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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 - 25. Chapter 25

Yeorim Wonju’s Bravery

Two letters lay on Kiyan’s great desk. One from his brother and another from his most trusted aide: Kastan and Rael.

Kastan claimed he wanted to return the Empire to peacetime. He was marching his army through the Iron Lands to the Capital City Akan for the ceremony. The Peacetime Ceremony wasn’t grand. Kastan simply handed over the war tally and received a peace tally from Kiyan. Kiyan would then thank Kastan for defending the Empire and ask Kastan to help keep the peace. Attached to this letter were compiled reports of a growing number of refugees arriving in the Capital City Akan and even at Silver Shore Valley. The refugees claimed their lives were in danger in the Iron Lands.

Kiyan looked forward to Kastan’s peace tally ceremony, but the refugee reports made him wary. He was sure there was something he did not know about the Iron Lands. Rael was supposed to be his eyes and ears, but instead…Kiyan’s gaze shifted to the document next to Kastan’s reports.

Rael’s letter made Kiyan pause.

Rael claimed Kastan was marching his army through the Iron Lands raising a revolt. It further claimed that Lord Revi had tried to stop Kastan. Kastan’s response to Lord Revi’s attempts for peace was to arrest him. Lord Revi, Kiyan scoffed. This courtier gave him a headache. He could be both useful and dangerous in one move.

Kiyan worried because he wished Rael letter was better worded. Rael’s report stated that Kastan was fighting Iron Land men to take over the fiefdom.

This news, Kiyan sighed. It was unfortunate. Rael’s position and the nature of the letter meant that the imperial palace needed to act according to imperial law. Too many eyes had read Rael’s letter to ignore it or hide the letter and trust that Kastan was telling the truth.

“I do not believe my brother would mount a revolt,” Kiyan said, pacing around his large desk.

His gaze settled on the older man sitting in an armchair opposite the emperor’s empty chair. Lord Bowden was a man who knew every part of the Imperial Family and the empire. There was nothing to hide with him. This was also the reason why Kiyan had chosen to meet with Bowden over this matter. Kiyan considered the older man a father. He trusted that Bowden would see what he was missing.

“Kastan is not a man who wants more power,” Bowden agreed with a nod.

Bowden had watched them grow and helped plan their marriages, their very lives, with Kaveh Miran. His age allowed him to call Kastan by name.

“This looks like a plot against Kastan,” Bowden said in conclusion.

“I believe the same. Kastan is also aware of this plot. Which is why he would send me a letter announcing his intentions,” Kiyan noted. “He must know the culprit behind his consort’s attack. His march through the Iron Lands would have been made after careful consideration.”

“We can also think of that march as a husband protecting his consort and son,” Bowden said with a chuckle. “It’s an age old right. Not even an Emperor has the power to interfere with the right to protect family.”

“I would not dare,” Kiyan said, with a shrug, still walking around the large desk.

Bowden reached for Rael’s letter, reading it again.

“Lord Revi must have made a move against Silver Shore Valley. Still, a revolt is not the only thing reported in this letter, Your Imperial Majesty.”

“What else?” Kiyan asked.

“A reported revolt demands that the Commander of Armies must appear in this Imperial Palace to explain the circumstances of his actions,” Bowden said, quoting the exact law Kiyan worried about. “He should appear in court two days from when this letter arrived. If Commander of Armies cannot reach or attend court, his heir, Silver Shore Marquis must present himself on behalf of his father.”

Kiyan stopped pacing to watch Bowden.

“Rashan,” Kiyan murmured. “That boy would need to stay in this Imperial Palace until Kastan proves his innocence and clears all matters.”

Bowden nodded, making Kiyan sigh.

“Kastan will need clear evidence,” Bowden said. “I don’t doubt that he will get it. The challenge will be presenting it in the Imperial Court. The best timing is in those two days as your order will insist. Any later and his son will already be confined in this palace, and the courtiers eager to descend on Silver Shore Valley. It would take a lot of lobbying to get that horde back in court to listen to the evidence Kastan will bring. The damage would already be done.”

“Rushi must be involved in this scheme,” Kiyan concluded, pulling up his sleeve to check on the fig tree.

A disappointed pang went through him when he saw that the roots on the tree were no longer a beautiful gold. The roots were now soot black, and Kastan’s branch had leaves falling, again.

“She wants to be able to control Rashan,” Kiyan said. “This was her goal.”

“What can be done?” Bowden asked, dropping Rael’s letter on the desk. “The law cannot be broken. Silver Shore Marquis must appear at court in two days. I doubt Kastan can extricate himself from whatever mess he’s found in the Iron Lands in that short a time. If none of them appear at court, the Minister of Defense must start seeking an order to suspend Commander of Armies and that will be dangerous. Rashan will be arrested, and Silver Shore Valley excommunicated.”

Kiyan shivered, his thoughts lingering on Jihan. The merchant’s current condition bothered him. Would Kastan truly leave Jihan if he was on his deathbed? Kiyan frowned. His brother could have made up Jihan’s condition to keep threats away. Kiyan sighed.

“The merchant remains at Silver Shore Valley,” Kiyan said. “He is Kastan’s beloved. He can protect Silver Shore Marquis.”

“Do you believe that?” Bowden asked.

Kiyan traced a thumb over the soot black roots on his arm. He remembered words his father had often said about his position.

In order not to be considered a tyrant, the law ties the Emperor’s hands. In the face of the law, even a dragon can be helpless.

The events following Rael’s letter were out of his control. He could only uphold the law. The best he could do for Rashan is hope that the merchant had enough courage to make a stand. Now, since he believed in Kastan, he knew that Kastan would not have left a man he seemed to care a great deal about on his deathbed. There was no way. So, he would hope that the merchant cared for Rashan, enough to act.

Kiyan moved around the great desk to his chair and sat. He reached for a new sheet of paper and picked up his pen to write the expected order.

Commander of Armies is accused of a revolt against the Imperial Crown. He and/or his issue, Prince Rashan Miran, must appear at court to clear this matter as per Imperial Law. The imperial court shall expect his presence two days after receiving this order. Failure to appear will be an agreement that the accusation of revolt stands. The Imperial Court must then send the investigative bureau to Silver Shore Valley in preparation for an intensive inquiry. All serving the Imperial Prince Kastan Miran shall be considered liable.

Kiyan paused, thinking about Jihan Kamran and the fire he had seen in his brown eyes the day they faced off over a deal. He smiled and added a note for the merchant at the bottom.

Kiyan picked up the seal of his office, dipped it in red ink and stamped the letter. He rolled the order and sealed it with red wax, pressing the ring on his left hand on the wax. He then handed the letter to Bowden with a frown.

“Rashan’s response to this order is the only way to deal with the phoenix,” Kiyan said. “I need proof to do anything with her.”

“Don’t forget that to stand in the Imperial Court, Prince Rashan must have the support of half of your courtiers. You know what happens if Prince Rashan stands alone and gets no votes,” Bowden asked. “The Empress will have won, and Kastan will be at a disadvantage with his son confined.”

Kiyan sat back in his chair.

“I’ve been to the Imperial Tower. Bast was confident the little prince would walk out of the imperial court. I’ll choose to believe in the ancients and hope their advice rings true,” Kiyan said.

Bowden got up.

“Then, Your Imperial Majesty, I’ll send this order to Silver Shore Valley myself and hope you’re right,” Bowden said.

Kiyan nodded and watched Bowden leave.

Kiyan let out a worried sigh and hoped the merchant was strong enough to stand up to the Imperial Court this time. Otherwise, his family would break beyond recognition.

*~*~*~*

It took an evening and a full day to bring the Iron Lands under his full control. An evening which Rael explained his findings on Lord Revi’s activities.

Lord Revi had been paying off mercenaries for months. Increasing the numbers in the Iron Lands in order to make an impact, he chose to target prominent homes because they harbored large numbers of people.

Rael also took the time to explain the consequences of the alarming letter Lord Revi forced him to send to the Imperial Palace.

Kastan had underestimated Lord Revi’s plan. The thought of Rashan summoned to the palace made him ill. If he did not appear in time, Rashan would be forced to stay at the palace, and greedy courtiers hoping to find evidence against him would ravage Silver Shore Valley. Jihan would be in danger, again.

It was clear now that Kastan needed to finish cleaning up the Iron Lands and rush to the Imperial Palace.

Kastan had General Kigaru, General Niku and Naveed working nonstop. The three Generals had taken over policing, hunting down the mercenary remnants still roaming the streets, settlements, farms, estates and the main city.

Lord Revi was still held in custody. The only person allowed to approach him was Naveed. Naveed reported that Lord Revi kept laughing with glee and eating his meals without worry.

Kastan refused to let that idiot’s attitude unnerve him. As long as Jihan kept Rashan at Silver Shore Valley, Kastan would make it to the Capital in time, and force his Emperor Brother to see the truth. All would be fine and he could go home quickly.

He missed Jihan.

Kastan had chosen to make the Governor’s Manor his base as it was the easiest place to coordinate with the local residents. The Governor’s Manor was not large, but it was comfortable enough to accommodate Kastan and his three Generals for a short duration.

Kastan washed his hands in a large bowl of water and took the clean towel next to the bowl to wipe them. His gaze slid to the man still lying still on a cot in the quiet living area at the Governor’s Manor. The healer had insisted on not moving Swallow, so they had carried him on the cot into the closest room from the front door.

Dropping the towel on the table, Kastan moved closer to the cot, walking around it to lean on the windowsill. Outside, a troop of soldiers marched across the front of the manor, heading in from a shift in the main town. They would report in their progress to Naveed or Niku.

His stomach growled, and he folded his arms against his chest in anticipation of a meal. It was lucky the women working in the governor’s kitchen had returned. Kastan could only hope supplies for a good meal were available.

Kastan returned his gaze to the unconscious man on the cot.

Swallow, he thought, Jihan’s ex-lover: a man who loved Jihan, and one who still held Jihan’s trust.

He scowled because Swallow’s features held that elegant stamp of a refined scholar. Swallow wasn’t beautiful just…

If Swallow stood next to Jihan, they would look perfect. Swallow was far removed from Kastan’s rough habits of sword wielding, war mongering and sweating in training. He looked like a man who would know to ask Jihan what he thought about the current play running at the Eagle’s Claw, instead of a rundown of the empire’s current defenses.

How different Kastan was from Swallow.

So different, Kastan wondered what Jihan had seen in Swallow. For a moment, he tried to imagine it, but then he squashed those thoughts afraid it would ruin the balance he and Jihan had found.

“Why are we waiting for him?” Niku asked, drawing his gaze to the door.

She walked into the quiet room and perched on a stool the healer had placed by Swallow’s cot. She studied the unconscious man with a frown.

“Commander, I’m concerned. Lord Revi’s false report through Rael will have reached the Imperial Palace. We’ve had to stay here to get the Iron Lands under control. Generals Naveed and Kigaru have worked overtime and we’ve managed to quell most insurgents. However, we are still losing time. Now that Governor Tian seems to have some of the functions of his government working, we should leave. Who knows what the court officials will do with news of a revolt by Duke Silver.”

