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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 - 18. Chapter 18

The Silver Lake Island

Kaveh Miran lived on a hidden island in the middle of the Silver Lake. It felt like an untouched paradise filled with fresh water rivers and wild forests. It hosted a small village filled with Kaveh’s most faithful attendants. These attendants helped build Kaveh’s home on a flat hill, overlooking the lake. This manor boasted a series of impressive high walls, arched doorways and windows that allowed the cool breeze into the halls.

It was a place worthy of tranquil silence. Firuz appreciated the peaceful scenery, and Jihan loved his excitement as he left to explore the island the moment they settled.

The island had a different effect on Kastan. His husband relaxed the moment they stepped into the manor’s halls. Jihan could not explain it any other way. It looked like a weight lifted off Kastan’s shoulders, as if he didn’t have to worry and be on guard anymore. It was an interesting transformation to see.

As for him, he thought the island a beautiful home for a retired emperor, but he preferred Sun-filled Manor. This island with its tangible isolation was not something he would choose. Even his Kamran Estate had filled with merchants wanting to trade and talk to him. Sun-filled Manor felt the same. He loved having Yasmin find him to discuss what meals to prepare for the day. There was Fara who sat with him after lunch. She loved telling him about Rashan’s younger years and the friends Rashan made. There was Safan who shared with him how Rashan’s studies were going. Set dropped in on him at odd times of the day to give him an update of their Kamran network. The manor was never quiet and had a rhythm to it that he was coming to enjoy.

Jihan’s right brow rose up at his thoughts.

When had his feelings for Sun-filled Manor turned so fond?

He frowned and kicked at a stone on the ground. It was early morning. He had left Kastan in bed, wanting to see the sunrise over the lake. He leaned on a bamboo tree behind the house. The slope leading down to the forest populated with wild bushes and trees. The sun rose over the lake, its light casting shades of yellow on the sky, turning the silver water into clear glass. Jihan smiled.

How beautiful, he thought.

In the distance, he could make out the shores of the valley. He knew there would be fishers coming home with their catch. There would be women in the deep parts of the lake diving for a more exotic catch.

Jihan wanted to capitalize on them, having created a specific spot for fish in the trading station. The valley’s beach was on display for the island.

Jihan wondered if Kaveh Miran ever stood here to watch his son’s little kingdom.

“You woke up early,” Kaveh’s voice interrupted his thoughts.

Jihan straightened up, turning to his left to find Kaveh Miran standing a few feet away. He hadn’t heard him approach. Firuz must have though because he stood closer to the resting benches in the back gardens, no longer meditating on top of the table, as he had before.

Jihan dropped his hands to his sides and gave Kaveh a short nod of his head.

“Jihan greets His Majesty,” he said.

“No need to be so formal with me,” Kaveh said, with a warm chuckle. “Look at that sunrise. How can you bear to call me 'His Majesty' in the face of that majestic sight?”

Jihan smiled and returned his gaze to the sunrise. He took in a deep breath and let it out slow.

“I didn’t want to interrupt you,” Kaveh said, moving closer to lean on a bamboo tree too. “You looked content staring at the silver waters. Then you frowned, and I got curious. What would make you frown while looking at such beauty?”

“How may I address Your Majesty?” Jihan asked, shifting to face Kaveh.

“Rashan calls you Papa,” Kaveh said. “Naturally, you should call me Pa. Can you?”

Jihan smiled and nodded.

“I can, Pa.”

“Good, it is much better than Rushi’s Imperial Father,” Kaveh said with a grin. “Jihan, why are you out here alone the morning after your marriage dance?”

“I woke up too early,” Jihan said, folding his arms against his chest. “Kastan was asleep. I didn’t want to wake him. So, I left him because he never gets to sleep in when we’re home.”

“Very thoughtful of you,” Kaveh agreed. “Kas has always been the strongest of my children. While he is strong, he does have a sentimental heart if you know where to look. Most people might not think so because they only see his power. I’m glad he has you to look after him, Jihan. Walk with me, there’s something I’d like to show you.”

Jihan followed Kaveh along a dirt path down the slope. Jihan was careful to stay on the same path as Kaveh. They didn’t talk, so Jihan took the time to study his father in-law.

Kaveh was dressed in deep purple robes with dragon embroidery on the hems. He might not be in the imperial city, but his clothes still showed his imperial status to the rest of the world. Kaveh’s black boots barely made sound as they walked reminding Jihan that he was a formidable commander once.

Jihan glanced behind him to see Firuz trailing after them. He wondered how it was that he had ended up surrounded by warriors.

They came out of the bushy wild and entered a clearing with neat green grass surrounded by tall trees. In the middle of this clearing was a massive tomb. Built with white stone, the walls carved with ancient markings. Jihan imagined the ancients, Neith, Ha, and Bast must have written the blessings on the walls. Jihan saw a phoenix carved on the entrance doors and a thought filled his head.

Kaveh had brought him to the Miran Imperial Tomb.

Kaveh gave him a quick glance when Jihan stopped, then an encouraging nod to continue to the steps leading up to the tomb’s entrance. The stone doors were closed. Jihan imagined they would stay closed until they needed opening for the next family member. He hoped that would take a very long time.

Jihan stopped at the first step, not daring to go up further.

Kaveh joined him there, his hands clasped behind his back.

“Jihan, this is where Kastan’s mother rests, along with Jian, Rashan’s mother. Shana, I’ve brought you Kastan’s life partner, Jihan of Kamran. He’s smart and resourceful. He has made our son smile again and has taken Rashan as his own. Jihan, show your respects.”

Jihan brought his right hand to his chest and bowed in the direction of the tomb’s entrance. If he had incense he would have lighted it, but this would have to do for now. When he rose to his full height, it was to find Kaveh’s gaze on the tomb.

“Shana always hoped each of our children would be happy in marriage,” Kaveh said, his tone wistful. “I saddled them with responsibility. I worried the happiness she hoped for them would be elusive, especially for Kastan.”

