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The Reluctant Consort - 28. Chapter 28

Chapter 28

Commander of Armies’ Evidence

Rashan stood on a round platform at the front of the massive court, his fingers bunching his robes on the sides. Behind him, court officials filled the hundreds of seats arranged in the large hall. He had given up trying to count the number. All he could think was that there were many courtiers helping the Emperor govern the Empire of Akasha.

One day, he was supposed to join their ranks, but right now, he felt like an ant that they were all watching too keenly.

In front of him, he had to look up to the throne dais.

The Emperor sat in a monstrous throne decorated with rolling dragons. His hands rested on dragonheads, and his gaze was not that of a smiling uncle. The man looking at him was scary. Beside him in a smaller chair was his Empress Aunt. She usually smiled at him too, but not today. Her gaze was cold, and she stared at him with a covetous energy that made him uncomfortable.

To Rashan’s right, was a very old man with white hair sitting at a medium sized desk with scrolls open before him. Five scribes moved behind him, they went in and out of a room behind the throne.

To Rashan’s left, was another old man, but this one had some black in his hair. Rashan x wondered who the man was but had no time to ask, as one of the scribes announced to the court in general. His voice, loud and clear, meant everyone heard him.

“His Highness, the Prince Rashan, Silver Shore’s Marquis appears before the court to clear Silver Shore matters. Lord Ranka will take the lead.”

The old man on Rashan’s left stood and Rashan finally had a name for him.

Be brave,’ Jihan’s voice filled his head.

Rashan took in a deep breath and squared his shoulders looking at Lord Ranka.

Lord Ranka lifted a scroll from his desk and stared at Rashan.

“Your Highness, a letter arrived from the Royal Investigative Bureau’s Rael. It reads, ‘The Iron Lands in chaos. Commander of Armies has dispatched troops into markets, settlements, private lands and farms. There are daily deadly fights and innocent citizens murdered without mercy. Lord Revi has offered to negotiate with the Commander, but His Imperial Highness chose to imprison Lord Revi. Send help, Imperial Prince has revolted.’ This is the end of the message. What is Your Highness’s response to the charge?” Lord Ranka asked.

“Commander of Armies is innocent of this charge,” Rashan said, repeating the words Master Safan had taught him to say when asked this question. “He would never harm the Empire of Akasha, only defend it. I stand here to request that this court allow Silver Shore Valley to present evidence of innocence, Your Imperial Majesty.”

“You understand that the court has to vote to listen to your evidence,” Lord Ranka said. “Are you certain you have sufficient evidence with you?”

Rashan wished he could turn back to see if the double doors had opened to admit his Papa. Letting out a quiet breath, he nodded.

“Use your words, Your Highness,” Lord Ranka prompted.

“I have the evidence,” Rashan said, hoping his uncle didn’t hear the fear in his voice.

“Your Imperial Majesty, I request that you ask the lords of this court to vote on whether to stand with Silver Shore Valley,” Lord Ranka said, turning to the throne.

“Prince Rashan, before I ask the court to vote,” the Emperor said. “I want to ask if you truly only brought Lord Safan with you. Are you alone?”

“I did not come alone,” Rashan said, his voice stronger this time. “Prince Jihan, Lord General Temu and General Faiza came with me. They are outside the imperial court doors fighting off a resistance.”

“A resistance? In this palace? You dare lie to your Emperor?” the Empress Rushi asked with a scoff, her voice cold, it sent a shiver running down Rashan’s back. “Your stepfather is rumored on his deathbed. If the generals are fighting in this palace, shouldn’t we all worry? Have you brought the revolt into the palace, Prince Rashan?”

“I would never lie to His Imperial Majesty,” Rashan said, shaking his head. “Prince Jihan is outside the imperial court doors fighting off ghost warriors stopping him from entering.”

“Liar,” the Empress Rushi accused, her voice laced with venom.

Rashan turned to his Emperor Uncle, searching for support.

“I am not lying. This is the truth,” Rashan said. “All you have to do is open the doors.”

“The Imperial Court doors are guarded by Palace Guards. They stay closed until the session ends,” Lord Ranka announced. “However, if there is trouble, the Palace Guards would have reported. No one has said anything.”

Rashan frowned at his Emperor Uncle. The only reaction he got in answer was the Emperor glancing at a woman in armor who stood by a pillar near the throne. Kiyan gave her a nod and she left the room using a side exit without a word.

The Emperor returned his attention to Rashan.

“Your Highness’s claims shall be resolved by the Royal Investigative Bureau,” the Emperor told him.

The Emperor studied him another moment and then in a resigned tone projected his voice to the court.

“The lords of this court shall now decide with a vote whether to listen to His Highness, Prince Rashan, or wait for the Commander of Armies to make an appearance,” the Emperor said.

Rashan bunched the fabric of his robes, and turned to look at the closed doors of the Imperial Court. He hoped and prayed his Papa would walk in soon.

The silence that followed the Emperor’s announcement was hard to bear.

Rashan glanced at Master Safan, and was surprised to find him glaring at the roomful of court officials.

No one spoke, no one made a vote. If none of these officials spoke, what would it mean for him?

Did they think his Pa was guilty?

“Any evidence presented by His Highness might only be speculation,” Lord Ranka stated, being the first to speak after a period of silence. “It’s hardly fair to have a boy stand for his father on such a serious matter. He is young and does not understand war and revolts. He might have left Silver Shore Valley in panic to try to ease his Emperor’s worries. I believe he is only filial.”

“Does that mean you’re voting against listening to Prince Rashan’s evidence?” the old man to Rashan’s right asked.

“Lord Bowden, why do you have to make it sound so heartless?” Lord Ranka asked. “I’m only stating that it is natural for Prince Rashan to feel that his father would not revolt against his Emperor. It’s understandable, but it’s not useful. So, yes, I’m voting against placing Prince Rashan in this impossible situation. It’s preferable for him to stay in the palace until his father arrives to provide a viable explanation.”

Safan hissed in frustration.

“His Highness just said his step-father is outside those doors, unable to come in,” Safan said, angrily. “Why won’t you open them and let the truth of his claim decide this decision? We can then see who it is that’s truly mounting a revolt.”

“This is not the time or place for you to speak, Lord Safan,” Lord Ranka said. “This court is deciding what to do with the Commander of Armies’ son. If there are other issues, they will be addressed after the vote is complete. On that note, I vote no to asking Prince Rashan to provide evidence for his father.”

Rashan bit his bottom lip hard. His heart beating too fast as he looked at the many faces looking back at him.

“I side with Lord Ranka,” a man on the left front row said, his voice quickly followed by the courtier sitting next to him.

They followed each other on the left side of the aisle, seat by seat, one by one, repeating the same words like puppets.

“I side with Lord Ranka and vote no.”

Rashan turned away from them to look at his Emperor Uncle, hurt and panic filling his chest. It amplified when he looked at the Empress Rushi to find her smiling with triumph.

“I vote no,” the words echoed in his head.

Rashan sucked in air, fear rising, his gaze fixed on Rushi who was now smiling wide at him.

Her smile scared him.

Papa, please hurry,’ he thought. I don’t want to stay in this palace without you and Pa.’

More voices rose, all siding with Lord Ranka.

Rashan tried not to bunch his robes, but fear had him clinging to them tight. His gaze shifted away from Rushi, fixating on the marble floor on the platform where he stood. He wondered if any of these officials even liked his Pa. Why would they vote against him?

Why was his Emperor Uncle doing nothing to help?

Safan stepped closer to Rashan, as though ready to defend him.

Then, a chair scraped on the floor and an amused voice spoke up.

“It’s insane how the left side of this court has chosen to be so negative. I’m eager to see what His Highness has to say. I, and three hundred and fifteen courtiers from and/or associated with Blood Nation Kingdom, stand with His Highness, Prince Rashan.”

Rashan’s gaze widened in awe and he turned to discover who had spoken up for him.

*~*~*~*~*

Kiyan hated that he agreed in part with Lord Ranka. It was true that Rashan should not be the one answering for his father’s actions. It was not his time yet. Kiyan hoped it would take Rashan a long, long time to take on the duties of his father. It would be nice to see him grow, and work to reach the rank of a Lord General in the army before he ever thought to be Commander. It was what Kastan hoped for; naturally, it was what Kiyan hoped too.

Yes, it was unfair to stand Rashan in this room.

Kiyan kept his gaze on Rashan as the courtiers voted. The left side of the room sided with Lord Ranka like sheep flocking to their shepherd. Lord Revi would be proud of winning with Lord Ranka’s support. Kiyan imagined that Lord Ranka thought he was winning the Empress’s favor by doing this.

The more the courtiers voted against standing with Rashan, the more nervous the boy grew. The poor boy was so nervous Kiyan wished he could step down from his throne and pull him into a hug. It was frustrating having to put him through this. It was worse being unable to do anything to stop it.

Kiyan suddenly realized that if it weren’t for Rushi, this matter would never have escalated this far. Kiyan would have waited for Kastan to arrive for the peacetime token and provide a report on why he had chosen to march through the Iron Lands.

Isani had yet to return from checking on Rashan’s claims.

If Jihan was outside the doors fighting off attackers, this court meeting was going to get even more dramatic than it was now.

Kiyan glanced at Rushi, hoping she had finally made that last move to stop her for good. He was tired of defending his family against her. He just needed the right weapon, the right evidence. The courtiers continued their negative votes, Rashan was starting to lose hope, frankly so was Kiyan.

Then…

The slow scrape of a chair pushed back and the most unlikely man in the empire stood. He sat at the back, in the last row on the right side of the aisle. Kiyan guessed he had been late to arrive. He was dressed in dark red robes; his silky black hair fell down his back held together with a gold clip at the nape of his neck. He stepped out on to the aisle.

“I, and three hundred and fifteen courtiers from and/or associated with Blood Nation Kingdom, stand with His Highness, Prince Rashan,” he announced, and started walking up the aisle to where Rashan stood.

Kiyan sat up, excitement sparking where depression had settled. He bit back a smile and fought to keep his expression blank.

Zure Niven, Kiyan could not stop his grin in the end. He had overlooked this man for a long time. Why had he not remembered this man existed?

Question was who had remembered and asked for help?

Zure Niven adjusted the thick black leather belt around his waist, and unclipped a heavy token from the fine leather. He did not look drunk as everyone judged him. Instead, he looked wrapped in an air of determination. It made him seem formidable, taller, and princely. His lips curved in a quick smile that hid secrets as Lord Ranka’s fellow colleagues murmured amongst themselves.

Zure stopped right before Rashan, and reached out to caress his left cheek with a gentle index finger. He crouched down so that he could look into Rashan’s eyes.

“It is an honor to meet you, Little Prince,” Zure Niven said in greeting, his voice warm. “Your Papa speaks highly of you. He must have known a moment like this would come. He wanted you to know there is nothing to worry about here. Can you trust me?”

Rashan studied Zure’s eyes, and then he nodded.

Kiyan found himself envious of Zure’s freedom to express his support so openly.

