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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 - 23. Chapter 23

Chapter 23

Rashan wants to know, ‘Can Peanut hear me?’

Kastan woke first leaving Jihan and Rashan in bed, he dressed for the day and left to meet Naveed and Temu downstairs.

He found his two generals having their morning meal with Set. The kitchen had prepared a large bowl of vegetable stew; fried fish, rice and an assortment of side dishes were laid out on the table. A steaming pot of tea sat on a warmer in the middle of the table.

The three men started to get up when they saw Kastan approach their table in the dining room.

“No,” Kastan said, stopping them. “Please, sit, eat your food.”

Kastan pulled out the chair next to Set and accepted a bowl of soup from Set. He picked up a spoon added rice, a slice of fish and seasoned cabbage into the bowl.

They ate in silence, enjoying the peace of morning.

A hot cup of tea was placed next to Kastan’s bowl and he looked up to find Fara standing to his left.

“You’re back,” he greeted with a small smile, taking the cup of tea.

He took a sip while Fara nodded.

“Yes, Your Grace,” Fara said. “I wanted to be here for the little prince when he wakes up. I brought fresh clothes from the manor for all of you. Yasmin also sent me with food for the kitchen here. Emperor Father told me to let you know that he is managing the valley’s Duke Office so you don’t have to worry. He says to manage the aftermath of the attack without worry.”

Kastan nodded.

“Thank you, Fara. Jihan and Rashan are still sleeping. I’ll ask you to check on them and make sure they have everything they need.”

“Yes, Your Grace,” Fara said, and started to turn away.

Kastan sipped his tea and glanced at Set.

“How did it go with the ghost warrior last night?” Kastan asked.

Set’s attention remained on Fara, and Kastan turned to find her still hesitating to leave.

“Is there anything else?” Kastan asked Fara.

She bit her lip then smiled and shook her head.

“No, I’ll go ahead,” Fara said, and then hurried away.

Kastan watched her leave, sure that she was going to say something. He made a note to ask her later and returned his attention to Set.

“The ghost warrior belongs to the Burning Feather. We found the marking on her left shoulder blade. There are two separate masters involved,” Set said, placing his spoon in his empty bowl. He sat back in his chair, his gaze on Kastan. “One group wants control of the trade station. The other wanted Master Jihan’s life. The ghost warrior could not separate the two. The attack on Master Jihan was so severe because their lives were forfeit if they failed. She says information on Master Jihan’s whereabouts was made available very quickly in order to facilitate this attack.”

“Temu reported three different people sending spies when His Grace and Prince Rashan were in Vasia Town,” Naveed said, also sitting back. “We had the usual characters from the Imperial Palace. They are easy to identify because they don’t interfere, simply report back to their master. We could not trace one of the remaining two.”

“The most creative one cornered His Grace at a stall where he was purchasing cloaks for Prince Rashan,” Temu said. “He was easy to identify because he introduced himself to His Grace. Meen Kau, Master Merchant for Lord Revi’s businesses. In response to his rude request for a stake at the trade station, His Grace had me warn your father in-law away from Lord Revi.”

Kastan frowned, wondering if Jihan had managed to buy Rashan his cloak.

Rashan would have loved it.

Kastan wished he’d been with them.

Would Jihan have bought him something too?

“Lord Duyi has been…” Set started then trailed off, shaking his head, disapproval clear on his face.

“Continue, tell me why Jihan would feel the need to warn his father,” Kastan urged, shifting to face Set. “Jihan’s interests are my own. We’re always on the same side, Set.”

Set smiled.

“You really mean that,” Set said, his voice full of marvel.

“Yes,” Kastan said.

Set studied him for a moment, and then nodded making a decision.

“Lord Duyi has been Master Jihan’s greatest weakness. All business decisions made for our Kamran Merchants are kept secret from Lord Duyi. He is too hungry for power, too ambitious and has often placed Master Jihan at a disadvantage. We all try not to involve him, unless absolutely necessary.”

“Like getting the token to supply the West Nation War,” Naveed noted. “You needed Lord Duyi’s connections to get it, so he appeared at court.”

“Wrong,” Set said, shaking his head. “That war supplies token is an example of Lord Duyi placing Master Jihan at a disadvantage. Lord Duyi made the decision to supply the war on his own. He lobbied his friends at court to carry favor, getting them to bring the Kamran name to the attention of the Imperial Court. Master Jihan discovered the situation too late, when Lord Duyi was already holding the Black Tiger Token. He argued with his father about it, but it was too late to take it back. We all had to run around trying to protect our Kamran Network, and find a way to supply a war with success.”

Kastan remembered trying to find information on the Kamran Network and not finding any, which meant Set and Garren had worked quite hard.

“So, what is Jihan afraid of now?” Kastan asked, curious about Jihan’s choice to threaten his father.

“He must be worried Lord Duyi will offer Lord Revi a place in this trade station. That would mean opening a stall for Meen Kau’s merchants,” Set said. “We don’t do business in the same way. Their presence here would bring conflict. Besides, Lord Revi is a minister of court. His presence so close to Silver Shore Valley creates a conflict with Your Grace and all the reasons why Master Jihan is building this trade station. It’s only natural that the first thing Master Jihan would do after talking to Meen Kau is warn his father away.”

Kastan could see why Jihan remained the most successful merchant in the empire. He had chosen well finding men like Set, and Garren to help him run his enterprises.

They understood Jihan and it was envious.

Kastan understood in that moment that this trade station would be quite profitable for Kamran, and for Silver Shore Valley. He was not the only one to understand this truth.

Lord Revi was thinking about it too.

