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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 - 24. Chapter 24

Raven, the Hidden Keeper

Ferino closed his butchery door and turned in time to watch Duke Silver’s carriage pass by, moving at a slow steady pace. The ghost warriors flanked on each side rode their horses to match the pace of the carriage.

Rumor was that Prince Jihan was severely injured and Duke Silver was returning him home, hoping to nurse him to health.

Ferino thought it wishful thinking.

No one could survive a fall down a cliff. Even if Prince Jihan survived, he would be in chronic pain or disfigured. Either way, Lady Nisa would have her way with the Duke and he was free of her for now.

Shaking his head, Ferino turned away from the carriage returning to Sun-filled Manor and headed home. These past two days were the best of his life. His family was back home with him. His daughter had her mother and grandmother back.

This morning, he woke up to the scent of food cooking in the kitchen. He needed to rush home for the midday meal to remind himself that it was all real and not a dream.

Twenty minutes later, Ferino watched his wife stir soup in a boiling pot. He sat on a bench at the kitchen table, his eyes following the gentle motions of her stirring hand. An old apron wrapped around her waist covered her faded blue skirt. He wondered if she would agree to go with him to the market. He would buy her new fabric for her dresses. He could afford it now, thanks to Lady Nisa.

“Ferino,” his mother said, drawing his attention.

The older woman sat in a comfortable chair at the head of the table. She was wrapped with a heavy shawl, her hands in bandages. He dared not ask why she needed those bandages. He was no idiot as to imagine their lives being easy under Nisa. It was too much to process, so he was taking it moment by moment.

“What have you done for Lady Baiza?” his mother asked, her tone accusing.

She kept asking him this question and it was driving him mad.

She scowled at him and he turned away from her, not ready to process her judgment. She refused to appreciate the fact that he had done everything he could to protect her, his wife and daughter.

“There’s news about His Grace’s husband. The workers at Lady Baiza say that he might be dying,” his mother continued. “How sad it is after His Grace finally found a partner and the Little Prince will now have lost a second parent. It’s not fair.”

“Life is not fair,” Ferino snapped at his mother. “What do you care about those elites in the manor? They don’t care about you.”

“Are you involved?” his mother asked. “Did Lady Baiza make you do something to him?”

“I can’t talk about what I do for Lady Baiza,” Ferino said, scowling at his mother. “It’s over and done anyway. What’s the point of talking about it? You’re both home and that’s all that matters. Leave it there; don’t think about the people at the manor. They have nothing to do you with you.”

“Lady Baiza is not good for you,” his mother said. “She’s not good for anyone in this valley. She’s cruel and her ambition has led us here. I can’t bring myself to find a job at the manor anymore.”

“Then don’t,” Ferino shouted, glaring at his mother. “It’s not like you’ll manage to work there anyway. You’re getting too old, mother.”

His wife slammed a bowl of hot beef stew on the table before him pulling him out of the haze of anger.

Ferino blinked and looked up to find his wife scowling at him.

She shook her head and walked away to get the second bowl she had prepared for his mother. She pulled out a chair next to his mother and stirred the stew with a spoon, blowing on it.

“Let’s eat, Ma,” his wife said, her voice gentle, all her attention on the older woman. “After this, I’ll prepare a hot bath for you. Then, I’ll help you apply medicine on your back and hands.”

Ferino paused in the act of taking a bite.

“Why does she need medicine?” Ferino asked, curious.

“Lady Nisa was not kind,” his wife said, her tone heavy with accusation when she looked at him. “It’s not like we were doing her a favor living at her estate. Ma endured a whipping for not moving fast enough.”

Ferino sighed and dug into his food. He couldn’t think about the past. He took a bite of the beef stew and moaned with pleasure. He had missed his wife’s cooking.

The rest…well, it was over now.

Jihan Miran would die at the manor, he would be buried and Nisa would get what she wanted. This incident would be forgotten.

*~*~*~*

Niku and Kigaru were right.

The Iron Lands were in chaos: filled with mercenaries fighting to control markets, settlements and creating roadblocks to harass travelers.

Kastan was forced to systematically dismantle roadblocks, and take back control the moment he rode in to the Iron Lands. It was slow, gory work, the mercenaries putting up strong resistance. Kastan was glad he had chosen to bring seasoned warriors with him. They fought nonstop, taking down mercenaries. The citizens they helped were so grateful, Kastan had no choice but to keep at it.

Two days of constant fights made for slow progress, and their presence in the farmland fiefdom did not go unnoticed.

Naveed reported spies who watched their progress and reported to the seat of power, which was the governor’s manor in the main city.

On the third day at noon, Kastan rode into a small town with his men and found General Kigaru and Niku fighting off mercenaries at an open market. They were outnumbered, and frightened merchants and traders hid in stalls around the market. Kastan ordered his men to join the fight in order to relieve Niku and Kigaru.

He was an hour away from the main city and the governor’s manor. Kastan wondered what the main city looked like if the outskirts were so overrun. He watched his soldiers subdue the fifty hardened mercenaries who had taken over the open market.

General Niku mounted her horse and rode to his side.

“It’s good to see you, Commander,” she said, wiping sweat off her brow with the back of her hand. “We’ve tried to keep a low profile but it’s not working. The mercenaries here were after us today. We had no choice but to fight back. They are forcing traders to pay them dues for business done in the market. Negotiation is not working, and they’re killing innocents. I don’t understand the motivation. They are simply practicing tyranny and their purposes remain hidden. Torturing people for nothing.”

“It’s odd,” Kastan said, agreeing. “They run when we overcome them. Those we capture find a way to escape or fight to the death. There is no mention of a leader.”

Kastan turned his attention to General Kigaru who was now backed by twenty of Kastan’s soldiers. They were managing to conquer and subdue the attackers. Those who refused to back down fought and lost.

General Kigaru left no mercenaries standing.

The sound of a flying arrow drew Kastan’s attention and he caught the arrow before it sank into his arm. He studied the arrowhead and the red feathers on the tail end.

Beside him, General Niku retaliated at his attacker, who stood on the balcony of an inn a distance away. Her arrow flew fast and hit true, bringing the archer down to the ground.

“These are made for the soldiers in the imperial palace,” Kastan said, holding the attacker’s arrow in his left hand. With his right, he picked up his horse reins, directing his horse to the group of merchants taking cover at a cereal stall.

“Which one of you knows where they got these arrows?” Kastan asked, holding up the arrow he held.

“You can find crates of them at the Governor’s Manor,” one of the men said, stepping forward from the cowering crowd of merchants. “The crates arrived a month ago. They started disbursing them to the mercenaries who wanted ammunition. Soon, they were using them to murder anyone who tried to fight them off.”

“What about Governor Tian?” Kastan asked.

“No one has seen him for days,” the man said, shaking his head. “If he’s alive, he’s the cause of all of this. If he’s dead, then they killed him and are running the fief.”

Kastan nodded and thanked the man for giving him answers.

“The market is back in your hands,” Kastan said. “I’ll leave a troop here. Report any new developments to my officers.”

“Be blessed, Your Grace.”

“Be blessed,” the others said.

Kastan turned his horse away from the merchants, to check on General Kigaru. He moved his horse closer to Niku and handed her the arrow he held.

“These arrows are set aside for the imperial palace. They are never used outside the imperial city,” Kastan said. “We use white feathered arrows out here. That’s the difference between the palace guard and the army.”

Niku studied the arrow with a frown.

“Then these must come from diverted ammunition supplies from the capital warehouse to the Iron Lands,” Niku said. “We’ve seen carriages with the imperial seal moving in and out of the governor’s house. We had set up surveillance there, but they soon increased patrols. Infiltrating the perimeter will need an army, Commander.”

“Then we should head in that direction,” Kastan said, eager to finish this expedition and return to Jihan. “Kigaru, finish cleaning up the market, and then meet us at the Governor’s Manor.”