“Good boy,” Zure said, rising to his full height. He placed his right hand on Rashan’s shoulder as they both turned to face Kiyan. “Your Imperial Majesty, I am Zure Niven, the Earl of Nivenad. All the Lords of Blood Nation’s Kingdom stand with His Highness, Prince Rashan, and Silver Shore Valley.”

Kiyan nodded, accepting Zure’s declaration in good faith. The courtiers on the right side of the aisle all stood and Kiyan realized Jihan must have worked to convince Zure to support Rashan. The merchant had come through after all.

“Who would give Lord Nivenad the authority to speak for three hundred and fifteen lords?” Lord Ranka asked in shock. “Save for Lord Revi, Lord Bowden and I, I don’t know how you would have the power to speak for that many lords? Are you drunk, Lord Nivenad?”

Zure kept his gaze on Kiyan as he replied to Lord Ranka.

“I’m quite sober this afternoon, thank you. I always stand in this court as the Earl of Nivenad, but today,” Zure said, squeezing Rashan’s shoulder when he grew nervous. He lifted the round gold token of his station up to show the disgruntled man. “Lord Ranka, I hope having the Blood Nation’s Prince Authority is good enough for you.”

“The Blood Nation’s Prince gave you authority?” Lord Ranka asked, a deep frown creasing his forehead. “He never attends this court and does not care for matters happening in this empire. He’s a recluse.”

Kiyan got up then, amused by the fact that Lord Ranka was about to embarrass himself at court this afternoon. He stepped down from his throne and walked to where Rashan stood. Zure kept his right hand on Rashan’s shoulder even when Kiyan reached the pair.

“Lord Ranka, I’m afraid you’re at a disadvantage,” Kiyan said.

“I don’t understand, Your Imperial Majesty,” Lord Ranka started.

Zure held out his left hand and Kiyan took it in a warrior’s handshake.

To be Emperor, nations in the alliance had to give up considerable authority. Blood Nation’s King had chosen to step down and title his minor heirs as Dukes and Earls. His major heirs were named Princes and Princesses and would go no further. The Earl of Nivenad happened to be of great importance to Blood Nation Kingdom.

“This title of the Earl of Nivenad was created by Blood Nation’s previous king so that his eldest son could stand in this court undisturbed,” Kiyan said in explanation, shaking his head because it seemed as though Lord Ranka had forgotten to consult the lineage books. “This title goes to the oldest son born in the oldest household in Blood Nation Kingdom. Lord Ranka, the Earl of Nivenad is the Blood Nation’s Prince and Jian Miran’s brother.”

Lord Ranka stepped back, shock clear in his eyes.

“As one who is charged with the care of Blood Nation, I do believe he does indeed represent three hundred and fifteen votes,” Kiyan said, his voice filled with amusement. “This room has six hundred and fifteen lords in attendance. Thanks to Lord Nivenad, Prince Rashan has won the number and has the permission needed to present his evidence. Am I wrong, Lord Ranka?”

“Your Imperial Majesty is right,” Lord Ranka said, his voice strained, his gaze on Zure Niven who winked at him.

Kiyan spied Lord Ranka glancing at the Empress. He let go of Zure Niven’s hand and turned to find Rushi scowling at Lord Ranka.

“I’m surprised Blood Nation’s Prince is able to convince so many courtiers,” Lord Ranka said.

“I happen to have drunk with all of them at one time or other,” Zure said, with a light laugh.

“Why would you choose to stand for Silver Shore Valley?” Lord Ranka asked, his tone filled with irritation.

“Silver Shore Valley remains my sister’s home even after her death. Rashan Miran is her legacy, a son of Blood Nation Kingdom. I, Zure Niven, will always stand with my nephew’s house. I ask that you listen to my nephew’s evidence this afternoon, Your Imperial Majesty.”

Kiyan crouched down before Rashan.

“Congratulations. You have the floor, Prince Rashan,” he said, starting to touch Rashan’s cheek.

The boy flinched, making Kiyan pause, and then let his hand drop away. The wary look Rashan gave him hurt, but it was deserved. His nephew had no reason to trust him after all.

Rashan turned to look at the large doors once more, his gaze filling with worry.

Kiyan got up, also looking at the spot where Isani had stood earlier. She was not back. Kiyan’s gaze shifted to his wife and he frowned at her strange smile. She looked very sure that Jihan would not come in as Rashan expected.

Kiyan could only hope Isani would intervene in time.

*~*~*~*

Temu fought hard, determined not to let any palace guard pass him. He trusted Firuz to get Rashan and Jihan into the Imperial Court. If they managed that, it would be enough. Faiza fought with ferocious glee, where Temu tried only to injure, Faiza let his fury take over. His scenes gory and frightening, yet the palace guards continued to attack him like rabid dogs. Their master’s orders the only thing they knew.

A commotion started farther down the corridor, the way they had come.

Temu had no time to determine who was coming. Three palace guards threw themselves at him, their blades sharp. Temu dodged the swipe of a sword on his right arm, punched the closest palace guard in the face and sunk his own sword into the guard’s right arm making it impossible for him to hold a weapon. The man fell on the ground with a scream and Temu took in a breath when no more came at him. He looked up and grinned at the sight of Isani, the Emperor’s Guard. She had taken down the two palace guards coming at him. Behind her, cleaning out the remaining rebels was Duke Silver stalking down the corridor in his armor, his sword dripping blood. He fought off anyone who came at him.

Temu’s heart lifted with excitement and relief.

Generals Niku and Naveed followed the duke; their officers arrested all the palace guards still standing.

Temu thanked their lucky stars for this relief.

Duke Silver had to have forced his horse into a hard ride to get here this afternoon.

Temu rubbed his left shoulder to ease his tired muscles and turned in panic when he heard a clash of swords where there should not have been any.

His heart stopped when he saw Jihan holding a sword at his chest in a centered horizontal block. He was holding off an attack. Three ghost warriors driving their sword blades into the one Jihan held. Jihan fought to stay balanced, hold his ground, and keep the sword centered. Firuz sunk his daggers into the two ghost warriors behind Jihan, moving faster than possible, he kicked off one of Jihan’s attackers and sunk his bloodied daggers into the remaining two.

Temu started to run to Jihan’s side, but Duke Silver was faster, running past him, grabbing the remaining ghost warrior by the neck, the Duke dropped him on the ground with a ferocious growl. He pinned the ghost warrior to the floor with his heavy gold sword. Making sure not to kill the ghost warrior, just hitting him hard enough to make him unconscious.

Jihan dropped the sword he held and fell on his knees breathing hard.

*~*~*~*

Jihan stayed on his knees, every cell in his body shaking with the effort to keep living. At this point, he was now gambling his life for Kastan and Rashan. Thank goodness for Firuz because he doubted he would have made it through this one alone.

“Firuz?” Jihan called, needing to know he had not messed up and gotten Firuz poked with a weapon. “Are you okay?”

“I’m fine. It’s over,” Firuz said, pulling out his daggers from ghost warriors. “You did very well, An.”

Jihan breathed out in relief, groaning when he felt a sting on his left palm. He turned his left hand and grimaced at the cut on his palm. He’d messed up and touched the blade. He glanced down at his robes and wondered if anyone would notice if he cut a strip from his inner garment. The blood would not stop without tying the wound.

A soft gasp escaped when shaking hands placed a red cloth on his palm, and it was then wrapped tight around his palm. Looking up, Jihan sucked in air when he saw Kastan.

“Kas,” Jihan breathed. He reached up with his right hand to rub at the deep frown on Kastan's forehead. “You’re here.”

“I’m sorry I’m late,” Kastan said, tying Jihan’s cut with a firm knot. “I keep finding you fighting off ghost warriors. Can you stop giving me gray hairs?”

Kastan brought Jihan’s hand to his lips, brushed a soft kiss on his knuckles, then leaned in and took Jihan’s lips in a desperate kiss. Jihan moaned at the acute relief that slammed him, it felt almost painful. Kastan swallowed his moan, wrapping a strong arm around Jihan, pulling him into an awkward embrace.

Jihan wrapped his arms around Kastan’s shoulders as best as he could over the cumbersome armor his husband wore. His racing heart changed rhythm from fear and worry to excitement. He returned Kastan’s kiss, wishing they could go home now, but then he ended their kiss when he remembered where they were and why they were here. Leaning back, he cupped Kastan’s face.

“I’m so glad you’re here, but we need to go,” Jihan said, nodding to the closed doors. “Shan is inside the court. He needs us.”

“Why were you attacked?” Kastan asked, getting to his feet. He helped Jihan up, and turned to Temu and Faiza. “Why is Jihan on his knees, bleeding?”

“The palace guards attacked us from the thousand steps corridor until we reached here,” Faiza said, wiping his swords with a bloody cloth. “They insisted on taking Prince Rashan and we wouldn’t let them. It was a vicious fight without stop until you arrived.”

“How did Shan go in alone?” Kastan asked, turning to Jihan. “Why is he in there alone?”

Jihan narrowed his gaze, stepping away from Kastan. Unexpected anger boiling up at the accusation he read in Kastan’s tone.

“Do you think I let him enter the court easily?” Jihan asked, meeting dark eyes filled with a matching anger.

“Shan should have stayed with you,” Kastan said, his tone harsh. “You should not have let him out of your sight. You have no idea what my brother can be like. It might take us weeks to get him out of this palace. You don’t know—”

“You can’t be serious?” Jihan asked, shaking at the thought that Kastan imagined he would place Rashan in danger on a whim.

He couldn’t take it, not after the crazy hours he had spent trying to figure out a way out of their current dilemma. He was tired and in pain. It seemed like all he had done these last few weeks was fight off attacks. The stress of trying to talk a crazy man to stand in court for them made his head ache. Who knew if the unpredictable prince would even care to talk in court?

Kastan started to speak and Jihan lifted his right hand to stop him.

“Do not say anything that will make me crazy with anger right now. For your information, Shan is not alone. He has Master Safan with him. And I thought you asked me to think of him as my son too. Do you think I’d place my son in danger without thinking?”

“An,” Kastan said, shaking his head. “Don’t twist my words. I’m just saying that you’re so quick to act. Do you know what it felt like to get your note? Coming to the capital in a blind haze was not the smart thing. I’m saying that you shouldn’t have dragged Rashan all the way here—”

Jihan punched Kastan left arm hard, biting back a cry when his fist came against cold hard metal.

Damn it! He had forgotten Kastan was wearing armor. Damn stupid-headed warriors with their armor, and stupidity, and—and stupidity. Damn it all, his hand hurt. He shook his right hand out and turned away from Kastan cursing under his breath.

“Show me,” Kastan said, reaching for his hand.

“Don’t,” Jihan managed to say over the pain, hating his rough voice. His fingers hurt; it hurt more than the cut on his left hand. “Your darned armor maimed me.”

“Duke Silver, His Grace is not on the wrong,” Faiza said, behind Kastan. “The valley’s council met on the night we received Emperor Kiyan’s order. We all voted and decided it was better for Prince Rashan and Prince Jihan to arrive first. Your father wanted to make sure you did not fall victim to devious plots. There was also the matter of Ferino and Lady Baiza’s crimes to consider.”