Kastan needed to strengthen security here. The easiest way to do that was to ask the Hidden Keepers to include the trade station in their surveillance. Maybe have a few move into this very building.

Kastan glanced at Naveed, and got a nod of understanding from him.

As for the mercenaries who had attacked his domain….

“One thing is clear, both attacks might have separate masters, but they cannot be looked at alone,” Kastan said, deep in thought. “The rising unrest in the Iron Lands, the refugees in the caves, Jihan’s attack and the mercenaries invading the trade station…they are all connected. Each incident designed to be very destructive, but can be dealt with at the magistrate’s level if the offender is captured. Any action from my station will seem too aggressive.”

“Prince Jihan’s status allows you to make a move,” Naveed pointed out. “His position as Kamran’s Master aside, Prince Jihan remains an Imperial Prince’s Consort. We can also judge this situation on the merit that His Grace is husband to the Commander of Armies, he should never be perceived as an easy target. It’s not unreasonable for the Commander of Armies to react.”

“It’s not unreasonable but any action from the Commander of Armies remains a sensitive matter,” Temu said. “The Empire is at wartime. A Commander who can move armies at will makes courtiers nervous. We should proceed with caution, especially on matters dealing with the Iron Lands and Lord Revi. He is liable to start a motion that His Grace is planning a revolt.”

Kastan turned to Set.

“What do you think?” Kastan asked.

Set looked surprised by the question.

Naveed and Temu both gave Set expectant gazes and Set took in a breath.

Kastan gave him the time, though he too kept his gaze on Set, waiting for an answer.

“An action is needed at this point,” Set said, after a long silence. “Even if you can’t act, Kamran Merchants must in order to protect the trust our merchants have in us. Those who have agreed to open shops in this trade station need to know that their merchandise and their workers will remain safe and free to trade. We have to think of the trade station’s success. Adding on to what Lord Naveed said, Your Grace might have many titles, but you’re my Master’s husband. He was in grave danger yesterday. I don’t believe you’re the type of husband who won’t fight to protect his loved ones.”

Kastan held Set’s gaze, then nodded in approval.

Yes, all political matters aside, he was Jihan’s husband.

If things got rough with Kiyan, Kastan decided he would blame any of his coming actions on being an angry husband defending his consort.

He really liked Set’s way of thinking.

“It’s decided,” Kastan said. “Commander of Armies will make a move because we're still at wartime. So, let’s start with Meen Kau approaching Jihan. That is enough to prove Lord Revi’s involvement. The Iron Lands should never want to interfere with my Silver Shore Valley. We also have refugees from the Iron Lands living in the caves. It gives us more than enough reason to ride into the Iron Lands and demand answers from their governor. Naveed make sure to send the full reports made of the refugees living in the caves to His Imperial Majesty.”

Naveed snapped his fingers and an officer hurried to his side. He gave the order, and the officer hurried away, another coming into the dining room to wait.

Kastan was glad that he had sent Kigaru and Niku to the Iron Lands.

“The Iron Lands’ Governor Tian is very quiet while his people are facing trouble. There must be a problem,” Kastan said. “Naveed, make sure any reports sent in by Generals Kigaru or Niku reach me fast. Then, make ready to enter the Iron Lands. Our target is Meen Kau, find him and he leads us to the rest. We’ll take five hundred of the elite men living in the valley into the Iron Lands,” Kastan said, reaching for his tea when Naveed called the second officer to relay his orders.

Kastan sipped his tea and turned to Temu.

“What happened to the third spy?”

“We lost him on the road leading out of Vasia Town,” Temu said. “I left two of my officers to keep chasing leads. When His Grace asked me to get Lord Duyi, I pulled them back to the inn for security. We were never able to follow him.”

“Lord Duyi remains someone we need to watch,” Kastan said, drumming his fingers on the table.

Remembering the list of ministers Duyi Kamran talked to; Kastan found he trusted Jihan’s initial reaction to his father.

“Lift the lockdown in Vasia Town. Make them think we’ve found the culprit. Temu, increase the number of officers you left in Duyi’s house at the Imperial City. Give the officers in charge mandate to place Lord Duyi in custody if he associates with any court ministers.”

“I’ll send out the order right away,” Temu said, getting up.

“Wait,” Kastan said, making Temu pause. “The unknown third spy has the most interesting master. For him to escape your surveillance, don’t you think it is someone who knows how you work?”

“True,” Temu said, after a second of thought. “Someone familiar with how I work will have lived in the valley.”

The thought made Kastan nervous; an insider in the valley who knew how Temu worked…that was not an easy answer. This person must have been the one to provide information to the Burning Feather about Jihan.

“Alert the Hidden Keepers to heighten their surveillance in the valley,” Kastan said. “Jihan’s condition remains a secret. This last spy is too close. Send the order to the officers watching Lord Duyi and keep tight control on information about my family for now. No news of Jihan or Rashan even to the Imperial Palace.”

Temu nodded, and then hurried out.

Kastan picked up the teapot and poured himself a fresh cup of tea. He took two sips and one of Naveed’s officers ran in holding a rolled note.

Naveed opened the note, and sat up.

“It’s a note from General Niku. It arrived very late last night. She requests assistance in the Iron Lands,” Naveed said. “She says, ‘Governor Tian has disappeared. We can’t confirm if he is alive or dead. The Iron Lands are under mercenary control. They are attacking civilians and creating unrest. Rael was kidnapped by an unknown party. Need more feet on the ground.’ She’s signed her name and Kigaru’s name.”

“Increase the elite five hundred soldiers by a thousand,” Kastan said, the Iron Lands was wild and vast land.