“Yes, Commander,” General Kigaru called back, as he swung his sword to counterattack a mercenary who fell back bleeding across his chest. “Niku, watch your back.”

“Watch yours first,” Niku said, as she shot a second arrow, taking out a man creeping up on Kigaru.

Kastan signaled two troop leaders, each one leading twenty-five soldiers, to stay behind with General Kigaru. He was down to a little over three hundred soldiers behind him. A half of his original number was with Naveed who was approaching the main capital from the opposite side. The rest he had gone leaving in unprotected settlements, and road stations.

Kastan urged his horse down the street, deeper into the burning town. On a usual day, it was a thriving city, full of visitors, travelers and merchants moving in and out. Any homes they rode past had their gates locked and barred to keep out attackers. A frightened scream reached Kastan from a bushy stretch of land, and he ordered a ten-man troop to investigate. They had saved dozens of traveling men and women facing harassment by the mercenaries running rampant.

Kastan wondered what Lord Revi had to gain by acting like a tyrant.

“I’m worried for Rael,” Niku said, keeping pace with him. “The people who took him recognized who he was, and it’s making me wonder what’s going on.”

“Where were you when they captured him?” Kastan asked.

“Rael found us shelter at a merchant’s stronghold,” Niku said. “The merchant’s name is Swallow. Rael thought we would find safety there because Swallow is associated with your Consort. We stayed one night. The next night the stronghold was invaded by ghost warriors. They took Rael and Swallow. We fought to protect Swallow’s family, so there was nothing Kigaru and I could do to stop their abductions.”

Kastan cursed under his breath and hoped Swallow survived. Jihan would be devastated over losing his friend. They arrived at the Governor’s Manor late in the evening, the sun already sitting on the horizon.

He was down to a hundred men, two hundred now occupied by the mercenaries they ran into when they reached Rotheir, the Iron Lands’ main city.

The Governor’s Manor had a blockade. The gates barred and mercenaries guarding the walls above the gate. Kastan chose not to wait, and ordered a full on assault on the blockade.

It took fifty of his men to cut down the large gates blocking his path, while the rest defended against the barrage of arrows that rained down from the walls.

Niku took over the assault on the mercenaries on the wall.

Kastan jumped off his horse and joined the fifty men bringing down the large gate. Adding his strength to their efforts, the gate came down quickly, and he led the charge to take on the waiting mercenaries on the other side of the gate. He fought hard and fast.

His sword dripping with blood, Kastan walked up to the Governor’s Manor, cutting down anyone who tried to stop him. He only came to a stop when he reached the front of the manor to find Lord Revi waiting for him.

“Commander of Armies,” Lord Revi greeted, sounding triumphant. “How dare you rebel so blatantly? You’re taking advantage of your wartime status to invade our Iron Lands. You’ve even dared to break down the gates of our Governor’s Manor. What kind of betrayal is this?”

Kastan chuckled and waved his sword to rid it of excess blood.

General Niku joined him, stopping on his left, and his soldiers fanned out at his back, running around the manor to secure it.

“You’ve summoned such a large army to enter our borders. Isn’t this a revolt? You’re bound to lose your rights as Commander of Armies for this gross abuse of your power,” Lord Revi continued, his voice vibrating with excitement. “The loss of your Consort must have driven you mad. I’m so glad I have a member of the Royal Investigative Bureau to help me report your attack to the Imperial Palace.”

Not giving Kastan a chance to respond to the accusations, Lord Revi waved his hand and one of his mercenaries led Rael out of the manor, dragging him forward by his left elbow.

Rael looked battered, his face bloody, he was favoring his right arm and his left leg looked injured.

Kastan glanced at Niku, who whispered, “Looks like Revi wants to use him to paint you a traitor, Commander. What should we do about this?”

The second man they dragged out was Swallow. Swallow’s arms were tied behind his back. The mercenaries pushed Swallow to the ground and he rolled then stopped with a painful moan. He looked relatively unharmed, though his clothes were ripped in part.

“That one is your Consort’s friend,” Lord Revi said. “I need to keep him alive so that he can help me deal with the Kamran Merchants, but they are proving harder to manage. He is useless to me. I’ll blame his death on your brutal invasion into the Iron Lands.”

Lord Revi paced around Rael.

“Did you know if an officer from the Royal Investigative Bureau reports a rebellion to His Imperial Majesty, the person accused must go through an inquiry,” Lord Revi said, letting out an unsettling laugh. “This inquiry requires a thorough investigation of all matters if you hope to keep your head on your shoulders. Silver Shore Valley would have to open its gates to a hoard of court ministers and investigators who would leave no stone unturned. Your Imperial Highness, all the secrets you keep will be uncovered.

Lord Revi stopped pacing to look at Kastan.

“Now that your Consort is on the verge of leaving you,” Lord Revi said, his eyes full of excitement. “I have a proposal for you. You see, I don’t want to fight you. I just want your cooperation. Why don’t you decide to resign form your position as Commander of Armies and focus on protecting Rashan and nursing your husband? Leave your command to the Imperial Palace. We’ll stop here and let this matter of invasion go. No one need ever know you entered the Iron Lands, and we’ll all be at peace again.”

Kastan ignored Lord Revi’s insane rantings, and instead focused on Niku who had found a container with water. He held out his sword, and she washed away the blood with a neat stream of water.

Kastan turned his sword, making sure she got all sides. When she finished, he swung the blade to get rid of excess water. The blade was clean, glinting in the fading sunlight.

Naveed had yet to return to his side. He had the important errand of finding Lord Revi’s personal home.

Kastan knew that Naveed would dig out all the secrets hiding in that stronghold.

“Imperial Highness, I made sure a message was sent on behalf of Rael here to the Emperor the moment you entered the Iron Lands. Your situation won’t change no matter how many times you ignore me. Leading a revolt is grounds for execution,” Lord Revi called out to him. “I bet you didn’t expect that I planned the chaos caused by the mercenaries in order to trap you into this situation. I gave you a reason to invade the Iron Lands with a large army. Now I’ve taken that reason away and made it look like you planned an elaborate revolt. His Imperial Majesty trusts my judgement.”

“Lord Revi, may I meet Governor Tian?” Kastan asked.

“Governor Tian is indisposed,” Lord Revi said with a small chuckle. “He wouldn’t see things my way, so he’s resting in a secure room. You don’t need to trouble him.”

“A court minister has no place in the Governor’s Manor,” Kastan pointed out.

“Unless he is helping subdue a rebellion,” Lord Revi replied, “especially a rebellion started by an Imperial Prince. You’ll break a million hearts, Your Imperial Highness. You take my advice and give up your place as Commander of Armies if you hope to save Prince Rashan from an irreversible disaster. We don’t want him ending up like your merchant Consort, do we? That husband of yours must look terrible after his attack. Do you really think he’ll live?”

Kastan swallowed bile as anger so hot flooded his belly.

Jihan’s life was precious to him, to have this idiot belittle his consort irked.

Niku took a step forward, dropping the water bottle she held.

“I’ll get Rael,” she murmured.

Kastan nodded.

“I should warn you, the mercenaries are not my only source of labor,” Lord Revi said. “If you resist my plans, Imperial Highness, I have one thousand men coming from Giode Kingdom. They have orders to fight you until a civil war breaks out in this Iron Lands. I will not back down until you’re blamed for a revolt.”

“Your mistress must have offered you a tantalizing reward for your efforts,” Kastan said, his words coming out in a growl between gritted teeth.

“My mistress,” Lord Revi scoffed. “Do you mean the Empress Rushi?”

Kastan smiled, studying his sword, the gold handle was of great importance.

“Is this her plan?” Kastan asked, needing Lord Revi to speak the truth.

