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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 - 17. Chapter 17

The Marriage Dance

The ride to the Silver Meadow was full of instructions from Temu on how the Marriage Dance should run.

“You can use the carriage to the meadow, but walking among the people will make you seem approachable. Once you reach the meadow, you’ll find soldiers who are stationed or on leave in the valley. They’ll make a path to the dais for you. Before your each the dais, you’ll meet the generals. We are six even though you’re supposed to meet seven. One of us fell in the war,” Temu said.

“General Baiza,” Jihan said.

“His replacement is on the way to the valley. He will be General Moran,” Temu said. “The generals get the tokens on your belt. Then, General Naveed will lead you to His Grace. There is a special guest who will officiate the ceremony with Rashan’s help.”

“Special guest?” Jihan asked. “Do you mean one of the ancients like in the palace?”

“No,” Temu shook his head. “His Grace asked me to keep this guest a secret.”

Jihan nodded, though it felt like added pressure. When the carriage reached their destination, Temu got out and Jihan asked for a few minutes. He sat alone trying to catch his breathe. He placed his fan on the bench and took in a deep gulp of air.

Butterflies waged war in the depths of his stomach.

Jihan tugged on the sleeves of his overcoat, adjusted the lapels and then the belt around his waist. He sat back and took another deep breath, letting it out slow.

No matter how much Temu and Yasmin assured him, it still felt like he was meeting a mob who hated him. He had never met people who disliked him. Save for his father, who just expected everything from him and gave nothing. He was a merchant who knew nothing about noble titles and the ruling class. He only knew how to make deals. How would it be possible to make an entire valley of people like him over a dance?

“What am I doing here?” Jihan whispered.

He pressed his hand to his stomach, hoping to calm the butterflies.

“Jihan,” Firuz said, peering into the carriage. “Everyone is waiting for you.”

Jihan nodded, but made no effort to get up. Noting his unease, Firuz climbed into the carriage, taking the bench opposite Jihan.

“What?” Firuz asked in a mild tone.

Jihan bunched the fabric of his overcoat and opened his eyes to look at Firuz.

“I will have married him three times now,” Jihan said, shaking his head. “Each time to stop some form of crisis,” Jihan scoffed. “How many more ceremonies will we have between us?”

“Countless,” Firuz said with a short grin. “Still, you shouldn’t be nervous. He is clearly yours.”

“That’s not the problem and you know it,” Jihan said, resting his head on the wall behind him.

“The valley’s people worry you,” Firuz said. “After tonight, Temu promises you won’t face resistance.”

“How can we be sure?” Jihan asked. “I’m-I’m not—”

“I’m sure,” Firuz said.

Jihan met his gaze again and the promise in Firuz’s eyes steadied him. He could only hope this path he continued to walk with Firuz led to better things.

“You’re doing fine,” Firuz said, as though reading his thoughts. “Trust him too.”

Jihan nodded, his hand flattening on his stomach. He touched the wide belt, his fingers skating over the red tokens.

“The Commander of Armies leads hundreds of thousands of men into battle. You now become his greatest weakness and also his greatest strength,” Firuz murmured. “That’s what this night is about.”

Jihan took in a steadying breath, this time the butterflies quieted. Yes, he was Duke Silver’s Consort. The one Kastan needed to back Rashan, and this valley, no matter what.

“I never want to be his weakness,” Jihan said, sure of his emotions.

“Then, let’s go to the meadow, Imperial Consort,” Firuz teased. “To be strong, you need all these people’s support.”

Jihan got up and followed Firuz out of the carriage.

The dirt road leading to the Silver Meadow was packed with people coming for the festivities, and vendors. Jihan’s carriage stood at the entrance of the road. Temu had explained that most partners walked the path, so Jihan had insisted he would too. The people would not expect it of him.

Jihan started walking on the dirt road with Firuz leading the way. Temu walked behind him. His heartbeat loud in his ears as people started to notice him.

There were wary glances for Firuz. Thankfully, Firuz had hidden his sword under a long dark cloak.

Jihan kept a moderate pace matching the men, women and children heading to the meadow. A young girl ran past him, and slid on a patch of grass. She fell on the ground right in front of him and froze in the shock. Jihan bent down to help her up. She started crying as he got her on steady feet.

“Don’t cry,” Jihan said, his tone soothing.