“We have time to wait for Swallow,” Kastan said, looking around the large room.

It was filled with long couches, armchairs, and low tables arranged in a manner that encouraged conversation. The large room looked like a space Governor Tian’s family used in the evenings, or for gatherings.

Kastan hadn’t met the governor to ask how his family was doing yet. He was too involved in getting control of the city and capturing as many mercenaries as they could.

“With your Consort assumed on his death bed,” Niku said, reminding Kastan of the consequences of Rael’s report to the palace. “Court Officials will seek answers from Prince Rashan. His Imperial Majesty must respond by the law to keep the Empire’s peace.”

“I’m aware of our time constraints, Niku. I know it’s urgent we get on the road, but Swallow mentioned Jihan before he passed out,” Kastan said, crossing his legs, as he relaxed against the windowsill. “He seemed sure that Jihan was still in danger. It is better to know now that we’re here, so that we don’t regret not knowing later.”

All threats needed to be eliminated if he was going to face Andiya again. He wanted to be able to tell her that Jihan was safe without doubt.

Kastan smiled at the thought and caught Niku’s curious gaze.

“What?” he asked, clearing his throat.

“What is it like to be married?” Niku asked, surprising Kastan.

“Why would you ask me that question?” Kastan asked.

Niku flashed him a shy smile and got up from the stool. She stretched her arms above her head and adjusted the double swords at her back. Her armor was clean, and the skirts of her black robes neat, she must have taken a moment to freshen up. Her hair was in a tight knot on her head, secured with two sharp daggers slipped into a thick gold clip.

“You and His Grace look happy,” Niku said, shifting from side to side, her tone nervous. “He makes you smile often, more often than you did before you met him. It makes me wonder if marriage is the same for everyone.”

“I don’t know that it’s the same for everyone,” Kastan said, thinking about his life with Rashan's mother, Jian.

Jian made him feel obligation, taught him responsibility and he had struggled to learn how to be dependable for her and their small family.

With Jihan, he felt different, complete. Jihan was always on his mind. Jihan was someone he could go home to, be vulnerable and it would be okay. Because he knew Jihan was strong enough to face the troubles he faced, the same way Jihan knew Kastan was strong enough to face Kamran struggles.

“I can only tell you that I know who Jihan is to me,” Kastan said.

“Who is he to you?” Niku asked, looking at him, her gaze sincere as she pushed for an answer.

Kastan wondered if she had found someone worth making a promise to, and wondered what it took to win Niku’s heart. She wouldn’t allow him to ask, so he gave her the answer he had needed when he was wedding Jihan.

“Jihan is someone who understands my world,” Kastan said. “The only one to know what my world is like and to accept it without condition or reservation.”

Niku stared at him for a full minute, and then she nodded.

“How lucky you are,” she said, her gaze solemn. Niku took in a deep breath, and then nodded to herself. “I came in to report that Governor Tian wants to talk to you. I’ll also bring along the healer to check on this man. I hope he wakes up soon so that we can make plans to head to the palace.”

“Ask Rael to come in too,” Kastan said.

“Yes, Commander,” Niku said with a salute and left the room as fast as she entered.

Alone, Kastan’s gaze returned to Swallow to find the other man watching him.

“You’re awake,” Kastan said.

“I didn’t want to intrude,” Swallow said, his voice rough with sleep. He cleared his throat and shifted on the cot, checking his legs and arms to make sure they were uninjured. “Your General wanted an answer to an important question.”

Kastan smiled and dropped his hands to his side, straightening up to his full height.

“How do you feel?” he asked.

“Better,” Swallow said, shifting again before he sat up slow, his right hand going up to his head. “I feel like a boulder fell on my head.”

“You have a bump on the back of your head,” Kastan offered.

“Oh,” Swallow sunk his fingers into his hair, and winced after a moment. “I remember now. They hit me with something hard when they invaded my home. I didn’t come to until I was in this Governor’s Manor. I was shocked to discover Lord Revi here. Is Governor Tian even alive?”

“He is. What did Lord Revi want from you?” Kastan asked.

“Alternative trade routes,” Swallow said, with a sigh. “Messages came through our network that Lord Revi’s Master Merchant had attacked the Kamran trade station at Silver Shore. The network’s response is to refuse to work with Meen Kau and all his traders. Lord Revi wanted to know if I knew other ways to transport his merchandise. I wasn’t cooperative, so he had his men hit me again, and everything’s been groggy since.”

“What did you mean by Jihan was in danger?” Kastan asked.

“Oh, yes,” Swallow said, dropping his hand to his lap. “There was a letter from someone living in Silver Shore Valley to Lord Revi. It was on the desk in the Governor’s main office. Lord Revi was using the office earlier. It said if the Duke Consort made it back to Silver Shore Valley, then not to worry. It read, ‘I’ll make sure to finish him at the manor.”

“Was there a name?” Kastan asked, his stomach filling with dread.

Swallow shook his head, closing his eyes.

Kastan hoped he was trying to remember.

“I didn’t see the name signed, there were too many documents on the desk, then they hit me,” Swallow said, shaking his head, as he opened his eyes. “I’m sorry. I wish I had gotten more.”

Kastan sighed, and wondered what was best. Head back to Silver Shore Valley, or ride to the Capital and send a message to Temu.

Jihan’s life was in clear danger at Silver Shore Valley, but who would dare?

“Is Jihan okay?” Swallow asked, his voice low, worried. “What happened? I left him in Vasia with Prince Rashan and everything was okay. They are saying he’s injured and in his bed at death’s door.”

“He’s well, the rumors are to protect him,” Kastan said, distracted. “They were attacked on the way home to Sun-filled Manor. Ghost warriors came after them. Jihan sent Rashan ahead and did his best to distract the ghost warriors so that Rashan could get to me.”

“Seems like something he would do,” Swallow said, with a small nod. “Did you get to him in time?”

“I did,” Kastan said, grateful that Firuz remained next to Jihan. He still couldn’t get over the sight of Jihan falling over a cliff. He sat up some nights when that image filled his dreams and it was real, Jihan lost to him.

“Thank you for being on his side,” Swallow said. “I’m glad he has you now.”

“Andiya said the same thing,” Kastan said, glad to hear that Swallow’s attachment to Jihan sounded like that of a caring brother. That knowledge relieved the tension inside him.

“She and I have the same worries. Keep him safe,” Swallow said, holding Kastan’s gaze without fear, just a profound sincerity. “Jihan is important to a lot of people. He doesn’t know it, but that’s the beauty of him.”

Kastan smiled at Swallow’s request.

Strange that a man he had thought of a rival would end up being one who understood him most.

“He’ll stay safe,” Kastan promised.

Swallow must have believed what he read in Kastan’s eyes, because he nodded and shifted to ease an ache. A knock on the door admitted Niku, Governor Tian and Rael. The healer followed them in, hurrying to Swallow’s side.

Kastan moved away from the cot to allow Swallow privacy as the healer checked on him.

“Governor Tian,” Kastan said in greeting to the older man who reminded him of Bowden.

Tian looked older than Kaveh Miran, his long hair long gone silver to the tips. His green eyes were still keen as they took in Kastan. Tian looked tired, as though he had gone through a trial and a half, and still couldn’t believe it was over.

It was too bad for him because the trial continued, Kastan mused. Tian had lived through a mutiny in his own stronghold and would have to report it to an Emperor.

“How are you feeling?” Kastan asked, as Tian sunk into an armchair.

Kastan waited for Tian to settle before he chose the armchair opposite. Niku and Rael sat on the one long couch together. Kastan was surprised when Rael gave Niku’s left knee a squeeze, and she shifted closer to him. Her expression pleased even as she tried to show she was not close to Rael.

Kastan hid his smile, rubbing his fingers over his nose to cover his mouth.

“I’ve been better,” Tian said in answer to Kastan’s question. “I’m sorry for the mess the Iron Lands have become. Lord Revi blindsided me. I didn’t expect that he would be so swift and brutal. I found myself locked in the cellars before I could really investigate what was going on with the mercenaries.”

“Governor Tian, will you come to the Imperial Court and give your testimony?” Kastan asked. “Are you willing to be a witness against Lord Revi?”

“How will Imperial Prince protect this old man and his family?” Tian asked. “We both know how powerful Lord Revi has become among the courtiers. There are over six hundreds of them and about half believe in Lord Revi. He might make it out of an inquiry at the Imperial Court. What happens to us when you’re not here? Lord Revi’s influence in our fief is not small—”

“Prince Kastan is determined to also stand as a witness in the Imperial Court,” Niku cut Tian off. “This matter is not easy for him either. His family is also in danger, and might need to face the Imperial Court too. Governor Tian, if you’re unable to find courage to face up to a man who locked you up in a cellar, perhaps we should return you to your confinement?”

“You have no idea what it’s like to have a man like Lord Revi have so much financial power over this fief,” Tian continued. “Entire villages rely on his business network to survive. How are we to handle his Master Merchant while we stand against Lord Revi?”

“I’m looking for this Master Merchant too,” Kastan said, with a deep frown. “Generals Kigaru and Naveed have orders to capture Meen Kau on sight. He dared to send mercenaries into my territory and threaten my son. You’re not alone in wanting this Master Merchant to pay.”

“What will you do about Meen Kau and Lord Revi?” Tian asked, meeting Kastan’s gaze, insisting on a clear answer.

“I will make sure Lord Revi and his Master Merchant pay for their injustices against the people of this fiefdom,” Kastan said. “My efforts will only work if you’re willing to stand with me, Governor Tian. Otherwise, I’m just a rebel attacking your people with no legal cause.”

“This trouble started with you,” Tian said, turning to Rael. “You came to me and asked me to look into how Lord Revi is making his money. I put a friend on the inquiry, but that placed us in a disadvantage. Lord Revi got nervous and three weeks ago he came in here and detained me in my own manor.”

“I’m sorry,” Rael said, turning to Tian. “Your investigation helps the Commander’s case, Lord Tian.”

“I certainly hope it does,” Tian said, looking at Kastan. “I’m willing to stand with you, as long as we’re able to live in peace when it is over. I would like the Iron Lands to have peace. I would like us to have our freedoms again. Most importantly, I don’t Lord Revi controlling our markets ever again.”

Kastan gave him an assuring nod.

“Then we’re in agreement,” Kastan said, looking to Rael. “How long do I have before Imperial Palace demands the appearance of my son at court?”

“Not long,” Rael said getting up from his chair.

Rael dropped to his right knee and brought his right hand to his chest.

“Rael apologizes for the inconveniences my report will cause. It was not my intention to place the Little Prince in a difficult position.”

“The action is already done,” Kastan said. “Get up Rael; you have to help me think on how we can stop a massive imperial inquest into Silver Shore Valley. My consort overreacts when he thinks people he loves are in danger. We need to find a way all these people to the Capital. I would like to keep the peace in my valley too.”

“Yes, Commander,” Rael said, getting up.

