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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.
Note: While authors are asked to place warnings on their stories for some moderated content, everyone has different thresholds, and it is your responsibility as a reader to avoid stories or stop reading if something bothers you. 

The Reluctant Consort - 2. Chapter 2

A Day in a Merchant’s Life

Jihan Kamran loved rainy days. He enjoyed the sound of raindrops rapping on the roof, on the stones in courtyards, or on the grass. The rhythm soothed him. Twirling his fan, he watched raindrops hit the stones in the inn courtyard where he was staying. Big fat drops overtaking the smaller ones, it was a wild dance. It was a far more exciting dance than his time in this little town in the Sun Kingdom.

“Jihan.”

His name came in a quiet tone no higher than a whisper. He shifted his gaze away from the rain to the man standing a few feet away.

Firuz, his shadow guard, never yelled or spoke too high.

“They are here,” Firuz said.

Jihan picked up his teacup and sipped, then placed it on the mat.

“Let them in,” he said with a lazy tone.

Giving the rain one last look, he turned his attention to Firuz.

Firuz’s steps to the door were silent.

Jihan had made it a game to listen to Firuz’s footsteps as he moved. He started the game at eleven years of age, he had yet to win, and Firuz got more skilled with each year. Jihan had decided the silent steps were a good thing. He would worry when he could hear Firuz’s footsteps.

Minutes later, three men sat opposite him with teacups of their on the table.

Jihan had met the trio two days ago. He had two hundred bags of Silver Lake salt. The most coveted salt in the empire. The bags of salt came to him as a payment given to him by his ex-lover, Tagon, a successful merchant from Taen City, the capital city of Sun Kingdom.

The salt was a gold asset.

Jihan had wanted to get it back home to Kamran Estate. However, the constant rain in Sun Kingdom made the journey home too expensive. Added to the cost was a growing sense of foreboding he had no choice but to honor. He had decided to sell the bags on his way home instead. The extra money in his pocket would be good; he had a gut feeling that he would need it very soon.

This was how he ended up in the little town three hours out of Taen City. The three men sitting opposite him had the largest business monopoly in the small town he had chosen.

The man in the middle of the trio spoke first. He was robust, and dressed in expensive flashy emerald robes with gold embroidery on the edges.

Jihan imagined he thought himself a noble man.

“Master Kamran, we have come to an agreement with our associates.”

The men on each side of him were much slighter. They wore clothes that were more subdued but Jihan could still tell they were of expensive taste. The man in the middle ruled over the two on each side.

“You are Melen, the head of trade in this town?” Jihan asked.

His information network was thorough, he knew all there was to know about Melen and his two friends. He never made a deal without understanding the other party.

“I am,” Melen said, nodding with satisfaction. “I’ve come to complete the business negotiation we started two days ago.”

“My price at the time was twenty silver taels a bag.” Jihan sipped his tea and sat back in his chair. “You kept me waiting, so I sourced another buyer. Willen is from the neighboring town. He is willing to come collect all my two hundred bags of salt at the price of thirty-five silver taels. I have no need to continue our negotiation. This meeting was a courtesy to you.”

Willen was Melen’s business rival.

They never talked to each other, but they competed fiercely when it came to business.

“You’re bluffing,” Melen said, his gaze wide, his tone accusing. His fingers tightened into fists on the table, and his friend on the left moved his teacup aside.

Jihan guessed Melen had a tendency to throw things whenever Willen came up in conversation.

“There is no way Willen would dare take on a deal we started,” Melen said, skeptic.

“Business is business,” Jihan said, picking up the black wood token he had kept on the table beside his teacup.

He held it up so that the three men could see the name on the token.

“Melen, that’s Willen’s business token. He makes sure his people bring them to prospective business associates,” the man on Melen’s right said. “You can’t do this to us, Master Kamran.”

“What can’t I do?” Jihan asked, placing the token next to his teacup. “I will make any transaction that benefits my business. Kamran has goods to sell. We are willing to offer them to the highest bidder. You’re not that bidder. Let’s not waste each other’s time.”

Jihan lifted his teacup and Firuz stepped out from behind his chair.

The three men at the table tensed.

Jihan knew why they all looked afraid.

Firuz was a formidable force, even in his silence. The sword on a dark belt on Firuz’s hips was no toy. Not that Firuz ever needed to use it. He was deadly with his hands and the knife he kept hidden up his sleeve. He loved to wear black. Jihan’s older sister, Andiya, had tried her best to introduce Firuz to another color still he clung to black clothes.

Jihan thought Firuz liked the color because it added to his intimidating nature. So, Andiya and Jihan invested in making sure Firuz’s clothes used the finest black cloth they could find. The tailor had a hell of a time creating robes that could withstand the rigors of combat.

“Masters,” Firuz said, addressing the three men. He nodded to the door, giving the three men a clear invitation to leave.

Jihan started to look out at the pouring rain.

Melen stood, bracing his hands on the table so that he could lean toward Jihan.

Firuz stepped closer to the table making Melen shift back his stance, his gaze wary.

“W-what will make you change your mind?” Melen asked Jihan, his gaze remaining on Firuz. “State a new price and we’ll match it. We can also purchase your salt at the same price as Willen.”