He wiped dust off her pink robes, and helped fix the pink flower pinned in her hair. She stopped crying, when he wiped tears off her cheek with his palm.

“A smile looks prettier,” Jihan said, smiling at her.

She was a cute little thing with bright eyes, her lashes clumped by tears. She gave him a tentative smile and he grinned. Jihan wiped the remnants of her tears from her cheeks and straightened up.

“Papa,” Rashan shouted, and Jihan looked up to see Rashan running, the crowd patting to give him way.

“Your Grace,” an older woman said, reaching for the little girl’s hand. Her smile was kind when she looked at him. “I’ll take her now. Congratulations on your marriage dance.”

Jihan nodded, eyes widening as everyone passing him repeated her words.

“Congratulations, Your Grace.”

“Be happy, Your Grace.”

It was as though the older woman had broken the silence, and everyone who passed him now had the courage to talk to him. He had no time to examine this change. Rashan was racing toward him at full speed.

“Slow down, Shan,” Jihan said, stopping so that he could brace for the impact.

Rashan threw himself at Jihan, wrapping tight arms around Jihan’s waist. Jihan held him for a moment, and then smiled when Rashan looked up at him.

“You’re late, Papa,” Rashan said. “Pa is worried. I told him I would come look for you.”

Jihan smoothed Rashan’s hair, charmed and totally lost for this boy.

“Well, you found me,” Jihan said, smiling because Rashan’s enthusiastic love had sent all his nerves dashing off. “Shall we go meet your Pa together?”

“Okay,” Rashan said, letting go of Jihan’s waist, and moving to the side to take Jihan’s left hand.

“Pa, you’re missing something,” Rashan said, as they started walking again.

Rashan swung their clasped hands making Jihan smile.

“What am I missing?” Jihan asked, nodding his thanks when a young man congratulated him on his marriage dance.

“Every time there is a marriage dance, the bride is always holding flowers or wearing them,” Rashan said.

This child, Jihan thought, biting back a chuckle.

“I know you’re not a bride,” Rashan said, looking up at him, his gaze critical as he studied Jihan’s ceremonial robes. “But a consort should have flowers for their marriage dance.”

Before Jihan could respond, Rashan let go of his hand and raced off into the trees. Jihan turned to Firuz. Firuz followed Rashan without hesitation. Jihan slowed to a stop, his gaze looking into the trees, a frown dancing on his forehead until he saw Rashan running back with Firuz.

Rashan hurried to his side, and held out a yellow daffodil.

It was one flower, but to Jihan it was yet another memorable gift. Jihan took the flower and kissed Rashan’s forehead in thanks. He held the flower in his right hand and took Rashan’s with his left. They kept walking the dirt road. The smiles from the villages they met were warm and genuine. Their words of congratulations full of promise.

Jihan felt like it was a good start. When they reached the meadow, Jihan stopped to take in the festive red tents mounted around the meadow. There were red lanterns hanging on elegant posts, and colorful wild flowers growing in the grass. A group of talented musicians played music, the tune upbeat, lending a jovial feel to the atmosphere. The sun sat on the horizon, casting a yellow hue that turned the world mystic. So many people filled the meadow. The men handsome in dark blue overcoats that Jihan assumed were their formal uniform. The women dressed in their finest clothes, and children moving from tent to tent, excitement clear on their faces. It was a warm community, their tight knit relationships clear.

Jihan had never seen anything so beautiful and he wanted to be part of it.

“Your Grace, please wait here,” Temu said, walking around Jihan. He took a few steps ahead, and called out, “Duke Silver’s Consort arrives.”

Temu’s announcement drew everyone’s attention.

The soldiers in their fine dark blue overcoats, wearing silver ceremonial swords at their waist, turned in their direction. When they moved, their families moved with them, as they crowded on two sides to make a path. The music faded in the background, the meadow growing quiet and full of excited chatter.

Rashan squeezed Jihan’s hand.

“I’ll be waiting for you with Pa,” Rashan said, as he let go of Jihan’s hand.

For a moment, Jihan wanted to take Rashan’s hand again and hold on for courage to face the mob now looking toward him. Jihan nodded at Rashan, occupying his hands with the flower Rashan gave him. He watched Rashan run into the gathering crowd. Gentle hands patted Rashan’s shoulders as he passed them.

Firuz moved behind Jihan, as Temu took the front this time.