“We should leave as soon as we can,” Niku said. “I’ll go help Naveed and Kigaru plan for departure.”

“One general must remain to complete the work we’ve started,” Kastan said. “General Kigaru can stay, supporting General Condi who will deal with the rogue soldiers coming from Giode Kingdom. General Moran will guard the Iron Land and Silver Kingdom borders.”

“I’ll send out the orders, Commander,” Niku said, getting up to leave the room.

She was at the door when three women carried trays of food into the room. Niku gave the food a longing gaze, but she didn’t pause, instead hurried out to fulfill her task. Kastan watched the women lay out the food on the short table before him.

“One of you should follow the General Niku,” Kastan said to the closest woman. “Prepare her a plate and make sure she eats.”

The youngest of the three nodded and hurried out, Kastan hoped Niku would get some food.

“Rael, explain the protocols that will unfold once Kiyan receives your report,” Kastan insisted, needing to know how much time he had to maneuver.

“His Imperial Majesty will have received my letter of notice of a revolt,” Rael said, his tone solemn. “Lord Bowden will insist he follow the law. His Imperial Majesty will then write an order and send it to Silver Shore Valley. It will demand you or the Little Prince should appear in the Imperial Court to clarify the Commander of Armies’ intentions. Silver Shore Marquis will have two days to comply after receipt of the order.”

Kastan got up. He had burned a night and a full day here. The imperial order would be arriving at Silver Shore Valley, so his response would depend on how fast he left the Iron Lands. If he left in the next hour, he might arrive at the court on time.

Still, Silver Shore Valley remained an issue. Kaveh would insist on a quick response on the order, and Jihan would take his cues from Kaveh.

“Your Grace,” Swallow called from the cot where he was resting.

Kastan turned to him.

“You can send a message to Jihan if you need to,” Swallow said. “There are carrier birds in my home that know to find Set and Garren.”

“Thank you,” Kastan said in relief. He would ask Jihan and Kaveh not to react and wait for him. “I’ll draft a message. Please make sure it goes out as soon as possible. How are you feeling?”

“I can be on the move,” Swallow said, shifting his feet to the side of the cot. He started to get up with the help of the healer.

“Don’t push yourself,” Kastan said, and then smiled as he said his next words. “Jihan won’t forgive me if you’re hurt.”

Swallow sat back on the cot and stared at him in surprise.

Kastan grinned at Swallow’s wide gaze, and waved him over to the chairs at the table.

“Rael, help Swallow closer. We’ll eat and then get ready to send a message to Silver Shore Valley and ride to the capital after,” Kastan said. “Everything will be fine.”

*~*~*~*~*

At the same time, Jihan finished reading the last page of the book he was reading for Rashan, and placed it on the bedside table. He shifted on the bed to his right side to find Rashan sleeping. They were in Rashan’s chambers.

Jihan had come in to hear about Rashan’s progress with Master Bero. Rashan was struggling with mathematics. Jihan had ended up staying through Rashan’s going-to-bed routine to encourage him not to give up on Master Bero’s lessons.

When Rashan was settled in bed, he asked Jihan to read for him. Jihan was more than glad to sit on the bed next to Rashan and read him to sleep.

Now, the little prince was deep asleep, his dark hair fanned out on the pillow, his lips parted and breathing deep without a care in the world. Rashan looked so much younger in his sleep. Lost in a world of dreams and adventures, Jihan found himself hoping they were good ones, fun dreams.

Jihan pulled up the heavy blanket to Rashan’s chin, resting his palm on Rashan’s chest. He patted Rashan in a rhythmic gentle motion, thinking about what Rashan would look like at sixteen. He really wanted to see it.

Would Rashan have gotten used to training with Firuz? Would he have someone he liked? Would Kastan allow it?

Jihan smiled at the thought of Kastan meeting Rashan’s beloved. Would Kas be fierce and scare them? Or sweet and try to make this person comfortable?

He chuckled quietly at the thought.

Jihan was lost in dreams when a soft cough brought him back to the present.

Jihan sat up, careful not to wake Rashan. He turned to find Firuz standing a few feet away. Firuz motioned him out and headed to the door first. Jihan got off the bed as slowly as he could. Rashan slept on, so Jihan turned off the lamp on the bedside table and hurried out. In the hallway, he was glad to find Firuz waiting near the master’s chamber.

“Raven is waiting,” Firuz said, when Jihan reached him. “He says we need to ride into town. It would be good if you changed.”

Jihan hurried to the dressing room, and changed into one of the dark tunics he wore when he was at Kamran Estate. It felt good to wear it, and he wondered if he should just abandon Master Rabo’s unaccommodating outfits.

“You don’t have to wear what they bring here,” Firuz pointed out, as though reading Jihan’s thoughts. “Just because you live at Sun-filled Manor doesn’t mean the clothes you wore at Kamran are any less worthy.”

Jihan grinned.

“Are you speaking up for my neglected wardrobe? Or is it because Andiya has been asking about it?”

“Simply pointing out that you’ve been dressing up as what you think is wanted here at Sun-filled Manor. That’s why we had such a hard time running in the forest that day,” Firuz said. “You’ve always been practical with your clothes. Andiya spent a lot of time creating a good cut to allow you to run around to your heart’s content. These long robes are a departure from you, Master Jihan. I say, after all that you’ve endured, you’ve earned the right to live as you please.”

Jihan touched the clothes he had brought from Kamran Estate. Andiya had spent a lot of time curating his wardrobe. He had stopped wearing these clothes when he found the rack full of robes from Rabo’s workshop.

“I’ll wear these from now on,” Jihan said. “I do miss them and you’re right, Firuz. Let’s have Yasmin fold the clothes from Master Rabo and give them away to someone who needs them.”

“I’ll make sure it gets done,” Firuz said with a quick grin.

Jihan took the red token from the belts from Master Rabo, and tied the red token to the wide leather belt he now wore. He ended up with two tokens hanging from his waist, one from Kastan, the other from Kamran. He let out a soft contented sigh, gave a nod and left the dressing room happy.

On the way downstairs, Firuz handed him the black conical hat he used for travel, and he pulled it on with a wide grin. It felt like being back to old times.

Outside, it was to find Raven waiting with three black horses.

“Your Grace,” Raven said in greeting. “I apologize for coming to you so late in the night. It felt most convenient to do it this way. The plot I have uncovered requires discretion. I have five of the Hidden Keepers coming along with us. They will be waiting for us at our destination.”

“Where is our destination?” Jihan asked, taking the reins of the horse he used to ride around the valley.

“Ferino’s homestead,” Raven said, his voice low.

Jihan nodded his agreement and mounted his horse. He was grateful that the moon was out this night, its bright light filling the sky.

They left the red gate, with Firuz showing the guards the black token he used to move in and out of the manor gates. Kastan had given it to him in case he wanted to move with discretion. The black token allowed Firuz to come in and out of the gates unhindered.

They moment they rode out of the black gates at the bottom of the manor, Raven urged his horse into a faster pace. Jihan and Firuz matched him. Jihan’s heart pounding in his chest at the possibilities this night would uncover.

The Welfare Office healed would mean that they had plugged a financial leak. It would boost Kastan’s funds at the manor, he could get more staff to help Yasmin and maybe he could do some renovating. The anticipation that bloomed with that thought made him grin.

Thirty minutes later, Raven slowed down on the dirt road they were using. They had left the main town and taken back roads leading to the villages. It was early evening, around eight o’clock. The few people they passed were in a hurry to get home, often wary of their thundering horses.

Raven turned his horse into a cluster of trees and Jihan followed while Firuz took their rear. A few more minutes of careful riding through the trees and they came to a stop.

Raven blew a soft whistle, and waited.

Jihan clutched his reins tight, his gaze searching their surroundings. He sucked in air when shadows emerged from behind the trees, five in total.

“Your Grace,” Raven said, his tone quiet. “These are my subordinates. They’ll help us with our inquiry. Don’t be afraid.”

Jihan did not move.

Firuz dismounted his horse, and moved to stand on Jihan’s right.

Raven got down too, and moved closer to the five shadows standing a few feet away.

“What are you doing?” Raven asked. “Show your respects to His Grace.”

Jihan felt relief fill him when all five dropped down to their right knee and bowed their heads in greeting. It was excessive, but he was glad they were on his side.

“It’s good to meet all of you too,” Jihan said, still remaining on his horse. He would stay mounted until Firuz gave the okay to get down.

“Your Grace,” Raven said, turning to face him. “We must continue the rest of the way on foot. We are now heading to Ferino’s home. We have evidence proving that he has been visiting Lady Baiza’s home. There’s also proof that his family was staying with her. We found markings in the store at Bottom-Cliff Estate. They were a tally of days, and a bloody cloth with a note asking for help signed by Ferino’s wife. It was tucked into a hole in the corner. The rest has to be cleared by Ferino.”

“And the names on the Welfare Office ledgers?” Jihan asked.

“They match a list we found hidden in the butchery,” Raven said, producing a book and holding it up. He held the book out to Firuz, and waited.

Firuz took the black book, shook it out, and then handed it to Jihan.

Firuz waited another beat of time, before he touched Jihan’s right leg.

Jihan rolled the ledger, tucked it into the small of his back, and dismounted.

“Your horses will be fine,” Raven said, pointing to the shortest of the five. “Our youngest will watch over them and alert us of any incoming trouble.”

Jihan nodded, looking to Firuz who pulled him to his left side.

Jihan walked in the middle of a loose circle made by Raven’s four men. Firuz was behind him, his stance enough to make the others wary. They gave him a wide berth.

Raven then led them through the bushy forested area, until they emerged at the back of a small homestead with a farmhouse, and a vegetable garden. The back of the farmhouse had a cowshed, and the cow was already sleeping in its quarters.

The farmhouse had a window at the back and there was a light there. Jihan assumed this was the kitchen due to its close proximity to the vegetable garden and the pump pulling water from a well.

They stopped near a large fig tree that looked very old. Raven’s men hurried to Raven’s side, and Jihan noticed they now held daggers and long blades.

“Will you wait here?” Raven asked, glancing at Firuz.

“No, we’ll follow and assist, as needed,” Firuz said.

Raven nodded and turned to give orders to his four men. Their approach was silent.

Jihan was impressed as he walked behind Firuz, trying to keep as silent as he could. Firuz guided him to lean on the wall of the farmhouse, as Raven and his four men entered the house.

A startled shout filled the night, followed by a scream from a woman, and then there was silence.

“Come in,” Raven said a moment later, his voice calm as though inviting them for tea in his own house.

Jihan bit back a chuckle and gained a scowl from Firuz.

“What? They are efficient,” Jihan said, thoroughly impressed.

Firuz agreed with a swift nod and led the way into the warm house.

Jihan had guessed right. The room they entered was a kitchen. The fire was still on in the hearth warming up the room. He rubbed his hands together and moved to the fireplace putting out his hands to the fire. He smiled when his cold hands warmed up and turned around to see the occupants of the room watching him in shock.