Mercenaries native to that land would present quite a challenge. He would need to enter the Iron Lands in attack mode, squashing unrest as he found it and taking over policing to protect civilian life.

“We’ll ride first to provide relief for General Niku and Kigaru. Ask General Moran to move his one hundred soldiers to follow us to the Iron Lands for support. Alert General Condi to the impeding action, he should divide his one hundred and fifty thousand officers to guard the routes leading out of the Iron Lands. Lastly, send all the information we have to my father. He should place every officer in the Silver Shore Valley on active duty. Let the Hidden Keepers, the Magistrate and all concerned know that he has full command in my absence.”

Kastan paused, thinking about Lord Revi.

Meen Kau and the Burning Feather working together meant that Lord Revi had made an alliance with Rushi. Rushi's goal was to damage his authority, take control of Silver Shore Valley. Temu's warning about Lord Revi claiming a revolt was apt.

"Naveed, send a formal request to the Emperor. It should read: Commander of Armies requests permission to return the empire's forces to peacetime. Notify the Imperial Court that I'll guide the army to the capital for this ceremony via the Iron Lands. Send out announcements and ensure everyone in the empire knows of my intentions to restore the army to peacetime."

Naveed got up and left the dining hall followed by his officer, already giving out orders.

Kastan sipped his tea and turned to Set.

“What is Kamran’s move?” Kastan asked.

“Our answer to Meen Kau’s attack started last night,” Set said. “Meen Kau’s merchants will face a wall of resistance at our many trade stations. They are not self-sufficient. Their transport needs often overlap with our network. We’re not supporting their merchants, so it will stall their trade movements. We keep it up long enough and they’ll seek an audience with Master Jihan.”

“That will annoy Meen Kau enough to fight you. You’ll need added security,” Kastan said. “The officers assigned to your trade routes are still in place. We’ll reactivate them and they’ll offer support to your trade stations.”

“That will be very kind,” Set said.

“Then consider it done,” Kastan said. “Jihan values this trade station. I’ve decided to ask the Hidden Keepers to include it as part of Silver Shore Valley. They will need a center here. They are very independent, but if you accommodate their needs, this trade station will be as secure as Silver Shore Valley.”

“I’ll make arrangements for them right away,” Set said, pushing his chair back, he got up. “I’ve never met a man who can move thousands of men with a few words. Your Grace, you truly are as frightening as they say. Our Jihan is very lucky a fierce man chose him.”

Kastan chuckled.

“That’s quite the opposite. I’m the lucky one that he chose me,” he said in answer to Set’s observation.

*~*~*~*

Jihan placed his hands on Andiya’s stomach and grinned when he felt his niece or nephew kicking against his palms. It was the most remarkable thing he had ever felt in his life. Andiya was sitting up in her bed. The healer insisted she rest after the overactive day she had had riding to the rescue.

Jihan insisted on having his morning meal in her room so that she was not lonely.

Rashan was getting dressed for the day and would join them soon.

“Does it hurt?” he asked, meeting Andiya’s gaze when he felt the kicking again.

“Sometimes, when we haven’t rested,” Andiya said with a chuckle when the baby kicked again. “Right now he’s letting me know he woke up too. Our peanut is almost coming out so he’s moving around a lot, especially in the morning.”

“Peanut, this is your uncle,” Jihan said, his hands still on Andiya’s stomach. “I can’t wait to meet you in person. Until then, be good to your Ma. Your Pa is going to be annoyed with me for keeping your Ma away from him. So, when you see him, put in a good word for me. I might need to sell a lot of his peach wine before he forgives me.”

Andiya shook her head, amused. She took Jihan’s hands and turned his palms over to check on his scrapes.

“I put medicine,” Jihan said, when she frowned at the angry red marks. “They look worse than they feel.”

“It doesn’t feel good to see them,” Andiya said with a sigh. “An, how is it with Duke Silver? Does he treat you well?”

Jihan thought about Kastan’s sweet words last night, and he couldn’t help smiling.

Andiya squeezed his hands, her smile mirroring his because she couldn’t help it.

“He said he loved me,” Jihan said, in a quiet shy tone. “Hearing it made me happy. I never had someone who loves me, someone who belongs to me.”

“I’m also someone who loves you,” Andiya teased.

“You know the kind of love I mean,” Jihan said, scowling at her.

Andiya chuckled and took back Jihan’s right hand. She rubbed her thumb over the thick silver band with a snarling tiger on each side of a black jade stone on Jihan’s right middle finger. She reached for his left hand too, turning it to stare at his wedding ring. Jihan had discovered that as long as Kastan removed the rings, they came off easily. He’d asked Kastan to separate his rings to make it easier on his right finger.

Andiya rubbed a thumb over the wedding ring too and smiled.

“I do know what you mean. I’m only teasing you. I always wanted you to find your love, as I have Ishan. I couldn’t have imagined it would be Duke Silver though,” Andiya said. “When Firuz first mentioned that you two were together those many days ago, he sounded like a far off dream. Many moon cycles later, it’s now obvious that the title of Prince Consort matched you best.”

“I didn’t expect that it would fit me,” Jihan confessed, thinking of Rashan who now called him Papa. A word he had thought would never be his.

Andiya let go of his hand and reached up to caress his cheek.

“Even as I raged at your husband yesterday, I’m always grateful to him,” Andiya said. “I’m very grateful that he came along and loves you as you deserve. I’m happy to know you have someone strong to protect you where I can’t. You deserve happiness, Jihan Kamran Miran. It’s all I ever wanted for you.”

