no matter to her at this point.  I hope Kastan doesn’t allow himself to be alone with her at any time.

Thank you for this serving, thirsty for more of this intriguing story, will work on patiently waiting. 😊

 

Edited by FanLit
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You have been greatly missed and thank you for this chapter, so much to distill. Excellent job of pacing, plot development and setting the tone for the remainder of the story. Well done, perseverance is simply one step at a time and wish you health and success in your journey!!!

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Very glad to see you are back! Hope whatever trouble you have had is settled. Thank you once again for this wonderful chapter! Looking forward to the next...next week 😊

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On 9/25/2020 at 3:41 AM, Danilo Syrtis said:

i have a question : how do you find your characters name ? because « Neith » is an egyptian goddess and « Ha » & « Bast » look like « Râ » & « Bastet » 2 other egyptian gods 

Oooh, you're discovering my little secrets, hahaha.  Okay, yes, I did spend a while reading about Egyptian/ Persian and Greek gods and goddesses in their different cultures.  I felt Neith, Bast and Ha would work best for my story because I loved their backgrounds and their names were quite fun.

 

On 9/25/2020 at 8:26 AM, flesco said:

I really hope that your personal struggles can be brought under control quickly and painlessly. I also hope that you are staying safe and healthy during these incredibly difficult circumstances. I truly value your stories and characters and the complexity of your creative genius. Please always know that we your loyal readers love and value you. You offer each of us the opportunity to live in your worlds, even if only for short periods. These amazing stories are an escape from a world gone mad. Thank you so very much! 👏❤️

:heart::heart::heart::hug: I'm so grateful.  Thank you too and this month I've made a deal to wrangle my crazy life and make time for what I love to do, which is writing. I'm looking forward to what I get out of this at the end of the month. Hopefully, The Reluctant Consort will have a few more chapters.

 

On 9/27/2020 at 6:45 PM, FanLit said:

This chapter also exposed the depths of Nisa’s perfidy (among others in the village)

Nisa has an ideal in her head that she is unwilling to let go, and in the end this clinging to the ideal will bring trouble for her, for those in the manor and the valley. 

 

Thank you for always reading and the support.  I hope you're all okay and getting through.  Can't believe it's already October 2020.  Stay safe and healthy.

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3 minutes ago, lilansui said:

Oooh, you're discovering my little secrets, hahaha.  Okay, yes, I did spend a while reading about Egyptian/ Persian and Greek gods and goddesses in their different cultures.  I felt Neith, Bast and Ha would work best for my story because I loved their backgrounds and their names were quite fun.

lol i spent a lot of time reading greek, roman, scandinavian, egyptian mythologies when i was younger 😬 i love celtic and chinese mythologies but there aren’t that many stuffs (i found more in movies/tv series than books) 😀

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21 minutes ago, Danilo Syrtis said:

 i love celtic and chinese mythologies but there aren’t that many stuffs (i found more in movies/tv series than books) 😀

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

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I actually read the above chapter a while ago.

I can't think of the correct word to explain why my comment is so late. It was a mixture of things e.g. I was so grateful we got a new chapter, I was so grateful at how long the chapter was, I LOVE this story and you do it so very very well, there was so much to take in, etc. I thought I had more time to compose myself, etc before attempting to comment, but then saw a new chapter had dropped already.

So the two big things for me in this chapter -

1. why has no-one explained to Jihan what the Marriage Dance was all about, what happens at the Marriage dance, the importance of it, etc? Communication people. Communication. It would have helped with getting him back to the manor quicker for the Dance and helped with his nerves, etc.

2. you know I actually forgot all about Nisa. I really did. Now I find out she is even more evil than I thought. She is not going to stop. Someone will have to make that hard decision. The resulting action of said decision hopefully goes to Firuz.

The two tidbits were -

1. it is so cool Shan calls Jihan Papa. Jihan really needed that, especially at that specific moment.

2. I wonder what is going to have to happen for those final walls to come down and for Jihan's love to fly? That will be awesome to see.

3. This is from the last chapter, but I would love to have a 'Yoru' in my life.

So, thanks so much for this story. The word 'Epic' is slightly over-used, but it is perfectly descriptive/appropriate in this instance. In my opinion anyway. This, your story, is just Epic in so many ways. I love it, love it, love it.

I hope your personal issues, if not fully resolved, are on their way to being so. It has been a Drop Kick Of A Year for so many of us. 2021 needs to be the Holiday/Break Year please. A rest from this year would be greatly appreciated.

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Great chapter, and I'm pleased all the generals are aware of Nisa's ambitions. And that Kastan is starting to pay more attention to his spouse.

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I too am late to the table with my comments, but I was waiting for time when I could savor it -- and have another chapter already at hand to binge on. 😉 The others have captured most of my comments, but the fact that the story starts with Kastan remembering Neith's request as to the timing of Jihan's departure, rekindled my thoughts about how important the full discussion with Neith was. The fact that there are other things Neith said to Kastan that were unclear, but prophetically dark, makes me imagine Nisa's and Rushi's machinations being woven into a foreboding tapestry that will need to be rewoven or destroyed -- without destroying Kastan, Jihan, and the others we love. I am also pondering whether Rashan or Andiya/child will be getting a Shadow Guard. Finally, as @Buz said, "I want a Yoru, too."

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