An older woman sat in a rocking chair, Raven’s man held a blade to her neck, though he wasn’t pressing it against her skin. She looked unmoved by the presence of a Hidden Keeper with a dagger threatening her.

To Jihan’s right was a younger woman, she was older than him but not by much. If he were to guess, she would be about thirty. She sat on a low stool, mung bean sprouts in a bowl in front of her. She was shaking, her eyes closed even as the Hidden Keeper next to her remained stoic. Jihan guessed she was Ferino’s wife.

Beside her, sitting on the wood floor was a young girl with tears in her eyes. The Hidden Keeper standing over her had his arms folded against his chest. His stance enough to tell Jihan that he would move fast if need came. The young girl scowled when she looked at Jihan, and he sighed because he was now a villain in her life.

Jihan turned to his left.

The man of the hour knelt on the floor with help from Raven and the last Hidden Keeper. Ferino struggled against their hold, doing his best to get away. Any harder and he would turn the fight gory.

Jihan glanced at Firuz who nodded in understanding.

Jihan stayed close to the hearth, watching Firuz move to where Raven held Ferino down.

Firuz reached for the red rope tied around Ferino’s waist, knotted on the side to hold his tunic. Firuz undid the rope and leaned in to whisper in Ferino’s ear.

Ferino stilled, glancing at his frightened daughter. He stopped struggling and Firuz walked around, tying Ferino’s hands at his back. Raven and his man let go, though they stayed standing close.

Firuz gave Jihan an assuring nod.

“Raven, ask your men to stop frightening the child,” Jihan said, keeping his tone friendly.

Raved waved his hand and the daggers disappeared.

“What’s your daughter’s name?” Jihan asked Ferino’s wife.

Ferino’s wife gave him a wary glance and Jihan tried for a smile. She kept her mouth shut in response.

“She’s crying, my lady. I just want to reassure her,” Jihan said.

“It’s difficult to assure her when strange people are in our house this late at night,” the woman said, her voice shaking.

“Semi,” the grandmother provided a minute later, drawing Jihan’s attention.

He grinned at her because she was watching him with warmth in her eyes and a smile.

“It’s not pretty but it’s a good name,” the grandmother said.

“You gave it to her,” Jihan said.

“It’s what I should do as the older generation,” the older woman said with a wink.

“It’s a good name,” Jihan said. “I like it.”

He turned to the young girl who was now sniffling; her eyes red, her cheeks stained with tear tracks.

“Semi,” Jihan said, waiting until she looked at him.

Her dark eyes wide, brimming with tears again.

“Semi, why don’t you move closer to your Grand Ma? She looks comfortable in her rocking chair. There’s a blanket on the stool next to her. You can use it so that you’re not shivering so much.”

Semi stared at him for a moment, and then she got up and hurried to her grandmother’s side. The older woman took the spare blanket from the stool and placed it around Semi’s shoulders. She urged Semi to sit and held the girl’s right hand in hers, calming her.

Jihan gave Semi’s mother a nod before he turned to Ferino.

He stared at the large burly man on his knees, his arms tied behind his back. The dark expression on Ferino’s harsh face left Jihan feeling annoyed.

Why was he so angry when Jihan was the one with a right to be upset?

Jihan scoffed and looked around the room. To his left was an old straight back chair. He dragged it closer to the hearth and sat facing the little family.

“Grand Ma, I apologize for invading your home this late. I’ll introduce myself. My name is—”

“Your Grace, there’s no need for introduction,” the older woman said, making Ferino’s wife gasp. “I recognized you the moment I saw you. I happened to see the painting made of you for your marriage dance. You are more handsome in person.”

Jihan was glad introductions did not have to continue. He turned his attention to Ferino, who was now glaring at Jihan.

“Your eyes really make me angry, Ferino. I don’t understand why you’re so angry with me. How dare you place my son in danger?” Jihan asked, anger burning through him, he felt like he might spit fire at the memory of Rashan facing ghost warriors. “I can’t believe you let him experience something so brutal.”

“Your Grace,” Firuz murmured.

Jihan took in a deep breath dragging his gaze away from Ferino. When he was in control, he turned to Raven.

“Master Raven, proceed,” Jihan ordered.

“Yes, Your Grace,” Raven said, pulling out a book from the hidden pocket in his leather overcoat.

Jihan wondered how spacious this pocket was; it had so many books coming out of it. Maybe he should talk to Raven’s tailor about a new wardrobe.

“I’m Raven of the Hidden Keepers,” Raven started, Ferino’s wife gasping as though to punctuate Raven’s introduction.

Jihan had discovered that most souls living at Silver Shore Valley wanted to stay on the good side of the Hidden Keepers.

“Ferino Wonju, you stand accused of embezzling imperial funds from the welfare office. His Grace has in possession your private ledger from the butchery. The names listed in your ledger match the false names submitted to the Welfare Office by you and your accomplice. There is no need to refute these facts.”

Ferino’s wife fell off the stool she was using, and knelt, gaping at her husband. She clutched her skirts, her fingers bunching the fabric.

“You’re mistaken,” Ferino started to say. “The ledger—”

“Don’t bother. I have a comprehensive account of the money that has flowed into your butchery from the Welfare Office. Better yet, a very thorough investigation by the Hidden Keepers of the people you claim to have paid that money. The families you have fabricated,” Jihan said. “As Raven says, your part in the embezzlement case is not a question, but a fact. All I want to know is why and who is your accomplice. You’ve placed your family in danger, Ferino.”

“My family has been in danger before,” Ferino said, his tone dismissive. “They survived.”

“Yes, but not this kind of danger,” Jihan said with a soft laugh. “You seem to have forgotten that I sit here as Duke’s Consort. I’ve never swindled an Emperor, and he terrified me when I met him. I can’t imagine what he’ll do to you for what you’ve done here. Not to mention that before you reach an Emperor, you’ll first meet a Black Tiger. I promise you, my husband is no kitten.”

Ferino straightened up, at the same time his wife crawled closer to Jihan.

She touched Jihan’s right leg and Jihan gave her his attention.

“Madam Wonju,” Jihan said. “Why are you reaching out to me?”

“Please give us a way to survive,” she said, her eyes pleading. “My daughter and mother in-law have nothing to do this. They don’t know anything. We have endured the worst—”

“Yes,” Jihan said, wanting to know what it is she’d been doing at Bottom-cliff Estate. “Tell me, endured the worst where? Why?”

“Yeorim!” Ferino shouted at his wife.

“What will you do?” Yeorim asked, glaring at her husband. “You have no idea what it’s like to be without freedom. How it was to watch Ma whipped because she was protecting Semi. You have no clue!”

Yeorim burst into a sob, and she looked away from Ferino, pressing her palms to her face.

“Who whipped your Ma?” Jihan asked, leaning in to look into Yeorim’s tear-filled eyes when she dropped her hands to look at him. “I can only help you if I know. Tell me, Yeorim. Who dared take away your freedom?”

“Lady Nisa Baiza,” the Grandmother said, when Yeorim bit her lip to keep from talking.

Jihan stilled, caught between excitement and anticipation.

Nisa was now in his grasp but it had to be right. He narrowed his gaze.

“Thank you for giving me such a heavy name. You should know she’s someone you can’t approach with a simple accusation,” Jihan said, his smile quick. “Undeniable proof is the only way I can help your family.”

Jihan sat back in his chair when Yeorim and her mother in-law went quiet. Disappointment filled him when he glanced at Ferino and found the idiot grinning in triumph. Without proof, getting Lady Baiza was a dream. She would plead innocent and get away with it. This needed thought.

Jihan started to get up, but Yeorim grabbed his right calf again.

He sat and turned to her, his brow raised in expectation.

“I-I h-have proof,” Yeorim said.

Her trembling voice was enough for Jihan to know that it was not easy evidence.

“Yeorim, I swear to the gods,” Ferino started.

Raven slapped Ferino to silence him.

Jihan winced because Semi hid her face in her grandmother’s lap with a scared scream.

“Ferino, your wife is doing her best to save her family,” Jihan said. “I’d keep my mouth shut if I were you.”

“They don’t know why I did it,” Ferino said. “They have no right to talk for me or to talk about Lady Baiza. They never stayed with Lady Baiza, and have no idea who they are accusing.”

Yeorim gaped, staring at her husband.

“Ma can barely move without pain and you dare claim we never saw the inside of Bottom-cliff Estate?” Yeorim asked, her voice shaking with grief.

“You’ve gone mad, Yeorim. Stop talking nonsense,” Ferino said, looking away from her.

She scoffed and wiped a hand down her face.

“If that’s how you feel, then I have no choice but to protect Semi myself,” Yeorim said, her voice stronger this time.

Yeorim reached for the ribbon ties of her dress, tugging them open.

Jihan blinked wondering what she was doing in front of so many men. He started to tell her to stop, but she slid the worn fabric down her left shoulder, and turned away to show him her left shoulder blade.

Jihan stood in shock at the sight of the ugly raw brand burned into her smooth skin.

A round mark with the name ‘Baiza’ carved in the middle. Cruelty so clear on smooth skin, he couldn’t believe that it had happened in a place that he dared call his domain. A place he was starting to think of as home. The sight of the brand made his skin crawl, the pain she must have endured to get it…ah, Jihan shook his head.

"I got this brand when I fought Lady Baiza. She was not giving us food and my mother in-law was getting too ill to move. She made me kneel in her courtyard for hours because I would not beg," Yeorim said. "But, our luck had ran out. Mother in-law got too sick that day and I ended up begging after five hours of kneeling."

"Lady Baiza brought the brand and food. I could only get the food if I agreed to be branded. There was no fair choice," Yeroim said, tears in her eyes. "I had to protect mother in-law, so I agreed to the brand. She laughed and told me I should have just begged from the start."

Bile rose, Jihan closed his eyes and breathed in. For a full minute he was afraid he was going to throw up. Firuz gripped his left arm, keeping him steady. He swallowed hard and only opened his eyes when he was sure his stomach was in control.

“She is in her own house,” Firuz murmured. “No longer enslaved. She uses this scar to gain freedom for her family from Duke Silver. It’s no longer a mark of suppression but of strength, Jihan. Depending on what you do with it.”

Jihan agreed with a quick nod, even though his stomach still turned at the sight of the brand burned on Yeorim. He worked to make sure anyone working under him never knew the pain of a brand, ever. Kamran had no emblems, symbols or markers of any kind. They were not required on products, his workers, merchants, or on anything related to his family.

“Yeorim,” Jihan said, keeping his tone gentle, light. “Cover your scar. I thank you for showing it to me. You are very brave.”

As Yeorim pulled tied the ribbons on her dress, Jihan wondered how many people Lady Baiza had branded in this Silver Shore Valley.

“Raven, the Hidden Keepers should find who else wears a similar mark,” Jihan said, feeling exhausted by what Raven would uncover. “Take custody of Ferino. Transport him to Sun-filled Manor. Ferino remains an officer in Duke Silver’s army. The General’s Council should manage his case. Yeorim, I’ll take you with me. Grandma, are you able to stay with Semi? Do you have someone we should call?”