Jihan leaned to kiss Andiya’s cheeks and decided that he was the luckiest man in the empire to have a sister like her. He was settling back when a short knock came on the door and it opened to reveal Firuz, followed by Fara and Rashan.

Rashan looked very cute this morning in deep red robes, a thin gold belt tied around his waist and his hair in a neat braid to match the one Jihan had. He ran to Jihan’s side, all shy smiles. Jihan wrapped a steadying arm around Rashan’s shoulders when he all but crashed into him.

“Is this really Shan? Where’s the boy who woke with tangled hair? You look so handsome.” Jihan teased, touching the corner of Rashan’s wide smile. He adjusted the braid of hair so that it fell down Rashan’s back. “Shan, are you hungry?”

“Mm,” Rashan said, nodding with enthusiasm, leaning on Jihan. “Is the baby hungry too, Aunt Andiya?”

Jihan chuckled, shaking his head at this question. Rashan was taken with Andiya’s baby, wanting to know when he would get to meet Peanut. Andiya said that Rashan had asked if the baby could answer him if he talked to it from out here.

“Yes, the baby is hungry too,” Andiya said, smiling at Rashan. She reached out to caress Rashan’s cheek. “It’s a good thing Firuz and Fara are setting the table. Otherwise, I might roar in hunger and take a bite of these cute cheeks.”

Rashan laughed and moved away from Jihan. He went to help Fara and Firuz add chairs around the table they had pulled close to the bed. A flurry of activity soon filled the room as Seol directed helpers to bring in food and cutlery.

Rashan sat at the table, with Firuz and Fara.

Jihan remained perched on the bed helping Andiya adjust the bedtable tray. He arranged bowls of food with direction from the healer. They were watching what Andiya ate so that the baby would not be too large.

Jihan dared not ask what would happen if the baby were too large. He felt frightened at the thought of Andiya giving birth, so he listened to everything the healer suggested.

They both needed to end up safe and healthy.

Jihan only moved to sit next to Rashan when Andiya was settled.

“Let me know if you need anything else,” Seol said, once the table was set.

She left the room and closed the door.

“Your Grace,” Fara said, after a few minutes of silence as everyone ate their morning meal.

“Yes, Fara,” Jihan said, placing pieces of fried fish in Rashan’s rice bowl. He turned to do the same for Firuz, sparing a short glance at Fara.

She placed her spoon in her soup bowl and folded her hands on her lap. She bit her bottom lip and Jihan stopped what he was doing to pay attention.

“What’s on your mind, Fara?” Jihan asked.

“First, I heard what happened yesterday,” she started, glancing at him with a small sigh. “I was very scared something would happen to you and the Little Prince. I’m glad you’re both okay.”

“Me too,” Jihan said, sipping his tea, still studying Fara because she looked worried. “How was your visit with your family? Yasmin said you would go home while we were away.”

“My family is doing well,” Fara said, her smile wide at the thought of them. “My mother was very happy with the gifts you sent. Thank you, Your Grace.”

“Mm,” Jihan nodded, placing his cup of tea down, waiting.

Firuz placed fish in Jihan’s rice bowl and gave him a look urging him to eat.

Jihan picked up his spoon and started eating.

“Your Grace,” Fara started again, this time Jihan kept his focus on his food, only nodding to indicate he was listening. “My sisters told me a strange story when I was home. I was going to tell it to His Grace, but Duke Silver is occupied with important matters. I wonder if it would be the same to tell you.”

“I can listen, and if I can’t help, we’ll approach Kastan together,” Jihan said. “Are you okay with that?”

“Yes,” Fara said, looking relieved. “My sister is married to General Baiza’s stable master. The estate has excess firewood that they are selling at a very cheap price. My sister’s husband paid for a bunch of it and she has been collecting it in batches. Thanks to her visits to the Baiza estate, she has gotten close to some of the women working in the kitchens.”

Jihan nodded. Taking chopsticks, he picked up a portion of seasoned cabbage and placed it in Rashan’s bowl. He earned himself a frown from Rashan and smiled when Rashan gave him a mutinous look.

Jihan lifted a daring brow at Rashan and grinned when the boy finally took a bite of the cabbage.

“My sister says the butcher’s wife and mother have been living at Bottom-Cliff Estate. They work in the kitchens doing menial jobs. When the butcher visits the estate, Lady Baiza makes sure these two women stay locked up in a store.”

“That does sound strange,” Andiya said, sounding interested. “This Lady Baiza must have a bad temper. Why be so cruel?”

“Exactly,” Fara said, her eyes bright with the mystery. “My sister is sure the women are not allowed to leave and are kept from seeing the butcher. She thought Duke Silver might help them if he knew about it. At the very least, he would ask about them and if they are doing okay. It’s hard for us regular people to ask Lady Baiza about matters to do with her household.”

Jihan placed his spoon down and sat back, studying Fara. He detested cruelty, and it was surprisingly easy to imagine Nisa being cruel to someone weaker than she was. After all, she did her best to be cruel to him.

“Which butcher?” Jihan asked, wondering how he could intervene.

“Ferino,” Fara said with a quick shudder. “I’ve stopped buying meat from him because he’s been very moody of late. It’s hard to approach him and ask why his family is living at Bottom-Cliff Estate.”

Jihan glanced at Firuz as warning bells rang through his head. He still had not delved deeper into the money issues at the Welfare Office, and the shops that were not paying rent. Wiping his mouth with the cloth napkin on his lap, he wondered why Fara’s story made him feel on edge.

“Fara, is it possible to meet your sister?” Jihan asked.