“She wishes it was. She came to me hoping that I would help her gain control of the Empire’s Armies. She’s quite stupid because she doesn’t know that power lies in controlling the money. The Imperial Palace will soon depend on my financial support thanks to her. I’ll let her hold the black tiger seal you cherish, while I hold control of the Imperial Throne and its purse. The Miran Era will come to a resounding end.”

“I’ve heard enough,” Kastan said, and made a leap up the steps.

He would not kill Lord Revi. No, he needed the bastard alive. So, when he was a foot away from Lord Revi, he turned his sword and used the solid gold handle to hit Lord Revi right on his forehead. Lord Revi fell back, eyes wide in shock, as he lost consciousness.

Niku sunk her sword into the mercenary holding Rael, using all her strength to push him back, before she pulled her sword out of his stomach with a sigh. She turned to find Rael struggling to keep his balance, and rushed to steady him with an arm around his waist. Kastan turned away when they gave each other vulnerable looks, something shifting between them.

“Search the manor,” Kastan called, kicking Lord Revi to make sure he was unconscious.

When Lord Revi didn’t move, he nodded and hurried to Swallow’s side.

“Tie Lord Revi up and keep him in a moving carriage,” Kastan continued, glad when his officers moved to do as he asked. “Find Governor Tian.”

Niku accepted the order to find Governor Tian, and guided Rael into the manor.

“Swallow,” Kastan shook the man on the ground, checking his limbs for injuries. He was relieved when he found none. So he sunk his fingers into Swallow’s hair and cursed when he felt a swollen bump.

“Swallow.”

Swallow groaned and struggled to open his eyes, when he did look at Kastan, he looked dazed, but he recognized Kastan.

“M-my family,” Swallow mumbled.

“They are safe,” Kastan said. “You’re hurt. I’m quite sure you’re concussed. We need to get you to a healer.”

“W-wait…,” Swallow said, reaching for Kastan’s hand. “J-Jihan’s i-in d-danger.”

“He was,” Kastan said. “He’s at home now.”

“I-I saw,” Swallow stopped and swallowed hard. “T-there was a message from someone in the valley to Lord Revi. They said if the attack failed, they would d-deal with Jihan.”

Kastan started to get up, his first instinct to get on his horse and ride back to Sun-filled Manor. But then Swallow passed out, Naveed and General Kigaru chose that moment to arrive together, and General Niku called out that she had found Governor Tian in the cellar.

*~*~*~*

Four days after the attack on Duke Silver’s Consort, the Hidden Keepers received a long list of army officers to track down from the Magistrate’s Office.

The great frustrating mystery started when the Hidden Keepers discovered the first person on the list was deceased with no family living in the valley. The mystery intensified when they got to the thirty-sixth name on the massive list and the individual turned out never to have existed in the valley.

When they got to the last name on the hundredth mark, with no luck of finding the owners of these names, alive or dead, the man in charge of the afternoon shift at the Hidden Keepers Station decided to find the Magistrate’s Office.

He had two questions.

First, why would the magistrate send them on a futile exercise?

Second, was the magistrate trying to test them for fun?

Raven, the man in charge of the afternoon shift at the Hidden Keepers main station, rolled the list in a fit of annoyance and headed straight to the magistrate’s office. When he got there, he slammed the list on the magistrate’s desk, glaring at the hefty man sitting behind his desk eating dumplings.

It was two hours past mid-day, so the magistrate’s snack irritated him. Raven had barely gotten a chance to eat a meal today.

The hefty man slammed his palm over his mouth and nose, gagging, as he gave Raven an accusing glance.

“What joke are you playing with us?” Raven asked, ignoring the Magistrate’s reaction to him. “Why would you send us on a fool’s errand?”

“The errand is not mine, I just passed it on to you as instructed,” the Magistrate said, pinching his nose, and speaking between gritted teeth.

He covered the remaining dumplings on the table with the wrap they came in, and pushed back his chair taking in Raven’s unkempt appearance.

“If you have grievances over this task, you need to climb high to Sun-filled Manor. Find Lord Temu. He will help you vent your anger.”

“Don’t joke with me, Yuho. Our office is stretched to the limits. Our people are on the streets working overtime. We’re doing the best we can to make sure the valley stays free of intruders. Assignments like this list without explanations are not helping,” Raven said, irritated.

“I really don’t know why you have to find the people on that list. Find Lord Temu,” Yuho said, picking up the rolled list. He held it out with a deep frown. “And Raven, you might want to clean up a bit before you go up there. His Grace’s manor is not a pig sty.”

“Eat dirt, Yuho.”

Raven took the list and turned to leave. He was very aware of the magistrate getting up and rushing to the open window in his office, gulping in fresh air like it was ending.

Raven shook his head and left the magistrate’s office. He stopped outside to stare at the rolled list. He had half a mind to return to the Hidden Keeper’s Station and let the evening shift handle the annoying list.

The thought came and drifted away as fast as it formed. His supervisor would send him to work the morgue if he discovered Raven had slacked on fulfilling a task brought by Lord Temu. It wasn’t easy to push off a task that was marked urgent with a red round stamp from the manor.

Raven shuddered at that thought and knew that he was going to have to deal with the stupid list.

He had no choice but to seek Lord Temu.

Raven glanced at his dirty robes and muddy boots, turning his hands to stare at the dirt under his nails. His current condition was enough testament to the state of the schedule at the station. Raven was working the morning shift as an officer because everyone else was already assigned a task. He had spent the morning chasing down piglets that escaped their pen in the lower farms. He chased them through large fields, falling into mud and old water but he had caught them and brought them back to their owner. She thanked him by pouring a bucket of water over him to clean out the worst of the dirt.

Raven returned to the station hoping for a bath, but then two things happened. His supervisor was called away to the new trade station, so he was made afternoon station manager. Then this list with annoying names arrived from the magistrate. The urgent stamp on it had him pushing every man and woman working the afternoon shift to find the list of people.

When would he have gotten time to clean up?

Raven scoffed as he mounted his horse and turned it in the direction of Sun-filled Manor.

Lord General Temu would just have to remember the Hidden Keepers were small working folk. They didn’t have time to stop during the day for a bath.

*~*~*~*

Jihan studied the names Andiya had written in neat lists as she read the accounting books from the Welfare Office. They were settled in the steward’s office downstairs, with Yasmin coming in and out with records from storage as Andiya requested them.

Jihan placed the list he held on the large table, and got up to pace to the windows, which showed off the back of the manor.

The gardens were in full bloom. The boy who turned on the lamps at night, was pruning rose bushes, wearing a conical hat to protect himself from the sun. He cut blooming roses and placed them in a basket to bring to Yasmin later.

Jihan wished he could go out and sit at the table where the boy had placed the basket. Jihan loved that table. It would be perfect if Kastan was home, the weather was nice, and it felt like this evening would the best time to sit outside drinking. Thinking of Kastan sent a pang racing through his heart. He hoped Kastan was safe. He missed Kas and wondered when the march through the Iron Lands would end.

“Your Grace,” Yasmin broke into his thoughts.

Jihan turned to find Yasmin wringing her hands behind him.

“What’s wrong, Yasmin?”

“We have a guest,” Yasmin said, her voice full of irritation. “She’s visited the last three days, but hasn’t been allowed to come in. Today she has decided to be stubborn. I’ve tried everything trying to turn her away at the gate, but she’s not listening. Your Grace can’t meet her because we have to hide your condition. What do I do?”

“Who is this guest who has you so lost, Yasmin?” Andiya asked, her curiosity pulling her out of the complicated accounts she was reading.

“Lady Baiza,” Yasmin said.

“I thought she was moving,” Jihan said, surprised Nisa was still able to come visiting the manor.

“She has delayed the move since your attack,” Yasmin answered. “She says she wants to see the Little Prince, and talk to His Majesty if he’s around.”

“Is my father in-law someone she can approach easily?” Jihan wondered, disturbed by Nisa’s presence in his domain.