“We’ll be fine,” the older woman promised. “Do you promise to return Yeorim to us? Semi needs her mother.”

“Yeorim is a witness, I’ll protect her,” Jihan said. “I’ll make sure Lord General Temu brings her home.

“Thank you,” Semi’s grandmother said, tears in her eyes.

“I’ll leave two men to stay with them,” Raven said, and Jihan nodded in relief.

Jihan bent down and held Yeorim’s left arm. He helped her up to her feet.

“What happens next depends on how brave you’re going to be, Yeorim Wonju,” Jihan told her. “Facing the elite class of this valley will take everything you have.”

Yeorim swallowed hard, giving her daughter and mother in-law a glance.

“I’m willing to protect my family,” Yeorim told Jihan, when she turned to him.

“Traitor,” Ferino cursed at her.

“We’ll see who that word belongs to before the night is over,” Jihan said.

*~*~*~*

Jihan rode back to Sun-filled Manor in a cloud of thought and plot. Lady Nisa Baiza was truly a blight in this valley. Now that he had evidence showing Nisa’s cruelty, he was determined to stop her.

Yeorim might be the only who had dared show him her brand, but he was sure there were many who hid the Baiza brand on their skin. There was nothing more cruel than branding people. Marking them with a name meant turning them into slaves, making them lesser than human, objects to be owned.

Jihan cursed under his breath.

How did Ferino sleep with his family in so much suffering?

They arrived at Sun-filled Manor, and Jihan brought his horse to a stop. He paused in the act of dismounting at the unusual number of attendants filling the front gardens. The manor was brightly lit, and the front doors were open wide.

“Do we have guests?” Jihan asked, jumping off his horse. He handed the reins of his horse to the boy who came running to his side.

“Yes, Your Grace,” the boy said, with a quick nod for Jihan. “His Majesty and three Generals are waiting for you. They asked the officers who live within the manor’s zones to attend a meeting. They have been looking for you.”

“Thank you,” Jihan said with a frown.

It was very late for a meeting. He had hoped to wake only Temu to take charge of Yeorim’s evidence and the resulting formal inquiry and arrests.

Jihan jogged up the steps and stopped when Temu hurried to the front door.

“Where have you been?” Temu hissed in greeting. “How could you leave without saying a word to me? I thought something happened to you.”

Jihan started to reply, but Temu took his right elbow, a deep frown on his forehead.

“What are you wearing?” Temu asked, his eyes taking in Jihan from head to toe. “What happened to your clothes? Why is Firuz holding Ferino’s wife? Why do you have a Hidden Keepers carriage following you to the red gate?”

Jihan chuckled and shook his head.

“Lord Temu, you’ve asked half a dozen questions. Do I get to answer them before you pile on more?”

Temu gave a frustrated sigh and let go of Jihan’s arm. He took a step back and wiped his hands down his face. When he looked at Jihan again, he let out a sigh of relief.

“I’m sorry, Your Grace,” Temu said. “I worried something happened to you. I left you watching Rashan sleep. When I checked in, you were gone.”

“Raven brought news. We needed to move fast, so I followed him out. I didn’t mean to worry you,” Jihan said, entering the front hall and pausing when he heard the murmur of voices in the formal greeting room. “Why are all these people here?”

“There’s a situation,” Temu said, then glanced at Firuz. “Next time, leave a message as to your whereabouts. You’re not the only one taking care of His Grace now. Everyone in this manor will be in trouble if something happens to him and we have no knowledge. Do you understand, Master Firuz?”

“Lord Temu,” Jihan started to protest.

“Understood, Lord Temu,” Firuz said, surprising Jihan.

“Good,” Lord Temu said, with a satisfied nod. “Your Grace, there’s a message from the Imperial Court.”

Jihan frowned as Temu opened the door to the small room they used for guests who were not staying. Jihan followed Temu into the small sitting room and paused when he saw Kaveh Miran, Safan and General Faiza waiting.

Firuz urged Yeorim to stand outside the room and entered the small room, closing the door.

“What’s going on?” Jihan asked, meeting Kaveh’s solemn gaze.

“I’m sure Temu has told you a message came from the Imperial Court. Kastan is not here, so you’ll have to take on Duke Silver’s role as his consort,” Kaveh said. “Misfortunes do come in threes. First your attack, then Rashan’s at the trade station, and now Kastan is in danger.”

A painful pang of fear went through Jihan’s heart. It grew stronger, more acute at the grim expression on Kaveh’s face. Was Kastan hurt? Had he fallen fighting Lord Revi in the Iron Lands?

No, Jihan breathed in, Kastan was the strongest man he knew. There was no way—

Kaveh held out a scroll with the familiar imperial seal. The red seal was broken, but Jihan hardly cared. Messages from the capital often went straight to Kaveh because he was in charge of the army while Kastan was away. For them to require Duke Silver, Jihan unrolled the scroll.

To Silver Shore

Commander of Armies is accused of a revolt against the Imperial Crown. He and/or his issue, Prince Rashan Miran, must appear at court to clear this matter as per Imperial Law. The imperial court shall expect his presence two days after receiving this order. Failure to appear will be an agreement that the accusation of revolt stands. The Imperial Court must then send the investigative bureau to Silver Shore Valley in preparation for an intensive inquiry. All serving the Imperial Prince Kastan Miran shall be considered liable.

 

Merchant, show me you can stand against a Dragon. Let me know how strong your Black Tiger has gotten since he chose you. Do you dare?

Kiyan Miran

Jihan gasped and sat on the low table in the middle of the room. Kastan accused of a revolt. He reread the order again, trying to absorb the words ‘accused of a revolt’. His heart dropped as the message under the order registered.

Kiyan had singled him out. This note was for him. Kiyan knew how fast Jihan had wilted facing him last time. Then, he had hoped to save Andiya’s life, hoping to bargain with an Emperor, only to fail so thoroughly, he still shook at the thought of facing Kiyan Miran.

‘Show me you can stand against a Dragon.’

Was he strong enough? Jihan took in another deep breath.

If the accusation was proven true, the entire valley would face the Emperor, its people deemed treasonous. Kastan, Rashan and him would face death for daring to revolt…all the dark possibilities played through Jihan’s mind in vivid color. Each one ended with his family dead, executed.

“Jihan?” Firuz touched his left arm, and he handed his Shadow Guard the order, staring at the floor in a daze.

Could this moment be considered a calamity?

Jihan scoffed and looked at the four men who looked to him with expectation. Kaveh, a father and an emperor, Temu and Faiza, seasoned generals, and Safan protector of an heir who had faced it all at this point. By all honesties, he had no right to stand among them. He was a simple merchant. What could he do in the face of revolts and an angry emperor?

“Jihan,” Kaveh said his name, his tone low, quiet as though afraid talking louder might scare Jihan. “We need to plan our next action.”

“I can’t think,” Jihan said. “My head’s blank. I—”

Jihan rubbed his right brow. He closed his eyes and took in a deep breath, letting it out slow. Revolt, accused of a revolt

“Does the Emperor mean he needs proof there is no revolt?” Jihan asked, opening his eyes to look at Kaveh. “He says accused.”

“Yes,” Kaveh nodded.

“All right, we can work with that,” Jihan said, breathing out again, nodding his head, the fear reducing somewhat. “We can work with that. Um…Rashan does not need to show up. I’ll go—”

“Rashan is Silver Shore Marquis,” Safan said. “He is named in that order, and must attend court.”

Must,” Jihan repeated, feeling as though the imperial class made up rules to make him sound stupid. “Why? He’s my ward. I can protect him if I want.”

“The Emperor knows this, and that’s why he named Silver Shore Marquis in the order,” Kaveh said. “Failure to attend the summons will mean the valley is guilty.”

Jihan rubbed his face again and closed his eyes.

Rashan, who he had left sleeping after reading him a book about legends and dragons, was expected to stand in an Imperial Court to declare his father was not mounting a revolt. The child who hugged him with hope in his eyes dragged to the capital over an accusation. If he failed to appear, he would face death.

Was Kiyan sane?

Jihan frowned taking the imperial order from Firuz. He unrolled it and read it again.

Rashan.

This sounded familiar. Rashan had turned into a powerful chess piece. He was Kastan’s heir, the next Commander of Armies, the waiting leader of Silver Shore Valley. The General’s Council was loyal to Rashan Miran. Someone wanting to take over the army would need Rashan.

Jihan got up, remembering Kastan’s warning on their wedding night.

Rushi is attempting to push me out of command. She’s a thorn on my side.

Rushi.

Jihan stopped.

“What happens when Rashan appears at court?” Jihan asked.

Kaveh sank into an armchair in the corner, turning his attention to Faiza.

“The Imperial Court is like a market place,” Faiza said with a scoff. “The one with the best story sells. Duke Silver’s presence helps because he suppresses rumors just by showing up. If he is not able, which I’m guessing he won’t make it in time, Rashan will face a pack of rabid wolves.”

“Who do you suspect is doing the accusing?” Jihan asked.

“Lord Revi,” Temu said, “Who else? He’s the only one with enough power to accuse an Imperial Prince of a revolt. The Imperial Court has over six hundred officials. He has a little over half of them in his pocket, or under his influence. If Rashan shows up alone, Revi will have those bastards vote against him before he even has a chance to speak.”

“What happens if they insist on the inquiry into Silver Shore?” Jihan asked.

“Rashan is young,” Kaveh said. “He is only eleven. Our family exempts him from his father’s sins and he shall be under the care of the Emperor. He will have to live in the palace until he reaches majority and takes over his post.”

Jihan scoffed.

“You mean under Rushi’s care.”

Kaveh studied him for a moment, and then nodded.

“Yes. She’s the empire’s mother.”

“I’ll die before that happens,” Safan stated.

“Rashan needs you alive,” Jihan snapped, glaring at Safan. “You do what needs to be done to keep him safe, even if it means living under Rushi. Dying is not part of it. Do you understand?”

Safan gaped, and then bowed his head.

“Yes, Your Grace,” Safan said.

Jihan stared at the order he held.

So, was he always going to fight an Emperor no matter how he tried to avoid it?

Kas,’ he thought. ‘I don’t know how to be a duke, but I’ll try for you and Rashan. I’ll even fight that impossible Dragon in the capital.’

Crushing the order in his fist, Jihan started pacing.

Kaveh was right about three misfortunes: Jihan’s attack in the wild forests, Rashan at the trade station and now Kastan in the Iron Lands. Each one following the other, each one connected. Designed to lead Rashan to the Imperial Court where Lord Revi would use the courtiers to hand Rashan to Rushi.

“How many officials do we need to vote in our favor?” Jihan asked.

“Almost four hundred,” Kaveh said. “I can help win maybe fifty. I haven’t been to the Capital in so long. My main contact is Lord Bowden but he insists on a neutral stand. I also live in Silver Shore Valley. My vote is always tied to Kastan.”

“Who else can we lobby for support?” Faiza asked. “It has to be someone with enough power to pull in hundreds of others.”