“Why do you mention those two?” Kastan asked, his gaze remaining on Jihan who would not let him check on his right hand.

“Ferino has helped Lady Baiza embezzle money from the Welfare Office. Her reasons are not yet known, but there is suspicion that she’s involved with the Empress,” Faiza said. “She has also turned into a slaver. She branded Ferino’s wife by burning the Baiza name on skin.”

Jihan looked up when Kastan growled, forgetting to be angry when he saw the dark anger that filled Kastan’s eyes.

“Nisa has done what?” Kastan asked again.

“Apologies, Your Grace,” Temu said coming forward. “We did not notice what she was doing in time. If it weren’t for His Grace, we might never have noticed. We have brought Ferino along, as well as Yeorim.”

Kastan turned to Jihan, who had forgotten his hurting hand to watch the warring expressions on Kastan’s face. It was a mix of anger and worry. Jihan hoped both emotions were directed at Nisa and not the generals or even Kastan himself.

“Generals, prepare to enter the Imperial Court,” Kastan ordered. “Lord General Naveed, coordinate all prisoners, including Ferino, and Yeorim. Make sure the crates from the Iron Lands are able to make it into the court.”

Firuz touched Jihan’s right arm and he turned to see him pointing at a woman with three men following her. Two of them lifted the Burning Feather ghost warriors. One hauled up a palace guard. The woman turned to Kastan and gave him a formal bow. When they had their prisoners secured, she led the men to the Imperial Court doors and stopped.

Kastan took the opportunity to take Jihan’s right wrist and stepped closer, drawing Jihan’s attention. Kastan studied the scrapes on Jihan’s knuckles, and then blew on the injured skin to ease the stinging pain.

“I’m sorry,” Kastan said. “I—”

“I told you not to say something that will annoy me,” Jihan said.

“I’m sorry,” Kastan said again, looking into his eyes.

“For what?” Jihan asked. “For being an idiot about Rashan, or making me punch you, what are you sorry for?”

Kastan bit his bottom lip, and Jihan waited for an answer.

“Are you going to answer?”

“You told me not to say anything that will make you angry,” Kastan said, his voice filled with amusement.

Jihan shook his head in exasperation and looked behind his husband to see the generals issuing orders to the many officers who were now filling the corridor beyond. Temu caught his gaze and gave him an assuring nod. It was enough to tell him that Ferino would surely follow them into the Imperial Court.

Kastan let go of his right wrist, and Jihan looked at him.

“I was frightened for you and Rashan,” Kastan said, his voice low, filled with worry. “Kiyan is not cruel, but his wife is and she has managed to wreck our peace. I worried you and Shan would suffer because of her before I got here. I wasn’t wrong. This is the third time I’ve found you under attack.”

Jihan tried to keep holding Kastan’s gaze, but then couldn’t because it still hurt that Kastan thought he would send Rashan into danger alone. He closed his eyes, wishing for the end of all of this and they were back home.

Kastan leaned in and brushed a kiss on his forehead.

“Let’s finish it together,” Kastan said, making Jihan open his eyes to find Kastan holding out his left hand. “I promise to make it up to you when get home. For now, let’s go get Shan.”

“Commander, we’re ready,” Naveed said behind Kastan.

Jihan took Kastan’s hand with his right. They faced the Imperial Court doors and Jihan saw the woman waiting.

“Who is she?” Jihan asked.

Her men looked tireless as they hauled two burning feather men, and a third dragged a palace guard.

“Isani,” Kastan said. “The Emperor’s Guard, she works under Rael.”

Jihan nodded and followed Kastan’s lead, walking to the doors.

Isani, noting they were ready, pushed the doors open and walked in first followed by the three men.

*~*~*~*

Kastan stepped into the massive hall in time to hear a statement that made him want to explode in anger. He tightened his hold on Jihan’s hand as they walked.

“…Silver Shore Marquis, your standing here does not mean that your father is innocent,” Rushi was saying, her voice ringing through the room. “You’ve convinced the court to listen to your evidence, but we do not see it. Did you lie to your Emperor? If you did, then you should be confined until the Duke of Silver Shore appears to prove your family’s innocence, regardless of the Blood Nation Prince’s thoughts.”

Kastan scoffed. She had the guts to talk.

“Prince Rashan,” Kiyan said, his tone gentle as he addressed Rashan. “We still need solid proof to back your claim. Master Safan seems to be your only escort. You left your nanny, Fara, outside the palace. Are you sure you brought anyone else?”

“Imperial Consort, Prince Jihan, will be here shortly,” Rashan said with confidence.

Kastan could not see Rashan because Safan was blocking his view.

He was even more surprised to see Zure Niven standing next to Safan.

Zure had worked at staying out of the public eye for years. The last time they had seen each other face to face was the day they buried Jian. All Kastan ever got were reports that Zure Niven drank too much and spent his time being lazing in a private club.

How was he here now?

Zure Niven had his right hand on Rashan’s shoulder in a show of support.

“You would dare lie to your Emperor?” Rushi asked, her tone condescending. “Who in this Empire does not know that your step father is injured and cannot travel?”

“Rashan would never lie to His Imperial Majesty,” Rashan said, though his voice wavered at the end.

“I have taught my son to speak the truth,” Kastan spoke up, they were halfway down the long aisle. “Because he speaks the truth, here I am to prove him right.”

His voice startled the room, enough for them to let out loud gasps. They had not noticed the doors open, their gazes too focused on the Empress talking down to Rashan.

Kastan knew his generals urged their soldiers to enter the imperial court. The formidable soldiers took up positions along the wall, their weapons sheathed but at the ready to draw. Behind him, Naveed had men escorting three mercenaries from the Iron Lands, Lord Revi, Governor Tian, and Rael. There was also Ferino and Yeorim. Six officers also carried three heavy crates filled with the red-feathered arrows meant to be used for the Palace Guard.

Kastan knew he was making a spectacle, but dragging his family from their home was an even bigger spectacle. These couriers deserved the fear they expressed with wide eyes as they watched his soldiers, and the frightening generals taking up positions in this sacred imperial court.

Kiyan kept his silence, sitting up on his throne, his hands on the dragonheads.

The Emperor watched and waited.

Kastan noted the Emperor’s Guards moving behind that throne chair. They would be ready to act to protect Kiyan in case of an attack.

Isani walked passed the round platform where Rashan stood and dropped her prisoners on the first wide step leading up to the throne.

The court fell silent.

Naveed and Temu stopped at the front of the right aisle. Niku and Faiza stood at the front of the left aisle.

Rushi rose, her hands clutching her skirts as she stared at Kastan’s generals. Her gaze shifted to Kastan and Jihan, her expression full of hate.

Kastan ignored her and focused on his family.

Jihan let go of his hand and hurried to Rashan. Rashan extricated himself from Zure Niven and rushed Jihan, stepping down the platform to wrap his arms around Jihan with a relieved sigh.

“You’re late,” Rashan said.

“Not too late,” Jihan said, rubbing Rashan’s back, glancing at Kastan. “I even brought your Pa. Didn’t I do well?”

“Yes,” Rashan nodded and let go of Jihan to go to Kastan. Kastan hugged him as best he could in his armor.

Kastan crouched so that he could look into his son’s eyes. He placed his hand on Rashan’s shoulder and looked into nervous dark eyes.

“You’ve performed your first court duty,” Kastan said, “I’m very proud of you.”

Rashan smiled wide. “I promised evidence to prove our innocence.”

“I’ve brought it,” Kastan said. “Now, you watch and learn. We’ll talk about what you understand when we’re back home.”

“I’ll listen, Commander,” Rashan said with a nod.

“Good,” Kastan squeezed Rashan’s shoulder and straightened to his full height. He gave Safan a nod of thanks and held out his right hand to Zure Niven.

Zure Niven gripped his arm in a warrior’s handshake.

“Silver Shore—,” Kastan started.

“Blood Nation Kingdom always stands with you, Duke Silver,” Zure said, interrupting him. “You don’t owe us anything.”

Kastan stared at Jian’s brother. This man remained Rashan’s uncle, and was the head of his son’s maternal family. He had overlooked Zure for a long time, and there was no excuse, other than being too occupied to reach out.

“Thank you, Niven,” Kastan said.

“I will take that,” Zure said, then winked at Jihan who replied with a quick grin. “It’s very rare to get a thank you from Duke Silver. I now have major reasons to brag.”

Kastan let go of Zure’s arm and urged Safan to step back with Rashan. It did not surprise him when Zure opted to stay with Rashan. The three of them moving to sit on an empty bench near General Naveed on the right side of the aisle.

Kastan took Jihan’s right hand, turning them into a unit and together they stepped up on the raised round platform to face the Emperor.

“Commander of Armies reports to His Imperial Majesty,” Kastan said. “The West Nation Border is secure, alliances formed and peace treaties signed. The Empire of Akasha is no longer at wartime. Commander of Armies seeks the peace token from His Imperial Majesty.”

“This must be a joke, Commander,” Rushi said, still standing. She pointed at the soldiers lining the room. “You walk in here with these many officers and four generals, still in your armor, your sword at your waist and you expect us to believe you want peace?”

“These honorable men standing with me are here to show their respect to their Emperor and to tell him they have completed the task he charged us to do,” Kastan answered. “They mean no harm to you or anyone in this room. Do you deny that West Nation Border is secure, Your Majesty?”

Rushi glared at Kastan.

“Your words and your actions still contradict you, Commander,” Rushi said. “You must have forgotten. We are here to determine whether you have mounted a revolt in the Iron Lands. Lord Revi is clearly in chains and Governor Tian stands next to him. Isn’t this enough proof that you have taken over the Iron Lands?”

“Her Majesty jumps to conclusions,” Kastan answered. “I exhausted a good warhorse to reach this Imperial Court to give my report. My son has also won the vote to present evidence in this court. I ask His Imperial Majesty for time to explain why Lord Revi is in chains and then Her Majesty can make her accusations.”

Rushi started to talk again, but Kiyan raised his hand to stop her.

“Imperial Prince has the floor. Rushi you need to wait until he finishes,” Kiyan said. “Lord Bowden, receive the Commander of Armies' report.”

“I had the floor,” Lord Ranka said.

“You managed the vote,” Kiyan said. “Thank you for your assistance, but Lord Bowden shall receive Commander of Armies’ report.”

Lord Ranka gave Kiyan a nod and looked at Kastan with a complicated expression. He returned to his desk on the right side of the throne without another word.

“Imperial Prince, I’ll listen to your report,” Lord Bowden said.

“Lord Bowden, I’ll start with events that led to my decision to enter the Iron Lands,” Kastan said to Lord Bowden who got up and faced him. “Each event tied to this moment. The report is long and will involve all the witnesses you see here.”

“Alright, Commander,” Lord Bowden said, urging the scribes with him to line up near him.

Kastan squeezed Jihan’s hand and murmured, “You’ll help me fill in the blanks.”