“The whole valley seems to have showed up,” Jihan said under his breath.

“Don’t forget to breathe,” Firuz teased, squeezing Jihan’s left shoulder.

Jihan took in air, and watched as hundreds of soldiers lined up in two rows, forming a wide path between them. They stood at attention with their families behind them, everyone trying to get a good vantage point. Jihan tried to see the end of the path, but he could only see the crowd on each side.

“We’re ready, Your Grace,” Temu said, moving around Jihan to stand with Firuz. “You’re leading the way to the front. When you reach the Generals, stop. Okay?”

Jihan nodded. He clutched the flower from Rashan tighter and held his breath as he took the first step into the path. He half expected to be pummeled with eggs. It was hard to hide the surprise when the first two soldiers he passed pulled out their swords and held them up in salute.

His step faltered, and Temu took steps forward to explain.

“They are officers directly under generals, their salute is to acknowledge your new rank among them,” Temu said. “Try to be confident on your walk.”

Jihan nodded and straightened his shoulders, feigning confidence as he continued along the path. Silver swords came up in salute, and soon, his confidence grew. The walk to the generals took a quarter of an hour, maybe more. Each officer who raised his or her sword made Jihan realize that Kastan had too much responsibility. All these people looking to Kastan for guidance, it made Jihan want to be strong enough to help.

He sighed in relief when he saw the small divide between the officers in deep blue and the Generals in their more eclectic formal wear.

Jihan stopped as Temu had advised and looked down to see he had almost mangled Rashan’s flower. The petals looked abused under his nervous hands. He placed the flower in his left sleeve pocket not wanting to lose it. Wiping his hands on his overcoat, he looked up in time to see the five generals form a neat line before him. They blocked his path to the round wooden dais ahead. It was covered with a red carpet and colorful lanterns hang above.

Kastan, handsome in his red robes and the light shining on his crown, stood at the center of the dais waiting with Rashan. Kastan smiled, his gaze on Jihan, never once moving away.

Jihan had a sudden urge to run to him.

“The Council of Generals stands before His Grace, Duke of Silver Shore. We welcome His Grace to the valley and accept his command. Your Grace, do you accept our service?”

The stern voice interrupted his thoughts and he was suddenly staring at a General, unsure about his next move. He was surprised to see that Temu had joined the line of Generals. Jihan met Temu’s gaze and breathed in relief when Temu pointed to the red jade tokens at his belt.

Jihan nodded and unclipped one from his belt. He held it out to the man who had spoken, hiding his surprise when the man dropped to his right knee.

“I am General Condi at your service.”

General Condi took the red jade token and pinned it to his belt before he stood up, with a short nod. He winked at Jihan and tilted his head to the man standing next to him.

Jihan unclipped the second red jade token and stood before the second general.

Jihan gave him one look and saw that this one wore his fine-tuned thirst for blood in his gaze. A Shadow Guard was sworn to protect. This one loved battle and the bloody art that was war, nothing about him spoke of protecting only conquering. He could not show any fear as he met that sharp gaze.

Not an ounce, Jihan thought.

He stilled the urge to shiver and met the unsettling gaze with a slight smile. It felt like an accomplishment when the dangerous man dropped to his right knee and held out his right hand.

“I am General Faiza at your service, Your Grace.”

Jihan held his relief and placed the red jade token in the steady palm. He waited until the token was clipped and General Faiza got up before he moved to the next man. This one was tall and thin, and his gaze was kind. He put Jihan at ease as he knelt on his right knee without hesitation.

“General Kigaru is at your service, Your Grace.”

Jihan smiled this time as he placed the red jade token on Kigaru’s palm. He nodded when Kigaru clipped the token on his belt and looked up with an inquiring gaze. Jihan returned the smile when Kigaru came up with grace.

Jihan moved to the fourth general, working hard to contain his excitement when he realized it was a woman.

She gave him a short nod before she dropped on her right knee.

“I’m General Niku,” she said. “I am at your service, Your Grace.”

Jihan gave her a red jade token and gave her a short nod when she stood up with a welcoming smile. The last two generals were familiar: Naveed and Temu. Both of them gave him teasing grins as they knelt and took their jade tokens. When he was done, Jihan stepped back and bowed his head a small fraction to show his respect.

These men were responsible for keeping Kastan safe at battle.