“No, Your Grace. She has not met His Majesty in a longtime. Besides, His Majesty is at the training grounds working with recruits,” Yasmin said. “The only person left with authority to send her away is you, Your Grace.”

Why would she choose to visit at this moment, when he was meant to be unable to defend himself?

Jihan narrowed his gaze.

Nisa was buzzing in his brain. The incident with Ferino the butcher and his family staying in her home remained unresolved. Fara’s sister had offered all the details she knew, but Temu insisted Ferino’s family was back home.

Jihan rubbed his forehead with a soft sigh and wondered if he was overthinking Nisa because of the Empress.

“I want to meet this woman,” Andiya said, pushing her chair back. She got up and stretched her arms to the side, then rubbed her stomach. “I need to move around and meeting this husband-seducer seems like the thing to do.”

“Andiya,” Jihan started to protest.

“She has you sighing. It makes me curious. Don’t stop me,” Andiya said, hurrying around the desk, arranging the heavy shawl wrapped around her shoulders to cover her baby bump. “I don’t know her, so I’ll have a clear perspective. Yasmin, show me to this bold-faced little sister.”

“She’s older than you,” Yasmin said with a happy grin.

“Older,” Andiya made a face. “No wonder she thinks she can walk all over my brother. Where is Shan?”

“He’s with Master Safan upstairs. Little Prince has a sciences examination and Master Bero is with them. Firuz is in the dining hall. I had him help me sort mung bean sprouts. Lord Temu just came in from the Duke’s Office. He is having a cup of tea.”

Andiya nodded, and gave Jihan a look.

“Stay hidden, I don’t want to be responsible for spoiling Duke Silver’s important plans,” Andiya said, as she left the steward’s office.

Jihan smiled at the way Andiya treated Kastan. One minute Kastan was chastised, the next his words were law.

Jihan followed her out of the steward’s office. He stopped behind the carved wood screen, making sure he had a good view of the front hall. Nisa had yet to reach the front door, so Andiya strolled with leisure; she talked to Yasmin as if they were old friends.

Andiya wore emerald green very well. The color suited her skin. The fabric workshop had worked extra hard to provide for her clothing needs. She left Kamran Estate in a hurry and with no personal effects. Thanks to Yasmin’s efforts, Andiya was now fitted with dresses so beautiful Queen Kyra could wear them. Yasmin had also made sure to procure the shawls Andiya preferred, and any other items she needed during her stay.

In any case, Jihan knew he had a bias for his sister.

Andiya would always be the most beautiful woman to him. Jihan’s smile widened as he watched Yasmin hold Andiya’s left hand. Yasmin worried for Andiya’s health the same as Jihan. The two women were bonding fast.

Yasmin and Deora were working together to take care of his sister, and he was grateful for them.

Most of all, Jihan was glad Andiya would not be bored at Sun-Filled Manor.

The front door opened and in walked Lady Nisa Baiza. She looked extra groomed this afternoon. Dressed in a red dress, the fabric on the skirts decorated with gems that sparkled in the sun light, her hair falling down her back in luxurious curls. She looked fragile enough to be mistaken for a damsel in distress, if she kept her mouth shut. She didn’t close the front door, instead stopping at the entrance to stare at Andiya and Yasmin.

Both ladies stood waiting for Nisa.

Firuz moved to stand on Jihan’s left side.

Jihan relaxed sure that Firuz would stop him from doing anything stupid if Nisa stepped out of line.

Andiya, knowing Jihan watched, chose to move to the side giving Jihan a clear view of Nisa.

“Greetings, Lady Baiza,” Andiya said, her tone cordial. “Yasmin tells me you’ve come to see my brother, Jihan.”

“I’m afraid Yasmin misspoke,” Nisa said, giving Yasmin a tolerant smile. “I’m here to see Prince Rashan.”

“Prince Rashan is my brother’s ward,” Andiya said. “Naturally, you’re here to see Jihan before you can talk to the little prince.”

Nisa’s eyes went wide with drama, her annoyance with Andiya’s deduction so clear. She folded her arms against her chest and glared at Andiya.

“I’ve heard your brother is confined to his bed. He’s unable to fulfill his duties as consort or father,” Nisa said. “I’ve helped His Grace, Duke Silver, with his son for as long as I can remember. Prince Rashan is also my student at the academy he attends. I don’t need your brother’s permission to talk to him. In fact, your brother should be thanking me for helping him.”

Andiya scoffed.

“What my brother is capable of is not your concern,” Andiya said. “In any case, I’m here now, so my brother’s house is well looked after. He will not need outside help. Prince Rashan is busy with his studies. It’s not right to interrupt him. Lady Baiza, I think you should leave today.”

“Who are you to tell me what to do?” Nisa asked, sneering at Andiya. “You’re in no position to order me around in a manor I’ve visited for years. Yasmin, tell her she shouldn’t cross Duke Silver over this. Just because she is the merchant’s sister, doesn’t mean she has turned into royalty. Their dirty merchant blood is staining this manor’s prestige.”

Jihan bunched his fingers into tight fists, taking a step forward, ready to walk around the screen to defend Andiya. No one insulted his sister!

Firuz gripped his arm, keeping him in place. Firuz leaned close to whisper in his left ear.

“Leave it to Andiya.”

Jihan closed his eyes and took in a deep breath. He let it out slow and opened his eyes in time to see Andiya let go of Yasmin’s hand. Andiya arranged the shawl around her shoulders and faced Nisa.

“Lady Baiza,” Andiya said. “Dirty blood or no, this manor is not a place for you to act out your jealousies. This is a difficult time for Duke Silver’s family. Outsiders add to the stress of our daily activities. I’ll ask you to leave and return when Duke Silver can have an audience with you. Leave while I’m being nice, otherwise you won’t like what I do next.”

Nisa sneered at Andiya and Jihan sucked in air at the expression on her face.

Nisa, he thought.

She had the drive to send ghost warriors chasing him through a forest, but how would she have managed to align herself with the Burning Feather?

Nisa plastered on a smile and dropped her hands to her sides.

“What would you be able to do to me?” she challenged Andiya.

“Lord Temu,” Andiya said, raising her voice an octave.

The door to the dining room opened and Temu stepped out. He paused to give Jihan a reassuring nod before he walked around the stone garden to where Andiya and Nisa were facing off.

Yasmin moved so that Temu stopped behind Andiya.

“Yes, my Lady,” Temu said, directing his words to Andiya, his tone full of respect.

“I’ve asked Lady Baiza to leave,” Andiya said. “She won’t, so you might have to carry her out. Jihan needs rest, and Rashan has his studies. I don’t want it to be noisy.”

“Yes, my Lady,” Temu said, stepping forward, making sure Andiya was protected behind him.

“Lord Temu,” Nisa said in disbelief. “You know me. How could you dare—?”

“Duke Silver left the care of his son, his consort and his manor to Lady Andiya while he is away. She holds the same authority His Grace has for as long as his consort is incapacitated,” Safan said.

“Why—?” Nisa started.

“Lady Nisa, the lady of the house has asked you to leave. Please do so before I have to carry you out,” Temu said, taking a threatening step forward.

Nisa gave Andiya a dirty look.

“Enjoy your authority for now,” Nisa said, spitting the words at Andiya. “When Duke Silver returns, you will be sorry for treating me this way. I’m disappointed in you, Lord Temu. I thought we could be friends after all of this is done, but I suppose that’s not going to happen now.”

“What a tragedy,” Lord Temu said, as he took a few more steps forward, urging Nisa backwards with his proximity.

“You’re a simple, wretched merchant. You’ll never be a lady, so stop deluding yourself, Andiya,” Nisa told Andiya, her eyes full of hate.

Temu made to reach for Nisa and she turned and left the manor with a huff.

Temu stepped outside after her to make sure she entered her carriage and that the carriage drove off.

Jihan hurried around the screen to Andiya’s side, making sure to keep out of sight. He took his sister’s right hand when he reached her.