Jihan started to drop his hand away from his chest, but his fingers grazed over the gold medallion hanging on a gold chain. Kastan had placed it on him last night before they fell asleep. He gripped it now, staring at the calm tiger’s head carved on the metal.

Kaveh moved closer to look at it.

“This medallion is a sign of trust,” Kaveh said. “For one such as Kastan, it is the highest gift. Commander of Armies is often burdened with the weight of thousands of men and trusts no one. You’re his rock. I hope that it is always that way.”

Jihan looked up to find a pained expression on Kaveh. He knew then that Kaveh had lost his rock, and it haunted him every day. Maybe that was why he stayed so closed up on this island with his memories. It couldn’t be good for him. Kaveh needed to spend more time with the living. More time with his family.

Jihan swallowed back a lump of tears at the thought of losing Kastan and having to live without him. Would he manage? Or would he want to follow Kastan, unable to live without him longer. Jihan gave an internal gasp looking at Kaveh Miran.

Was that what Kaveh was waiting for in this secluded island? Was he waiting for his turn to join his wife in the majestic tomb before them?

Jihan blinked hard and dropped the medallion inside his tunic. He reached for Kaveh’s arm without thinking.

“Kas is always busy with his duties, but I wouldn’t mind visiting your island more,” Jihan said. “Or you can visit Sun-filled Manor. Rashan would enjoy it very much and I would love to hear more about Her Majesty, Empress Shana.”

Kaveh held his gaze, his eyes wide with surprise. A moment passed before Kaveh’s gaze dropped to where Jihan held his arm tight.

Jihan gasped and let go of Kaveh’s arm. He stepped back with a shy smile.

“Sorry,” Jihan said, with a nervous smile. “I’m still getting used to being part of the family. I—"

“Would you really not mind me visiting Sun-filled Manor?” Kaveh cut in.

“I don’t mind,” Jihan said in answer. “I might even ask you for help to manage the valley. Kas is so busy with the empire’s defenses. He has no time to deal with our issues. It’s not his fault, but I’m finding myself clashing with his men’s families. I think your advice would help me.”

Kaveh chuckled.

“I was worse than Kastan, Jihan. My wife was the one who managed our household.”

Jihan breathed out in relief at Kaveh’s easygoing attitude and nodded.

“Then, maybe you can tell me more about what she did,” Jihan said, invested in pulling Kaveh back into the family. “The other day, I offended a butcher when I went to ask for rent in the town. Firuz helped me out of that situation.”

Kaveh smiled and turned away from the family tomb.

“You embarrassed a hardworking able man,” Kaveh said. “Of course he will lash out.”

Jihan gave the imperial tomb one last wary glance before he followed Kaveh.

“What should I have done?” Jihan asked, keeping up with Kaveh this time.

“Most of the men in the valley’s town are officers in the army. They respond to a chain of command. They value loyalty and bravery. You need to invoke all those things to get a genuine answer.”

“Hmm,” Jihan said.

“Are you wondering how to use the chain of command?” Kaveh asked, and Jihan glanced at him to find his right brow raised.

“I’m not in the army,” Jihan said. “I’m just married to Kastan.”

“You’re managing Kastan’s assets, his life. Has he assigned you a General?”

Jihan nodded.

“Yes, General Temu is working with me to take care of the trading station.”

“General Temu is your chain of command,” Kaveh said. “He’ll help you use the loyalty and bravery of the officers.”

“Won’t that be cheating, or abusing my authority?” Jihan asked.

“As a merchant, your trade is to talk your opponent into being a friend. You want to negotiate your way into a deal,” Kaveh smiled at him. “You don’t believe in burning bridges, no matter the situation. A man in the army is different. He follows orders, believes his commander is leading in the right direction. Enemy lines are to be conquered with no blurred lines. Do you see the difference?”

Jihan thought about Ferino. The butcher’s aggression dissipated when Kastan arrived at the butchery. Master Rabo was also willing to listen to Kastan, because he was Commander of the Armies.

“Being an outsider leaves me at a disadvantage,” Jihan said, shaking his head, as they walked up the slope.

“Not disadvantaged,” Kaveh countered.

“It gives you a unique perspective,” Kaveh said. “You’re able to see more, because you can see the broken parts, then you can make changes.”

“How would I use General Temu without being obvious?” Jihan asked. “I clearly cannot give him orders.”

“You can make observations,” Kaveh said. “Make them clear and include evidence. The problem with loyalty is that it can sometimes be very blind. Blind loyalty means you can make an observation on deaf ears.”

“Ah,” Jihan nodded, thinking about Temu not believing him about someone embezzling money in the welfare office. “Evidence is the key.”

“Exactly,” Kaveh said, giving him an approving nod.

“Did you need evidence to make decisions?” Jihan asked, as they reached the top of the hill and headed back to the house.

“Yes, always, though it got dangerous when those idiots fabricated the evidence,” Kaveh said with a sigh. “It was then necessary for me to have my own trusted man to find the real evidence.”

“How difficult it must have been,” Jihan said, understanding an Emperor’s life was not as easy as it might seem. He sighed. “I have a hard time dealing with the ruling class.”

“How difficult it must be for you now that you’ve joined us,” Kaveh said, glancing at Jihan.

Jihan bit his lip at first unsure what to say, then grinned when Kaveh winked at him. The laugh that followed was surprising. It was even more wonderful when Kaveh joined in.

*~*~*~*

An hour later, Jihan carried a tray laden with food to the room he shared with Kastan. Firuz helped him open the door, and close it after Jihan entered the suite, leaving them alone.

Jihan carried the tray to the large bed in the middle of the room. Kastan’s head was buried under pillows, the sheets tangled around his naked hips. Jihan placed the tray on the bed, careful to make sure the legs were stable. He then ran his hand over Kastan’s waist, trailing his fingers up Kastan’s back. A smile curved his lips when Kastan moaned into his pillow and pushed the one over his head away.