“Are you sure?” Jihan asked, matching his tone, looking up at him, his right brow raised as he squeezed Kastan’s hand and leaned into him in camaraderie. “I don’t think I should speak here. Rushi’s head might explode with anger. Her eyes look like they might send bolts of fire through us.”

Kastan suppressed his smile remembering that he’d annoyed Jihan minutes ago. That anger seemed to have dissipated and Jihan now stood with him wholehearted. Kastan knew his words had hurt Jihan earlier. He also knew he would need to make up for it later. But for now, he was just happy to have Jihan by his side.

“Yes, I’m sure,” Kastan answered Jihan. “Let’s end this play together.”

Jihan agreed with a nod and turned to Lord Bowden.

“Days before our marriage dance,” Kastan said, not letting go of Jihan’s hand. “A report of refugees came to the Duke’s Office. I took Lord General Naveed with me to investigate. We discovered several families living in the caves outside Silver Shore Valley.”

“Where were these refugees from?” Lord Bowden asked, his tone neutral.

“The Iron Lands,” Kastan said, earning confused murmurs from his audience. “Lord General Naveed has submitted several reports on this matter. Silver Shore is currently supporting their needs. These families have since requested sanctuary from me and we had to start an investigation to see if they could enter our Silver Shore Valley.”

“The court has received Lord General’s reports,” Lord Bowden said. “We do require proof of identity for these refugees, Your Imperial Highness. Silver Shore Valley is an important location in our Empire. Not anyone can move in.”

Naveed stepped forward and held out a lineage book they had gotten from Grandmaster Lehin.

“I submit Grandmaster Lehin’s lineage record. He has formally requested for sanctuary at Silver Shore Valley,” Naveed said. “The Silver Shore Valley’s council awaits His Imperial Majesty’s permission to allow Grandmaster Lehin’s family into the valley.”

Lord Bowden hurried to take the lineage book from Naveed himself, surprising the scribe who had started first.

Lord Bowden opened the book to confirm the contents, his movements fast and anxious.

“What were the Grandmaster’s reasons for arriving at Silver Shore Valley? Why did he not come to the palace?” Bowden asked Kastan.

To me, Kastan added for Bowden, realizing the older man knew Lehin.

“Grandmaster’s properties and workshops were forcefully taken over by Lord Revi’s Master Merchant,” Kastan said. “He worried Lord Revi’s influence in the capital and in this palace would jeopardize his family. He came to Silver Shore Valley with the hope of protecting them. I formally request permission to give him a place in our valley.”

Bowden glanced at Kiyan, shock clear on his face. Before he could speak, Lord Revi created a commotion, fighting against the officers holding him in place. Drawing attention from everyone close to him, he stepped forward.

“I’m not responsible for my Master Merchant’s actions. If he forced Grandmaster Lehin out of his home, it has nothing to do with me,” Lord Revi said. “I support the merchants who work with me.”

“Are you saying your Master Merchant has gone rogue?” Lord Bowden asked, anger coloring his voice. “You’ve allowed him to sink into lawlessness; terrifying innocent citizens and you want to claim it has nothing to do with you. How bold of you, Lord Revi.”

“You don’t understand—,” Lord Revi started.

“Grandmaster Lehin is a skilled forger, and has lived in the Iron Lands for as long as I can remember. He is Lord Bowden’s dear friend, and has never done anything against this empire. It pains me to learn of his family's plight. It is an embarrassment, Lord Revi. Your Master Merchant has to pay for his crimes against the Grandmaster. Free trade is allowed,” Kiyan said. “But no one is allowed to force my citizens out of their livelihoods and homes in the name of profit, Lord Revi.”

“Your Imperial Majesty,” Lord Revi said.

“Grandmaster Lehin is granted sanctuary in Silver Shore Valley,” Kiyan said, the finality in his voice urging the scribes to note down his words. The order would be delivered to Kastan after the court meeting ended. “The properties that belonged to him in the Iron Lands will fall back to the fiefdom. Governor Tian, your government shall compensate him on the value of that property. You must then take responsibility for those workshops and lands. Don’t let them go to waste.”

“Thank you, Your Imperial Majesty,” Governor Tian said, with a low bow.

“Proceed, Lord Bowden,” Kiyan said.

Lord Bowden returned the lineage book to Naveed and turned to Kastan.

“Your Imperial Highness, please continue your report,” Lord Bowden said.

“After our marriage dance,” Kastan said. “My consort visited Vasia Town.”

“Why?” Lord Bowden asked, his tone full of curiosity.

Kastan smiled at Jihan and urged him to speak with a squeeze of his hand.

“His Imperial Majesty tasked us with the important job of making Silver Shore Valley prosperous,” Jihan said. “We have built a trade station outside Silver Shore Valley. It’s our hope to increase the income we generate. I went to Vasia Town to talk with merchants willing to visit the trade station on their routes and open shops.”

“Did you succeed?” Bowden asked.

“Yes,” Jihan said. “However, Meen Kau, Lord Revi’s Master Merchant ambushed Rashan and I in an open market. Meen Kau wanted to open a shop in the trade station by force if necessary. He got angry when I said the trade station was filled. Lord General Temu arrived in time to save us and Meen Kau ran.”

Temu stepped forward this time.

“I submitted a report of the ambush to the Capital City Akan’s Magistrate on the same day,” Temu said. “We’re waiting to hear the outcome of the investigation.”

“The report was received,” Lord Bowden said, clasping his hands behind his back. “Meen Kau has not been seen in the city to answer the Magistrate’s questions. The magistrate’s officers are working hard to find him. What happened after, Your Highness?”

Jihan tightened his hold on Kastan’s hand.

“Rashan and I were attacked on our way home,” Jihan said, his voice shaking with anger. “A wild barrage of arrows pierced our carriage. If it wasn’t for my Shadow Guard, we would both be dead. After, we ended up running for our lives as a horde of ghost warriors attacked us.”

“Why do you feel this attack is relevant to this court?” Lord Bowden asked.

“The ghost warriors who attacked my consort are from the Burning Feather,” Kastan said. He pointed to the ghost warriors Isani was guarding at the wide stairs before the throne. “If you check those ghost warriors, I believe you will find they are from the Burning Feather too.”

Murmurs rose again from the courtiers behind them. They grew louder and finally someone in the crowd asked, “Are you saying the Burning Feather tried to murder His Highness and Prince Rashan?”

“Yes,” Kastan said. “General Moran captured a ghost warrior that was part of the attack on my consort and son. Her orders were to make sure His Highness was dead at all costs. We’re lucky they failed their task.”

Niku stepped away from her spot and walked out of the Imperial Court. They had brought the ghost warrior in a separate carriage because she was coming from Silver Shore Valley. Kastan hoped Set’s people arrived in time.

“General Niku will bring her in shortly so that she may testify before His Imperial Majesty,” Kastan said.

“We’ll wait for her,” Lord Bowden said. “What happened to Prince Jihan after the attack? There were reports that he was injured and on his death bed.”

“My Shadow Guard and Lord General Temu saved my life,” Jihan said. “Duke Silver rescued us at a cliff with his forces. We returned to Silver Shore Valley to find mercenaries had attacked the trade station, where Rashan was waiting for us.”

“Who attacked the trade station?” Lord Bowden asked.

“The same mercenaries I found in the Iron Lands,” Kastan answered, pointing to the three mercenaries under General Faiza’s care now. “We captured those three yesterday when they attacked my convoy. They wanted to rescue Lord Revi.”

“These mercenaries were brought by His Imperial Highness into the Iron Lands,” Lord Revi said. “He lies when he says they attacked him. They were clearly there because he ordered them.”

“I feel that Lord Revi is contradicting the series of events,” Zure Niven said.

“How so?” Lord Revi asked, scowling at Zure. “You weren’t there to see the terrible acts these mercenaries carried out.”

“Why would His Imperial Highness bring mercenaries into the Iron Lands after they attacked his family?” Zure Niven asked. “It makes more sense that he would take his own soldiers to arrest these mercenaries. Lord Revi, you’ve truly jumped off the cliff.”

“Imperial Prince entered the Iron Lands to cause havoc,” Lord Revi said. “The mercenaries gave his army an excuse to fight our people and take control. He put me in chains when I tried to reason with him. Can’t you see that he is lying?”

“I have no need for the Iron Lands. It’s hard enough working to protect Silver Shore Valley,” Kastan said, shaking his head at Lord Revi’s insanity.

“Imperial Prince, why were you in the Iron Lands?” Lord Bowden asked.

“As in the report I sent to His Imperial Majesty,” Kastan said. “My intentions are to restore the empire to peacetime. I chose to lead my army through the Iron Lands because I worried there were more citizens like Grandmaster Lehin. I needed to find Governor Tian and establish a way to stop refugees from flooding the Imperial City Akan and Silver Shore Valley. It is also easier for my army to use the Iron Lands entrance into the capital.”

“What did you find when you entered the Iron Lands?” Lord Bowden asked.

“I traveled with one thousand five hundred soldiers. We suppressed mutinous mercenaries in markets, settlements and on the roads,” Kastan replied. “We restored peace to traders, people’s homesteads. My generals and I found Governor Tian held hostage in the cellar at the Governor’s Manor. We released him and helped him restore order in the capital city, Rotheir.”

“Commander, I need proof of why you would unleash your soldiers in the Iron Lands if you’re not at war,” Lord Bowden said.

Kastan held out his hand to Naveed. Naveed handed him five red-feathered arrows. Kastan held them up for the court to see.

“These arrows are used exclusively by the Palace Guard in this Imperial City Akan,” Kastan said. “All courtiers know, because you voted on it in this Imperial Court. My army uses white feathered arrows. The only reason why I’m holding these five arrows is because I caught them as they flew at me with intent to kill me. Why were these arrows found in the Iron Lands?”

“Imperial Prince must have brought them to the Iron Lands,” Rushi said, “in an effort to prove your innocence.”

“My army does not handle Imperial Palace supplies,” Kastan said. “Palace officials in the Minister of Defense’s offices deliver these red-feathered arrows to the palace guard. Each crate is marked with a number. Palace scribes record them with care. Lord General Naveed and his officers have delivered three crates of these arrows. They were found at Lord Revi’s estate and the Governor’s Manor. Lord Bowden can check the crate numbers in the records found at the Minister of Defense. They will tell you how the crates got to the Iron Lands.”

Lord Bowden urged two of his scribes to check on the three crates sitting on the open space below the throne. Kastan handed the arrows he held to a third scribe.

“Governor Tian, report the status of your Iron Lands,” Kastan said.

Governor Tian stepped forward and lowered his head in a respectful bow.

“Your Imperial Majesty,” Governor Tian said. “I would like to thank His Imperial Highness for saving my life. His General Niku rescued my family and me from the cellar. Lord Revi dragged me into that cellar when he discovered that I had tasked someone to investigate how he was making money. Our fief has been too dependent on his financial support and trade routes. I have been worried something would happen to the marginalized villages. I apologize for the inconvenience this conflict has caused the Imperial Court.”