“Are you okay?” Jihan asked.

“You’re harboring a deadly snake,” Andiya said, her gaze on the retreating carriage beyond the doors. “The look in her eyes is not normal, An. I wouldn’t want her close to my child. She looks capable of murder.”

Jihan knew his sister was right. He squeezed Andiya’s hand.

“I suppose it’s time to cut off the snake’s head,” he murmured.

*~*~*~*

Raven arrived at Sun-filled Manor, riding at speed past the open black gates, up a curvy road to the large green pair. The guards there stopped him and he produced his identity badge.

“Who are you looking for?” the guard asked, after verifying his badge.

“Lord Temu,” Raven said.

“Ride to the red gates,” the officer said and Raven urged his horse forward.

He slowed down when he rode past the Duke’s Office. The doors were open and there were people going in and out, the officers in the office dealt with their requests. Everyone was well aware that Duke Silver was not home. Yet, they trusted that he would handle their matters when he returned.

This was part of the reason Raven loved living in this valley.

Raven dismounted his horse when he reached the closed red gates. He held on to his horse’s reins and looked up at the massive red gates. He had never won the right to enter this gate before. Strange that a report that irritated him would finally give him a chance to see Duke Silver’s personal home.

Raven sighed and started to reach for the heavy knocker mounted on a black tiger’s head. He didn’t get a chance to knock. The gates opened to reveal a speeding carriage. Raven had to pull his horse out of the way to avoid collision. He cursed under his breath, doing his best to calm his horse while pulling it out of the way with all his strength.

“Sir, are you coming into the manor?” the attendant asked.

“Step back,” a low voice said, drawing Raven’s attention at his back. “Let him deal with his horse.”

Raven concentrated on soothing his horse and when it stopped fidgeting, he let out a relieved sigh and turned to see Lord Temu standing a few feet away.

“You must be Raven,” Temu said in greeting, “from the Hidden Keepers Station, the afternoon Shift Manager.”

“Lord Temu,” Raven said, nodding his head.

Lord Temu took a step forward, starting to offer his hand to Raven in greeting.

It surprised Raven when the formidable Lord General Temu stopped mid-motion and coughed, turning his head away. He took a quick step back and glared at Raven.

“It is a shame to complain when you’re obviously working so hard,” Temu said, taking another step back. He brought his right hand to shield his nose, as he continued. “Surely, Shift Manager, we’re not overworking your station until you can’t stop a few moments for a bath.”

Raven gaped, glancing down at his dirty clothes. He cursed under his breath because there was no saving his current condition. He stunk. The only route was be a brazen fool about it.

“We are quite busy, Lord Temu,” Raven said. “We’re so stretched that there’s not a man to spare in the office. So, I’m here to express to you how exhausting it is to chase dead and non-existing people on the list you sent. I don’t understand what we could have done, for you to torture us this way.”

“Is that so?” Lord Temu asked, his eyes filling with amusement.

Temu started walking up the path lined with expansive gardens to the impressive manor beyond.

“Give your horse to the care of the attendant,” Temu called back. “I’ll show you where to vent.”

Raven shrugged and handed the reins of his horse to the attendant. He followed Temu up the wide path to the large manor ahead, his steps faltering when he realized that Temu was leading him to the front doors.

Raven stopped at the bottom of the steps, sniffed at his pits, and grimaced.

Damn, he should have listened to the magistrate. The steps looked pristine; his muddy boots a clear contrast. How could he dare step on them?

“Aren’t you coming?” Temu asked, standing by the open doors.

“I—,” Raven started.

“The floors have seen worse,” Temu said with a shrug and entered the manor, leaving Raven to follow.

He did so with careful steps, hoping not to track mud on the clean floors. When he entered the manor, he stopped, paralyzed at the sight of the man and woman waiting in the front hall.

The woman wore a deep green shawl covering her shoulders, and stomach. She shifted to look at him and it became obvious that she was heavily pregnant. Her pregnancy looked good on her. She was the picture of blooming motherhood.

The man holding her hand was…stunning, there was no other word to describe him. He was a male version of the woman. His dark hair fell long down his back. Some of it in a knot on top of his head, held secure by a red jade pin.

The red jade pin was enough to tell Raven that he was looking at Duke Silver’s infamous consort, Jihan Miran.

This consort’s decision to hire outsiders for the valley’s farms had left everyone in the valley speechless. Most of the valley’s people spent over a month complaining to the Duke’s Office about Jihan Miran’s decisions. The Hidden Keepers were holding their opinion, instead watching the growing trade station outside the valley.

The verdict on whether Jihan Miran was good or bad for the valley was still waiting.

One thing was clear, the rumors that the Duke’s Consort was dying were wrong.

The woman heaved and Jihan turned his attention to her.

“I-I’m sorry,” she said, even as she slammed both her palms over her nose and mouth.

“He-he…,” she heaved again. “The smell…”

Raven’s eyes widened and he took a step back, guilt flooding him.

“Firuz, take Andiya to get fresh air,” Jihan said, making Raven stiffen when he finally noticed the Shadow Guard.

He had never met one of those either and this one seemed dangerous, just by the look in his eyes.

“Yasmin, dunk that man in a tub,” Jihan said, after Andiya left with Firuz.

In minutes, Raven found himself naked in the largest bathing pool he ever saw. Hot water filled to his neck, soap dumped on his hair, Raven closed his eyes and endured a hard scrubbing from a disgruntled Yasmin.

In half an hour, he was bathed, dressed in fresh clothes, and standing in a huge dining room.

The long table in the dining room had so many chairs, Raven wondered if Duke Silver hosted his entire army every evening.

What did that look like?

“You must be hungry,” Jihan’s voice had him swallowing back his chuckle.

Raven turned to find Duke Silver’s consort carrying a tray laden with food. He was alone, a slight smile curving his lips. Duke Silver’s consort was friendly, another rumor debunked.

Jihan placed the tray he held on the closest end of the long dining table and pulled out a chair.

“Sit,” Jihan invited, his tone no less than an order.

Raven responded before he could think about it. He sat, and was surprised that Jihan helped him push the chair in to settle down. Jihan then pulled out the chair next to him and waited as Raven inspected the food on the tray.

“Yasmin is a very good cook,” Jihan said, his voice warm. “She likes making beef stews, and spends a lot of time experimenting with spices to make it taste good. My father in-law loved this one the most, so she made it today. Taste it.”

Raven stared at the man who was consort to Duke Silver amazed by the kind voice.

The workers he kicked out of the farms reported that Jihan Miran was hard to handle. He was supposed to be too demanding and got mean when people made mistakes at work.

Who knew he was so warm in private.

Raven frowned.

Wasn’t he also supposed to be injured and dying from his injuries?

Raven picked up his spoon and focused on the steaming bowl of beef stew. His stomach growled, embarrassing him and he took a quick bite. The second and third bite of food fortified him, and he soon felt warm and stable enough to deal with his current situation.

He stole a glance at Jihan to find him waiting with patience.

“Do you feed all the couriers who come to the manor?” Raven found himself asking before he could stop.

Jihan chuckled.

“Only the ones that look like they need a hot meal and a little care,” Jihan answered, shifting his chair and getting comfortable. “Temu says your name is Raven.”

“Yes, Your Grace,” Raven said, taking another bite of the beef stew.

“I am Jihan.”

“It’s an honor to meet you, Your Grace,” Raven said, smiling because Jihan seemed unaware that he did not need to introduce himself.

The red jade pin he wore in his hair was too famous now. After all, the little Prince Rashan had gifted it to Jihan in public. The honor Prince Rashan showed this man enough to cement his status in Duke Silver’s family.

“I’m sorry to make you work so hard to find the people on that list,” Jihan continued. “Temu says you were frustrated with your findings. I promise it was for a good cause.”