If possible, Jihan would make them invincible so that they could keep Kastan unharmed forever.

“Your Grace, I’ll escort you to your husband,” Temu said.

Jihan thanked the generals and followed Temu around them. He couldn’t wait to reach Kastan and Rashan. They were the reason why he was doing this, the reasons why he so badly wanted to belong to Silver Shore.

*~*~*~*

Kastan watched Jihan follow Temu to the dais. He took Rashan’s right hand and squeezed it a little too hard in excitement. Rashan gave him a look and he loosened his hold. Heart full of excitement, he took in his consort. There were times he didn’t quite believe he had managed to keep Jihan.

He remembered meeting Jihan on the street in the Imperial Capital Akan. Jihan had saved Rashan without a thought for his own life. His heart so giving it was hard to ignore it.

Kastan smiled thinking of their second meeting. He had found the Jihan who tied his hair so tight on his head and gave him a cold greeting intriguing. Then there was the charming, thrilling Jihan, facing off with a killer in a teahouse. Kastan had worried they would be too late that day. One misstep and Jihan would have been stabbed to death, and this day would not have come. He had known from that moment that he never wanted to see Jihan in danger again in his life.

Then there was the Jihan who had tried to start a fire in a kitchen and ended up smoking up the place. Kastan couldn’t help smiling at the memory. That night Jihan kissed him, that night, Jihan came to him.

Kastan felt his nerves settle at the memory of their first time. He had fallen in love with Jihan that night, every night after felt like a dream. The torture of waiting that followed had almost swallowed him up, but they had found their way back.

Jihan was now at Silver Shore. He was his and that was how Kastan wanted to keep it. Yes, this marriage dance was yet another way to tie Jihan to him in a way no one would be able to pull them apart.

Beside him, Rashan let out a delighted chuckle as Jihan approached them.

“What?” Kastan asked, his gaze on Jihan who was now walking a little faster.

“I made a wish to the god of fate on my birthday,” Rashan said. “It seems he heard me, Pa. I’m so happy Papa is with us.”

“A wish?” Kastan glanced at his son, thinking back to a day on the cliff, when Rashan was letting lanterns rise to the sky. “Ah, the wish you wouldn’t tell me about. What did you ask for?”

“Someone to stay with you, like General Condi has his wife,” Rashan said. “I figured if you had a partner to help with the manor and the valley, you would smile more. Fara said that I should ask the god of fate for help and my prayer came true.”

Kastan gaped at his son, but he had no time to ask more, because Jihan had reached them. Seeing the tension on Jihan’s shoulders, he let go of Rashan’s hand, reached for Jihan and pulled him into his arms.

Jihan trembled and wrapped his arms around Kastan’s waist, burying his face into Kastan’s chest.

“You did good,” Kastan murmured. “You look so amazing. I can’t believe you’re mine.”

Jihan bunched the fabric of his overcoat at his back and pulled back to look at him.

“You too, Kas, I can’t believe you’re mine either.”

“I’m here too,” Rashan said, making Jihan laugh, shifting to look at their son. “Am I yours too?”

Kastan let Jihan go when he moved to hug Rashan and kiss the top of his head.

“Yes, you are mine too, Shan,” Jihan said, then stood, turning as he swiped a palm over his right cheek.

Kastan thought he caught the sheen of tears in the fading sunlight. He stole a kiss and shouts of excitement came from their audience. Jihan blushed making Kastan laugh.

Rashan took a strip of red ribbon from Temu and stood to Jihan’s left.

Kastan held Jihan’s right hand and moved to whisper in his ear.

“Our promise guide is someone I should have introduced to you before,” Kastan said. “He insisted on attending before I got the chance to take you for a visit. It’s been a while since he joined a marriage dance. I couldn’t say no.”

“Who is it?” Jihan asked.

“My father,” Kastan said, tightening his hold on Jihan when he tried to step back.

Jihan scowled at him and Kastan bit back a laugh. Jihan grumbled under his breath and adjusted his belt, bringing his free hand to touch the circlet on his forehead.

“We’re already married. He can’t remove you from my house,” Kastan tease, earning himself another scowl and a hard poke to his belly.

“This is not how I would have liked to meet my father in-law,” Jihan hissed, then bit back his next sentence when the previous Emperor stepped up onto the dais.