“You’ve slept the morning away,” Jihan teased, pressing a kiss on Kastan’s left shoulder.

Kastan surprised him when he rolled and pulled Jihan to lie down with him. Jihan chuckled, careful to make sure they didn’t kick the tray of food. Kastan shifted him until Jihan was nestled on Kastan’s side, his head resting on the same pillow.

Kastan leaned over him, smiling with lazy charm.

“You’re the best sight a man could wake up to,” Kastan murmured, cupping Jihan’s cheek, he brushed kisses on Jihan’s forehead, then along his nose.

Jihan sunk his fingers into Kastan’s hair. He sifted his fingers through the dark soft curls and grinned when Kastan brushed his lips with a kiss.

“I don’t think I’ve seen you sleep so much.”

“It’s this place,” Kastan said, resting some of his weight on Jihan. “I feel at ease here.”

Kastan’s body could be heavy. His man was all muscle, thanks to years on the battleground. Jihan shifted under him, getting comfortable. It felt good to have Kastan pinning him down. Like an anchor, holding him in place giving him safe haven no matter what terrible things came at them.

“Then, we should visit often. I support anything that helps you rest without worry,” Jihan said. “I’ll even let you escape here alone for a few days.”

“I’ll escape here only if you come along.”

Kastan kissed him again, this time their kiss was longer, sweeter. Jihan tugged at Kastan’s hair when he felt Kastan’s hard length pressing into him. Their passion could be consuming, if they fell into it now, they would spend all their time in this chamber.

“You should eat something,” Jihan said, breaking their kiss with a sigh. He wished they could stay here, but Kaveh Miran was waiting for Kastan.

Kastan moaned in protest and kissed him again, with more hunger making it clear he didn’t want to stop.

“Mmm…Kas,” Jihan said, managing to break their kiss. “Your Pa wants to talk to you before we leave later.

Kas trailed kisses down Jihan’s cheek to his ear.

“But you’re leaving too—”

“For a short time,” Jihan soothed, letting go of Kastan’s hair. He rubbed Kastan’s back. “You’ll have me to yourself all night. Your Pa might not see you for a while.”

Kastan sighed and gave Jihan all his weight, burying his face into Jihan’s left shoulder. Jihan rubbed his back, closing his eyes when Kastan sighed again. He didn’t want to think of their separation. The last time they were apart, Jihan had hated sleeping in their bed. He had preferred staying in Rashan’s room, than facing their empty room. Now, he was leaving. He wondered what it would be like to be without Kastan, to be away from Silver Shore Valley. He wrapped his arms around Kastan, anxiety building.

“Jihan,” Kastan said, his tone making Jihan pause. “An.”

Jihan’s heart squeezed tight.

“Hm?”

“When you leave Silver Shore Valley, promise that you will remember your way home to Sun-filled Manor,” Kastan said.

“I’ll remember the way,” Jihan said, with a small smile. He rubbed Kastan’s back again, and pressed a kiss on his bare shoulder. “Is there anything else you’re worried about?”

“Yes. You meeting Swallow and running away with him,” Kastan said.

Jihan chuckled then because his husband was hopeless at times.

“Last night, you had me join the largest mob in the empire,” Jihan said, teasing Kastan. “Every soldier under your command will know what I look like by the end of day. How far do you think Swallow and I would get?”

“Not very far,” Kastan said, after a moment of thought. He lifted his head from Jihan’s shoulder to look at him. Jihan brought his hand up to touch the smile on Kastan’s lips. He enjoyed Kastan’s smiles. “Still, I’ll let Temu come with you to Vasia. Don’t refuse.”

“I won’t,” Jihan said, having known Kastan would not let him leave with Rashan without protection. He was glad they would have Temu and his army. He wanted all the protection possible for Rashan. Most importantly, it would ease Kastan’s mind. The words he held back daily came out before he could stop them.

“I lov—,”

Jihan bit his bottom lip hard meeting dark eyes that watched him and saw too much. His heartbeat sped up in his chest and he patted Kastan’s shoulders so that he could sit up. Kastan’s brow rose in question, but he moved away, sitting up with his back leaning against the pillows on the headboard.

Jihan cleared his throat and busied himself with retrieving his abandoned tray and placing it over Kastan’s lap. Once it was stable, he poured Kastan tea.

“Jihan.”

“Don’t forget to eat three meals a day when we’re gone,” Jihan said, taking up the teacup and handing it to Kastan. “I’ve asked Yasmin to send someone to find you wherever you are in the valley to make sure you eat. She’s so good at finding me, I’m sure she’ll be excellent at getting you to eat.”

Kastan chuckled.

“Are you telling me if I’m in the middle of training with my men, I’ll have to worry about Yasmin’s messengers bringing food?” Kastan asked.

“If that’s how it will be, yes.”

Kastan nodded and sipped his tea.

“I’ll follow what my Consort says,” Kastan said, placing his cup of tea on the tray. “Are there any more edicts for me?”

“Yes,” Jihan said, pushing a plate of sweet pancakes closer to Kastan. He watched Kastan eat one.

“I’m listening.”

Jihan added more tea into Kastan’s cup.

“Sleep on time,” Jihan said. “Don’t leave our bed too early. I worry about you not getting enough rest. I wish I could order you not to get hurt, but that’s impossible because you’re who you are. So, don’t ignore any cuts you get when you’re out playing with weapons. I really love every part of your body as it is. Your son and I would like it very much if you kept it just as it is.”

“Our son,” Kastan said, his tone low, making Jihan look up into his gentle gaze. “Rashan is ours.”

Kastan had such an ability to undo him.

“Our son and I would like it very much if you stayed healthy,” Jihan said.

Kastan grinned and leaned over the tray table to steal a kiss.

“Your husband takes your edicts to heart,” Kastan murmured, as he leaned back against the headboard.