Raven dropped the spoon he held into the bowl, and pushed his chair back getting to his feet. He had not thought that this man would have written the list.

No wonder Lord Temu had smiled as he promised to let him vent. Lord Temu was too dangerous.

How could he dare vent to His Grace?

His supervisor could not hear of this, otherwise, he was on burial duty for the near future.

Raven shuddered and bowed his head low in apology.

“I did not mean to complain to His Grace,” Raven started. “We didn’t mind working the task you sent to us. We have completed it to the best of our ability.”

“Relax,” Jihan said, reaching out to pat Raven’s left hand.

Jihan held Raven’s left wrist and urged him to sit. It was useless to resist, so Raven sank into his chair and stared at the bowl of beef stew on the table.

“I’ve received your list,” Jihan said with a chuckle, patting his shoulder. “You eat, and I’ll read your findings and explain why we needed to search for these people.”

Raven breathed in, and stared at Jihan confused.

Complaining should have won him a punishment, not a reward. His stomach chose that moment to growl again, embarrassing him again.

“We really are torturing you. Please, eat,” Jihan said.

Raven shifted his chair closer to the table and decided to eat the steaming beef stew. He picked up his spoon and took a bite before he embarrassed himself farther.

Moments later, Temu, Firuz and the Lady Andiya walked into the dining room. Lady Andiya looked much better, though she chose to sit opposite Raven, taking advantage of the distance the width of the dining table provided.

Raven met her gaze and bowed his head in apology, and she smiled at him.

The Shadow Guard stood beside Andiya in a protective stance.

Raven looked away from him quickly.

Temu spread out the list from Raven on the table before Jihan.

Jihan focused his attention on the list, trailing his finger over the markings Raven made next to each name.

“The first thirty-five names are confirmed deceased,” Jihan said, “but they have no family living in the valley.

“Yes,” Raven said, swallowing the food in his mouth. “It’s unusual as most officers in Duke Silver’s army prefer to have all their relatives living in the valley. For safety during wartime, and the resources they get during peacetime. If officers are dead with no family—”

“They are officers who joined the army because they had no other options,” Temu said.

“Orphans,” Jihan guessed.

“Yes, or castaways,” Raven said, pinching off a piece of bread from his tray. He sank it into the beef stew and ate with relish, letting out an unconscious moan of approval.

Jihan stopped reading the list to look at him.

Keen brown eyes took him in, not missing much.

This consort is no fluff, Raven thought.

Jihan was very observant and right now, he was trying to judge how well Raven had done his work.

“The first thirty-five men on that list do not have family in Silver Shore Valley,” Raven said, to confirm his report.

“Understood,” Jihan said, returning his attention to the list.

The remaining names were the key source of Raven’s irritation.

“The remaining sixty-five names appear unconfirmed,” Jihan said. “What does the round circle next to their names mean?”

“That they don’t exist,” Raven said, sipping water from the goblet on his tray. “Did you make them up, because no one has ever heard of those sixty-five men?”

“They don’t exist?” Andiya asked, her eyes wide.

“Not in this valley,” Raven said, placing the goblet on the table. “They have never lived here.”

“Made up,” Jihan repeated, in a tone so low Raven wondered if he’d even spoken.

Raven drank more of his water, and watched Jihan, confused.

Jihan pushed his chair back, standing up with his palms flat on the table.

“Temu, bring me a list of commanding officers authorized to submit names to the welfare office,” Jihan said, his gaze shifting to the pregnant woman across them.

Temu left the dining room fast, and Jihan continued.

“Duke Silver’s wars can only last so long,” Jihan said, in a stream of thought. “Casualties listed as per troop and forwarded to the Welfare Office by their commanding officers. These names increase during wartime. So, how many people would be added during peacetime?”

“Very few,” Raven answered the question. “In fact, the list might decrease during peacetime.”

“Why decrease?” Andiya asked, curious.

“I’ll give you an example. My parents have a neighbor, a soldier who died in a skirmish five years ago, leaving his wife and son. His family was placed under welfare. They received food supplies and money to keep them going. Two years went by, and the wife got a position in the fabric workshop here at Sun-filled Manor. The master in charge trained her on how to embroider and she discovered she was very talented. With time, her position in the workshop rose and the amount she made was more than enough to feed her family. They withdrew their request for help from the welfare office so that someone else in need can get it,” Raven said, sitting back in his chair. “Her son grew up and is now able to work odd jobs to help his mother. He recently became a trainee in the army. My mother was telling me the son might be getting married soon.”

“Are such stories common?” Jihan asked. “Do families withdraw from the welfare office when they are able to stand on their own?”

“Quite common,” Raven said. “Most families will need immediate support after a tragedy. However, children don’t stay young forever, sons and daughters grow up, and life goes on. In this valley, sons become recruits in the army. Their salaries are able to support their families. Daughters learn skills and find work with the Hidden Keepers, shops in the valley or in the manor’s many workshops. Others move on from the valley and find new lives outside.”

Raven stopped, realizing he had talked quite a lot.

Jihan and Andiya watched him with interest; he wondered why they needed to know the ways of life in this valley.

“Anyway, you’ll only find the older generations remain a constant on that welfare list,” Raven said. “Younger families work their way out of welfare support.”

“Your story matches the amounts I tracked in the books,” Andiya said, “save for the hundred names we listed. These hundred people have increasing amounts by year with no sign of reducing.”

“The question is who submitted them,” Jihan said, straightening to his full height when Temu brought a large sealed book.

Temu shifted the chair on Jihan’s left to the side so he could place the book he held on the table. He snapped it open and sat.

Raven finished his food, and thanked Yasmin who moved in silence as she took the tray away leaving him with a fresh goblet of water.

“Lord Temu,” Jihan said, as Yasmin walked away. “Why don’t we start with the first thirty-five names? They appeared on the welfare list three years ago.”

Raven pushed his empty goblet away and leaned closer to read the list before Jihan.

“Welfare payouts given after death,” Jihan murmured. “First name is Mirza, died three years ago in the third month. Who is Mirza’s commanding officer?”

Temu opened the pages in his record book and the room fell in silence as he searched for the dates.

“What exactly is Your Grace looking for?” Raven asked, curious.

“We have a hundred names receiving large amounts each month,” Jihan said. “These amounts are draining the valley’s finances. If the recipients of the welfare office reduce and increase as you described, then the fund would be healthy and maybe in excess. Instead, the fund is running in the deficit, to the point that this manor is carrying the recent additions.”

“So you feel someone is draining the fund with fake names,” Raven said.

“Yes,” Jihan said, smiling at him. “The many names you could not find are the evidence.”

Raven’s eyes widened at the implication.

“That’s why you needed the Hidden Keepers to look for these people,” Raven said.

“Why the Hidden Keepers?” Andiya asked, looking at Raven. “I still don’t understand why Lord Temu’s officers couldn’t do the search.”

“The Hidden Keepers don’t disclose their activities,” Raven said with pride. “Our inquiries are discrete and one would never know we were looking for you, unless we want you to know. The officers under Lord General Temu would visit the addresses and ask among themselves if they know the person listed. The news would be all over the valley in two hours. It would alert the person responsible.”

“How brilliant, Jihan,” Andiya said with a pleased grin. “Silver Shore Valley is too great. The Hidden Keepers sound like people fit to work for Kamran and join Set’s network.”

Jihan grinned, and would have replied, but Temu’s quiet growl interrupted.

“What?” Jihan asked. “Who is it?”

Temu pushed the book closer to Jihan. His finger pointed on an entry of names. They all reported to General Baiza’s command.

“General Baiza is gone,” Jihan said, leaning over to read the list.

Raven watched him find Mirza’s full names and the carefully recorded ‘deceased’ written next to it.

“Baiza’s command has been taken over by General Moran,” Temu said, his voice strained.