Jihan’s brow rose.

“Why would I want to do business with you at the same price? I’m happy with Willen’s offer. Why spoil a perfect deal? He’ll be here by this afternoon to collect the bags of salt.”

Jihan continued to sip his tea in calm, making Melen get even more agitated.

His friends stood too and started whispering in Melen’s ear, an urgent conversation ensued.

Jihan ignored it.

He waited.

Firuz remained standing by his chair ready for action. His gaze on the three men having a rapid discussion, they gave him wary glances every few minutes. When five minutes had passed, they quieted down, but did not sit.

“Um, Master Jihan,” Melen said, his tone sounding more confident. “We’re prepared to offer you a better price than Willen. Will you agree to sell the Silver Lake salt to us?”

“Name your price,” Firuz said, folding his arms against his chest.

“We’ll offer you forty-five silver taels each for the two hundred bags of Silver Lake salt.”

Jihan placed his teacup on the table, elated. It was much more than he had expected. Silver Lake salt had countless uses in the empire. It was rare to acquire because it was mined in the very protected Silver Shore Valley. He had been hoping to sell at thirty silver taels a bag. Forty-five was a win. He held in his excitement.

“I have an agreement with Willen. I don’t want to end up accused of breaking a promise. How can I be sure you won’t brag to Willen when this is over?”

“Our transaction will remain confidential. We’re not willing to cross Willen either,” Melen said, his tone hard.

Jihan glanced at Firuz.

Firuz stepped back from the table and Jihan turned his attention to the three men.

“Forty-five silver taels sounds reasonable,” Jihan said, smiling for the first time.

It startled the three men, as he had not shown them any other expression but coldness.

“How quickly can we complete our deal?” Melen asked, looking hopeful.

Jihan stood, taking his fan and the black token, which he slid into his pocket.

“That depends on how fast you can gather nine thousand silver taels. Or, you can make that nine hundred gold pieces, I don’t mind either.”

“Right away,” Melen said, taking a green bag out of his robes, which he handed to the man on the right. “You only need show us the storage house and we shall handle everything else.”

The man on the right did a quick count, adding a few pieces from his moneybag before he handed Firuz the heavy green bag. Firuz overturned the contents on the table to reveal gold pieces shaped into thick coins. He counted them arranging them in fifties until he had eighteen piles indicating nine hundred gold pieces. When Jihan nodded his approval, Firuz returned the pieces into the bag, and kept it.

Jihan led the way out of the private room they had used for their discussion. He headed to the back of the inn and the stores he used to keep his sacks of salt.

The exchange took less time than their conversation.

Thirty minutes later found Jihan on his black horse riding out of the small town in Sun Kingdom followed by his ten men and Firuz. They did not slow down until they crossed the border, leaving Sun Kingdom behind and entering Silver Kingdom.

When they were on the road to Vasia Town, a merchant town closest to the Imperial City Akan, Firuz slowed down their pace.

They stopped at a roadside stall selling food and drinks for travelers.

Jihan sat down at a table outside the small inn and removed the black conical hat he used for travel. Placing it on the table, he looked up when Firuz brought him a jug of water and a bowl of beef soup. The rest of the men scattered in the surrounding tables around him.

As Firuz sat down opposite him, Jihan got the black token with Willen’s name on it from his pocket. He smiled and shook his head.

“Congratulations,” Firuz said, drinking his water, finishing two cups before Jihan started on his first. “You have truly mastered the art of deception.”

“Look who’s talking,” Jihan teased, breaking the black wood token and throwing it into the bushes behind him.

Firuz forged the token from descriptions made by the information network they ran.

“Melen will always think he stole a marvelous transaction from Willen. He would be thoroughly upset to know that you have never even met this Willen,” Firuz said with a shake of his head.

Jihan chuckled and focused on drinking his beef soup first. The soup was more water than beef, but he was hungry. Giving it a taste, Jihan grimaced at the salt in the liquid. He still drank the soup because they had a four-hour journey to Vasia.

“Forty-five silver taels is a good price,” Jihan said, when his hunger was under control, and he could think. “With more time I would have made it fifty silver taels, but it’s better than the original twenty they had suggested.”

“Why are you intent on accumulating money?” Firuz asked, drinking his beef soup too.

It was not a delicious meal but it would tide them over until they reached Vasia Town.

“We could easily have left some of the men in the troop to transport the bags of silver lake salt, leaving you to travel home fast. Why did you need to sell them?”

Jihan finished his soup and pushed the bowl to the side. He wiped his mouth and drank a mouthful of water to wash away the soup’s salty taste.

“Something Tagon said when we met him in Taen,” Jihan said. “He’s sure there is a war brewing, though he cannot be clear on when. West Nation and Akasha have been at odds. There is bound to be two or three court officials who will push us into a complete dispute. It would be best if we were back at Kamran Estate before it happens.”

“You’re worried about Andiya,” Firuz guessed, putting their bowls together and pushing them to the edge of the table.

“I’m always worried about Andiya,” Jihan said, thinking about his older sister. “She’s probably living the hardest she can, loving Ishan with every inch of her heart. I can only hope she remembers to be safe while running wild.”

Jihan sighed and shook his head.