Kaveh Miran had given his features to Kastan, Jihan decided. Just like Kastan had blessed Rashan with his. The only difference was that Kaveh’s hair was long downhis back and turned to silver. He wore white robes, the embroidery on them gold: a fig tree with three branches to symbolize his Imperial House.

Jihan squeezed Kastan’s hand as he found the courage to meet keen eyes.

Kaveh’s dark gaze on him was speculative.

Jihan wondered what Kaveh thought of him.

Rashan moved to his grandfather’s side, and got a pat on his left shoulder in greeting.

Kastan winced as Jihan squeezed his hand tighter. He frowned when he noted that Jihan’s shoulders were tense. Jihan lowered his head in a bow as Kaveh Miran approached him.

Kastan met his father’s amused gaze and tried to beg with his eyes, hoping that Kaveh be gentle with his consort.

Kaveh had spent the hour before the marriage dance started lecturing Kastan about not having the marriage dance sooner.

“Jihan,” Kaveh said, his voice warm and welcoming.

Jihan looked up.

“Welcome to the family,” Kaveh said, placing his hands on Jihan’s shoulders. “My son is lucky to have found someone to accompany him. I want us to get to know each other. I’d like it very much if we were good friends.”

Jihan returned the smile, some of the tension draining away at Kaveh’s sincere words.

Kaveh nodded and stepped back, raising his voice to start the ceremony. The field fell silent in attention.

“This evening we celebrate a promise and a choice,” Kaveh Miran said. “We welcome a new soul to our beloved valley. Most importantly, my son finds a partner to walk along with him on this journey of life. At the heart of a marriage dance is a choice and a promise to be partners, to be family, to protect and to love each other.”

Kaveh faced Jihan and Kastan. Jihan held his breath when Kaveh brought their clasped hands up.

“For the warrior and his consort a promise is made to support their family when the inevitable comes,” Kaveh said. “Jihan, Duke Silver’s Consort, is this the path you choose?”

Jihan squeezed Kastan’s hand, and met Kaveh’s gaze.

“Yes, I choose this path,” Jihan said with no hesitation, no matter their situation, Kastan was his to keep, had been for a while.

They were already walking their path together. He would just have to deal with the consequences when the Emperor came for his dues, just as he had in Kin Town. Their separation then was harsh, but this time…

Jihan refused to think about parting when Kastan squeezed his fingers and replied to his father’s question.

“I choose the path Jihan walks,” Kastan said.

Jihan looked at Kastan then, intrigued by the note in Kastan’s voice. He missed Kaveh’s following words.

The next moment, Rashan stood before them. Jihan bit his lip to stop his smile. Rashan looked so serious, as he tied the red ribbon he held around their clasped hands.

“The god of fate let you meet,” Rashan said, talking slow, his words careful. He had taken time to memorize his part of the ceremony. “May the god of fate keep you together, now and in the next life.”

Rashan then looked up with a wide smile, and Jihan fell in love with the young man who was now his son. He bent to press a kiss on Rashan’s cheek. Rashan grinned, and stepped back to stand next to his grandfather.

Kastan wrapped an arm around Jihan’s waist, and pulled him closer. Jihan tried to move away, worried about what Kastan’s Pa would think of them. Kastan gave him no time to protest before he pulled him into his arms and kissed him.

Jihan forgot where they stood, their massive audience disappeared, and even his wariness of Kaveh Miran’s watchful gaze faded away. All his thoughts centered on Kastan, and how tight he held him, how consuming their kiss felt, how lucky he felt this night.

“Can you only think of kissing me tonight?” Kastan murmured against his lips when they broke apart. “You look too good to be smiling at other men.”

Jihan chuckled, and shook his head, resting his free hand on Kastan’s shoulder.

“What other men? I only kissed our son,” Jihan said, and got another kiss.

Kaveh chuckled and waved his hand.

Music started and Kastan drew Jihan into a dance. The stayed pressed to each other. Kastan dusting kisses on Jihan’s cheeks as they moved. Jihan let out a sigh of relief; the tension that had plagued him all day disappeared. He melted into Kastan’s embrace.

“You were late. I worried that you wouldn’t make it on time,” Kastan said, whispering into Jihan’s ear. “I was scared you didn’t trust that I would fix your problem with the valley’s people.”

“I’m sorry I was late,” Jihan said, resting his forehead on Kastan’s shoulder. “I was scared. I still am, but it’s easier now. I have you after all.”