“Governor Tian must have suffered,” Lord Bowden said in response, shaking his head, his gaze on Lord Revi.

“One more thing,” Kastan said, glancing at Naveed. Naveed turned and left the court.

“This court is convened because of a letter from Rael of the Royal Investigative Bureau,” Kastan said. “I’ll ask him to testify why he wrote that letter.”

“Is Imperial Prince trying to say he knows how an officer of the Royal Investigative Bureau executes his duties?” Lord Revi asked. “Isn’t he being a tyrant? He is manipulating the evidence—,”

“Lord Revi,” Lord Bowden said. “His Imperial Highness is providing information as to why he was in the Iron Lands. You keep attacking him.”

“No one else in this room will,” Lord Revi said.

“I wonder why?” Jihan asked, glaring at Lord Revi.

Naveed returned with Rael who was now dressed in his dark uniform. Rael moved around the platform where Kastan and Jihan stood. He went to kneel before Kiyan at the wide first step to the throne.

“Your servant has sinned,” Rael said, bringing his right hand to his chest. “I was powerless to stop Lord Revi from forcing me to write a false account. Lord Revi threatened to kill innocents if I did not write as he dictated. He knew the law would force His Imperial Majesty to ask Prince Rashan to enter the palace. I have caused this great trouble. I’ll accept my punishment.”

“Rael,” Lord Bowden said. “Are you saying Lord Revi threatened people’s lives?”

“Yes,” Rael said. “Governor Tian and his family, and also a merchant from the Iron Lands named Swallow.”

Jihan sucked in air, turning to Kastan.

“He’s safe,” Kastan murmured to Jihan. “Swallow is with his family.”

Jihan relaxed and let out a soft relieved sigh.

“His Imperial Highness rescued me and Swallow,” Rael said. “Lord Revi threatened the Commander with an accusation of revolt if he did not give up his command and return to Silver Shore Valley. He boasted of inciting more fights in the Iron Lands until a rebellion war broke out and His Imperial Highness would have no choice but to give up command to gain peace.”

“Lord Revi,” Kiyan said, his voice laced with annoyance. “You’ve lived in this Imperial City too long, you feel as though you can interfere with my Commander at will. What gives you the right?”

“Silver Shore Valley is bankrupt,” Lord Revi said. “They can barely keep up with their welfare payments. I simply want to help the Commander of Armies manage his soldiers.”

Kastan shook his head at the extent of Lord Revi’s insanity.

“Lord Bowden, what I need to say has been said,” Kastan said. “What I need to prove has been proven.”

Kastan pulled off the heavy gold snarling tiger token hanging from his belt and held it up.

“I will repeat my request. I, Kastan Miran, have completed His Imperial Majesty’s order to suppress the war with West Nation and restore peace at the border. I have no wish to mount a revolt or control the Iron Lands. I request that His Imperial Majesty grant the peace token on behalf of the Empire.”

Jihan squeezed Kastan’s left hand as they both looked to Kiyan, waiting for his response.

They did not have to wait long. Kiyan stood, though he did not walk down the steps.

“You have one more task to fulfill, Commander,” Kiyan said. “You have presented me with witnesses and more evidence than I could ever need to prove you innocent. However, you've left me with more questions. You’ll need the authority of one at wartime to complete this task.”

Jihan gave a quiet sigh and Kastan glanced at him to find his consort frowning at Kiyan. Jihan’s irritation was for him, and it warmed Kastan’s heart.

“May I ask what task you want finished, Imperial Majesty?” Kastan asked.

“Find and arrest the real owner of the Burning Feather,” Kiyan said, making Rushi sit up straight, her eyes wide as she looked to Lord Revi. “Your report presents issues that can only be solved by capturing the Burning Feather’s true head. I will not release the peacetime token until you do. So tell me now, can you capture this person?”

Kastan frowned at Kiyan.

What game was his brother playing at now?

Policing was not his job. The palace security and even the Royal Investigative Bureau could arrest Rushi.

Unless, Kastan's gaze shifted to Rushi, it seemed that Kiyan wanted help bringing his wife to justice. Neith’s warning that he might need to use his sword on Rushi came back to him and he shuddered.

“Imperial Prince, your entire family is in this Imperial Court after facing multiple attacks on their lives,” Kiyan said. “Isani has proved that you defended your consort in this very palace. Rogue palace guards cannot act on their own to attack Prince Jihan and take control of Prince Rashan. You’ve ended up accused of a revolt in the Iron Lands—”

“With all due respect,” Kastan interrupted. “Lord Revi took advantage of Rael and had him send a false report to the palace. This is how my family ended up in this palace, risking their lives for no reason at all. I’ve brought Governor Tian and Rael to prove Lord Revi’s criminal acts. The Commander of Armies is free of a revolt charge.”

“This charge would not exist without the real owner of the Burning Feather.” Kiyan stated. “Are you willing to capture this individual, Commander?”

*~*~*~*

 

Jihan scoffed and took a step forward, placing himself in front of Kastan.

Kiyan wanted Kastan to arrest the Empress, and then take on the task of punishing her. How cruel did Kiyan need to be to his brother?

Jihan was speaking before he could think.

“Your Imperial Majesty, how about I find you the culprit?” Jihan asked. “I’ll have two conditions to do it, but you’ll definitely have the real owner of the Burning Feather when I’m done. What do you say?”

“Imperial Consort,” Kiyan said, shifting his gaze to Jihan. “Do you know who it is?”

“I do,” Jihan said, and Kastan squeezed his hand.

Jihan ignored him for now, holding Kiyan’s challenging gaze.

“You understand the kind of proof I need,” Kiyan said.

“Irrefutable,” Jihan replied.

“If you can’t do it today,” Kiyan said, his voice so low Jihan felt a shiver dance down his spine. Dark eyes looked at him with warning. “You won’t be able to go home with your beloved Commander, Imperial Consort. Knowing this, do you still want to make a deal with me?”

“Jihan,” Kastan said in protest, tightening his hold on Jihan’s hand. He leaned in to whisper in Jihan’s right ear. “I don’t mind bringing justice to her.”

“I do,” Jihan said, matching his tone, he looked into Kastan’s eyes. “The moment you take on punishing the Burning Feather’s owner is the moment two boys will develop a deep grudge against you, and against Rashan. You might think they’ll take it as the law of the land, but she remains their Ma. You are their uncle and he’s their Pa. Family is complicated, because it is, I need ours to have a fighting chance. Rashan deserves to have those two as friends, as family. Let someone else raise the sword, at the very least, he should do it.”

“An,” Kastan said. “I don’t want you to stay here in this Capital. I want us to go home together—”

“We will,” Jihan said, with a quick smile. The urge to lean up and press a kiss on Kastan’s jaw was hard to fight. Instead, he turned away from Kastan to find Kiyan watching him with a narrowed gaze.

“I accept your terms,” Jihan said.

“Good, Imperial Consort is brave,” Kiyan said with a wide grin. “What are your terms?”

“I’ll only find this culprit when Commander of Armies is holding the peace token,” Jihan said, meeting Kiyan’s gaze. “Two, the real owner of the Burning Feather must face judgment at the Imperial Tower with the Ancients. Commander of Armies’ sword is too swift a death, too easy.”

Kiyan studied him for a moment, and then scoffed. “Can you really prove it?”

“As long as Commander of Armies is holding the peace token, I will,” Jihan said.

Kiyan pulled out the heavy gold medallion with a calm tiger carved on its surface. He held it up for all to see.

“Commander of Armies, the Empire of Akasha thanks you for your defense. We now count on you to keep the peace, maintain the peace and promote it so that our people might live their lives.”

Kastan held Jihan’s gaze as Kiyan came down the steps from his throne to join them at the raised platform. Kastan’s fingers tightened around his wartime token, hesitating to take the peace token when Kiyan offered it.

Jihan squeezed Kastan’s hand this time and nodded.

Trust me, he thought.

It took Kastan a long moment to take the peace token from Kiyan. Kiyan had to tug the wartime token out of his hand.

Jihan hid a smile at the low growl Kastan gave Kiyan and shook his head.

“Now,” Kiyan said, stepping away from a glaring Kastan. He hurried up the steps to his throne and sat. “Imperial Consort, Prince Jihan, show me your proof as promised. Who is the Burning Feather’s real owner?”

Jihan took a moment to appreciate the seat of power.

Akasha’s throne was massive, adorned with carved dragons on the chair’s large arms and the high back wall. The scales on the rolling dragons lined with gold, culminating into two large dragonheads facing Jihan where Kiyan rested his hands.

Kastan’s monster chair looked more manageable than this beast, Jihan decided.

The Emperor sat in repose. The thorne should have dwarfed him, but instead, he looked like he was born sitting there. Every inch of Kiyan Miran dripped power, from his dark and gold robes, to his harsh face, and the unrelenting gaze he leveled on Jihan. The last time they had faced each other, Jihan had lost. He had thought to get away with a bluff that time, this time…

His gaze shifted to the much smaller chair to the left of the throne.

Rushi sat dressed as an Empress, but her eyes told him her heart was darker than night. If he were asked, she could only be empress of the underworld. Her imperial robes were a stark red compared to the dark colors on her husband. She wore too much gold on her. Jihan thought she might drown if she walked near water.

Her gaze was arrogant when she looked at him. It sparked the urge to drag her off that throne she was proudly hugging. He had warned Kastan at the start that he would give it to her as good as she gave. She had started the plotting first, placed his family in danger and dared come after two people he loved. It was time he gave it back just as good.

Rushi scowled at him and he smirked in response.

“Before I start,” Jihan said, lifting his gaze to meet Kiyan’s challenging one. “Jihan asks for forgiveness.”

“Forgiveness?” Kiyan asked.

“Yes,” Jihan said. “Jihan must have annoyed Your Imperial Majesty so much that you sent Palace Guards to teach me a lesson on the way into the imperial court. I ask for forgiveness.”

“Imperial Consort, I did not send palace guards after you,” Kiyan said. “I had no reason to stop you from entering here.”

Jihan shifted his gaze to Rushi, only to find her looking at him with hatred.

He hid a smile and lowered his head to Kiyan.

“The fact remains an army of palace guards has tried their best to keep me from entering this Imperial Court,” Jihan said, filling his voice with innocence. “It made me feel that I’d surely annoyed His Imperial Majesty to get such treatment.”

“This is slander,” Rushi said, hissing at Jihan. “Don’t you know you can lose your head for accusing the Emperor?”

“Her Imperial Majesty is very eager to see my head separated from me,” Jihan said, pointing to the palace guard Isani’s men had kneeling near the steps to the throne. “That is a palace guard, one of a horde. There is no denying that truth. Lord Bowden, if His Imperial Majesty did not order the attack, is there a way to know who else can move that many palace guards? Is this answer easy to give?”

“Yes,” Lord Bowden said, “I’ll send a scribe to the palace guard offices. There is an order of shift assignments daily. Anyone entering the palace gates and in uniform would need that order.”