“Andiya is safest at home,” Firuz said, and then his gaze narrowed, studying Jihan hard. “But she’s not the reason you are so on edge, what else?”

Jihan got fifteen silver taels and placed them on the table to cover their food. He picked up his black conical hat and wore it.

“I’m afraid of the decisions my father might make if a war breaks out.”

Firuz’s expression mirrored his concern, as they got up to mount their horses again.

Jihan hoped Tagon was wrong about his predictions, though Tagon was rarely wrong. He also hoped that his father, Duyi Kamran, would stay put and not make hasty decisions that would harm their lives.

*~*~*~*

They arrived in Vasia Town in the late evening, the sun long descended.

Firuz led the way to the Eagle’s Claw; an inn ran by one of Jihan’s three trusted members of Kamran’s business troop. The Eagle’s Claw was where most of the merchants who wanted to talk to Jihan stayed. Jihan had also ensured the Eagle’s Claw provided the best service in Vasia Town, making it the busiest inn in the city.

Firuz ignored the front entrance, instead using a discrete entrance into the back compound.

Jihan jumped off his horse and handed the reins of his horse to Firuz.

He entered the inn alone.

A young woman met him at the entrance and led him up back stairs to the top floor of the three-story building. She opened a door at the end of the corridor on the third floor and ushered him into a private suite, with a sitting area, private sleeping quarters and bathroom.

“There is a bath waiting for you. Garren will be up shortly,” the young woman said, then left him alone, closing the door quietly.

Jihan removed the conical hat and stretched his arms above his head with a tired sigh. He needed a bath, a hot meal and a good night’s sleep. He would handle everything else in the morning.

The large sitting area had long couches, armchairs and tables for hosting a meeting or for entertainment purposes.

Jihan dropped his conical hat on the table and headed to the inner room where he found a large bed dominating the space. Jihan ignored the bed and went straight for the open door hidden in the right corner of his bedchamber.

Sure enough, hot water steamed in the bath.

Jihan slid the door closed and got to work undressing.

Jihan unclipped his wide leather waist belt, releasing his outer robe. The heavy dark green embroidered outer robe was filled with dust from travel. He removed it and dropped it in a pail set on a stool for his dirty clothes. Rolling his shoulders to ease the tension, he untied his inner shirt and dropped that in the pail too. Jihan removed his white inner pants, along with his boots and socks, placing the boots aside for cleaning later.

The heavy silver clip on his head was last, as it took him some time. His hair had grown longer and thicker. It took the huge clip to keep it all in check when he was traveling. The moment he unsnapped it and his hair fell down his back, he let out a soft moan of relief and spent a few moments scratching his skull.

Jihan stepped into the warm water in the tub with an appreciative moan and sank into it with his eyes closed. He was washed and relaxing in the water when a soft knock came, and the door slid open.

He opened his eyes, turning his head to find Firuz holding a wooden pail with fresh warm water.

Jihan sat up in the tub and Firuz helped him rinse his hair with the water from his pail. Jihan then stood in the tub, and Firuz poured the rest of the water down his back, rinsing him off. He stepped out of the tub and wrapped a large white towel around his waist. He took a second towel from the stool and used it to wipe his face.

Firuz crouched on the floor and turned a lever that released the dirty water from the tub into a tube that would take it outside. When he was done rinsing the tub, he helped Jihan dry his hair with a third towel.

“Garren insists on talking to you,” Firuz said, when Jihan was dry and dressed in a white tunic shirt and dark pants.

His hair stayed free down his back still damp from his bath. Jihan used the towel for his face to pat it some more before he gave up and placed the towel in the dirty clothes pail.

“Firuz, you take a bath too, and get something to eat. I promise not to meet him until you’re ready. Take your time, that’s an order,” Jihan said, stepping out of the bathroom. “I’ll just lay on the bed. I need to close my eyes a few minutes before I meet Garren.”

Firuz nodded and waited for Jihan to lie down on the large bed before he went to get his own water for a bath.

The last Jihan heard was Firuz closing the door to the bathroom for his bath. The next thing he heard was the sound of birds singing in the early morning. He sat up, pushing hair out of his face to find Firuz resting on the bed beside him, arms crossed over his sword.

Taking in a deep breath, Jihan relaxed and sank back into the comfort of his mattress, closing his eyes.

“You let me sleep,” he murmured, knowing Firuz was already alert.

“It seemed best,” Firuz said, not moving a muscle. “I made sure Garren understood you need your rest.”

Jihan smiled imagining Firuz giving Garren a hard look and closing the door on his face. He would need to be very nice to Garren this morning if they wanted a delicious breakfast. His stomach growled and he sighed. He was starving for a real meal.

Rubbing his eyes, Jihan shifted on the bed so that he was staring at the ceiling. They stayed in silence for a few minutes, listening to the birds chirp. Jihan closed his eyes, hoping to give Firuz a few more minutes of rest. He worried, even after all these years together, he still worried that Firuz was not getting enough sleep.

“I’m fine, Jihan,” Firuz said as though reading his thoughts. He could be, for all Jihan knew.

Jihan opened his eyes and eyed Firuz. It was no use arguing with his shadow guard.