Jihan smiled, loving Kastan’s sincerity in his promise. He could only hope that fate would keep its promise too.

“Where were you while I slept?” Kastan asked.

“Your Pa took me to see your Ma,” Jihan said. “He didn’t give me time to burn incense for her, so all I could do was give her my respects. He is lonely your Pa. I think we should spend more time with him, Kas. Invite him to Sun-filled Manor.”

“You won’t mind?” Kastan asked. “He is your father in-law—”

“He’s your Pa and Rashan’s Grand Pa,” Jihan cut in. “We should see him often and listen to his counsel when he gives it. He might help us with the valley too. Invite him to the manor when you talk to him. Maybe, he can keep you company while we are in Vasia.”

Kastan stole another kiss as Jihan cut a piece of pancake. He fed Kastan the pancake piece he held and wondered how many more of these moments they had left. He hoped a lifetime worth of them.

*~*~*~*

Rael arrived at Sun-filled Manor the same day Jihan left for Vasia with Rashan. They missed each other by a few hours. Kastan received him in the manor’s formal greeting room. Rael’s wide eyes revealed his surprise when he saw Kaveh Miran standing by the windows watching the front gardens.

His first instinct was to run after Jihan. The Imperial Prince Consort was the only one who could find the information he needed. Still, it would be rude of him to leave Sun-filled Manor now that he had met the former Emperor and Duke Silver.

“Your Grace, Your Majesty, Rael greets you both,” Rael said, bringing his right hand to his chest in a formal bow. “His Imperial Majesty sends you his regards and congratulates you on your marriage dance.”

“What brings Master Rael to Silver Shore Valley?” Kastan asked, his hands resting on the armrests of his huge chair. Dressed in black combat leathers, he looked ready for a session in the practice fields.

“I came to see His Highness, Imperial Prince Consort,” Rael said.

“His Grace has left Sun-filled Manor for a few days,” Kastan said. “May I be of help on his behalf?”

Rael sighed, and then because Kaveh Miran turned to stare at him, he bowed his head lower.

“The Royal Investigative Bureau has need of information about the Iron Lands,” Rael said. “There is unrest but we can’t pinpoint the exact problem.”

“Lord Revi’s power grows,” Kastan said, thinking of Neith’s warning. “Refugees are increasing. We have a few hoping to enter our valley. Is this the type of information Master Rael is looking for?”

“Yes,” Rael said, his gaze lowering to hide his surprise. “Duke Silver is well informed.”

“The Iron Lands are close,” Kastan said, thinking of General Niku who was already on the way to the Iron Lands. “It’s beneficial to know they are peaceful.”

“His Imperial Majesty still worries that Lord Revi’s influence will weaken the Imperial Palace’s position. We need a way to undermine Lord Revi’s power.”

“My Consort is already busy making our valley profitable in order to support the Imperial Palace,” Kastan said. “However, we are only three months into the six months His Imperial Majesty gave him. He’s already working so hard to fulfill your expectations. If you need more commitment, I would ask Master Rael to lean on me.”

The husband protecting his consort was an old right. One that was hard to challenge, especially with a man like Duke Silver.

“As Your Grace wishes,” Rael said, lowering his head in a bow. “We are in need of actionable intelligence.”

“General Niku and General Kigaru are heading into the Iron Lands. General Niku has already left,” Kastan said. “If you’re interested, you or one of your men may join General Kigaru’s team.”

Rael stilled.

Why would the Commander of Armies order his Generals into the Iron Lands?

“May I ask Your Grace, if it is allowed?” Rael asked.

“There are no agreements broken,” Kaveh Miran spoke up. “The Empire is still at war time and the Commander of Armies has full control of the Empire’s Defenses.”

Rael’s gaze widened as he remembered that the Emperor had not changed their wartime status. Kastan had a lot more power than anyone dared to imagine. If he wanted to mount a war against the Imperial Palace, now would be the time.

He let out a sigh, and gave a slight shake of his head. A lesser man would be tempted, but the Miran Family protected, they took their vows to the Empire seriously. His Imperial Majesty was lucky to have such loyalty on his side.

How different they were from the Empress Rushi and her Burning Feather. She stood for something else, and he could not find a way to prove it.

“Your Majesty is right,” Rael said, feeling relieved and hopeful. “I will join General Kigaru. Do I have your permission, Commander?”

Kastan tugged off the black token he wore on his belt and threw it to Rael who caught it fast.

“Give that to General Kigaru and he won’t ask you questions. Do know you’re still under his command,” Kastan said. “Follow the rules he lays down.”

“Thank you, Commander,” Rael said, bringing his hand to his chest in a formal salute. “I’ll take my leave.”

Kastan waved him off and Rael hurried out of Sun-filled Manor.

*~*~*~*

Rael was barely out the door when Yasmin came running into the greeting room. She looked flustered when she noted Kaveh standing in the corner, but that didn’t deter her progress.

“Your Grace, you’re needed at Bottom-Cliff Estate. The Renai Countess is threatening to take her life,” Yasmin said. “She has asked her nanny to find a white sheet and tie it to the rafters of her main hall.”

Kastan rubbed his left temple with a sigh.

For a moment, he wondered if it would be cruel to let Nisa hang herself. Then he glanced at his father, and the censuring look he met had him sighing again.

“What would prompt this unfortunate occasion?” Kastan asked.

“General Condi has arrived at Bottom-Cliff Estate,” Yasmin said. “He was supposed to start the memorial ceremony on your behalf. Lady Baiza said that it was an insult to her father’s memory that you would not attend this ceremony in person. She insists that if you can’t officiate the memorial, then it would be better if she was dead too.”

“How dramatic,” Kaveh said, amused. “Renai Countess is betting her life provoking the Commander of Armies. What gives her the right?”