“I can ask her to visit the manor,” Fara said, getting up. “I will ask Lord Temu for permission to send a messenger.”

“Okay, let’s do that,” Jihan said with a nod.

Fara didn’t waste time, and ran out of the room.

“What’s with the butcher?” Andiya asked, drawing Jihan’s attention.

“Ferino fought with Master Firuz,” Rashan said, grinning at Firuz. “Ferino lost.”

Jihan shook his head in amusement at Rashan’s summary.

“Of course he would lose, Ru Ru is very strong,” Andiya praised. “Why would this Ferino tangle with a Shadow Guard?”

Jihan sighed.

“Sun-filled Manor has shops that are not paying rent. Ferino is using one of them for his butchery,” Jihan said. “I went to talk to him about it, and he reacted with violence. Firuz got involved.”

“Even more intriguing,” Andiya said. “Sun-filled Manor’s finances must be struggling.”

“They are inefficient, yes,” Jihan said. “Kas is shouldering the weight of running that manor with his stipend from the Imperial Government. He has no room to maneuver or make improvements to the manor itself. I’m trying to solve it.”

“Sounds like you have a money leak. I’ll come with you to see Sun-filled Manor then,” Andiya said, her tone decisive.

“Andiya—”

“I don’t think taking another long trip to Kamran Estate is advisable right now,” Andiya said, rubbing her stomach. “Your house is closer. I need rest, so I’ll do it there. I also don’t want to be bored. I can read your many account books for you. Money should never be a problem for a merchant.”

Jihan scoffed in amusement and glanced at Firuz.

Firuz shrugged, eating his fill, not worried about Andiya’s choice to move into Sun-filled Manor.

“If you’re worried about where she will stay, she can stay in my room,” Firuz offered.

“No need,” Andiya said. “I heard Sun-filled Manor has an auxiliary house attached that has a garden in the middle. I really want to see it.”

Jihan winced.

“My father in-law is staying in one of the rooms in that house at the moment.”

“Great,” Andiya said, grinning wide. “I’ve always wondered what the Founding Emperor is like. I’ll get to meet him. Maybe, he will give this baby a blessing. You know our Pa won’t take the time.”

Jihan stared at his sister, knowing it was useless to try to return her back to Kamran Estate when she was in this mood. Besides, it would make him feel better to have her close.

“I’ll send a message to Ishan,” Jihan said. “He’ll follow you, you know.”

“All the better,” Andiya said. “Seems like you need your family with you right now, An. Besides, I’ve missed you terribly, little brother.”

Jihan gave in at that moment because he had cried a few weeks ago missing Andiya too.

“Aunt Andiya, are you really coming to Sun-filled Manor with us?” Rashan asked.

“Yes,” Andiya said, smiling at Rashan. “Will you show me around?”

“Yes!” Rashan got up and moved to perch on the side of the bed, taking Andiya’s hand. “You’ll get to see the horse Pa got me and the chickens in the coop that Master Safan helps me take care of. Also, the garden behind the manor and the eagle that visits Papa….”

*~*~*~*

Kastan found Jihan in their chamber a little past mid-morning.

Jihan was dressed in dark robes and his braided hair was tied in a tight knot on top of his head. Kastan paused, watching Jihan wear a black leather belt to hold his tunic. He adjusted the belt with a mild hiss when the fabric scraped over his palms.

Jihan shook his hands out and looked up, a smile gracing his lips when he saw Kastan.

“Going somewhere?” Kastan asked, pulling out a chair at the table. He sat and held out his hand for Jihan to join him.

Jihan crossed the room and started to pull out a chair but Kastan grabbed his right wrist.

Kastan tugged Jihan closer, pushing his chair back until Jihan could sit on his lap. He turned the wrist he held over so that he could check Jihan’s palm. The scrapes were dry now, but still looked angry. Seeing them had Kastan wanting to chop heads off, so he squeezed Jihan’s wrist and pressed a kiss on Jihan’s knuckles.

Jihan wrapped an arm around Kastan’s shoulders and caressed the two-day stubble on Kastan’s jaw with his free hand. His fingers tracing the dark hair, sending pleasurable thrills racing through Kastan.

Kastan met brown eyes that always sent his heart racing.

“There are a few matters to talk about,” Jihan started. “Andiya can’t travel back home so soon.”

“She’s always welcome at Sun-filled Manor,” Kastan said, meaning it.

He remembered Jihan crying over missing Andiya. It would be nice for Andiya to stay with them a while. Jihan would be happy having her around.

“She can stay as long as she likes. The manor has a healer trained by the ancients at the Imperial Palace living on the second level. We’ll ask Temu to move her into the manor.”

Jihan nodded, some of the tension on his shoulders drifting away.

"Lord Gura will be on his way to Sun-filled Manor too,” Kastan guessed before Jihan could mention it. “They can stay in the botanical house with my father.”

Jihan nodded, again, relaxing some more.

“What else is on your mind?” Kastan asked, tilting his head to study Jihan’s pensive expression.

“Fara brought news. Ferino’s family is staying at Lady Baiza’s home against their will. Fara says Lady Baiza has been cruel to the two women. It made me think of the reasons why I went searching for Ferino a while back. Set discovered account discrepancies at the Welfare Office because of Ferino’s records,” Jihan said, his tone thoughtful. “We should solve them. I want to confirm the situation, but Lady Baiza—”

“You’re suspicious of Nisa,” Kastan said, surprised. Other than being pushy with him, he couldn't see Nisa harming the valley. “Why?”

Jihan’s brow rose. He shifted so that he could cup Kastan’s face with both his hands. His fingers cool against Kastan’s skin.