Firuz always won any of their arguments, which was strange, as technically Jihan was his master. The lines had blurred over the years. Firuz was like a brother to him now. He shook his head and rolled out of bed.

“I’m starving,” Jihan said, reaching for the silk green and white robe that Firuz had clearly prepared and placed on the chair set closest to the bed. Jihan glanced at him, to find him still resting on the bed.

“I can find my own clothes, Firuz.”

“It’s less time if I find them,” Firuz replied. “I’ll help fix your hair when you’re done.”

Jihan sighed.

It was no use fighting Firuz. He always ended up looking like the idiot if he tried.

Jihan removed his black pants and shirt, and wore the white pair set over the green robe.

When he slid his hands into the long sleeves of the green and white robe, Firuz got off the bed and picked up the white wide belt. He made sure the edges of the robe overlapped with perfect precision across Jihan’s chest, and then tied the wide belt around his waist. The belt held the robe in place, its white ribbons boasting a green and white tussle with a blue jade Kamran Estate token hanging on it.

“Andiya would be proud,” Jihan noted, when Firuz made sure the tussle fell in just the right way on his left thigh.

Firuz smiled, and Jihan shook his head. His shadow guard had a huge crush on his older sister. It was the most entertaining thing to watch.

Firuz pushed him to sit on the chair, and spent a few minutes helping Jihan brush and clip his hair on top of his head. This time keeping it in a neat half ponytail and letting the heavy mass of silk strands fall down his back.

Jihan wore new socks and slipped his feet into his clean black boots.

Firuz disappeared in the bathroom to get ready for the day. He never let Jihan see him get ready, so Jihan shook out his long sleeves and left the bedchamber.

In the sitting area, he found his fan resting on the table. He picked it up and opened the fan, studying the beautiful Kamran estate painted on its surface. He missed home so much. He smiled thinking of Andiya making sure every inch of their home was clean and neat, food cooking for the day, and managing the workers who came in and out. He missed the rhythm of life at Kamran Estate, longed for it when he was out here.

Closing his fan before he got too sentimental, Jihan walked to the balcony on his left, sliding the door open. He stepped into the cool morning. The balcony had a view of the front of the inn and the busy main street leading to the Imperial City Akan.

Vasia Town was already awake and moving. Jihan took in the horses riding past the inn, carriages racing ahead, some parked on the curb, men and women walking the streets with purpose, going to work or business. Jihan smiled at the sight and went back inside.

Firuz emerged dressed in fresh clothes, the only evidence of that was the green embroidery on the collar of his black clothes. Andiya’s inspired thought, Jihan thought thinking she ran them all even from the safety of home.

Firuz left the suite and returned five minutes later with the young woman from the evening before. She carried a large tray laden with breakfast.

Jihan was sipping on hot tea when Garren entered the suite after a short knock.

“Morning, Garren,” Jihan said, smiling at his longtime family friend. “I hope you are doing well this morning.”

“Better than last night,” Garren said, giving Firuz a hard look.

Jihan hid a smile and indicated for Garren to join him at the table. Firuz sat beside Jihan, passing dishes of food to Jihan. Their breakfast was a delicious assortment of rich vegetable soup, grilled fish, rice, side dishes to complement the fish and sweet breads.

Jihan filled his plate, not shy about a good meal. He added hot tea into his cup and smiled at Garren.

“I have missed great food,” Jihan confessed taking a healthy bite of the fish. “Thank you for accommodating us on such short notice, Garren.”

“I was happy to receive your message,” Garren said, sipping his own tea. “The eagle landed just as a message from Lord Duyi arrived. I thought it was good fortune.”

Jihan gave Firuz a short glance, his suspicions already growing.

“What message does my father have for me?” Jihan asked.

Garren produced a small white scroll with his father’s seal on it.

“I don’t know. I was only instructed to make sure that you got it. He was not sure you were home. The business troop heads reported that you were traveling to Sun Kingdom two months ago.”

Jihan nodded, and took the scroll. Wiping his hands with the cloth beside his plate, he broke his father’s seal. Garren and Firuz concentrated on their meal as he read the message.

‘War with West Nation is a fact. Kamran has won the bid to supply Duke Silver’s armies along two others. Come to Kamran Manor to receive the supply seal – Lord Duyi Kamran.’

Jihan read the message twice.

Two things quite clear: Tagon’s prediction was right and that his father had screwed the family over.

Jihan handed the message to Firuz and sat back, a sour taste in his mouth.

Most merchants loved wartime, prices went up, and monopolies grew and were exploited.

Jihan felt different about wars. He preferred to stay away from the political nature that was war. One mistake and they could end up at the imperial court answering for crimes they did not anticipate.

Worst-case scenario a mistake during a war would get their heads chopped off. Best scenario, they made it through to the other side with minimal exposure.

The Kamran Network was hidden, and very vast. Jihan wanted to protect that, even from his father.

Heavens, there was Andiya to worry about too.

Jihan abandoned his breakfast and got up to pace.

“What?” Garren asked, placing his cup of tea on the table.

Garren took the note Firuz held out, gave it a quick glance, and then cursed under his breath.