“General Moran took over after the marriage dance,” Jihan reminded him. “Mirza died three years ago. This is a list of the deceased submitted to the welfare office, under General Baiza’s command. Why don’t we check who else served with Mirza?”

Temu nodded and turned pages looking for Mirza’s troop. When he found it, he read the list first, and then pointed a finger on a name.

Jihan shifted closer, frowning when he saw it.

“Ferino,” Jihan said.

“The butcher?” Raven gaped, leaning in to see the list for himself.

“I remember this incident,” Temu said, his voice quiet as he tapped a finger on Ferino’s name. “They were in the Iron Lands handling a rebel skirmish. Their troop was ambushed at camp, fifteen of them died, leaving Ferino who had gone to hunt for the evening meal.”

“He’s the only survivor?” Jihan asked.

“Yes,” Temu said. “He would have been the one to write the names of his fellow officers and submit them to the General for welfare support. Lady Baiza sometimes helped the General with these submissions.”

Jihan scoffed and met Andiya’s wide gaze.

Raven saw a silent conversation pass between them before Jihan turned to him.

“Raven,” Jihan said, “Ferino’s family has been staying at the Bottom-cliff Estate. Do you think you could dig up the reasons why?”

“We could try,” Raven said, his answer casual.

Jihan’s gaze narrowed, a hard challenge clear in the honeyed depths that made Raven change his answer.

“We will uncover why Ferino’s family stayed at Bottom Cliff Estate,” Raven said, feeling attacked by this man’s hidden aura.

“I also want to know Ferino’s movements this past month,” Jihan said. “Leave nothing out, no matter how small it seems.”

“Yes, Your Grace,” Raven said.

“Thank you for the good work you’ve done so far,” Jihan said. “Don’t neglect yourself, Shift Manager Raven. We’re all depending on you.”

“I will not let you down,” Raven said, surprised that he meant it. He found he did not want to disappoint Jihan Miran.

Raven frowned at this emotion and moved away from the table. He acknowledged the order with a short nod, and started to leave. The dining hall doors slid open before he reached them, and the little prince ran in, dashing around Raven, heading straight to his stepfather.

Raven slowed down, turning in time to see the little prince wrap his arms tight around Jihan’s waist.

“Papa!” Rashan said, his voice full of joy as he looked up at his stepfather.

Jihan’s reaction was to hold the boy steady, a happy laugh escaping him at the boy’s enthusiasm. Their affection for each was clear as day.

How rare, Raven thought.

It wasn’t easy for children to accept outsiders as family especially in a high-powered family such as this one. Raven imagined the politics of their positions would have family members at each other’s necks.

Duke Silver’s son was either too sweet, or Jihan Miran’s heart was kinder than the valley’s people thought.

“Did you finish your exam?” Jihan asked, his voice filled with warmth.

“Yes,” Rashan said. “Master Safan sent me down here to eat while he finishes with Master Bero. I also want to ask you when Master Firuz—”

“Wait,” Jihan said, placing a finger over Rashan’s lips.

He looked up and Raven paled at getting caught eavesdropping.

Jihan narrowed his eyes, and the Shadow Guard moved to stand next to his master, drawing Raven’s attention for the second time that day.

When had he moved next to Jihan? Wasn’t he standing next to Andiya?

“Is there a question, Raven?” Jihan asked.

The Shadow Guard’s dark eyes stayed on Raven, and he felt a shiver race up his spine. He gave Jihan an apologetic shake of his head and left the dining hall as fast as his feet could carry him. Raven didn’t take a normal breath until he was outside.

Once the front door was closed, he turned back to stare at the massive door.

Jihan Miran had schooled him this afternoon with his hidden power wrapped in kindness and wisdom. It felt…a lot like his father had chastised him.

Raven turned away from the front door to find an attendant waiting for him with his horse. He mounted it and rode out of Sun-Filled Manor determined to fulfill his orders to the best of his ability. He did not want to discover what disappointing Jihan Miran would feel like.

*~*~*~*

“What an interesting man,” Andiya said, sitting back in her chair. “Hidden Keepers seem dedicated to their work.”

“They are,” Temu answered, still reading the list of Ferino’s troop and comparing it to Raven’s list. “They live in this valley with the understanding that they will protect it. They take that vow seriously. Your Grace, are you sure this is tied to Ferino? Is it because he’s the sole survivor in his troop?”

Jihan guided Rashan to the smaller table near the fireplace.

“Based on Nisa’s terrible character, Ferino and Nisa are two people who should not have anything binding them together. She would look down on him and all he stands for,” Jihan said. “Yet, Fara’s sister testifies to seeing Ferino’s wife and mother living at Bottom-cliff Estate.”

“They are not there now,” Temu said. “They are back home. Their neighbors confirm it. Ferino’s butchery is running as normal. I don’t get why you’re having him investigated over money from the welfare office.”

“Which is why I’m using the Hidden Keepers, Lord General,” Jihan said. “I know Ferino and Nisa have sinned against all of you. Raven will bring proof. You just get ready to take action.”

“Your Grace, Lady Baiza has lived here all her life,” Temu said. “She would not harm His Grace or the well-being of this valley.”

Jihan sighed.

“It is because you don’t think she would sin that she has done this,” Jihan said. “It’s unfortunate that your great army brotherhood mentality requires absolute proof of fault where I only need that list of fake names. I can’t do anything about it without this proof. So, let’s both wait for Raven’s findings.”

Temu stared at him with mutinous eyes, then closed the record book he held and left the dining hall.

Jihan met Andiya’s gaze and she gave him an assuring nod.

Betrayal was hard to uncover, it was harder to believe, especially if it was from someone meant to be loyal.

Rashan squeezed his hand and Jihan gave him all his attention as they settled at their favorite table.

“Shan, you wanted to ask about Firuz being your master, didn’t you?” Jihan asked.

“Yes,” Rashan nodded, his expression turning serious as his gaze searched and found Firuz, who was stoking the fire in the fireplace.

“Your Pa made you promise to wait until he talked to Firuz in person,” Jihan reminded Rashan. “Remember?”

“Yes, but he’s gone and I don’t know how long his expedition will take,” Rashan said, with a sigh. “Papa, can’t you make the decision?”

Jihan wished he could, but he knew Kastan’s fears when it came to allowing an eleven-year-old to train with a masterful death dealer like Firuz.

This decision would never be his to make.

“Shan, why don’t we listen to your Pa,” Jihan said, taking Rashan’s hand when the boy’s shoulders slumped in disappointment. “I promise to support you when your Pa comes back. We’ll discuss everything your Pa is worried about and figure it out. Until then, why don’t you focus on your studies with Master Safan?”

“But I want to start learning from Master Firuz,” Rashan said, shaking his head, his gaze on Firuz. “Don’t you want to train me, Master Firuz?”

“I am not your master, young one,” Firuz said, interrupting Rashan. “But, if you were my student, the first thing I would expect of you is to respect your parents. They always want the best for you.”

Rashan stared at Firuz, and then swallowed hard.

“But—?” Rashan started.

“Little Prince, do you think your Papa is someone who would disregard your Pa’s feelings?” Firuz asked.

Rashan’s eyes widened, and he looked to Jihan.

Jihan smiled, and Rashan’s shoulders slumped again.

“No, he wouldn’t,” Rashan said.

“What about you?” Firuz asked. “Do you care what your Pa thinks?”

“I do,” Rashan said. “That’s why I want to help him by becoming strong. I want to be able to protect our home and Papa.”

“We also want you to be strong,” Jihan said, squeezing Rashan’s hand. “Do you believe in that truth?”

Rashan nodded after a period of mutinous silence.

“Then, why don’t you give your Pa time to finish what he has to do out there,” Jihan said. “When he comes back to us, he will talk to Firuz. If they agree, you’ll get your chance to greet Firuz as your teacher.”

Rashan glanced at Firuz.

“Are you willing to consider being my master, when my Pa talks with you?”