“Why shouldn’t I be?” Jihan asked, irritation clear in his voice. “This Nisa has been hostile with me because she wants you to herself. Why can’t I be suspicious of her? You tell me how I should deal with her.”

“Jihan,” Kastan said, biting back a smile at the clear jealousy in Jihan’s eyes.

He hadn’t thought seeing it would be something he wanted. Yet, at the same time, he wanted to banish that trace of jealousy for good. Leave no doubt in Jihan’s mind where he stood.

“I’ve tolerated her rudeness but I won’t condone cruelty. That’s not who we are, Kas,” Jihan said, dropping his hands away. He started to get up but Kastan wrapped his arms around Jihan’s waist to keep him still.

“An,” Kastan said, his tone gentle, hoping to soothe his consort. He waited until Jihan met his gaze to continue. “I trust your judgment. Whatever you discover, you have my support in any decision you make.”

“Even if it ends with us arresting Lady Baiza?” Jihan asked.

“I’ll give you all my soldiers to arrest her,” Kastan said.

“All of them?” Jihan asked, his eyes filling with amusement.

“The whole army, if that’s what you want,” Kastan said, relaxing his hold when Jihan rested against him. He brought his right hand up to touch the corner of Jihan’s smiling lips. “I’ll help you vent your anger on anyone who irritates you.”

“You should be careful giving me so much power,” Jihan said, his gaze shifting to Kastan’s lips. “I might abuse it.”

“I wish you would,” Kastan said, glad the irritation had faded away from Jihan’s voice.

He much preferred the warmth and trust in Jihan’s eyes. Knowing it belonged only to him filled him with contentment. He wanted to own all of Jihan’s trust.

Thinking of Set who handled Jihan’s businesses, and Garren, who was entrusted with the Eagle’s Claw, Kastan suddenly found a reason to complain.

“You are so cautious with your title, Jihan. Why do you refuse to use the authority you hold in the valley? You’re my consort. Silver Shore Valley is our home. If you’re unsure, use Temu to help you enforce your authority. You’ve leaned on Set and Garren and it makes me jealous. Your husband is capable too.”

“My husband is the god of war. Of course, he’s more than capable,” Jihan agreed, with a small smile.

“Then, why won’t you lean on me?” Kastan asked.

“I haven’t had someone to back me up in a very long time. I’ve been getting used to it,” Jihan confessed, a tinge of color filling his cheeks. “I did use your name to threaten my father. I even sent General Temu to suppress him a bit when I thought he will get us in trouble.”

“Temu told me. You did well,” Kastan said, with a pleased nod. “Do it more, it makes me happy to hear you’re using the valley’s resources.”

“Temu protected me too,” Jihan said, his voice soft, his eyes filling with shadows, clearly remembering his attack yesterday. “You should reward him.”

“Already done,” Kastan said, rubbing Jihan’s right cheek with the flat of his thumb. “I gave him a house with five acres of land on the shores of Silver Lake. I’ve made him promise to treat me like his brother. When he’s ready to get married, we’ll help him plan his wedding.”

“That’s a good reward. I also want to see Temu happy,” Jihan said, kissing Kastan’s cheek.

The brush of his lips on Kastan’s cheek barely enough for Kastan.

Kastan pouted and Jihan grinned.

Kastan raised a brow and smiled when Jihan kissed him on the lips.

Their kiss started out chaste and sweet. It still wasn’t enough, never enough, Kastan thought, as he took control, changing the leisurely pace, turning their kiss urgent.

Kastan savored the taste of Jihan, the feel of him on his lap, his scent: a mix of lavender and frankincense filling his senses. He wished he could sink his fingers into Jihan’s hair, and the knot on top of Jihan’s head had him ending their kiss.

Jihan let out a soft sigh of protest.

“You didn’t tell me where you’re going,” Kastan said, burying his face into Jihan’s shoulder breathing in deep. “You still need to stay hidden until we can catch the culprit.”

“I’m riding into Silver Shore Valley as one of Andiya’s ghost warriors,” Jihan said, making Kastan lean back in surprise.

“No.”

Kastan shook his head, not ready to have Jihan walking around where people could get to him.

The thought that someone inside the valley had followed Jihan so closely, and known to put him in trouble had Kastan feeling like locking Jihan up in the manor.

“What if something goes wrong? Why can’t you ride in the carriage with Andiya? Enter Sun-filled Manor together and no one will know. Jihan—”

“I’ll have Firuz with me,” Jihan said, smoothing his fingers over the frown on Kastan’s forehead. “I need to enter the Welfare Office to collect records. We can’t make it obvious that the manor is looking into that office. The chaos made by this attack is a perfect opportunity.”

“Jihan—”

“Please, let me do this,” Jihan said. “You’re running the harder side of this problem. I’ve already agreed to play ill and dying, which I will, when I get back home. Meanwhile, this distraction gives us time to dig into the welfare office. I have questions about your finances that—”

“Our finances,” Kastan corrected, making Jihan pause to stare at him.

Jihan gave him a beautiful smile, and corrected himself.

“I have questions about our finances that need answers. I need those records because Andiya is very good at reading accounts. She’ll find hidden issues in no time. Firuz will get us in and out of that welfare office without notice. Who knows, we might get out of this able to fulfill your brother’s demands.”

Kastan closed his eyes at the mention of his Emperor Brother.

For the first time in years, he wished he were not Commander of Armies. Then his Empress Sister in-law would not dare harm his consort and son. He wondered what the truth of Rushi’s actions would do to Kiyan and the two princes in the palace.

The knot that settled in his stomach had him letting out a tired sigh.