“Lord Duyi is too eager,” Garren said, disappointed heavy in his voice. “This is a mistake. We’re going to need to play this smart, Master Jihan. Duke Silver is fair, but he fights for the Emperor. We’re going to need to work hard to protect Kamran. What should we do first?”

Jihan understood Garren on a very basic level.

Duke Silver would want to know whom he was dealing with, and would dig into their Kamran business. They would need to be careful with what Duke Silver found.

“Call all five hundred men in our business troops back,” Jihan said. “Document all information they bring here in code, and send it straight to Kamran Estate, no exceptions.”

“What about the new comers?” Garren asked. “We have a few here at the inn. There might be others in the various troops.”

Jihan narrowed his gaze, pausing to look at Garren. New comers meant there would be spies sent in by palace officials, Duke Silver himself.

Damn it, he hated wars.

“Collect all new faces and put them out in Ambra’s team,” Jihan said, shaking his head.

Ambra was a paranoid man and the best person to deal with spies. Jihan trusted him with creating new trade routes, so he knew Ambra would weed out the rotten people in the new ones.

“Send Ambra to Tanad Kingdom to bring back spices. Do it today if possible, the least the new ones know about our plans, the better,” Jihan said.

“I’ll make it happen,” Garren said.

“What about the Traveler’s Branch?” Firuz asked. “We need information more than anything. West Nation will have spies at the border. Sabotaging supplies is the first thing they all learn in war school.”

“Which is why we’re going to use our veteran travelers,” Jihan said, folding his hands behind his back.

The Traveler’s Branch traded information in the empire. Information Jihan used without prejudice to smooth transactions. The Traveler’s Branch was ran by Set. Set liked to remain unseen, and unknown to most even among his own team of fifty men.

“Garren,” Jihan said. “Ask Set to meet me this evening. We need all the information we can get about the border of West Nation. We’re behind.”

Jihan studied the wood floor for a minute, thinking of all the reasons he hated his father’s ambitions. The biggest one being Duyi Kamran’s need to place his family in danger. Had Duyi even stopped to think that a raid from an enemy army would mean their deaths?

Jihan sighed and started for the door. The faster he spoke to his father, the better he would understand what Duyi was thinking.

A gentle hand closed over his left arm stopping his progress.

Jihan turned to find Firuz shaking his head at him.

“Eat first,” Firuz said. “Your father can wait until you finish your meal.”

Jihan started to shake off Firuz, but then stopped when Firuz tugged him back to the table.

“You’ll think better with a full stomach,” Firuz said, pushing Jihan’s plate closer to him. “Your father can wait a few minutes.”

*~*~*~*

Lord Duyi Kamran lived a walking distance to the Imperial Palace in a manor he purchased from an impoverished noble man. He renovated the manor and furnished it with elegant taste, made it a place fit to host the most prestigious guests he could find. He worked hard at finding these guests at first, but after ten years in the Imperial City Akan, these prestigious guests now found him.

Ministers needing help with their dockets, officials in the palace wanting to find rare items needed for the Emperor’s family. The list was endless.

Duyi had worked to become the most sort after merchant in Imperial City Akan. It made him ambitious for more.

Jihan could feel how dangerous that ambition was and it worried him. He stood in the greeting room at his father’s manor unable to relax. He paced the length of the comfortable long couches in the room, ignoring the tray on the table with warm tea and snacks for him. His robe swishing with every turn he made. The tassel at his waist swung from side to side. He shook out his sleeves and closed his eyes fighting off panic and anger.

“Jihan,” a soft kind voice said, making him stop.

Jihan turned to find his mother walking into the greeting room. She was beautiful in a pink silk gown with wide skirts, her graying hair held up with pins in a tight bun. She smiled wide as she approached him, her round face flushed with pleasure.

“My son,” Laner Kamran said, reaching him and pulling him into a tight hug. “You’ve grown thin since the last time I saw you.”

She looked to the corner where Firuz stood in an attempt to blend in with the wall.

“Why is he not eating well? Why aren’t you making sure he gets enough sleep? What is your job if not to look after my son?”

Firuz lowered his head, keeping silent. It was no use arguing with Laner Kamran.

“Ma,” Jihan took Laner’s hands and squeezed. “Don’t blame Firuz. I’m well, eating and sleeping just fine. I’ve always been this size, too tall and skinny. It is my fate.”

“Nonsense,” Laner said, reaching up to caress his left cheek. “Jihan, why can’t you agree to move here? I would be able to take care of you.”

“Then, who would take care of Kamran Estate and Andiya?” Jihan asked her.

Laner sighed and took his hand, leading him to sit on one of the chairs. Laner’s lady in-waiting stoked up warmer to heat up the tea, and served them. Jihan allowed his mother to fuss for a while, listening to her concerns about him and Andiya living alone in the wild. She loved them. There was no question. But, she was not strong enough to stand up to their father, that burden remained with Jihan.

When his father walked in, Laner stood up hurrying to Duyi’s side.

“Yi, talk sense to your son,” Laner said. “He insists on traveling and living in Kamran Estate. When will he settle down and stay in the capital with us?”

“Don’t worry so much,” Duyi said, glancing at Jihan. “He’s doing what he must for the family. Why don’t you go prepare sweets for Jihan to take with him? You were talking about it all morning. Now he’s here and you’ve forgotten.”