“Prince Consort has no right to ask for that list,” Rushi said, pointing at Jihan. “The Commander of Armies may see it but you have no office in this palace, Prince Jihan.”

“Then, I want to see the order of shift assignments written for this afternoon,” Kiyan said, keeping his gaze on Jihan.

“Your Majesty,” Rushi said, turning to look at Kiyan.

Lord Bowden ordered one of the scribes to get the order and Rushi hissed.

“Continue, Prince Consort,” Kiyan ordered Jihan.

Jihan glanced at a nervous Kastan and winked at him. Kastan frowned at him with worry and Jihan let go of his hand to step around him.

Jihan looked around the room to find where Ferino was standing. He was glad to see Temu and Raven standing guard.

Jihan focused his attention on the large burly man standing between Raven and Temu. Ferino wasn’t sweet or pleasant. His body was huge, built for the hard work he did in his butchery, and his years of training in Kastan’s army. His face was harsh, and when he sneered, it would make a lesser man shiver. He sneered now, at Jihan, and Jihan was glad that all he felt was pity instead of anger or fear.

Jihan caught Temu’s eye and beckoned them to move closer.

Temu frowned at him, but Raven grinned, as they grabbed Ferino’s thick arms, urging him forward.

“Who is this?” Kiyan asked, when Ferino was forced to stand before him.

“I’ll start with a little tale,” Jihan said, clasping his hands behind his back. He paced the round platform, formulating what to say. “It hasn’t been easy for my family these past many weeks. I, personally, have been at the center of many incidents in the valley. There have been farms staffed by outsiders, workshops closed and the staff hiding, and the Magistrate has probably heard more complaints about me than he ever wishes to hear. I’ve been a right mess in the valley.”

That comment got him chuckles and Jihan paused to smile at Kastan.

“Duke Silver says his valley’s strength is honesty,” Jihan said. “I’m sure his generals standing in this imperial court will agree.”

“We agree,” answers came his way from Naveed, Safan, Temu and Faiza.

“I will be honest then,” Jihan said, his slight smile disappearing, he turned to look at the men and women populating the hundreds of chairs in the imperial court. “His Imperial Majesty gave me one mandate when I chose to marry Duke Silver. That is, to make Silver Shore Valley financially independent and strong, able to support the Imperial Palace, if needed. This has been my responsibility from the day I moved into Sun-filled Manor.”

The murmurs stopped and everyone stared at him.

“The people of Silver Shore Valley sacrifice life and limb to the peace of the empire. There are times families rely on a welfare fund when they lose the primary breadwinner to wars like West Nation’s rebellion. I don’t need to explain more on this matter, however I will say that it is not always enough to live off the Welfare Office,” Jihan said, shaking his head.

He waved his hand to the Emperor.

“It’s certainly not enough to depend on the Imperial Palace to help fund and grow the armies’ numbers. It’s not sustainable and yes the valley has ended up with a lot of financial strain. Which is why we are working to build a trade station, to create jobs and increase income. I’m a merchant. I like improving and creating networks that multiply profit. I embraced this massive responsibility, even as it scares me, for the most part.”

Jihan shrugged, turning back to look at Ferino.

“I’ve never been under any illusions,” Jihan said, moving closer to the huge man, making Firuz follow him. “Integrating into Silver Shore Valley was never going to be easy. I’ve been an outsider in a world full of men, women and children bound together by years of loyalty, blood, sweat and tears. Being accepted into the wonderful community at Silver Shore Valley was never going to be easy, no matter how much I tried to make nice, to build better, or to compromise. This is my truth.”

“Prince Jihan, I’m glad you’re taking your responsibilities with such dedication,” Kiyan said, filling the silence that followed Jihan’s words.

“Your Imperial Majesty is very kind,” Jihan said, not moving away from Ferino. “I’ve been very lucky that Duke Silver has supported my efforts even when I made trouble that resulted in complaints. I know change does not come overnight. I’m prepared to work on what must be done in the valley for the rest of my years, until we are able to fulfill His Imperial Majesty’s mandate.”

Jihan narrowed his gaze at Ferino.

“Now that you know my truth, understand and know that I do not tolerate anyone working to undermine our hard work,” Jihan said.

“Is Your Highness saying Ferino has damaged the valley in some way?” Lord Bowden asked.

“Of course, otherwise he would not be standing here. He is a man with a crafty side,” Jihan said. “He has delivered a hundred names to the Baiza Manor to be added to the Welfare Office for three years. He received precious money from the welfare office on behalf of these names. Some he said owed him money as they were running food tabs in his butchery ledgers, others he claimed he knew and promised to deliver the money to them in person. To all our shock, the owners of these names are either dead with no family or nonexistent. Ferino has swallowed up the precious welfare money with the help of a powerful ally. He has managed to cripple the valley.”

“Where is the proof of this embezzlement?” Lord Bowden asked.

Raven hefted up the large crate of ledgers curated by Andiya that Yasmin had packed for him. He placed it on the step closest to Lord Bowden.

“In this crate you will find ledgers from the Welfare Office detailing the payments to the hundred names that do not exist,” Raven said, his bow was short as he stepped back to stand by Ferino.

“Where did the money go?” Lord Bowden asked. “Why did Ferino do it?”

“This is where things get interesting,” Jihan said, turning to look at the Empress. “Ferino is a bridge. His master is a noble woman named Lady Nisa Baiza. She got him to submit the names and signed off on behalf of her General Father. The submission forms are in those ledgers. We have not tracked where she used the money. However, I can prove that she forced Ferino to arrange an attack on Prince Rashan and me. Nisa held Ferino’s family in her estate and urged him to use the Burning Feather to attack us.”

“How can you prove that?” Rushi asked. “It sounds like speculation to me, Prince Consort.”

“I was a victim, Your Majesty. I don’t need to prove I was falling in mud and running for my life. Too many people watched it happen,” Jihan snapped at her. “Nisa’s transgressions against Ferino’s family will be proven by someone else.”

Jihan pointed at Ferino’s wife who stood next to Governor Tian.

“Yeorim Wonju will testify on her experiences under Nisa.”

Yeorim was dressed in a pale gray dress.

A gift, Jihan thought, from Fara.

Yeorim’s fingers were clutched in tight fists as she stepped forward as Governor Tian had done earlier.

Jihan stepped down from the round platform and joined her, placing an assuring hand on her right shoulder. She took in a deep breath to brace herself and faced Kiyan and Rushi.

“She is Ferino’s wife,” Jihan said in introduction. Looking at her, he smiled. “Just tell your truth, Yeorim.”

Yeorim nodded and gave the same testimony she had given the generals at Silver Shore Valley. She even included the day she and her mother in-law were released.

“How do you know your husband used the Burning Feather to attack His Highness?” Lord Bowden asked, when Yeorim finished her testimony.

Jihan watched Yeorim reach into a deep pocket of her dress. To his surprise, she produced a red silk cloth wrapped around fine paper. She started to hand it to Jihan, but he shook his head and indicated Lord Bowden.

“I did not have time to show this letter to His Grace,” Yeorim said, her voice trembling as she held out the red silk. “We arrived at Sun-filled Manor and had to leave overnight. I also did not get to see His Grace again after we arrived at the Capital. This fine red silk was hidden in my husband’s clothes. Inside it is a note on how to pay for the Burning Feather’s needs. It is signed with a seal that I cannot read. I just knew it was important so I brought it along.”

A scribe took the silk package from Yeorim, and she relaxed.

Jihan went back to the raised platform to join Kastan, and wasn’t surprised when Kastan took his right hand again. Strange but the simple act steadied him, made him feel as though he was stronger than he felt.

Lord Bowden studied the red silk with a frown, and then retrieved the letter. When he read it, he turned and walked up to Kiyan. He handed the scroll to Kiyan and stepped back without saying a word.

Kiyan read the note in silence.

Jihan clutched Kastan’s hand, his heart beating fast, hope blooming. His gaze shifted to Rushi who watched him with a hard gaze. Her eyes narrowed when Kiyan handed the note back to Lord Bowden.

“Read it,” Kiyan said, his voice heavy, tired.

Lord Bowden hesitated, gave Rushi a quick glance, then turned to the court.

“I’ll read this message from Fortan to Lady Nisa Baiza,” Bowden said.

The stage is set in the Iron Lands. Rushi has waited a long time for this so you must follow our plans to perfection, Nisa. The boy must enter the palace and end up under our mistress’s care. The Merchant cannot return to Silver Shore Valley. After the merchant’s funeral, we’ll work to make you consort and you can take control of the boy then. Included are the funds needed to manage the burning feather's needs. Treat them well and they will work for you. Looking forward to your good news. Fortan.

Lord Bowden held up the scroll to the court. "The seal used belongs to Her Imperial Majesty.”

Kiyan sat back on the throne.

Jihan let out a soft breath. It was surreal listening to someone plot a funeral where he was the victim. His life used as a plaything between two idiotic women. They had even ended up placing Rashan in danger.

“It’s over now,” Kastan said, bringing their clasped hands to his chest.

Jihan nodded in agreement and would have spoken, but the doors opened and General Niku walked in. She was not alone. She held the arm of a young woman dressed in a simple black dress, her limp hair short to her shoulders. The young woman walked slowly because of the chains on her legs. Niku patiently led her down the long aisle and brought her to stand next to Ferino.

Kiyan got up, his expression harsh as he walked down the steps to where Ferino stood.

Ferino, faced with the Emperor, dropped down to his knees, head bowed.

“Who is your master?” Kiyan asked Ferino. “The letter says enough, but I need you to say it out loud.”

Jihan squeezed Kastan’s hand too tight, afraid Ferino would not answer the Emperor.

Kastan shifted closer to him.

“You know I wouldn’t let him keep you here, right?” Kastan asked, a whisper in his ear.

Jihan bit back the laugh that bubbled up inside him.

“What would you do if he tried, Duke Silver? Kidnap me?”

“Of course,” Kastan said, as though it were a matter of fact. “Silver Shore is quite capable of protecting you. No one would be allowed to come in to take you.”

Jihan had a hard time hiding his laugh this time. He only managed to fight curb it because Kiyan chose that moment to roar his question at Ferino.

“Who is your master?” Kiyan asked, leaning over Ferino. “If you don’t tell me, your wife, your children, your mother and father, anyone related to you will pay for your sins along with you.”

Yeorim gasped, her hand coming up to her chest at Kiyan’s threat.

“I’m sorry,” Ferino said, shaking his head. “I didn’t intend for this to go this far. I had no choice—”

“Choices are made easy enough and can’t be undone when it’s too late,” Kiyan replied. “This is too late, for you…and for me. We can only deal with the consequences. Be a man, Ferino, and take charge of what you created with your own hands. Can’t you do it? Tell me who your master is and save your family, Ferino.”

Ferino looked at Kiyan for a full minute before he finally spoke with a resigned tone.

“Lady Baiza is my master,” Ferino said, and before Jihan could panic, Ferino continued, “She’s been following the Empress Rushi’s advice through a person called Fortan.”

Kiyan let out a tired sigh, squeezed Ferino’s shoulder and straightened to his full height. He turned to Lord Bowden.