“Kas,” Jihan said, cupping his face with his hands again, which had Kastan opening his eyes to meet warm brown eyes.

“Mm,” Kas said.

“My Pa has been a headache in my life since I turned eleven,” Jihan said. “Since we’re married, I promise he will turn into a headache for both of us soon, if he isn’t already. We fully match when it comes to family baggage. Stop worrying so much that we have to deal with Rushi and Kiyan’s plots.”

Kastan chuckled.

“Is this you comforting me?”

“Yes,” Jihan said, rubbing Kastan’s cheek with his thumb. “Betrayal leaves hard feelings, especially when your family is involved. Your brother is important to you. It won’t be easy to deal with the aftermath of Rushi’s attack. I’m telling you that you won’t have to carry the burden alone, Kas. I’ll stand with you, no matter what happens.”

Kastan pulled Jihan into a tight hug, closing his eyes when Jihan melted against him. He buried his face into Jihan’s shoulder and relaxed when Jihan stroked gentle fingers through his hair. The knot in his stomach unraveled as the joy of having someone he loved on his side filled him.

Kyra often gave him that joy, but she now lived in Tanad Kingdom and had a family of her own.

Jihan more than filled the vacuum she left, becoming his family, his equal and someone he could lean on.

“I love you,” Kastan said, giving Jihan the sweet words he loved to hear.

Jihan rubbed his back.

“You’re spoiling me.”

The note of pleasure in Jihan’s voice had Kastan smiling.

“I love you, very much, An,” Kastan said again, thoroughly spoiling his consort, grinning when Jihan bunched his tunic in his fingers.

He hated to break the moment with the harsh reality outside the door, but there was no choice.

“I have news too,” Kastan said, his voice gentle. “General Niku sent a report. The Iron Lands are in chaos. Mercenaries are terrorizing citizens, the governor is missing and I’m suspicious of Lord Revi’s intentions. He has been stirring up trouble in the Iron Lands.”

Jihan sat up, pulling out of their embrace.

“Do you think Swallow is okay?”

“I’ll have to tell you when we get there,” Kastan said, even as Jihan got up to pace a few feet away. “I have to ride into the Iron Lands. The Imperial Army needs to restore peace and ask His Imperial Majesty to appoint a new governor for the Iron Lands if the old one is incapacitated.”

“Do you think you will have to fight?” Jihan asked, stopping to look at him, his hands in tight fists.

“If Lord Revi puts up a fight, of course,” Kastan said, nodding. “We can consider this a rebellion of sorts.”

Jihan closed his eyes and let out a shaky breath. He unclenched his fingers and Kastan thought he saw them shake.

Kastan got up too and placed his hands on Jihan’s shoulders to make him stop pacing.

“Don’t be scared,” Kastan soothed, when Jihan opened his eyes to look at him.

“I’ve never sent someone I love to battle,” Jihan said, his voice trembling. “This will be the first time.”

“It’s no different from when we were in Kin Town,” Kastan reminded him.

Jihan blinked then chuckled.

“I didn’t love you then.”

“Not even a little?” Kastan asked. “I’m sure there was something. You always clung to me so tight when I returned from an expedition.”

Jihan shook his head, and reached up to pinch Kastan’s cheek.

“You’re too sure of yourself,” Jihan said.

Kastan laughed and then pulled Jihan into his arms.

“Then, before you leave for Sun-filled Manor, think of what to tell me so I hurry back,” Kastan said when Jihan wrapped tight arms around his middle.

“You should know to hurry back home anyway,” Jihan said, making Kastan smile.

*~*~*~*

An hour later, the house was alive with activity as they all prepared to depart the trade station. Kastan was already dressed in his armor, the elite force he asked for of one thousand five hundred waited outside the trade station ready to match to the Iron Lands.

Andiya and Rashan would take the carriage back to Sun-filled Manor, while Jihan diverted to the welfare office with Firuz and Temu. Wanting to keep Jihan’s health a secret, Kastan helped Andiya out of the house and into the large carriage, Rashan coming up behind them. Kastan had Rashan wait outside and followed Andiya into the spacious carriage, wanting to talk to her.

“Sister In-law,” Kastan said. “I’m glad you’re staying with us at Sun-filled Manor.”

“Even after I told you off last night?” Andiya asked, holding out her right hand to Kastan, as she prepared to sit down.

Kastan held her hand, giving her support as she lowered herself on the bench.

“It’s normal for a sister to speak her mind to her brother,” Kastan said. “Your words made me feel that I’m really part of your family. Don’t be afraid to tell me off again, Lady Andiya.”

“If I’m to tell you off with ease, Duke Silver, please call me Andiya.”

Andiya shifted on the comfortable cushions of the bench she sat on and let out a sigh.

Kastan started to find more cushions, but she held on to his hand, stopping him.

“Don’t, it’s not the cushions, I’m just restless,” Andiya said, with a smile that reminded him of Jihan. “Sit, Duke Silver. What do you want to tell me?”

Kastan settled on the bench opposite her.

“Should I insist on you calling me Kastan?” he asked first.

Andiya shook her head, a pretty blush dusting her cheeks.

“I’m not that brave, Duke Silver. Besides, Commander of Armies’ name should not be called out so easily,” Andiya said, with a twinkle in her eye. “It’s enough that Jihan has the privilege.”

“It will take time then for you to be comfortable enough,” Kastan said, hoping to gain Andiya’s friendship, as Jihan seemed to have won Kyra’s loyalty.