“Oh, yes,” Laner smiled and turned to smile at Jihan. “You will love them, Jihan. I got the recipe from a woman who visited the imperial palace just two months ago. She got it from a royal chef. They are delicious. You have to take them with you.”

Laner hurried out of the greeting room, taking her lady-in-waiting with her.

Jihan stood staring at Duyi, unsure where to start. The anger boiling in him was hard to contain.

In the end, he started with the only question he could ask.

“Why?” Jihan asked. “Why would you do this to us?”

“It was the only logical step. After all, what have we been working for?” Duyi answered with a shrug.

Duyi sat where Laner had set up tea and snacks.

Duyi poured a cup for himself and took a small sip. Placing the cup on the table, he glanced at Jihan who was still standing.

“Are you going to sit?” Duyi asked.

“I can’t,” Jihan said, shaking his head, his hands in tight fists.

The urge to shake his father so strong, he was afraid if he got closer, he might just give in.

“Why are we always on opposite sides?”

“We both want our family to prosper,” Duyi said. “How does that put us on opposite sides?”

“We are prospering,” Jihan said. “Business is good, the greatest threat we face is competition from other merchants. We’re able to handle that. We cannot involve ourselves with the palace. It will destroy everything.”

“That’s absurd,” Duyi said, taking a second sip of his tea. “If you accomplish your task, it will give us more than we have, Jihan. The Emperor will reward our family for our service. It will mean that I can become an official in the royal court. Your mother will gain a title.”

Jihan closed his eyes and turned away from his father. He had been afraid that was what his father was after.

Duyi was not satisfied with the courtesy title he carried as Lord Duyi. No, he wanted a real noble title. A title attached to lands and a position at court. Those always came with sacrifice of blood.

Jihan wiped a hand down his face and opened his eyes.

“What if I refuse to supply Duke Silver’s armies?” Jihan asked, turning to look at his father.

“You have no choice,” Duyi said, his tone hard.

Duyi reached into his pockets and dropped a heavy black jade token in the shape of a tiger on the table with the tea. It had a matching black tassel.

Jihan felt his blood pressure rise just looking at it.

“I accepted it at court in full view of all, including Duke Silver. The tiger represents Duke Silver’s armies. It’s black to show that you’re in charge of all supplies brought into the garrisons,” Duyi said. “You can’t walk into meetings with the generals without it. Don’t lose it.”

Jihan sighed and shook his head.

“Pa, why would you do this? Why, when you know what can happen if we make a single mistake?”

“We need to take the next step,” Duyi said, his tone grave. “We can’t stop at being merchants. You must have ambition, Jihan, for more, for better. It’s time for our family to join royal court and become court officials. To do that, we needed to earn great merit. Which we can gain by supplying the imperial army at war with great success, then the Emperor will reward us.”

“It’s a gamble,” Jihan said. “The Emperor might end up asking for all our heads. Are you thinking of Andiya at all?”

“Always,” Duyi said, his tone enough to make Jihan shiver. “I’ll make sure you’re protected from here. You’ll have to do the hard work out there, Jihan. As we have always worked, all you have to do is make sure there are no mistakes.”

Jihan cursed under his breath. There was no talking to his father. He stalked forward and took up the cursed token, slipping it into the pockets inside his left sleeve. He gave his father a hard gaze, and then walked out of the greeting room.

“I know you will do well, Jihan,” Duyi called after him. “You always do.”

Jihan stalked to the front doors of the mansion in an angry daze. He did not hear his mother calling his name, but Firuz did. Firuz hurried in her direction.

Jihan stepped out of his father’s compound into the busy streets of the Imperial City Akan needing to walk out his burning anger. He was sure Duyi Kamran had sent them to their deaths.

Jihan loved walking the streets, mingling with people, listening to sellers calling out to buyers. He inspected all stands he came across. Noting that peaches were selling faster than apples, that it was getting harder to find green onions and that cabbages were abundant in the market.

He checked out the quality of silks, looking at dyeing techniques. He found an interesting carpenter who was chiseling designs into wood using a machine he had devised. Jihan left him with a small red wood token, promising to buy a consignment of candlesticks that he thought would be a hit in his hometown at the border of the Iron Lands and Silver Kingdom.

Kamran Estate straddled the edge of Silver Kingdom’s border.

Andiya often joked they were practically from the Iron Lands and not Silver Kingdom.

Andiya, Jihan sighed and slowed his pace when he caught sight of an interesting teahouse opposite the city market. He stopped on the side of the wide road for carriages and a troop of horses to pass. He started to cross and a gentle hand clutched his right, stopping him.

Jihan looked to his right to find Firuz standing beside him.

“Your mother was upset you left without saying goodbye,” Firuz said, as a carriage passed them at top speed.

Firuz let go of Jihan’s hand and they crossed the road.

“Talking to her would only make me angrier,” Jihan said, stopping at the bottom of the stairs leading into the teahouse. “She always sides with father. Never once sees my side of things. It’s better this way.”

Firuz nodded and pointed out the carriage Jihan had not noticed before.

“I put the sweets she made in the carriage. Maybe you can take them to Andiya. She’ll be happy.”