“Arrest Fortan,” Kiyan said. “Revoke her access to all areas of this Imperial Palace.”

Kiyan then turned to look at the Empress.

“Rushi, I warned you once,” Kiyan said, “on what would happen if this day ever came.”

“He lies,” Rushi said, getting up too. “A letter, and an embezzler names me, and you decide I’m guilty.”

“Didn’t it go the same for Kastan?” Kiyan asked. “You and Lord Revi forced Rael to write a letter of revolt. You’ve pushed Kastan’s family to the limit. They all stand in this Imperial Court and have had to prove themselves innocent. How bold of you, dear wife.”

Rushi scoffed.

“What can you do to me?” she asked. “I never actually did anything in person. Lord Revi, Lady Baiza, and Fortan, they are the ones who have done all the crimes lined up in this court.”

“Your Imperial Majesty,” Niku said, drawing Kiyan’s attention. She pointed to the woman she had brought in. “She is Tayo, a ghost warrior from the Burning Feather. Prince Jihan’s people have delivered her from our Silver Shore Valley where she has been staying. Her loyalty is broken.”

Tayo bowed her head.

“This criminal greets His Imperial Majesty,” Tayo said.

“Tayo, are you truly from the Burning Feather?”

“Yes, Your Imperial Majesty,” Tayo said.

“Why did you attack His Highness?” Kiyan asked.

“We followed orders, Your Majesty,” Tayo said. “It was our lives or his. We could only do our best to carry out our task.”

“Who is your master, Tayo?” Kiyan asked.

Tayo flinched, lowering her head. She kept her silence.

“Tayo,” Niku said, touching her shoulder. “You must answer His Imperial Majesty if you hope to live your own life.”

“What’s the point?” Tayo asked, her voice coming out in a defeated chuckle. “My life is forfeit, especially when my brothers discover I gave them up.”

“Set already told you to live a life you choose, a life that’s yours, or you can remain enslaved by the Burning Feather and die a traitor,” Niku said. “You don’t have to die here.”

Kiyan waited a beat then asked again, “Who is the Burning Feather’s master, Tayo? Who did you serve?”

Tayo looked up, shaking when she met the Emperor’s gaze. She took in a deep breath and lifted her right hand, to point at the throne. Her finger slowly moving to Rushi.

“The Burning Feather has always served the Empress,” Tayo said.

“Liar!” Rushi said, coming down the steps. “Don’t believe anything she says, she’s lying.”

Rael and Isani moved fast, stopping Rushi from reaching Tayo.

Tayo seemed to gain energy with this accusation. She turned to Niku and lifted her hands, the chains around her wrists jingling.

Niku stepped forward and unlocked them. She crouched down and unlocked the ones around Tayo’s feet too.

Tayo then reached up to her hair and bunched it into a short ponytail. She turned to face Jihan, smiled then lowered her head to expose the back of her neck. Jihan was sure she was revealing yet another brand. This was probably where Nisa had gotten the idea to brand people at Silver Shore Valley. She’d learned it from the cruel Empress.

“I was branded with the burning feather tattoo and an extra one for when I was sent to Giode Kingdom,” Tayo said. “The Empress’s first name, styled as she wanted, is put on those of us who work close to this palace or enter the Giode Palace.”

Kiyan chuckled as he stared at the brand on Tayo’s neck.

“Rushi,” Kiyan said. “Even I don’t have the audacity to force a person to wear my name and they call me the Ruler of an Empire. What gives you the right?”

“Kiyan—”

“Rushi is hereby stripped of her status as Empress of Akasha. Her titles, privileges, and her assets are revoked,” Kiyan said. “All persons working under her in the past three years shall undergo investigation. I will not tolerate betrayal or treason in this Imperial Palace.”

The court exploded into discussion and Kiyan climbed the steps to his throne. He sat while Isani and Rael took Rushi’s arms and dragged her down to stand next to Ferino.

Kiyan rubbed his brow, his gaze shifting to Kastan. Their gazes held for a long moment, before Kiyan returned his attention to his wife.

Jihan could see the weight of the burden on Kiyan’s shoulders. He could only wonder how this situation was going to be explained to Crown Prince Yan and Prince Yija.

“Your Majesty,” Lord Ranka started to protest.

“Anyone who talks for the Empress will tell me if they condone her crimes,” Kiyan stated.

Lord Ranka fell silent.

“This has been a long afternoon,” Kiyan said. “Imperial Courtiers, the matters that have unfolded in this court make me pause. I wonder if there is more corruption brewing among us, and who will have the courage to bring it to my attention. I hope there will be one brave soul, or two, who can manage to stand for what’s right.”

“The Empress is implicated,” Kiyan continued. “Our Imperial Family is now under review. There will be no leniency. Lord Bowden and Lord Niven, take note of the following orders. You are responsible for making sure these cases are concluded without mistakes.”

Zure Niven stepped forward, so that he could accept the Emperor’s order.

“I will obey Your Imperial Majesty’s orders,” Zure said.

“Lord Revi has betrayed his promise to represent the Iron Lands. He is hereby stripped of all his titles and lands. He shall be tried for all his crimes committed in the Iron Lands and in this capital. The Royal Investigative Bureau will take him into custody. Lord Bowden and Lord Niven shall compile a full list of crimes, all persons associated with Lord Revi and especially, capture his master merchant, Meen Kau. You have five days to complete this task at which time this court will sentence Lord Revi.”

“Yes, Your Imperial Majesty,” Lord Bowden said.

“Ferino, your crimes are against the people of Silver Shore Valley. The officers you serve this empire with shall decide your fate. Your case is hereby forwarded to the Imperial Military Council,” Kiyan said. “Commander of Armies, he is under your mandate now.”

“Thank you, Your Imperial Majesty,” Kastan said, his tone cold enough to make Ferino shudder. “General Faiza, take Ferino into custody and keep him in holding to stand trial.”

Faiza had three officers on Ferino before Jihan could really process the situation. In minutes, Faiza was leading Ferino out with a delighted smile on his face.

“Tayo, thank you for your courage,” Kiyan said. “Isani, hand her to the Emperor’s Guard. Get whatever information you can on the Burning Feather’s strongholds. Tayo, your cooperation will determine your future.”

“Thank you, Your Imperial Majesty,” Tayo said, and was taken away by Isani’s officers.

Jihan turned to find Lord Revi was also being led out by Isani’s officers.

“Governor Tian,” Kiyan said.

The older man stepped forward, looking tired.

“Are you still able to govern your Iron Lands?” Kiyan asked, making the old man shiver.

“Answering, Your Imperial Majesty,” Governor Tian said. “I would like to thank His Imperial Highness for his support these few days. With his General’s help, we shall manage to restore peace to the Iron Lands. Afterwards, I ask Your Imperial Majesty to appoint a new Governor to help our Iron Lands stand on its own feet again.”

“I shall think on this matter,” Kiyan said. “Governor Tian, I’ll ask you to take care of the Iron Lands until we can find someone suitable to take over. The next time you face such a strong opponent, remember that the Capital is here to support you. If you cannot approach me, reach out to Lord Bowden for assistance. Is that understood?”

“Yes, Your Imperial Majesty,” Governor Tian said, even though he glanced at Kastan.

Jihan imagined the man might opt to find Kastan first before he came to the capital.

“Governor Tian, assist Lord Bowden with Lord Revi’s case,” Kiyan said.

Lord Bowden’s scribes hurried to assist the Governor, and he was soon heading to the room behind the throne with two young scribes.

“We are down to the Empress,” Kiyan said, with a tired sigh. “Rushi, this empire has never had to deal with a deceitful Empress. This is a unique problem; however, don’t think it has not been planned for. Kastan, Jihan, you and me, and Kyra, we answer to the Imperial Tower.”

Kiyan stood, took a blade from a scabbard at his waist and cut his palm, drawing blood. He dripped it on the floor next to his throne, and murmured a name.

Bast was suddenly standing right next to him.

“His Imperial Majesty has called me,” Bast said, his gaze on Rushi.

“Rushi manipulates my courtiers to gain an advantage,” Kiyan said. “She has tried to murder the Imperial Consort and his ward. She sparked the West Nation war at the border, and plotted Kastan’s defeat with the Burning Feather. Her ambition poisons our Imperial Palace. She can no longer be part of us, part of my children’s future. I’ll leave her to Lord Bast, and the Imperial Tower.”

“As of this day, the Empire has no Empress,” Bast said. “Rushi, you’re free of your burden, no longer mother to an empire. The Emperor shall strip her off the trappings of her station. Send her to the Imperial Tower, her judgment shall be made by three. His Imperial Majesty and Imperial Prince shall attend the judgment.”

Bast paused, his gaze narrowing when he looked at Kiyan. He grabbed Kiyan’s left arm with fast reflexes, pulling back Kiyan’s sleeve, he studied Kiyan’s arm. After a moment, he let go of Kiyan and looked at Kastan.

“To clear the doubts in your heart, the Emperor should read the Commander’s gold sword. All will be well in the empire.”

“I thank you, Lord Bast,” Kiyan said, just as Bast left the imperial court.

Rushi let out a loud frustrated scream and turned to look at Jihan and Kastan.

“Don’t think you’ve won,” Rushi said. “I have two sons who will seek justice for me. I’ll see to it.”

“Isani, take her straight to the Imperial Tower,” Kiyan said. “Do not let her see Yan and Yija.”

Rushi made such a loud commotion, abusing every court official she met, her words angry. She made an ugly spectacle. The court fell into silence the moment Rushi left.

Jihan let out a relieved sigh and leaned into Kastan. Kiyan sat on his throne looking exhausted.

“There is one more,” Kastan said, making Jihan frown. “Lady Nisa Baiza. She is a titled noble.”

“Nisa Baiza is stripped of her titles,” Kiyan said. “Her father, General Baiza’s title stands. He was a hero to be remembered. Imperial Prince needs to discover what Nisa was funding before you can make a judgment.”

“Thank you,” Kastan said. "I'll make sure it gets done."

“If there are no other issues, the court is dismissed,” Kiyan said. “Imperial Prince and your consort shall remain.”

Court Officials got up, discussing the events of the afternoon in hushed tones and murmurs, as they left.

Zure Niven hurried to Kastan and Jihan’s side.

“I have to help Lord Bowden,” Zure said. “I’ll make sure Lord Revi’s case is tied up neatly.”

“Thank you for your support,” Jihan said, holding out his hand to Zure. “I’ll owe you one.”

“Not at all,” Zure said, with a pleased smile as he shook Jihan's hand. “This is the most fun I’ve had in court since…since Kastan was marrying you. So, I hope you keep it interesting in the future too.”

“Here I am hoping for peace,” Jihan said, with a chuckle.

“You’re welcome to visit Silver Shore Valley,” Kastan told Zure. “Rashan would like to get to know his uncle. I would also like to know how you know Jihan.”

“Are you sure?” Zure asked. “You’re not keeping that manor in a warped time capsule for my sister, are you? I love places full of life and hope you keep that manor alive for my nephew.”