“Do you mean that?” Kastan asked, tightening his hold around Jihan.

Jihan lifted his head from Kastan’s shoulder to look into hopeful eyes. The words of love remained lodged in his throat. Still, he could at least give Kastan his trust, and his loyalty.

“You’re my rock, Kastan. I do trust you with my life,” Jihan said. “Thank you for bringing me to your valley.”

A soft brush of silk on his cheek had him looking up in time to see red petals falling around them. Shades of red gracefully descended from the sky and surrounded them in a cloud of petals. Jihan smiled at the stunning sight. Trusting Kastan to hold him steady, he held out his hand to catch a few.

Kastan lifted him up and spun around making Jihan laugh.

It was a night like no other, Jihan thought, looking down at Kastan. Dropping the petals he had caught, he brought his hand to Kastan’s shoulder, struck by Kastan’s happy expression.

It was a marriage dance to remember.

*~*~*~*

“They look happy,” Neith said, watching Jihan and Kastan dance, and murmur to each other, lost in their own world. “The last two people I saw so suited to each other were you and your dear wife, Your Majesty. Don’t you agree?”

She turned to look at Kaveh Miran who stood leaning on a table sipping peach juice from his goblet. Rashan sat at the table eating a pie. He looked happy, enjoying his pastry to the fullest. Neith wished she had half the enthusiasm for life he had.

Her gaze returned to Kaveh and her smile faltered when she found him watching her. She looked away fast, running a hand down the skirts of her violet dress. The fabric shimmered in the light.

“You’re a beautiful woman, Neith,” Kaveh said, his tone thoughtful. “Why have you never allowed yourself to love?”

“Life is so flitting,” Neith said, shrugging her slender shoulders. Her hair shifted over her shoulder and she glanced at Kaveh. “Love is even more fragile, it makes fools out of giants.”

“Your years are cruel to your soul,” Kaveh said, his tone decisive. “I am without my dear love. I don’t regret having loved her. Without her, I would have never known the beauty of life.”

“Her love has led to your eternal sadness,” Neith said, shifting in her chair so that she could watch Kastan and Jihan. Their love so obvious, she wondered how Jihan dared to doubt it.

“He is afraid to tell your son that he loves him,” Neith said, nodding to Jihan. “His fear is crippling him. Yet, neither of us can do anything to help him. This is why I say love makes people fragile.”

“At the least, he loves,” Kaveh said, grinning when Kastan lifted Jihan up. “Will you look at that? They have a solid start.”

“Grand Pa,” Rashan said, getting up from the table. “Will you show me your boat? Pa says it’s the most majestic of all in Silver Shore Valley. Can I see it?”

Kaveh’s smile widened at the prospect.

For a moment, Neith was jealous of all the blessings Kaveh seemed to have in his children and grandchildren. He had accomplished so much in his life, forming a peaceful empire for his people. Even with all that, his heart remained with his beloved wife.

Neith sighed and decided Kaveh Miran had a dash of madness in him, same as his son, Kastan.

Kaveh placed his goblet on the table and straightened up.

“Neith, take a chance on love,” Kaveh said, holding out his hand to Rashan. “It might surprise you.”

Rashan took his grandfather’s hand and they headed in the direction of the lake. Neith watched them until they disappeared in the crowd. She wondered who would dare try to take a chance at love with her old soul.

She was about to get up when she noticed Jihan’s shadow guard sitting on bench at the table opposite hers. He was alone, his cloak pushed back over his shoulders, his concealed swords visible, even as he tried to hide them. She smiled and got up to join him.

“Is this what happens when your charge is occupied?” Neith asked, as she sat next to Firuz. “You sit here watching him while he dances?”

Firuz spared her a short glance, and then returned his attention to Jihan who was helping Kastan untie the red ribbon around their wrists. The couple laughed, when Jihan had to use his teeth to get the ribbon untied. Firuz smiled and Neith’s brow rose.

“Your care for Jihan makes me envious,” Neith decided, watching Firuz now out of interest. Shadow Guards had a peculiar role. To give one’s life for another meant you needed to love your charge enough to give your life for them. It was a selfless sacrifice. One she respected and refused to understand. She had argued with Bast over the sustainability of such a culture too many times to ever back down.