Jihan nodded and started up the steps into the teahouse.

“Let’s have tea, and then we can start worrying about the war,” Jihan said, entering the teahouse. “I’m afraid I won’t have the luxury to stroll around like this until it’s over.”

The teahouse was busy, which meant their tea was good, their prices affordable. Jihan took in their décor, down to the type of cups they used to serve customers. The waiters were friendly as they brought Jihan and Firuz tea and a plate of colorful rice cakes. Jihan could find no fault, other than one could not have a private discussion here.

Too many people listening, he thought, noting a waiter listening too closely to three women gossiping about the food served at a minister’s house the night before.

Jihan sipped his tea. He started to place his cup on the table just as a young boy bumped into him from the left side. It happened too fast for even Firuz to stop the boy. Tea spilled, and Jihan got up, steadying the boy and making sure the hot tea did not get on both of them.

“I’m sorry,” the boy said when he was steady on his feet. “I was running too fast. It’s my fault, Sir. Allow me to pay for your meal.”

Jihan let go of the boy and he stepped back, allowing Jihan to take a good look at him. He looked no older than ten years old. The air of a nobility clung to him. Jihan guessed he was the son of a prosperous noble lord. The fabric of his robes was expensive and embroidered with gold thread on the edges.

A very high noble lord, Jihan decided.

“Don’t worry about it. It was no trouble,” Jihan said, aware of Firuz standing right behind him.

Jihan checked his right sleeve pocket and was glad to feel the black jade token. The bump was innocent. The boy had simply lost his balance.

Jihan smiled at the young boy.

“Are you alone?” he asked, looking around the room.

“No,” the boy smiled, he looked so cute, Jihan had the sudden urge to reach out and pinch his cheeks. “I left my father upstairs talking to the teahouse owner. I wanted to see what the dining area looked like.”

Their waiter wiped their table and brought Jihan a fresh cup.

“You’re welcome to join us at our table,” Jihan said, indicating the empty chair at the table. “We were having tea and rice cakes.”

“It looks very good but no,” the boy said, looking at their rice cakes. “I wish I could, but I won’t have enough time. Thank you for offering. I’m sorry for spilling your tea.”

Jihan nodded and took his seat, as the boy excused himself and ran off. Jihan was sure the boy’s father would spend a few minutes looking for the child in a panic. He chuckled at the mischief and shook his head, sipping his tea.

“You look calmer,” Firuz said, when they had almost finished the pot of tea.

“I’m resigned to our fate,” Jihan said, placing enough money on the table to cover their meal. “We should head out, Firuz. We need to meet Set before we head home to Kamran. Andiya will be waiting.”

Firuz got up first, adjusting his sword. Their waiter arrived at the table to take their money and thank them. Jihan followed Firuz out of the teahouse. He was about to climb into his carriage when he saw the little boy who bumped into him again.

A gasp escaped him as the boy rushed out onto the road just as a four-horse drawn carriage was racing down the road too fast.

Jihan did not hesitate rushing to save the boy from the oncoming carriage. He wrapped his arms tight around the boy’s waist and with all the energy he could muster, threw them both to the side, away from the speeding carriage. They fell on the edge of the road. Jihan grimaced as his left thigh scraped on the dirt and stones on the side of the road.

Shouts filled the afternoon, and Jihan felt the boy move, his elbow digging into Jihan’s stomach. He groaned in pain and was grateful when Firuz lifted the boy off him.

“Why the hell did you do that?” Firuz asked, shaking with anger. “I could have gotten him, but you went rushing off. You put yourself in danger—”

“I’m fine,” Jihan said, sitting up, noting that his pants had ripped on his left thigh. He had a scrape that would sting for a few days. “Check on the boy.”

“Why should I?” Firuz asked, helping Jihan up to his feet. “You’re an idiot. Let’s both agree on that first.”

Jihan chuckled and moved around Firuz to find the boy staring at him.

“You saved me!”

Jihan reached for him, smoothing hair that had tangled around the boy’s neck, and adjusting the embroidered tunic. He righted the leather belt around the boy’s waist and crouched low ignoring his stinging leg.

“Why would you run out into the street?”

“I was chasing a man who stole my money bag from my waist. He ran out onto the street,” the boy said, looking around, his face streaked with dust.

Jihan pulled out a white cloth from his sleeve pocket and used it to wipe the boy’s face.

“Where is your father?” Jihan asked, still crouched.

He finished wiping the dirt off the boy’s face and was putting his handkerchief away when a strong hand wrapped around his right wrist. Firuz reacted fast, drawing his knife and pressing it on the hand holding Jihan’s wrist.

“Master Safan!” the boy said, looking up at the man holding Jihan’s right wrist. “Don’t! He helped me. Please don’t hurt him.”

Jihan could feel the strength in Master Safan’s hand. The grip on his wrist was too tight, bruising.

Master Safan was big and strong, a mammoth of a man who looked like he wielded an axe all day. He could probably bring down a tree with one punch. Jihan was sure his wrist would break if this man willed it.

Firuz’s knife rested on the inner wrist of that strong hand holding his wrist. Both men were deadly in their own right, Firuz more so as he dealt death in the most efficient of ways. Jihan did not want the boy witnessing something so gruesome.