“There are about ten such officials,” Kaveh said. “Lord Revi being the most powerful. Second to him is Lord Ranka who is quite ambiguous, his choices depend on what he wins in a vote. Lord Bowden who chooses neutral paths, the other six often move between Revi and Ranka’s opinions.”

“There is one remaining,” Faiza said, thoughtful. “Lord Niven, the earl sent to the capital with the Blood Nation Prince’s authority.”

Safan chuckled and Kaveh sighed in defeat.

“If we’re hinging our hopes on Zure Niven, we should help the executionerr sharpen his blade,” Temu said.

Safan laughed and Jihan stared at them.

“What’s wrong with Niven?” Jihan asked.

“He’s a drunkard who spends most of his days lost in drink and fun,” Kaveh provided. “He’s never made any major contribution to the court, unless you count his continued support of Gura Wine.”

Jihan appreciated anyone who continued to support Gura Wine. The Zure Niven he knew was a lot different from what they were describing. He did not say it aloud among these noble men. Instead, an idea filled him.

“Before we worry about the court, there is a matter we need to deal with,” Jihan said, thoughtful. “No matter how I look at it, an insider has helped these attacks on the valley.”

“You’re about to say Ferino is involved,” Temu said, shaking his head. “Why can’t you give him a break? I worried when I saw his wife—”

“I promised you proof,” Jihan said, cutting in. “Absolute proof that there is rot deep in this valley and we cannot win until we deal with it first. Lord Temu, what do you promise to do if I lay out proof of Ferino’s betrayal?”

Temu’s fingers curled into tight fists and he glanced at Kaveh Miran.

Jihan did not miss the subtle nod of approval from the former Emperor. Only then did Temu swallow his anger and answer.

“I’m obligated to ensure justice is served, and the case brought to the General Council for trial,” Temu said.

“I will take that as your word,” Jihan said. “Firuz, bring in Ferino’s wife.”

He folded his arms against his chest as his Shadow Guard went to the door. A moment later, Yeorim entered the small room, her gaze wary when she saw Temu’s mutinous expression.

“Yeorim,” Jihan said. “I have a question for you before you show these gentlemen your scar. Are you willing to answer?”

“Yes, Your Grace,” Yeorim said.

“When were you released to return home?” Jihan asked, needing to build a timeline.

“We got home the day after your attack,” Yeorim said. “The morning the announcement that you were injured and dying was made.”

Nisa must have thought he was no longer a threat. Ferino had done his job, so his family could now return to him.

Temu tensed, and Jihan nodded to Yeorim.

She turned away from the room, and a moment later, she tugged down the fabric over her left shoulder blade. Jihan could not look at the brand on her skin again, so he turned away, moving to the small window to look out into the busy courtyard.

Behind him, he heard Temu’s gasp.

Safan, Faiza and Kaveh hurried to Yeorim’s side to see the brand.

“What is this?” Kaveh asked. “Since when did the Baiza name become one to be branded on skin?”

“Damn it,” Faiza cursed under his breath. “Silver Shore Valley has become a haven for slavers.”

“Your Grace?” Temu asked, needing more.

“She should tell you,” Jihan said. “It is her story. Yeorim, repeat what you told me about how you got that scar on your back.”

As Yeorim told her story, Jihan thought about Rushi and Nisa.

Suddenly, it was so clear how Ferino would have been involved with the Burning Feather. Rushi and Nisa worked together to get rid of him. If they had managed to kill him, then Rashan would be in this valley alone, while Kastan was in the Iron Lands facing off with Lord Revi.

Rashan would then end up in the Imperial Palace, under Rushi’s thumb, after receiving the imperial order Jihan held. Rushi would then have the only bloodline capable of commanding the Silver Shore armies under her control. She would not make it easy for Rashan to leave the palace.

“Jihan,” Kaveh said, and Jihan turned to his left to find his father in-law standing next to him.

“There’s no time,” Jihan said. “We can’t be late. Not even a second.”

“I agree,” Kaveh said, smiling at Jihan. “I’m relieved you’re not scared and can see this situation for the plot it is. Timing is key. You’ll need to be flawless with your plan. Should we get to work?”

Jihan nodded and turned to find Temu still staring at the brand on Yeorim’s shoulder blade.

“Lord General,” Jihan said, drawing Temu’s attention. “Yeorim is scared. This has been a hard night for her. We should let her rest for a bit.”

Temu stared at him for a full moment, and then he nodded and tapped Yeorim’s right shoulder. She flinched, but she pulled up the fabric of her dress.

“Firuz, please take Yeorim to Yasmin,” Jihan said. “Let her get tea and a spot to rest while we manage her husband’s case. I’ll wait for you here.”

Firuz nodded and ushered Yeorim out of the small meeting room.

Jihan then asked Temu, “Why is the formal greeting room full of people?”

“Any threat to the valley must be announced by the Duke of Silver Shore Valley in a council meeting that includes the valley’s officials,” Temu said. “The council includes officers in charge of troops, the Magistrate, the head of the Hidden Keepers, his main officers, the Superintendent of the Welfare Office and the seven women in charge of village communities.”

“This meeting should be officiated by the General’s Council,” Faiza added. “We have the votes of five Generals out of the seven: Lord General Temu and myself. His Majesty stands in for Lord General Condi in his absence. Your Grace is Duke of Silver Shore, and Lord Safan is standing in for Silver Shore Marquis’s interests.”

“Sounds perfect enough to manage all our problems,” Jihan said. “Then we should get started.”

“We haven’t decided on the Court Official to lobby in the capital,” Safan reminded him.

“This matter can be discussed after the valley is informed and in consent,” Kaveh said. “Jihan is right, the faster we can all agree on what to do with Ferino, Lady Baiza, and the order from the palace the better. Jihan, these next few days will be hard on you.”

“Kastan’s plan to keep my condition a secret will fail after this,” Jihan said with a sigh.

“It’s for the best,” Kaveh assured him. “Besides, the officers in the greeting room will try their best to curb the news. If we ask them to keep it quiet, they will. If we don’t mention it, they won’t either. They are quite loyal to Kastan.”

Jihan smiled and nodded, hoping for the best.

Minutes later, Firuz returned and Temu led the way into the formal greeting room.

Jihan followed General Faiza and Safan. Kaveh chose to walk beside Jihan with Firuz bringing up the rear.

As they entered the large greeting room, Jihan realized he had never entered this place, too busy running around in the farms and the trade station. He did know that Kastan met guests on important matters here.

The large hall boasted a large dais at the furthest side. Jihan imagined the room morphed into the occasion’s needs. Tonight, there were a hundred chairs facing each other. They made an aisle leading to the dais.

Fifty chairs in each row, Jihan thought, after making a quick count.

All these chairs filled with officers dressed in their daily uniform, many of whom Jihan recognized from meeting them around the manor and even in town. They watched him with wide eyes as he walked down the wide aisle. Murmurs of speculation rising the closer he got to the dais. He understood the murmurs. He was supposed to be too injured to walk on his own power.

Jihan took in the five chairs arranged at the dais: two medium sized chairs on each side of a massive chair with a snarling tiger crest carved on the top rail. The massive chair made him want to break out in hives. It was as large as what being Duke of Silver Shore signified.

Jihan took in a deep breath as they reached the dais.

Temu and Safan hurried up the three steps on to the dais and took up the two seats to the left of the large monster in the middle. Faiza chose the furthest chair to the right.

“Your Grace,” Kaveh said, his voice carrying in the room, surprising Jihan, as he couldn’t remember that Kaveh had ever called him by his title. It sent his heart spinning.

Jihan paused at the bottom step of the dais to face Kaveh.

“Your Majesty,” Jihan said in answer, hiding an amused smile at the pomp.

“Welcome to the valley’s Council Meeting. It’s late, but we’ve managed to get everyone in here,” Kaveh said, urging Jihan up the three steps to the dais. He paused next to the empty chair to the right of the monster seat. “We have reached the intended quorum. Am I right, Magistrate Yuho?”

“The number is reached,” the reply came from a strict, no-nonsense voice. “What of the General’s Council?”

“We have the votes of five Generals out of the seven: Lord General Temu and General Faiza. I substitute Lord General Condi in his absence,” Kaveh said, turning to face Magistrate Yuho who stood at the front of the right row of chairs. “His Grace, Duke of Silver Shore is present, as well as, Lord Safan who is standing in for Silver Shore Marquis’s interests. The General’s Council is represented. Are we in agreement?”

“Yes, Your Majesty,” Magistrate Yuho said.

Kaveh took Jihan’s left arm, and indicated the large chair Kastan must use when it came to these meetings. The size alone had Jihan wishing he could run down the aisle to hide.

Biting back a sigh, he approached the massive chair and sat in it. The thing was high. It took effort to plant his feet on the ground, while sitting with his back straight, pretending to look larger than life. Firuz helped when he moved to stand at Jihan’s left side, giving him morale.

Jihan rested his palms on his knees, and faced the roomful of officers for the first time as the Duke of Silver Shore.

“The council meeting starts now,” Jihan said, repeating the words Temu had taught him. “The General Council reports news from the capital to the valley…”

*~*~*~*

Discomfort in her lower back woke Andiya from a deep sleep. Shifting on the bed, she let out a soft sigh when she bumped into Ishan, his warmth surrounding her in their bed. Shifting slowly, she lay on her right side smiling at the sight of her husband.

She was glad he had arrived at Sun-filled Manor a day ago. Ishan had been frantic when he arrived, hugging Jihan too tight when he saw him. He’d looked relieved to see Jihan well after the horrible rumors of his near death. Then Ishan had clung to Andiya refusing to let her out of his sight afterward, following her every step.

Ishan worried too much. He worried even more when the healer insisted she rest in her bed. She was glad he was finally asleep.

Ishan always looked so peaceful in his sleep. She touched his jaw, her fingers caressing the dark shadow of his beard. He was threatening to grow a full beard, but she made him promise not to until their child was four or five. She still wanted to boast about Ishan looking so young and scholarly. Smiling at the fact that Ishan indulged her silly whims, Andiya brushed a kiss on his lips and moved to sit up.

The room was dimly by a small lamp sitting on a small stool on her side of the bed.

She was arranging the covers over Ishan’s shoulders when a soft knock came and the doors to their chambers slid open. Deora slipped in to the room, tying a robe over her nightclothes.

“My Lady,” Deora said, “I’m glad you’re awake. Master Jihan is on his way here.”

“An? Why is he not asleep?” Andiya asked, trying to see out the windows, but the curtains were drawn. “What time is this?”

“Three hours before dawn,” Deora said. “Master Jihan has not slept this night. There was a large meeting in the main house. One of the attendants came to tell me that ‘His Grace’ is on the way here and to make sure you’re awake.”

Andiya smiled at the way Deora said Jihan’s title with surprise each time. She couldn’t believe her brother was a Duke either, so Deora’s reaction was understandable. It was more shocking that others now managed her brother’s affairs. There was now Lord Temu and Yasmin who knew more about Jihan’s daily life.