“Her father was a brave man and my good friend,” Kastan said. “General Baiza fell in battle during West Nation’s war. The General’s Council was simply hoping to handle it easily. ”

“Then, we can’t let her father’s memory face such an insult,” Kaveh moved away from the windows, and adjusted his dark purple robes. “I hope the presence of a Commander and a former Emperor is honor enough. General Baiza should receive a hero’s honor.”

“Yasmin, alert General Condi, so that he will know to receive my father,” Kastan said, getting up. He stretched his arms over his head, his gaze moving to the sundial by the windows.

It was mid-afternoon.

He thought of Jihan and Rashan and wondered if their journey was going well. He hoped they were safe. Thinking of them made him miss them more, how was he going to get through the next few days?

“Kas,” his father’s voice penetrated the haze of nostalgia, and he turned to find Kaveh watching him. “Let’s go, son.”

Kastan nodded and followed his father out of the manor.

*~*~*~*

“Are you sure you want to keep doing this, My Lady?” Ferino asked Nisa. “The number of Generals in the courtyard has increased. You’re only missing General Niku and General Kigaru. I heard those two are leaving the valley.”

Nisa paced the length of her dining hall.

“General Condi hoped my father’s memorial would pass in silence. They all know he deserved more than a quiet memorial. Prince Kastan must attend. I need him here in order to talk to him.”

“I don’t see how you’ll get close to him with these many generals,” Ferino said, staring out the window with worry.

“If Prince Kastan attends, my father automatically receives a hero’s honor. He will have to join me at the altar as we burn incense for my father. That’s plenty of time to beg for a place at Sun-filled Manor,” Nisa said, taking in a deep breath and letting it out with a huff.

She pressed her palm into her stomach hoping to ease the nerves threatening to undo her.

She worried her plans were falling apart, but they were just starting, there was nothing to worry about. All she needed right now was Prince Kastan.

Ferino had already arranged their next action with the Burning Feather. The merchant would face his reckoning in Vasia, or on the way, it didn’t matter. All she needed to do now was to play the part of a lost daughter, and gain the sympathy of an Imperial Prince.

She pinched her cheeks hard to the point of tears and adjusted the skirts of her white mourning dress. Mourning was hard work.

“My Lady, His Imperial Highness is here,” Ferino said, a note in his voice made her pause.

She scowled when she looked at Ferino to find him watching her.

“What?” she snapped.

“He’s not alone,” Ferino said.

Worried that the merchant had decided to stay, she ran to the windows, stopping beside Ferino to look out into the courtyard. She gasped at the sight of the former Emperor, Kaveh Miran.

“Looks like your father is truly getting a Hero’s Honor,” Ferino murmured. “Must you keep up this charade, My Lady? It’s not too late to stop.”

“It is too late to back out now,” Nisa said, stepping back from the windows before Kastan and Kaveh Miran noticed her. “I’ll do my best to make Duke Silver see my side. If it doesn’t work, Ferino, you must hurry to Vasia. Make sure our plans for the merchant go through. Now go make sure they are received right.”

Ferino grumbled under his breath, but he hurried out when she glared at him.

When he was gone, Nisa leaned on the dining table and took several deep breaths. She closed her eyes and fought down the urge to vomit. Desperation clawed at her lungs and for a moment, she felt as though she could not breathe. The walls felt like they were closing in on her, bending over, she worked at calming down.

Pulling out a chair, she sank into it feeling exhausted. Leaning her head back, she closed her eyes and her head filled with a past she knew she could not change.

The day she arrived at the Imperial Palace to discover that her beloved was lost to her; her heart had filled with profound disappointment. It was so crippling that when Fortan, the Empress’s advisor, found her all she could do was lean on her.

She couldn’t have guessed that Fortan would take her to the Empress’s palace. She would not have imagined that the Empress Rushi would find her and call a healer for her. When she could think again, Rushi was pouring her tea. The conversation that followed had given her hope where despair had lived.

“Lady Nisa, you’re a Countess, the daughter of a decorated General,” Rushi said that day. “You’re a woman worthy of His Imperial Highness, Prince Kastan. I would beg you not to lose hope. The marriage he has with the merchant is temporary. His Imperial Majesty is simply worried that the Kamran Merchants are dominating our commerce. As soon as Lord Revi is able to get control of Kamran’s network, the merchant will have no importance. His Imperial Highness will be without a consort, and you can do what you want. Do you understand what I’m saying?”

Nisa froze in her seat at the mention of Lord Revi. She wasn’t proud of her dealings with the powerful lord and had tried to keep them hidden.

“Lord Revi says you’re indebted to him,” Rushi said. “Your relationship runs deep and long. He says you can’t disentangle yourself from him. Am I wrong?”

Rushi was right, Nisa thought at the time in panic.

She owed Lord Revi a hefty sum. One she had tried to pay with every means possible. In the end, she had concluded that she needed power to eradicate her debt with Lord Revi.

The first time she borrowed money from him was to fund the academy. She wanted to fulfill her father’s dream of making her the Duchess of Silver Shore. The only way to do that at the time was having access to the Little Prince. The only thing that mattered most to Prince Kastan was Little Prince Rashan’s education.

She had needed to invest in making the academy good enough to educate the next Duke of Silver Shore. It took money she did not have. The money she got from her father for monthly use would not manage the investment. She could find no obvious reasons to give her father to gain a large sum of money.

General Baiza had truly lived for the men serving in the army with him. So, when he could, he chose to assist Prince Kastan in ensuring the welfare of his officers. Which left her at a financial disadvantage. She shuddered at the memory of her father’s responses to any money requests she made.

Nisa, you have more than the average woman would dream of having,’ her father would say. ‘You have food, fine clothes and a good home. A monthly stipend to spend on your whims, what else would you need?

Her father’s stance left her desperate, his fault she ended up under Lord Revi’s mercy. His fault she now owed Lord Revi enough money to buy three valleys as large as Silver Shore. After all, the academy Rashan attended was the best in the empire, and she had made that happen.