“We’re working on it,” Jihan promised.

“Okay, then I’ll come visit,” Zure said.

“Kastan,” Kiyan called, and Zure said goodbye, hurrying to join Lord Bowden who was heading to the room behind the throne.

Jihan turned to see that Rashan was still sitting on the bench. Safan waited with him, along with General Temu and General Naveed. Rashan looked tired. Then again, the boy had barely rested these past two days. The large hall was empty save for them. The courtiers had cleared out faster than Jihan had expected.

“Bast insists I read your sword before we leave,” Kiyan was saying to Kastan, having come down the steps from his throne.

Jihan frowned at the choice of words. He turned to ask Kastan, but did not get a chance.

Kastan held his sword in his right hand, the blade facing the Emperor as he approached. When Kiyan was a step away, the blade fell and Kastan presented the gold handle to Kiyan. Jihan took in a deep breath when Kiyan gripped the handle and seemed to brace for an invisible impact.

Silence filled the room as the two men stood facing each other, Kastan’s sword held between them.

Jihan bit his lip hard when Kastan suddenly turned to face him. He frowned when Kastan cut his left palm on the sharp blade and held out his bleeding hand to Jihan.

“Untie your left hand,” Kastan ordered.

Jihan did so and took Kastan’s outstretched hand. The moment their palms locked, heat raced up his arm, so hot it felt like he was scalding his palm with dry heat. Kastan pulled him closer, until they stood facing each other. Afraid he was burning to a crisp, Jihan met Kastan’s dark gaze, heart pounding as he realized something was happening between Kastan and Kiyan.

Whatever it was had Kiyan stepping forward to brace his free hand on Kastan’s right shoulder. Jihan used his right hand to hold on to Kastan too when it looked like he needed the support.

Tears filled Kiyan’s eyes and he closed them, sending the tears trailing down his cheeks.

The burning heat riding up Jihan’s arm turned unbearable and Jihan shivered hard as the heat seemed to fill his head with an explosive pressure. The kind he felt when Yoru tried to talk to him during their days at Kamran Estate. Except, this pressure was too hard to bear, too painful.

Kastan held his hand tighter when he staggered. Firuz moved in behind Jihan but it was strange that he did not touch Jihan. Instead, he stood waiting.

Jihan looked into Kastan’s beloved eyes and truly hoped for peaceful days ahead before the pressure took over and everything turned dark.

*~*~*~*~*

Hours later, Kastan squeezed water from a towel into a bowl on the side table. He folded the warm towel neatly and shifted to study Jihan who lay passed out on their comfortable bed. They were back in Kastan’s auxiliary palace. Kastan pressed the towel on Jihan’s forehead, making sure it wouldn’t slide off. He stroked dark hair fanned out on the pillow Jihan used, arranging the soft strands with care.

It was late in the evening, around nine o’clock. Rashan was asleep in a room opposite theirs. Safan and Raven were taking care of him.

“You hurt him today,” Firuz said, from the right side of the bed. He stood leaning on the wall, his arms crossed against his chest, guarding his master with dedication.

“I didn’t mean to,” Kastan said, reaching for Jihan’s left hand to study the white bandage now tied around Jihan’s palm.

“Not the cut on his palm, that was my sword,” Firuz said. “I meant what you said to him about him letting Rashan out of his sight. He had no choice.”

Kastan sighed and closed his hands over Jihan’s left hand.

“I know. It was not my intention to hurt him,” Kastan said, shaking his head. “I was scared, Firuz. Scared for him, for Rashan, I’m sorry.”

“That apology is not for me, is it?” Firuz said with a shrug. He fell silent when the doors slid open and Kiyan walked in to the room.

Firuz sighed, and started to push off the wall.

“No,” Kiyan said, holding up his hand. “Stay, Firuz. Your master is unconscious. I understand it will be difficult for you to leave him. I don’t mind your presence.”

“Thank you, Your Imperial Majesty,” Firuz said, bowing his head.

Kiyan slid the doors closed, not allowing his security and Isani into the room. He moved closer to the round table a few feet away from the large bed. His gaze lingered on Kastan, and then shifted to Jihan who stayed motionless.

Kiyan moved away from the round table and came to stand at the foot of the bed. He was still in the dark robes he wore at court. He crossed his arms against his chest, his gaze resting on Jihan.

“Kas, your husband can’t sit still when you’re in trouble,” Kiyan said. “The amount of people he moved around in the last two days is about as much as you move around with a few words. Did you know he was this industrious when you married him?”

Kastan chuckled, not looking at Kiyan. He didn’t answer Kiyan’s question either. It was useless to deny that Jihan had considerable power among the merchants. Temu and Faiza had spent time telling him in detail all that Jihan had done since leaving Silver Shore Valley.

Kastan closed his eyes as he clutched Jihan’s injured hand.

Jihan had not had a good rest for two straight days now. He had opted to ride fast to the capital in order to find Zure Niven and somehow convince the Blood Nation’s Prince to stand for Rashan.

Shan is not alone,’ Jihan had said, his eyes burning with anger.

Kastan shook his head and opened his eyes to find Jihan still unmoving.

“The magic that binds us was hard on him,” Kiyan said. “But I’m grateful you thought to reach for his hand. Otherwise, I would not have seen what he has done for the empire, and to win against Rushi.”

“What happens now?” Kastan asked.

Kastan had been too worried for Jihan after Kiyan finished with them. Rashan, crying in a panic at seeing his Papa passed out, had clung to his cloak as Kastan carried Jihan out of the imperial court in a rush.

“My wife has caused our family and your valley trouble,” Kiyan said. “I apologize for the pain. You and I still need to appear in the Imperial Tower with the ancients to discover Rushi’s fate.”

“They will not be lenient with Rushi,” Kastan said, knowing the ancients would treat Rushi with impartial judgment.

“Your consort saved both of us this afternoon. I don’t think it would have been easy watching you arrest Rushi,” Kiyan said, and Kastan winced remembering that Jihan had warned him.

“Nisa surprised me that she would be involved with Rushi and even try to harm your consort. You have work cut out for you as you root out why she betrayed you. We would never have discovered her treachery without Jihan.”

Kastan refused to comment because he felt guilty of hurting Jihan. The hurt he had inflicted caused more pain than anything Kiyan would do to Jihan.

Still, he was proud of Jihan. His consort had won in a battle with a dragon.

“Now that Lord Revi is stripped of his position in court, challenges arise,” Kiyan continued. “Lord General Naveed has provided comprehensive documents from Lord Revi’s estate. The Iron Lands were under Lord Revi's full authority, entire villages at his mercy financially. I feel that Jihan is the only one who can bring relief to those farmers. He would know how to stimulate the right kind of trade to make sure these villages are not suffering anymore. I'm thinking that it would be good if he helped the new governor with stimulating healthy trade.”

“I will let him make the decision to help or not to help,” Kastan answered, then shifted to look at Kiyan. “What do you feel about Rushi?”

“Bast, Neith and Ha will decide her fate,” Kiyan said with a heavy, resigned tone. “She’s the first Empress to commit crimes in our Empire. Her punishment will set precedence for the future. I know that she is stripped of her rank, but I can't stop thinking that her life remains tied to my sons. I cannot be responsible for breaking that bond.”

Kastan closed his eyes and hoped Neith would not ask him to swing a sword on Rushi.

Would he be able to do it?

A box filled with poisoned spices filled his memory, making Kastan tighten his fingers over Jihan's left hand. Firuz hissed and he loosened his hold.

“I saw the box full of poisoned spices,” Kiyan said, drawing Kastan’s attention. “I also saw that moment you keep dreaming about, that moment when Jihan fell of the cliff with his Shadow Guard. You thought he was lost to you and the fear you felt…” Kiyan shook his head. “So much fear…I don’t know what I should say to make this easier to deal with, Kas. My wife has tried her best to murder you, your consort, and your son. Yet, I’m unable to punish her save for stripping her rank. Your older brother fails you, Kas. Do you hate me?”

Kastan let go of Jihan’s hand and stood. He moved to stand next to Kiyan, his brother responding by turning to look him in the eye. There was pain in Kiyan’s eyes, guilt too. He took Kiyan’s right arm.

“Kiyan,” Kastan said. “I don’t hate you. I also don’t envy you the burden you have on your shoulders. Yan and Yija should be your priority now. In the same place Jihan and I place Rashan. The Empire needs a strong foundation to have a future. You should know this better than me.”

“You were always better at planning for the future,” Kiyan said, staring at where Kastan clasped his arm.

“Take it day by day for now,” Kastan said. “You’re not meant to be okay with dealing with your wife’s crimes. Jihan and I will support you the best we can. Yan and Yija too. We just need to get through the worst of it right now.”

“The Fig Tree was black so Kyra will be worried,” Kiyan said, pulling his left sleeve up to show Kastan. “It’s back to normal now.”

“I’ll write her and explain,” Kastan said. “She can visit when she’s able.”

“I have a proposition for you and Jihan,” Kiyan said, dropping his sleeve.

“I'm going to refuse it, if it involves staying in this palace,” Kastan said, moving away from Kiyan. He returned to sit next to Jihan. “I want to go home to Silver Shore Valley. Jihan and I haven’t been home together in ages. I miss him.”

“My proposition involves Silver Shore Valley,” Kiyan said. “I can wait until you’re not so distracted to talk about it.”

“What does it involve?” Kastan asked, narrowing his gaze at his brother.

“Yan and Yija,” Kiyan said.

Kastan frowned wondering what his brother was cooking up now.

“It’s not the right time yet. I’ll let you rest,” Kiyan said. “Tell Jihan thank you when he wakes up. He and I will talk soon.”

Kastan nodded, and watched his brother leave their chamber. Kiyan’s shoulders slumped, he looked defeated. Kastan could only hope Kiyan found solace in something or someone he cared about.

Otherwise, the coming months were going to be quite difficult.

*~*~*~*~*

See you in 8 hours.

Suilan Lee, 2019-2021
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Chapter Comments

Yay!  Another long but great chapter!  Thank you again! :P

 

Next up :-

Yan and Yija will be going over to "intern" at Silver Shore Valley?  Jihan and the Dragon in another, albeit more amiable face-off?  

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I just reread this for the third time and have two additional comments.

1. That main door is soundproof as hell! People are fighting to the death right outside and no one inside can hear a peep! We need that kind of technology in today’s apartment buildings.

2. Rashan is one brave kid. I would dissolve into a sweat puddle from the stress. He’s a little bad-ass!

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We need to see Rushi's punishment is inviolable and forever. That she is forever able to cause harm to any living thing, then drop her in the middle of the endless swamp!

Then there are those who in court, are caught up to some degree with Lord Revi, Rushi and former Lady Baiza, their punishments need to be sure and swift!

Rashan is the quiet hero, calling attention to the battle outside the palace doors!

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On 7/21/2021 at 3:54 AM, Danilo Syrtis said:

btw i noticed 2 little typo "quetstions "curaetd"

Thank you so much for catching those.  I've fixed them.  

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