“What do you think could have kept him up so late?” Andiya wondered, reaching her right hand to the small of her back. She rubbed the ache there and frowned when it didn’t stop.

“How are you feeling?” Deora asked, hurrying to turn up the lamp, and a second one on a larger table a few feet away from the bed.

“Restless, but that’s the new usual,” Andiya said, keeping her voice low, glancing at Ishan to make sure he was still sleeping. “Get me a wrap, Deora.”

Deora hurried to the chests in the corner, rummaged a few minutes and returned to Andiya’s side with a large brown wool wrap. She helped Andiya wrap it around her shoulders and they were finishing when the doors opened to admit Jihan.

“Sorry for not knocking. I saw the light,” Jihan said in explanation, when he was inside. “Andiya, are you awake?”

“An,” Andiya said, thanking Deora with a light tap on her hand. “When has my sleeping ever stopped you from entering my chambers?”

“I wouldn’t just walk in. There is Ishan to consider now,” Jihan said, approaching the bed, his steps slow.

He looked wide awake and wore dark traveling robes, as though ready to leave the manor. The lamplight cast shadows on Jihan’s face, but she saw him clench his jaw, and that his shoulders were tense.

Jihan worried.

“Are you going somewhere?” she asked, shifting on the bed to ease the persistent ache at the small of her back. She rubbed her belly, her hands hidden under the wool wrap around her.

“Yes,” Jihan said, stopping at the foot of their large bed. He gripped the ornate wood railing there and leaned on it, bending his head, and taking in a deep breath.

Andiya took in Jihan’s hair held in a tight knot on top of his head. The knot secured with a heavy gold clip. The thick gold pin going through the clip had a snarling tiger carved at its end. It reminded Andiya that her brother was no longer a simple master merchant.

“What’s wrong?” Andiya asked.

Jihan let out a shaky breath.

“Kastan is accused of mounting a revolt,” Jihan said. “The Emperor demands Rashan appear in his Imperial Court in two days. Failure to that and this whole valley will be considered guilty of treason, so many families in trouble over one accusation.”

Andiya stared at her brother when he looked at her with fear in his eyes. Duke Silver was as adept as Jihan in terms of attracting big problems as opposed to normal easy problems. Treason was a heavy charge. It was an empire-sized trouble.

Andiya absorbed the fear that grew, clutching the wool wrap tight. They were no longer playing in the wild lands of Kamran Estate.

“All right, we can face this, An. What do they want of you?” Andiya asked, understanding that Jihan was leaving the valley to fix this situation. That he may sacrifice himself for the sake of Kastan and Rashan. It scared her.

“Obviously, I can’t let Rashan face this alone,” Jihan said, confirming her fears. “I’ll protect him, Andiya, from his Emperor Uncle and the Empress. If I’m arrested, you and Ishan—”

“We’re not running,” Andiya said, not about to leave him again. “We’re staying here. Kamran and Silver Shore Valley will find a way to resolve the problem together.”

Jihan studied her for a moment then let out a soft chuckle, as he straightened up, letting go of the bed rail. Ishan shifted beside Andiya, and she realized he was awake. He sat up adjusting his nightshirt as he faced Jihan.

“I suppose I shouldn’t ask you to leave,” Jihan said. “Kaveh Miran is the most powerful man I know after Kastan. It will be better for you to stay here.”

“Treason is not easy to deal with,” Ishan said, his voice rough from sleep, as he met Jihan’s gaze. “You’ll need support from the imperial court officers to prove it’s untrue. Rashan appears in court, faces the Emperor and requests a vote to provide evidence of innocence on behalf of his father. The court officials will vote to hear and/or take the evidence. They are about six hundred and forty of them. He needs about half of them or over a half. If the vote fails, Rashan stays in the palace as a detainee while they wait for Kastan to appear in court.”

“I know that the vote cannot fail,” Jihan said, starting to pace again. “You would not believe what kind of meeting I’ve had to face these past few hours. We caught Ferino, the butcher, who has been embezzling money from the Welfare Office. The evidence is clear but the loyal mindset of his fellow officers was what’s difficult to break. It took Ferino’s wife undoing her blouse to show a brand on her shoulder blade to get them to listen. When they did listen to the facts and Yeorim’s story, the blood thirst rose, and I suddenly had to calm a hundred officers wanting Ferino dead on the spot. I need Ferino to prove that Lady Baiza and the Empress Rushi worked together. Add on that Lord Revi, Lady Baiza and the Empress Rushi might be in cahoots, and I just want to run back to Kamran and sleep for a century.

Andiya and Ishan stared at Jihan who was now fully pacing from one end of their bed to the next and back, his hands at his hips.

“I don’t know how Kas does it, facing those many warriors daily,” Jihan said. “It was nerve-wrecking trying to sound authoritative to that crowd.”

“Were you scared?” Andiya asked Jihan.

“No,” Jihan shook his head, crossing his arms against his chest. “No, I was irritated. The meeting was wasting time when I could be out there trying to solve the Emperor’s order and Kastan’s revolt accusation.”

Andiya’s brow rose when Jihan looked at her from the corner of his eye. Ishan bit back a chuckle and got comfortable on the pillows he arranged behind his back.

Jihan gave an impatient sound, closed his eyes and stopped to face them, dropping his arms.

“Okay, fine, I was freaking out,” Jihan said. “You have no idea how hard it is to face a roomful of pure bred warriors. I bet they were all judging me because they can wield swords and fight while I need a Shadow Guard to help me.”

Andiya chuckled and shook her head when Jihan glared at her.

“Don’t laugh at him, this is serious, Andiya,” Ishan said. “He ran to our chambers without warning to let us know about it. Is he always like this?”

“Technically, I own this house, so this is my chamber too,” Jihan said to Ishan.

“Still feisty, that’s good, Jihan,” Ishan said, his tone matter of fact. “I’ve never known you to cower. This is not when you start.”

Jihan stared at Ishan, and then nodded in agreement.

“I have to leave by dawn. You’ll have Kaveh Miran here with you. Yasmin knows to coordinate the healers for you, Andiya,” Jihan said.

“What about you?” Andiya asked, shifting again on the bed, hoping to get comfortable.

Jihan continued pacing, this time his expression thoughtful.

Ishan helped her arrange pillows at her back, and then he straightened the covers over both their laps as they waited for Jihan.

“Ishan, what do you know about Lord Zure Niven?” Jihan asked. “The Generals believe that he’s a drunkard and can’t help with a political advantage. What do you think?”

“Lord Niven,” Ishan said, thoughtful. “He’s an earl from Blood Nation Kingdom, sent to the capital by the Blood Nation Prince. It is said that he is the only one who truly knows the reclusive prince. His family is quite old, their roots deep, Bast probably knows their founding father. Which means his family is related to the kings of Blood Nation. The history books have treated them with kindness. He supports what matters to the Blood Nation Kingdom.”

Jihan smiled.

“Always trust a scholar to know what matters. Ishan, your title—”

“Don’t talk about my title, An,” Ishan said. “I’ve long made peace with the fact that my father embarrassed our family. He betrayed my mother, and ran our Gura home to the ground. We have learned to live with it.”

“You don’t have to,” Jihan said. “Tell me, if it’s possible would you meet the Emperor? Would you like a chance to make a difference in the Imperial Court?”

“I don’t want to live in the Capital,” Ishan said. “My place is with my family at our Gura home.”

“Court officials also live outside the capital,” Jihan said. “Duke Silver is a court official. He visits the capital when needed and returns home. You can do the same.”

Ishan studied Jihan for a moment, then laughed.

“Were you always so shrewd, Jihan Kamran? No wonder I could never get close to your Kamran network, only watch from the outside,” Ishan said.

“What are you saying, Ishan?” Andiya pinched Ishan’s arm. “Answer my brother’s question.”

“Don’t you see it?” Ishan said, sitting up from his pillows. “He’s paving the way for an official of the court who can side with Duke Silver.”

“There is no fault in that,” Jihan said, shrugging his shoulders. “Ishan, your title exists but you don’t make use of it. You worry your father tarnished it, but you, scholar and my sister’s husband. I know you can make it shine again. This merchant can only promise to make you a powerful chess piece.”

“Can you do it?” Ishan asked, after a moment, this time his tone serious.

“I’ll help bring attention to your family’s title. Empower you to get a chance to hold office,” Jihan said. “The rest is up to your hard work, Lord Gura. As long as you remember never to make my sister and her children suffer, I’ll support you until my death.”

Ishan grinned.

“Do you know you threaten me each time you mention your sister?”

Jihan glanced at Andiya, who had kept her silence during this serious conversation. She smiled at her brother touched that he would think about Ishan when his own family was in trouble.

“Jihan is just protective,” Andiya said. “I also threatened his husband.”

Jihan chuckled and smiled looking at them. He dropped his hands to his sides and stepped back.

“Alright, I have to go now. Watch over the manor, make sure Lady Baiza doesn’t burn it out of anger,” Jihan said, “Andiya, take care of peanut while I’m away.”

Andiya was going to answer when something broke deep inside, releasing in a pop. Water flooded her undergarments and she had to bite her bottom lip to keep from gasping in surprise. Ishan must have felt the bed getting wet, because he started to get up, so she grabbed his right arm stopping him.

“Are you okay?” Jihan asked, frowning at her.

“I’m fine,” Andiya said, smiling at her brother. “Go, protect Shan, and the people of this valley. It’s what you do best. I love you, An.”

“I love you too,” Jihan said. “Ishan, I’ll leave her to you.”

“Safe journey,” Ishan said, with a grim nod.

Jihan gave them one last look then left their chambers with quick strides.

Andiya held Ishan’s arm with all the strength she could muster, forcing him to stay put. She did not want Jihan to stay, to have to choose whether to stay with her or go with Rashan.

“Andiya,” Ishan said, in protest.

“Don’t. Let. Him. Know,” Andiya said, between gritted teeth, as a horrible cramp that started in her back and radiated into her stomach started. “Let him leave quietly. Get Deora she’ll know what to do.”

Ishan started to get up and Andiya gripped the covers tight, breathing in deep and letting air out hoping to ease the pain. Sweat broke on her forehead and as she checked on Ishan, panic seized her.

“Wait,” she said, her voice threatening to turn into a painful moan. “Change first, your night clothes are wet. Don’t let Jihan’s staff know what’s going on until he’s left.”

Ishan cursed under his breath and rushed to the chests. He grabbed a large robe and pulled it on, securing it over his white trousers and shirt. He left their chambers in a hurry. Andiya hoped he followed her advice because the pain took over in that moment and it was all she could do to keep her moans of pain quiet.

*~*~*~*

Jihan and Firuz left Silver Shore Valley in the company of Temu, Safan, General Faiza and Rashan. They took the formal Duke’s Coach needing the ceremony of it in response to the Emperor’s order. The large coach could carry eight in comfort, the benches inside large enough to be used for sleeping.

Jihan loved that it had the Duke’s formal crest on its sides. Anyone who saw the six-horse carriage pass would know that Duke Silver’s family was heading to the capital. A troop of thirty soldiers led by General Temu guarded the carriage. They were all seasoned warriors, loyal and true. Their only order was to protect Rashan by any means necessary.