“Lady Neith, why are you here without Lord Bast?” Firuz asked, when Neith kept staring at him.

“Bast ditched me,” Neith said, unable to keep her annoyance out of her voice. She reached for the wine pitcher on the table and poured peach wine into a goblet. She drank deep and sat back in her chair. “He promised to come along when I met him in your Quadrum. Then, he heard Ha was going to meet the Blood Nation Prince and decided that was more interesting. How embarrassing. I made a show of finding a partner for this dance to His Imperial Highness, but in the end, I turned up alone. Will you dance with me, Firuz?”

“My Lady, how would I dare?” Firuz asked, his tone nonchalant.

Neith gave an exaggerated sigh.

“Your charge is oblivious to your presence this night, Shadow Guard. He is thoroughly in the Imperial Prince’s clutches. He is as safe as can be. I promise nothing will happen to him through one dance.”

“I think I should be more vigilant,” Firuz said. “It’s rare for an Ancient to attend a marriage dance. If all was well, why would you be here?”

Neith grumbled under her breath at Firuz’s insight. She could not shake the uneasiness clouding her thoughts when she looked at Jihan. He was clearly smiling at his husband in happiness, so where was the dark cloud coming from?

The meadow was alive with celebration.

Kastan and Jihan stopped dancing.

The Generals immediately surrounded them, offering congratulations, and doing their best to get to know Jihan. Jihan stood in the middle of a circle of six fierce warriors, and a Commander of Armies.

Neith is right, Firuz thought. Jihan was safe tonight. No one would dare harm him.

Firuz glanced at Neith to find her still watching him. He narrowed his gaze at the slight frown on her forehead.

“What aren’t you saying?” he asked, wanting to know what would make an Ancient frown.

“A lot,” Neith said, tracing her finger over the rim of her goblet. “There’s a darkness growing in this valley. At first, I thought it was tied to the Iron Lands, but I’m starting to think not. All I can say is watch your charge, be cautious even when you don’t need to be. That’s all I can tell you, son of Bast.”

“Lady Neith,” Firuz said, giving her a nod for her insight. He knew that she reserved such insight for His Imperial Majesty, the Emperor. “I’m honored you would share your thoughts with me.”

“Now, if you were to decide to dance with me,” Neith said. “It would give you an excuse to move closer to that group of high powered warriors.”

“You’re only asking me to dance with you because everyone is too afraid to ask you,” Firuz felt compelled to point out.

“Well, you should know,” Neith said with a short grin, her beauty hard to ignore when she was smiling. “Everyone is too nervous to get close to you, Shadow Guard. Look at the wide circle they are making around us.”

Firuz scowled, already aware of the people’s reaction to him.

Neith’s insight had him getting up. If no one would offer to dance with him, then he would dare to dance with an Ancient, he decided.

He offered his hand to Neith.

“One dance,” he said, adjusting his cloak so that his sword would stay hidden.

Neith jumped up, placing her goblet on the table. She took his hand, vibrating with excitement as Firuz led her to the open space around the dais. They joined other couples and started dancing. Neith’s enthusiasm had Firuz smiling. Soon, more people joined them and the musicians had a renewed sense of excitement as they played lively music to celebrate Jihan and Kastan’s marriage dance.

*~*~*~*

“Prince Kastan has dealt you a huge blow with this one,” Ferino said, standing in the shadows of the trees around the silver meadow. “The valley is excited to have the merchant in their midst. Kamran Merchants are well known, their generosity to small farmers hard to ignore. His Imperial Highness has made sure everyone in the valley knows that his consort has not changed. I’ve only heard praise for the Imperial Consort tonight.”

“Telling me the merits of the little merchant does terrible things for my mood, Ferino,” Nisa said.

Bile filled her mouth at the sight of Kastan and Jihan, their love for each so obvious for anyone looking. Jihan’s walk among the officers had cemented his place in the valley. The men who worshipped the chain of command in Kastan’s army now understood that Jihan stood at the apex of their hierarchy. His words were as good as their Commander’s word.

She had no idea how the little merchant managed to charm Kastan, but he had certainly won this battle. A marriage dance was not easy to reverse. To make matters even worse, the old emperor had emerged from his island to guide their promise.

Nisa closed her eyes in defeat.