Firuz met Jihan’s gaze and Jihan shrugged, leaving the decision to Firuz.

Firuz stared into the flames he was stoking, then met Rashan’s gaze.

“I’m willing to consider it,” Firuz answered.

“Yes!” Rashan said, grinning wide. “Great! I’ll keep waiting for Pa to return and hope you’ll say yes to his request.”

Jihan couldn’t help feeling touched by Rashan’s enthusiasm. His gaze slid to Firuz in time to see him smile, a small curve of his lips that he hid by focusing on the fire in the fireplace.

Firuz seemed to like children. He was kind to Rashan, and always did his best to protect the boy. Maybe, this arrangement would be good for him. It might get Firuz to consider settling down too.

Firuz met his gaze as though reading his thoughts.

Rashan moved away from the table, going to talk to Andiya, so Firuz slid into the chair next to Jihan.

“I can see the wheels turning in your head,” Firuz said, making Jihan widen his eyes with drama.

“How fast are they turning?” Jihan asked.

“Speeding,” Firuz said, making a face. “I’m not father material, Jihan. I’m not you, who nurtures families, keeps them together, making them warm where they were cold.”

“Here I thought your people didn’t know what poetry was,” Jihan said, shaking his head.

“All I’m saying is don’t plan on getting rid of me by marrying me off,” Firuz said, sitting back and folding his arms against his chest. “We’re tied for life, Jihan of Kamran. I’ll follow you until you die, many years from now.”

“I haven’t even said anything,” Jihan said, glaring at his Shadow Guard.

“Do you know why your husband wants to talk to me before he allows Rashan to train with me?” Firuz asked, keeping his voice down, drawing Jihan’s gaze.

“Why?” Jihan asked.

“The first lesson I learned from my masters was what death feels like,” Firuz said, extending his left arm to Jihan. He pulled back his sleeve and Jihan stared at the dark intricate tattoo with vines tangled in his name on Firuz’s wrist.

Firuz took Jihan’s index finger and pressed it on the vital vein on his wrist. The tattoo swirled and his name shimmered as usual, but this time Jihan felt a hard line, a long scar healed back after a cut. He looked up to meet Firuz’s dark gaze.

“One must feel death to understand it,” Firuz murmured. “It’s the price we all pay to train in the Quadrum at Levan among Bast’s chosen. Innocence is stripped away, and all that remains is the stark truth of life and death. Our lessons are harsh and brutal; they need to be for us to succeed.”

Jihan wrapped his fingers around Firuz’s left wrist.

“How old were you?” Jihan asked.

“Six years, maybe less,” Firuz said, shaking his head. “I only remember the cold that followed and the taste of the elixirs they poured down my throat to bring me back. I’m not fit to train a bright child like Rashan, not without guidance. Alone, I might break him. This is why your husband wants to talk to me.”

Jihan squeezed Firuz’s wrist, his touch gentle.

“I trust you with my life,” Jihan said, holding Firuz’s gaze. “Your skills saved us days ago, Firuz. I’ve never thought you’ll break Rashan.”

“I’m gentle with him because you are,” Firuz said.

“I have no reason to worry then,” Jihan said, pulling Firuz’s sleeve over his wrist.

“Why?” Firuz asked, dropping his hand on his lap.

“You said you’re gentle with him because I am,” Jihan said. “I plan on loving Rashan even more until I die, so I’m sure you’ll treat him very well.”

Firuz stared at him in surprise, and then burst out laughing, his laughter drawing Andiya and Rashan’s attention.

Jihan found he quite liked Firuz’s laugh.

“You’ll do fine, Firuz,” Jihan said, sure that Rashan would have quite a master in Firuz.

Andiya and Rashan were busy at the dining table, whispering to each other, as Yasmin arranged bowls of food for Rashan’s mid-day meal. Jihan hadn’t known that watching his sister talking and laughing with Rashan was something he needed to see to feel content.

Now, if Kastan could make it back home in one piece.

It was strange to be home without him.

*~*~*~*

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Wow, I did start posting this story on here in 2019, but I think it was 2018 when I started writing it.  The length of it has taken a lot, a lot, and as it's coming to an end, I'm eager to reach the end too.  Jihan and Kas have kidnapped me for two whole years.  I kinda feel like its Stockholm Syndrome at this point. Hahaha, I'm looking forward to the last chapter, which I will post when I get it edited. 2021 has turned into the magical year that I get to write the word 'end' for this project.
If you're reading this story for the first time, this is the moment you discover I can get long-winded on author notes. 😁 And quite soppy, possibly unhinged (i.e. Stockholm-syndrome part) and I also dedicate songs.  Still, Yay! You're all superstars for sticking with me and reading this story and commenting.  I love you all for that, Thank YOU.  This One Ok Rock fan can only dedicate a song to all of you for sticking with me through this hardcore project. Renegades
 
:wub: Sui.
Suilan Lee, 2019-2021
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Stories posted in this category are works of fiction. Names, places, characters, events, and incidents are created by the authors' imaginations or are used fictitiously. Any resemblances to actual persons (living or dead), organizations, companies, events, or locales are entirely coincidental.
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. 
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Chapter Comments

On 4/20/2021 at 1:57 AM, IBEX said:

No, no, no....this can't all end with one single chapter!

-There's Baiza and the butcher for one

- Lord Ravi needs to secretly be moved to the capital to be shown to the Emperor without Rushi getting wind...

-The whole conspiracy needs to be laid bare!

_ Jihan needs to become established, accepted and loved in Silver Valley

- The Empire needs re-arranging after the execution of Rushi , Ravi and the rest like Baiza and the butcher....

....then, and only then, we can think of ending this book!

 

Please take your time finishing this! To wrap it all up in one single chapter would be rushed...

I've got you.🤗🤗

I've also really enjoyed writing for these two, so I will work hard to end it right. Promise. There's also little snippets from cut scenes all over my notebooks. I will polish them and post. 😉

On 4/19/2021 at 7:22 PM, Theo Wahls said:

Sui land

I am so using this now. Love it!

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On 4/19/2021 at 2:15 AM, Geemeedee said:

Ok, I’m back after reading. There’s only one post left? Damn, you got a lot to wrap up ...

I’m going to miss these characters. I’ve read every chapter two, sometimes three or four, times. 
 

Not gonna lie. I was hoping Andiya would backhand Nisa one good time across the face. That chick needs to be taken out of the equation. Shoulda left when she had the chance. 
 

“She looked fragile enough to be mistaken for a damsel in distress, if she kept her mouth shut.” I cackled. 

I too hoped Andiya backhanding Nisa ! 😝 the more i read, the more i want to kill Nisa 🙈

Raven and Hidden Keepers are very interesting characters ❤️ : they should deserve a spin off  😁 potential of lot of short stories 😉

There is only one thing that doesn't match with the story imo : hundreds of soldiers look a little bit too small for Kastan's army, thousands of soldiers would be better 😜

awesome chapter (probably one of the best of this story) 👍

Edited by Danilo Syrtis
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On 7/7/2021 at 9:29 PM, Danilo Syrtis said:

I too hoped Andiya backhanding Nisa ! 😝 the more i read, the more i want to kill Nisa 🙈

Raven and Hidden Keepers are very interesting characters ❤️ : they should deserve a spin off  😁 potential of lot of short stories 😉

There is only one thing that doesn't match with the story imo : hundreds of soldiers look a little bit too small for Kastan's army, thousands of soldiers would be better 😜

awesome chapter (probably one of the best of this story) 👍

 

Edited by tigg615
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Quote: "In minutes, Raven found himself naked in the largest bathing pool he ever saw. Hot water filled to his neck, soap dumped on his hair, Raven closed his eyes and endured a hard scrubbing from a disgruntled Yasmin."

I wondered how Raven felt about being treated like "Royalty?" Jihan got the same sort of treatment on the day of his wedding dance.

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