Following the Duke’s Coach was a prisoner’s convoy managed by Raven and the most elite hidden keepers in the valley. They guarded Ferino in a prisoner’s cart and Yeorim who rode in a smaller carriage.

Jihan was still disappointed that he could not make the council arrest Nisa Baiza. They had left that task to Duke Silver. Jihan took heart in that Kaveh Miran knew to be careful of Nisa and he would make sure Andiya was safe while Jihan was away.

Jihan sighed when Firuz handed him a pair of old robes. Faiza was guiding two extra horses on the side of the carriage. Firuz helped Jihan change out of his travel robes quickly.

“Papa, why are you dressing like this?” Rashan asked, looking nervous as he watched Firuz stowaway Jihan’s travel robes.

Firuz was already in faded black robes that looked like they had been patched several times.

Fara had found them their borrowed clothes.

Jihan glanced at Rashan’s nanny.

Fara sat next to Rashan, her back turned to them as she focused on watching the scenery outside the window. Jihan smiled as he pulled on a worn outer robe and took up the cloth hat that matched his old clothes.

“General Faiza, Firuz and I will enter the Capital first,” Jihan said, finishing with the plain hat he pulled on to cover his hair. He was now dressed like a hardworking farmer. He moved closer to Rashan so that they were sitting on the same bench.

“We need to talk to a few court officials before we can face your Emperor Uncle,” Jihan told Rashan, even though he was planning to seek the help of one court official and not the three Faiza wanted to find. “We need all the support we can get for when you walk into the Imperial Court. We have until tomorrow afternoon. I’m leaving Lord Temu with you. He’ll make sure you stay safe. It also helps others think that this is the only response your Pa has made to the emperor.”

“Will I arrive at the palace alone?” Rashan asked, his voice shaking. “I’ve never had to carry out a formal duty. Pa said I would in time but I thought it would be when I turned eighteen.”

Jihan glanced at Safan who gave him a subtle nod.

“Shan,” Jihan said, taking Rashan’s hands.

Rashan’s fingers felt cool so he rubbed them, hoping to add warmth.

“We’re accused of revolting against the emperor,” Jihan said.

He insisted on telling Rashan the truth and kept repeating it. Rashan needed to know what was going on at every step.

“Your Pa is occupied in the Iron Lands. He might not make it in the time the Emperor has given. So, you will face the Emperor, and I will help you do it.”

“How?” Rashan asked. “What if they put me in prison?”

“I won’t let that happen,” Jihan said.

If Jihan failed to convince a majority of court officials, Safan would take Rashan, and head back to Silver Shore Valley. Jihan would face the Emperor alone. Rushi was not getting the chance to torment his son.

“Do you trust me?” Jihan asked, looking into eyes that reminded him of Kastan. They were filled with fear right now, but there was some hope burning in their depths.

Rashan nodded.

“I trust you, Papa.”

Jihan caressed Rashan’s right cheek with his thumb.

“Be good for Master Safan and Fara. Eat food when it’s time and sleep until you get to the capital. I’ll find you before you have to enter the Palace.”

“Promise?” Rashan asked.

“I promise,” Jihan said, grinning when Rashan held out his right small finger to seal the promise.

He tangled his small finger with Rashan’s smaller one and pressed his thumb to Rashan’s thumb.

“I’ll wait for you,” Rashan said, when their seal ended.

The smile on Rashan’s face made tears sting the back of Jihan’s eyes. Jihan brushed a kiss on Rashan’s forehead and pulled him into a tight hug. Rashan bunched the back of Jihan’s tunic, and buried his face into Jihan’s chest.

Jihan held him for as long as he wanted, until the coach came to a stop. The coach driver was to make a show of checking the six horses, while Jihan, Firuz and Faiza made their escape from the convoy.

Jihan let go of Rashan and almost cried when Rashan clung to his right arm, unwilling to let go. Swallowing hard, Jihan turned to Rashan.

“Be brave, little warrior,” Jihan said. “Silver Shore Marquis is escorting a criminal to the Capital. You have a very important job to oversee. Can you do it?”

Rashan squeezed his arm and nodded.

“Yes, Your Grace.”

“I’m counting on you and look forward to seeing your work in the Capital,” Jihan said.

He patted Rashan’s shoulder and got up, forcing himself out of the carriage without looking back. Afraid if he did, he would want to stay with Rashan.

“Good luck, Papa,” Rashan called after him.

Jihan’s heart squeezed at the goodbye, and as he mounted his horse to take the more difficult and wild path to the Capital, he vowed to make Rushi pay for making Rashan worry.

*~*~*~*

“Lady Baiza has not responded to our messages,” Fortan said. “It’s difficult to know the progress of what’s going on in Silver Shore Valley. I would have liked to know if she has managed to enter the manor. The injured consort must not have long to live if Duke Silver is attacking Lord Revi in the Iron Lands.”

“We’ll have to wait and see,” Rushi said with an amused chuckle. “Lady Baiza might be keeping a low profile. After all, she’s responsible for murdering a Duke’s Consort. What about Duke Silver? My husband is expecting his appearance here at court today. Do you think he will make it?”

“Not likely, he is still in the Iron Lands. Our messengers say the Duke’s Coach was spotted on the road from Silver Shore Valley headed to the Imperial City Akan. I’m sure this is a response to his Imperial Majesty’s order. The Little Prince is coming to the Capital at last,” Fortan said with a wide smile. “Congratulations, Your Majesty. You’ll have Prince Rashan under your care very soon.”

Rushi nodded, pleased.

“Once he is here, the idea is to keep him with my sons for as long as we can. Prince Kastan will be too busy planning a funeral for his consort. It will take him time to prove his revolt untrue. I have to say Lord Revi is quite cunning. His plans for a revolt were inspired; I would have never thought of it myself.”

“Let’s hope Lord Revi remains on our side,” Fortan said, a tinge of worry in her voice. “The Imperial Court meets this afternoon. I’m hoping Lord Revi has done his due diligence in convincing his fellow colleagues. Prince Rashan must be confined in this palace starting today.”

“I believe in him,” Rushi said. “He’s managed to hit Prince Kastan where it hurts. We’re closer to taking control of Silver Shore Valley with him than alone. Let’s trust he has a plan in place. At the very least, Lord Revi asked me to stop anyone who comes in with the Prince Rashan. The boy must enter court alone. I’ve made the necessary arrangements.”

Rushi got up from where she was packing dried lemon grass herbs into small pouches. She shook out her sleeves and looked around the busy workshop.

“I look forward to quiet days. This workshop could use some peace. We’ve been too occupied with wars and trying to take over Silver Shore Valley. I’m eager for it to end.”

“Your Majesty, it will go your way,” Fortan promised. “We just need to wait a few more hours.”

“I look forward to it,” Rushi said, breathless with anticipation.

The best thing about this afternoon was that she would appear at court today. She would get to watch the events Lord Revi had helped plan unfold. Rushi smiled wide.

*~*~*~*~*

Kastan did his best to leave the Iron Lands in two days, but the progress of curbing pockets of mercenaries slowed him and his soldiers down. He reached the border into the Imperial City Akan on the second day and had to stop when a vicious group of mercenaries attacked his convoy. The fight was fast and brutal. The mercenaries did their best to reach the cart carrying Lord Revi back to the capital.

Kastan’s soldiers fought the mercenaries hard before they got close to that cart but the fight was time consuming. They lost three men and five were injured in the skirmish. The only positive moment was that Niku managed to capture two mercenaries alive.

It took precious minutes to secure them and find a cart large enough to contain the two large men.

Mounting his horse again, Kastan started the convoy but had to move to the side when he looked up and noticed Yoru circling above.

Niku continued ahead and Kastan stopped to let Yoru land on his arm.

He stilled his horse’s shifting and met the large eagle’s gaze.

“Jihan?” Kastan asked.

He is doing his best to protect the valley and Prince Rashan,’ Yoru answered, choosing to talk to Kastan in the same way he did with Jihan. He has given me a message for you. He said it was urgent that you read it, so I flew fast.

Kastan untied the note tied to Yoru’s right leg. He started to let Yoru fly off only to have the eagle linger.

Duke Silver, promise to arrive in time to protect him,’ Yoru said. I’m terribly fond of him and wish to see him enjoy his days at your manor.

“I promise to protect him, Yoru,” Kastan said. “I can’t wait to introduce him to your elders. I think Jihan will love visiting Silver Shore’s Eyrie.”

‘I’ll hold you to that promise,’ Yoru said and took off in a powerful sweep.

Kastan watched him fly off for a moment, before he unrolled the note from Jihan.

‘First, Shan is safe and healthy. Second, your worry about danger in Silver Shore must have to do with Ferino, the butcher. Temu placed him in custody and we’re taking him to the capital. I’ll tell you the details when we see each other.

Lastly, your imperial brother insists on Shan’s appearance at court. I know that’s not something you want, so I’ll handle it until you can. Don’t be upset with me because I broke the promise to keep myself hidden. I got your note and Your Pa and I disagree with your suggestion to do nothing and wait. You know I can’t stay still while trouble brews. Don’t be late.

An.’

Don’t be late,’ Kastan thought. Jihan, what are you…?

Kastan reread the note pausing at the part where Jihan was going to the Capital with Temu. Damn it, Jihan!

Kastan gripped his reins too tight, urging his horse into a run to catch up with Niku at the front of the march. He tucked Jihan’s note into his left silver vambrace wondering how he was going to deal with his short-tempered consort after this ended. For now, he needed to ride as if the devils of hell were chasing him. His consort was heading to the Capital to brew trouble.

*~*~*~*

Jihan brews trouble,
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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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(Jihan) “All I want to know is why and who is your accomplice. You’ve placed your family in danger, Ferino.”

“My family has been in danger before,” Ferino said, his tone dismissive. “They survived.”

Bitch, WHAT?! I woulda turned into the biggest snitch that ever snitched if I was his wife. What an asshole. And what did Ferino do with all the money he embezzled?

This was such an action-packed chapter! Definitely one of the story’s best. It’s all coming to a head now — both Kastan and Jihan are racing to the palace with prisoners in tow. Excited to see how it plays out. 

 

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Honestly, Yeorim did more and better than the silly Ferino ! She has lot more honor than her husband !

i almost cry when she had to show her branded mark on the shoulder 🙈

i can't wait see nisa and rushi's plot ruined 😈

another awesome chapter 👍

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As the event has unfolded, both Kastan and Jihan have done what they each needed to do to protect their family.  I agree Ferino is ignorant and prideful to the point of being evil.  His wife is a truly courageous person who deserves a better husband than Ferino.  I look forward to Jihan, Kastan and Rashan appearing in the Imperial Court to confront Kiyan and send the Empress, Lord Ravi and their allies to their deserved deaths.  Maybe in celebration, Kiyan and his sons can spend time with their family in Silver Shore Valley.  Great build up to the confrontation.  A very well written chapter.

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