“They have pushed me into a corner,” Nisa murmured. “I didn’t think it would be this hard to get rid of him. It’s lucky that Her Imperial Majesty, the Empress, offered help if I needed it. Reach out to the Burning Feather. Tell them they must be discrete. The Empress was right about one thing. Getting rid of the Imperial Consort would need finesse. There are too many eyes on him. Anything that happens to him must seem as natural as possible. Will you help me, Ferino?”

“If I help you, will you release my family from your service?” Ferrino asked, his tone hopeful.

“I’ll send your daughter to your house,” Nisa said, with a small smile. “Let’s take that as my show of good faith. Your wife and mother will remain in my home. Any mistakes and they’ll suffer the consequences.”

“When do you want it done?” Ferino asked, his tone firm with determination.

“The Imperial Consort is taking a trip to Vasia. While I stay here to run my father’s memorial,” Nisa said, the taste in her mouth bitter. “It would be nice if the handsome consort does not return from his trip. I’ll look forward to helping His Imperial Highness mourn his loss.”

Ferino nodded and disappeared in the shadows. He did not need any more instruction. She knew he would do his best to accomplish her orders.

Nisa remained standing on the edge of the meadow, hidden in the trees. She watched Kastan and Jihan mingle with the wives and children of the officers. Kastan looked happy, showing off his consort with pride. Jihan soaked in Kastan’s attention, and smiled at the people he met with genuine sincerity. He was a good man but he was in the wrong place.

She was meant to be standing where Jihan stood. She was meant to laugh at whatever Kastan paused to murmur in Jihan’s ear that made him laugh. The merchant had taken her rightful place. She would make him pay for that fault.

She would make sure to get it all back.

*~*~*~*

Some fluff and sweetness for your soul, plus Nisa,
Here's the Character List for you.
Love,
Sui.
Suilan Lee, 2019-2021
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Stories posted in this category are works of fiction. Names, places, characters, events, and incidents are created by the authors' imaginations or are used fictitiously. Any resemblances to actual persons (living or dead), organizations, companies, events, or locales are entirely coincidental.
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What a lovely chapter; only to end with vile and deceit.  Lady Neith's warning may be more important than anyone could possible realize.  

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The hurdle of the wedding dance is conquered. With this final(?) rite accomplished Nisa'a shenanigans grow most desperate. I hope Firuz does not get lost in Neith's charms. Pay attention Jihan and Firuz. Looking forward to more chapters, thank you Sui for wonderful writing.

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Everything about this chapter was perfect, except for Nisa but then there can be no happily ever after without good overcoming evil in fairytales. 😊

Nisa’s malevolent feelings toward Jihan rolls off the page like a dark force....I dread what she’ll attempt to come between Kastan and his husband and look forward to she and Rushi paying for their crimes;  Look like Lord Revi will also need to be checked, too. 
 

It was wonderful to see Kevah make an appearance;  Though he is a retired emperor, he seems as though he still governed with fairness and kindness, unlike his son. (but a retired emperor can look as beneficent as he wants, right?).  Kiyan’s choice of bride speaks of more than obligation, they both maneuver people with ruthlessness absent among everyone else around them;  Should Rushi have directed her machinations to anyone other than his brother, he might have looked at her actions with a fond indulgence;  I am over the two of them.  It looks like Kevah might be trying to add Neith to their family from his little flirtations, lol.

I look forward to the next chapter yet dread what villainy may await.

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Outstanding chapter! The marriage dance ceremony ordeal for Jihan has ended with the knowledge that the Council of generals and the army have sworn fealty along with their families and the people of the valley. The ceremony was enjoyed by all with the retired emperor conducting. Nisa, Ferino and the Empress are going to be a problem when Jihan and Rashan go to Vasia. Fortunately Kastan has ordered his Generals to protect his family from harm and Neith has warned Firuz to be extremely vigilant. I’m definitely looking forward to the next chapter! 😃❤️
 

 

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The long dark tentacles of the burning feather need to be pruned back to the root. Hopefully the plotting by Nisa and the Empress will finally reveal the dark forces threatening the kingdom and manipulating the kids.

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A beautifully written chapter full of a variety of emotions with the Marriage Dance the highlight.  I think the smile from Jihan that Kastan has longed to see again was probably there.  Nieth's warning to Firuz was unexpected, but I suspect vital to the safety of Jihan and Rashan.  I did enjoy the fact that Nieth and Firuz were able to enjoy a dance with each other.  

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