Her desperation had led her to unimaginable lengths.

Yes, she was holding Ferino hostage because he knew how benefit payouts came to her. She had seen his troop die during an assignment, three years ago. When she discovered he would receive benefits for his injury through the welfare office, she forced him to create a list of fake families of the men who died in his troop. Ferino, desperate for funds for his daughter’s education, agreed to help her.

Ferino presented a fake list to the welfare office. When the welfare money was paid out to his butchery, Nisa discovered a way to make her payments to Lord Revi. With time, the lists got larger and the welfare amounts increased.

With each payout, she promised herself that she would stop, but when easy money came along, it was hard to walk away. Ferino faced moments when his conscious attacked. He threatened to come clean with his commanding officer, or write an anonymous letter to the Duke.

Nisa had forced his family into her estate to cure him.

She had hoped that by the time West Nation’s war ended, she would have time to seduce Prince Kastan. Becoming mistress of Sun-filled Manor would help her pay off debts with Lord Revi and close her unspeakable embezzling acts without suspicion.

Now to have her unfortunate bond with Lord Revi known by the Empress Rushi….her desperation had only elevated.

“No need to look so mortified,” Rushi told her that day with a small smile. “We’re both women, Lady Baiza. We should look out for each other. I can help you clear your misdeeds with Prince Kastan’s valley. All you have to do is lend your assistance when it comes to Lord Revi, and his attempts to take on the Kamran Merchant. Will you agree?”

“As long as it does nothing to harm His Imperial Highness and the Little Prince,” Nisa said, her gaze hard as she met Rushi’s amused one. “They will be mine to care for; I hope that Her Majesty will help me protect them.”

Rushi scoffed, glanced at Fortan then nodded.

“Lady Baiza, you’re the one placing them in danger, but I will agree to your demands,” Rushi said. “Now that we are in agreement, you may rely on the Burning Feather for any needs you might have. I truly hope you succeed. If you do, know that you’ll be in my debt. I expect you’ll help me bring the Commander of Armies under my control without trouble.”

Now, months later, sitting in her dining room staring at the polished black wood of the ceiling, Nisa took in a calming breath, forcing her panic down.

Yes, she was not alone in this.

Prince Kastan’s own sister in-law knew that the Kamran Merchant was not good for him. She was not wrong. The Burning Feather would come through. She had made all her plans. Nothing could go wrong

Nisa took in another deep breath. So what if the former Emperor was here? Wouldn’t he be her father in-law? All she had to do was get along with him, give him a good impression. Her demands that Prince Kastan attend her father’s memorial could be seen as being filial.

Parents loved children who remembered to show their respect. She was a good daughter, a loyal one.

Nisa let out air, feeling calm wash over her.

This is it, she thought.

The time to get Prince Kastan to look at her as more than just General Baiza’s daughter, Renai Countess. She needed to be at her best. After all, Prince Kastan was going to be facing grief over his dead consort soon. She would be there to offer him comfort and more.

The thought had her getting up, adjusting her plain white dress. She swept her hair back over her shoulder and made sure the simple gold pins used to hold it away from her face were tight. Satisfied that she was ready, she walked on silent feet to the front of the house. There she found Kastan standing in the main hall, looking magnificent in black robes. His hair clipped on top of his head tight, the heavy gold clip engraved with a snarling tiger.

The only flaw on his handsome face was the scar on his right brow.

She liked to ignore it.

“Your Grace,” Nisa brought her hand to her chest and gave Kastan a formal curtsy. “I am honored that you would attend my father’s memorial. Your presence gives him a hero’s honor.”

“General Baiza’s bravery speaks for itself,” Kastan said, his tone mild. “He died fighting for the empire. I’m honored to have known him, fought alongside him, and I’m here to pray for his soul. His hero’s honor stands on its own and my presence has nothing to do with it.”

Nisa dropped to her knees on the floor at the note of anger in Kastan’s voice. She had known she would annoy him by demanding he attend the memorial. She looked up to find him glaring at her, so she lowered her gaze.

“I am astonished to hear you would hang a white sheet to take your life on the day of General Baiza’s memorial,” Kastan continued. “It dishonors all that General Baiza stood for, Lady Baiza.”

Nisa swallowed a lump of anger at Kastan’s chastising tone.

What do you know about fighting for what you want? She thought. Everything always came to him so easily. All he had needed to do was be born.

“Your Grace—”

“The Emperor Father is here to honor General Baiza,” Kastan cut her off. “You’ll receive him with respect.”

“Your Grace,” Nisa said in shock, looking up to find Kastan turning away from her.

Afraid of losing the opportunity she had worked so hard to orchestrate, Nisa crawled forward on her knees. She grabbed the hem of Kastan’s red cloak, the black tiger on the back waving with the movement.

Kastan stopped but did not turn, so she bunched the fine fabric in her right hand.

“Your Grace, please hear my plea,” Nisa said, hating the pleading note in her voice. “My father was your friend and confidant. Now he is gone and I’m all alone. General Condi insists I must leave this place and go to live with my relatives. Please, I beg for a place at Sun-filled Manor. After all, we have been long time friends.”

“Lady Baiza,” Kastan said.

“Your Grace, I’m on my knees, asking you to rescind General Condi’s order. Don’t let me leave like this,” Nisa begged. “If you have any affection for me or my father, please give me a chance. I can help you give Prince Rashan a brother or sister. I will help the Imperial Prince Consort run the manor. Allow me to enter Sun-filled Manor as your concubine.”

Kastan sighed.

Nisa looked up to find his fingers in tight fists. The gold on his vambraces glinted in the sunlight coming in through the windows. Oh how she wished she could slip her hand into his and have him hold it with gentle care.