Jihan took in a deep breath and rose from his crouch to his full height, not struggling even as the Master Safan tightened his grip on Jihan’s wrist.

Firuz moved with Jihan, his blade on Master Safan’s inner wrist. Jihan fought to stay calm. Any abrupt movement on his part, and Firuz would sink the knife into Master Safan’s wrist and cut into the vital vein there. It would be swift, Firuz’s only intention to free Jihan without damage.

Master Safan would bleed out in minutes.

Jihan could not wince in pain even as Master Safan tightened his hold again.

“Let him go,” a strong authoritative voice said, drawing Jihan’s gaze to the most striking man he had ever seen.

He was dressed in fine dark robes, his hands in dark gloves. He stopped behind the boy, placing a hand on the boy’s right shoulder. The touch reassured the boy, made him calm.

Jihan could now concentrate on diffusing the situation with Firuz.

“Safan,” the striking man said. “Let go of his hand.”

“But, Your—,” Safan said.

“That’s a Shadow Guard with a knife on your wrist,” the mysterious man said, his tone enough to tell Jihan that he understood Firuz’s abilities.

Safan let go of Jihan’s hand fast, hissing as though stung as he raised his hands up in a show of surrender.

Jihan stepped between Firuz and Safan, placing his injured hand on the hand Firuz was using to hold his knife.

“I’m not injured,” Jihan said, keeping his tone very calm.

Safan started to step back and Jihan felt Firuz’s hand tense ready to strike.

“Master Safan means us no harm,” Jihan said, just as he saw the mysterious man place a hand on Safan’s shoulder to stop him from moving.

It took another three heartbeats before Firuz put the knife away. He did not move away from Jihan, keeping close. Jihan smiled at the curious boy watching him.

“I’m sure you feel better now that your people are here,” Jihan said.

“I should go—”

“Wait, what’s your name?” the boy asked. “I’m Rashan. This is my Pa, and Master Safan.”

Jihan noticed that Rashan did not name his father, then again, most children rarely did.

“My name is Jihan,” he said. “Don’t rush out into the street again, Rashan.”

“Thank you for helping me,” Rashan said.

Jihan nodded and met the two men’s gazes before he turned and led the way back to his carriage. Firuz followed behind him. Jihan took his first easy breath when the carriage started moving and Firuz entered the carriage and sat opposite him.

They rode in silence for a minute then Firuz lowered his head in apology.

“He touched you,” Firuz said. “There was nothing to do but respond.”

“I know,” Jihan said, letting out a sigh.

They were lucky Firuz listened to him. Shadow Guards had strict brutal training. Their first instinct in a situation like that was to decapitate. Master Safan’s hand would have turned into a stump in seconds.

“He hurt you,” Firuz said, reaching for Jihan’s right wrist. “There will be a bruise tomorrow. This Master Safan is no ordinary man.”

Jihan had assumed as much.

What a strange encounter.

“Rashan makes me curious to know who they are,” Jihan said, watching Firuz study his wrist.

“We can ask Set to tell us,” Firuz said, finding medicine from a cabinet under his bench.

He spent the next few minutes applying a soothing salve on the red skin around Jihan’s right wrist.

“Let’s do that,” Jihan said, with a small smile. “Rashan seems like an interesting boy. It would be fun to know him.”

Firuz shook his head.

“You should get kids of your own.”

“I’ll play with Andiya’s children when she gets them,” Jihan said, already looking forward to it.

They just needed to get through a war first.

*~*~*~*~*

Jihan's Pa signs him up to supply Duke Silver's armies during a war...he's not happy.  :) :)
Character List
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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On 12/11/2019 at 9:19 AM, Geemeedee said:

I feel dumb but I don’t understand this bit:

“It’s time for our family to join royal court and become court officials. To do that, we needed to earn great merit. Which we can gain by supplying the imperial army at war with great success, then the Emperor will reward us.”

“It’s a gamble,” Jihan said. “The Emperor might end up asking for all our heads.”

What I don’t understand is, if Jihan is supplying the emperor’s army, why would the emperor ever want to kill Jihan’s family?

Thank you for asking this, I got lazy on description here, and will edit it by this weekend.  The idea is that Jihan's family being merchants could find themselves having followed the wrong court officials, and be part of a corrupt plot that ends in an inquiry at royal court.  If any evidence to show corruption appears then they get convicted and lose all their business or lives, depending on the seriousness of the evidence.  I'll make this clearer, currently working on chapter 4 and will get to the edit Saturday or Sunday. :) Thank you.

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Outstanding chapter! Jihan has saved Rashan from injury or even death which should help him survive the encounter with Kastan in the future. I’m enjoying the foundations of the story and the characters you are laying out, albeit painfully slowly. I’m definitely looking forward to the next chapter! 😃❤️

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At what point does ambition become hubris? I think Duyi has passed that point and is well into hubris. As always with your stories, @lilansui, the next chapter can never arrive too soon. In this case, I am behind in my reading so the next chapter is... now. 😉

Edited by Dr. John NYC
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Interesting chapter.  It seems that Duke Silver has something on his mind in the prologue that was not evident when the Duke said that Jihan would be responsible.

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