“I’m leaving Jihan and Rashan in your care,” Kastan said. “I wanted to let you know that I’m going to make sure no one ever thinks of touching Jihan again. I’ll cement his position in this valley and the empire. You head to Sun-filled Manor and keep an eye on them for me. Don’t worry about anything. I’ve even sent a guard to protect Kamran Estate.”

“I know you’ll protect him,” Andiya said, squeezing Kastan’s hand. With her free hand, she reached out to caress Kastan’s left jaw.

“Thank you too, Duke Silver, for loving our Jihan. He always needed someone in his corner. I’m glad it’s you.”

Kastan nodded and leaned over to give her a short hug. He made a note to remind Temu to call the imperial palace healer who lived in the green level at Sun-filled Manor. Andiya and her baby needed to stay healthy, for Jihan’s sake, and for him.

After a few more words, he said his goodbye and jumped out of the carriage. He found Rashan waiting for him, bright eyes watching him with solemn understanding. He and Rashan had lived through many of these goodbyes. This was the first time his worry was not as acute. Rashan now had Jihan and Andiya to take care of him. His grandfather was also staying at Sun-filled Manor.

Kastan crouched before his son and opened his arms. Rashan stepped into the hug and he held him tight.

“How long will you be gone?” Rashan asked, his voice small.

“I’ll try to come back very fast,” Kastan said, “For you and for your Papa.”

“Okay, we'll wait for you,” Rashan said. “May your aim be true, Warrior.”

Kastan closed his eyes at the simple words, and pressed a kiss on the side of Rashan’s head. He got up, lifting Rashan and placing him on the carriage entrance.

“Be good for your Papa,” Kastan said, as he let go of Rashan. “I’ll be back before you know it.”

Rashan nodded, gave him one last look, and then entered the carriage to join his aunt. Kastan took in a deep breath, fighting back the constant fear of leaving his son. He reminded his racing heart that Rashan would not be alone this time.

There was Jihan.

Adjusting his cloak, Kastan hurried up the steps to the newly repaired front door. He entered the front hall and closed the door.

Jihan waited for him holding Kastan’s sword. Black fabric wrapped around his head to hide his hair, a black scarf covering his face leaving only his eyes visible. Jihan pulled down the scarf and closed the distance between them. Placing the sword on the small table by the wall, Jihan reached up to adjust the clasp holding Kastan’s cloak at his shoulders. He then checked the intricate silver braces on Kastan’s arms making sure they were tied securely at his wrists.

“Wear your helmet,” Jihan said, adjusting Kastan’s sword belt. “May your aim be true, Warrior. Shan and I will wait for you at home. When you’re back, let’s drink peach wine in the garden behind the manor. I realized today that I haven’t gotten a chance to drink with you, Kas.”

Kastan started to reach for Jihan to give him a goodbye kiss, but Jihan stepped back and placed his right palm over Kastan’s lips.

“Kiss me when you come back,” Jihan said, meeting Kastan’s gaze. His brown eyes sheened with tears, he swallowed hard and whispered, “This is very hard.”

Kastan picked up the sword Jihan placed on the table and nodded.

“Find the best bottle of peach wine and keep it for us,” Kastan said, stepping back too.

Jihan breathed in deep to steady himself and nodded, his gaze moving over Kastan’s face for a longtime. Then he swallowed hard, and reached for the scarf at his neck. He covered his face leaving only his brown eyes.

Firuz stepped out of a darkened alcove and moved behind Jihan. He was also covered from head to toe in black like a ghost warrior. He gave Kastan a formal bow, before he took Jihan’s right elbow and urged him to the door.

Kastan forced himself to stay put, afraid if he followed them out, he would give away Jihan’s plan. Taking in a deep breath, he turned to find Firuz had left the front door opened. Kastan watched Jihan mount his horse, which was free of any adornments to mark his station. A team of ghost warriors joined him as they flanked the carriage with Andiya and Rashan.

Kastan then watched his family ride out of the trade station, a burning need to eliminate their enemies growing deep inside him. He hoped Kiyan would forgive him for taking drastic measures.

Kastan stepped out and walked in the opposite direction of his family to mount his horse. Naveed followed close behind him as they rode out of the trade station. When they reached his army, Kastan did not slow down, instead increasing his pace.

“March forward,” Naveed called out to the waiting elite soldiers who responded with the sound of horses in motion.

*~*~*~*

You're at 23, a few more to go and it's the ending.
You're a star! Here's the Character List, drop me a line if there's someone missing in it.
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

Hurray! So happy to see an update. You wrote this in 2019? Are you doing rewrites as you post?

This was such a great chapter. I love how you let the characters talk out strategy. It’s also fab that Kas and Jihan’s family members will be in the same place to support them both.  We’re building to some big showdowns! Post more often, if you can. 

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Great chapter, well done, can we have some more porridge, opps...chapters please and thanks!!😁

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Great update, so glad that Kastan has started to realize some of what Jihan has had to deal with his whole life.  I can't wait to see how Lord Revi and the damn Empress deal with Kastan taking that many men into the Iron Lands.  But with Kastan sending the note to the Emperor about declaring peace when he reaches the palace, while going there through the Iron Lands; it may neutralize some of their side plays but not all of them.  

Glad that Jihan is starting to realize how potentially dangerous Lady Baiza is; even if Kastan really doesn't.  She is like the viper waiting in the grass, unnoticed my most until it is too late.

Glad that Andiya is going with Jihan and Rashan.  She will be able to help them both deal with Kastan being away.  

Can't wait to see what happens next, thankfully, I can right now...

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Finally, we know more about how Lady Baiza forced Ferino to betray the Silver Shore Duke

excellent chapter👍

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