“This is a hard moment for both of us,” Kastan said, his tone low. “I remember that the girl your father brought to Sun-filled Manor was kind-hearted and pure of heart. Your father’s dreams were clear to me at the time, but he soon realized that my heart was closed to you. The idea of you in Sun-filled Manor ended for him. Now that the General is gone, Lady Baiza seems lost in an old idea. I will say this once and hope I never have to say it again. Imperial Prince Consort is the only man I need in Sun-filled Manor. He is my family. He is Rashan’s Papa. I will do whatever I can to help him if he says he wants more children in our home. But I, Imperial Prince Kastan, Duke of Silver Shore, will never push a concubine into the warmth of our family.”

Nisa felt tears fill her eyes as she looked up to see Kastan’s hard gaze.

Embarrassment filled every pore when she saw the look of disgust and rejection in his dark eyes. Still, she clung to the red cloak until Kastan turned away from her. She let go of his cloak, her hands shaking as she sat back on her haunches.

Kastan flipped his hands back, shaking out his cloak in one sweep.

“Lady Baiza, it is strange to see you on our knees. Get up and pull yourself together. I do not want to see you make a spectacle of yourself in front of the General’s Council. Give your father the rest he needs,” Kastan said.

He strode out of her house and Nisa found herself sitting on the floor, wiping tears from her eyes. She took in deep breaths, and got up to her feet. Straightening her skirts, she composed herself. No one succeeded in the first try.

Imperial Prince had yet to face the calamity she set up. Prince Kastan would soften after that. Fortifying herself with this thought, she hurried out of the house to start her father’s memorial ceremony.

*~*~*~*

Ferino stood on the side of the house watching the ceremony in the courtyard. The General’s Council had hoped to keep the memorial ceremony private. Only three generals attending the ceremony, General Condi, General Faiza and General Naveed. As far as he knew, General Temu had gone with the Imperial Prince Consort to Vasia. Kigaru and Niku had left the valley. It was not his job to know where they had gone.

Each General had brought five officers from the army they commanded.

They stood in the courtyard in two batches leaving a neat aisle in between them. The altar set near the steps leading to the front door was laden with a painting of General Baiza in his official colors, flowers, fruit offerings and incense burners.

Ferino’s gaze shifted to the man in royal purple robes standing next to General Condi. It had been a long time since he saw the Former Emperor attending an occasion in the valley. He sometimes wished he were on the Imperial Family’s side. He would have liked to stand with pride among the officers present here.

The drummers started, drawing his attention to the back of the gathering. He scowled as he watched Nisa standing on His Grace’s right side. Her eyes looked bloodshot. Looked like the talk she had orchestrated had not gone according to plan. As though sensing his gaze on her, Nisa looked at him across the distance and gave a single nod.

Ferino’s heart sank. There was no coming back from his current course. He would cause Duke Silver pain, but he needed to protect his own family. Moving away from the house, he took a few steps back so that Duke Silver would not see him. Bringing his right hand to his chest, he bowed low in a silent apology to his Commander.

As he rose from his bow, he turned around to find his mother watching him. She started to reach for him, but he shook his head and ran to the hidden exit.

*~*~*~*

Two days later, Jihan found himself in Vasia surveying the changes Garren had made to the inn. They had more people visiting the inn. The Eagle’s Claw was in the black, and a new play was running in the courtyard.

Jihan watched the early rehearsal, fanning himself as the actors recreated the war with West Nation and Kastan’s resounding win.

“They changed the play,” Jihan said, when Garren finished dealing with wine deliveries and came to stand next to him.

“His Imperial Highness has gained himself more fame after the war,” Garren said. “I dare say he is more popular than the Emperor.”

“That’s not always a good thing,” Jihan said, worried by that news.

Empress Rushi would find it a slight on her husband’s reputation.

“That’s why we changed the play,” Garren said with a grin. “The ending is all about how Duke Silver bends the knee to the Empire’s Father and promises allegiance. Our livelihoods are now irrevocably tied to Duke Silver. We’re all invested in making sure he continues to prosper.”

Jihan closed his fan and looked around the courtyard, his gaze searching for the next Duke of Silver Shore. A pang of panic filled him when he couldn’t find Rashan.

Garren touched his right arm giving him a reassuring squeeze.

“Prince Rashan is with my eldest, Lacca,” Garren said. “Master Safan followed them to the back where Lacca is feeding his rabbits. He is safe.”

Jihan gave a relieved sigh. It would be a disaster if he were to lose Rashan. He was losing sleep over the possibility.

Shaking his head, he turned to find Garren watching him. He tried to shrug off his unease, but Garren read him like an open book.

“Why don’t we head upstairs?” Garren suggested. “We’ll get ready to meet Ambra’s contact from Tanad. You can have a cup of tea after your busy morning.”

“Will we be able to see the back courtyard?” Jihan asked.

“I’ll make sure of it,” Garren said with a chuckle, as he led the way into the main floor of the inn, and headed to the stairs.

The private meeting room on the third floor of the Eagle’s Claw had a balcony. The balcony overlooked a small quiet courtyard where Garren’s family spent their time. Jihan sat on a chair on the balcony watching Rashan talk to Garren’s son, Lacca. Garren’s son was fifteen. He was a lovely boy who had taken on the work of the inn’s store manager. He kept track of items going in and out. Jihan knew he would do very well, and move on to greater responsibilities. His greatest joy was seeing people grow in the network.

Lacca was petting rabbits he kept as pets. Rashan wanted to hold one, so Lacca picked one up and was doing his best to help Rashan hold the rabbit. Rashan was squeamish about it and kept backing away when the rabbit wriggled. Jihan chuckled when Rashan finally held a white rabbit and was jumping in excitement. Rashan grinned up at Lacca. If only life were that simple and friendships so easily formed.

“You’re smitten with him,” Garren noted, drawing his attention. “You track his every move, and smile when he does. The little prince has you wrapped around his finger.”

“It’s a fate I’ll keep,” Jihan answered, dragging his gaze away from Rashan to meet Garren’s knowing gaze. “The younger generation is coming up, Garren. I hope they can get along better than we have.”

“Are you thinking of retiring?” Garren asked. “Will you decide to you stay in Silver Shore with Duke Silver?”

Jihan shrugged, his gaze shifting back to Rashan who had let go of the rabbit. It hopped away and Rashan picked up the bunch of vegetables from Lacca to feed the rest.

“That would not be a terrible fate,” Jihan said. “I don’t think it would be boring to watch him grow up. Andiya’s children will also need me. I would be lucky to face such a future of watching the young ones grow.”

“Your sentiment surprises me at times,” Garren said, also watching Lacca and Rashan. “It is also the reason why I trust you, Your Grace. I can trust you with my children, my family.”

Jihan sat back in his seat.

“Garren, don’t be so serious,” Jihan said, picking up his cup of tea. He took a sip and would have taken another when Garren surprised him.

“I heard Lady Andiya is having a hard time traveling,” Garren said. “She would have made it to Vasia on your behalf, but her husband asked her to call you.”

Jihan winced because he had not known that Andiya’s pregnancy was giving her trouble. She should not have to carry the Kamran business, and he had left much of that to her while he dealt with Silver Shore Valley.

“Lady Andiya thinks it’s very important to spend the first three months of your married life in your husband’s home. She worried if you discovered her true condition that you would end up at Kamran Estate.”

Jihan got up to lean on the railing.

“Andiya is the only one at Kamran Estate who would dare keep a secret from me,” Jihan said, upset that he could not take a horse and ride to Kamran Estate when it was all he wanted to do. His gaze found Rashan, and found that his heart was now split in three. Three parts to fit Rashan, Kastan and Andiya. Each one a source of love and angst, he sighed.

“Find the best healer, someone with a lot of experience with childbirth,” Jihan said. “Have him or her move to Kamran Estate permanently. They should tend to Andiya until she gives birth and stay on to make sure they are healthy. Spare no expense.”

“Yes, Your Grace,” Garren promised.

Jihan closed his eyes.

“This healer will write me weekly on Andiya’s condition. They will leave nothing out.”

“I’ll make sure of it,” Garren said.

Jihan let out a sigh and shook his head.

“Sometimes, I wish I could run away and take everyone I care about,” Jihan said. “Stay with them in a quiet place where no one will come to bother us. Don’t you think that would be ideal?”

“It would be ideal,” Garren said, getting up to join him at the railing. His gaze lingered on his own son and then he shrugged. “But it’s a dream, Your Grace. Your loved ones will have things they want to do. You will always want to help them achieve those things because that’s what you do. Hence, the idea of running and locking them away is simply a dream.”

“Your feet are always firmly on the ground,” Jihan said, glancing at Garren with a small smile.

A knock on the door had Garren returning to the table inside the room.

“It’s time,” Garren said. “Our stance is simple. He accepts our goods in his outlets in Tanad Kingdom. We do the same here with his goods, the amounts and commitments of this transaction are what is driving Ambra, Tagon and Swallow into arms. We cannot be responsible for transporting his goods into the Empire and also transporting our goods into Tanad to his outlets.”

Jihan picked up his fan as he moved to sit at the head of the table. The door opened and Firuz led in Swallow, Tagon, and Ambra, the man in charge of Kamran’s new routes and two new faces.

Firuz moved to stand on Jihan’s right while everyone else took up seats around the table.

“Your Grace,” Ambra said, bowing in Jihan’s direction before he took his seat.

“Master Ambra,” Jihan said, amused by Ambra’s teasing gesture. He didn’t think he had ever seen Ambra bow to him. “I see Tanad treated you well.”

“There were many faces to wear before I could settle. One of those was that of a fine lord. I grew attached to the fine clothes,” Ambra said, touching the fine leather wrist braces he wore and then he grinned. “Does Your Grace like them?”

“I do like them,” Jihan said, smiling, he met the newcomer’s interested gaze. “We all wear many hats in life. Today, I’m here to strike a deal with a merchant from Tanad Kingdom. Shall we get started?”

Both men nodded and rose to introduce themselves.

“I am Ven, a merchant from Tanad.”

"I'm Niall Byn also from Tanad Kingdom."

Jihan got up and gave them a slight nod in greeting.

“Jihan of Kamran,” he said. “Why don’t you start first? I’ll listen to your proposal…”

*~*~*~*

character list
I hope the many hats you wear make you smile once,
Keep reading,
all my 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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Chapter Comments

oooooh ! 6 weeks since last chapter 😵

yes i want to slap lady baiza’s face for her being so silly to join Rushi’s side !

Wow Kaveh Miran’s story is so sad ! 

hmm what Ferino is going to do ? attempt to murder ? 

great chapter  👍

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I loved reading of Jihan bonding with the worthy members of the Miran family as well as the loyalty his own family and network show him, yet dread stayed in my stomach anticipating what the evil trio has planned.  It seems the next chapter will tell what treachery awaits. I can only hope for unknown reinforcements to thwart and fully expose all who need to be so that they can be punished accordingly. 

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These would be assassins do not seem to notice Firuz for what he is, 'DANGEROUS'. Such an enjoyable chapter. The tension mounts. Thanks for great writing.

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Excellent chapter! A new understanding between the former emperor Kaveh and Jihan may be beneficial to them both. Kaveh is lonely and Jihan needs information on how to deal with the people of the valley. Nisa is going ahead with the assassination attempt on Jihan still hoping to win Duke Kastan. Hopefully the co-conspirators will be caught before they can carry out their orders. I am definitely looking forward to the next chapter! 😃❤️

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Lady Nisa just keeps getting worse.  I think I hate her more than the Empress. She holds a family in hostage, embezzles money, consorts with the enemy, is trying to kill Jihan, begs to be a concubine, and works with a Lord to overthrow the Empire.  She doesn't even feel love and respect for her father and blames him for her own bad decisions.  

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