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  • Shadowgod - Almost Home
  • Shadowgod - Almost Home
  • Shadowgod - Almost Home
    lilansui
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The Reluctant Consort - 29. Chapter 29

Chapter 29

Rushi’s Downfall, Andiya’s Son, and Nisa’s Revenge

Jihan woke to the sight of Kastan and Firuz having a meal at a familiar table. They sat opposite each other at the table Jihan and Kastan used on their wedding night. Jihan smiled, staying still, choosing to watch his man and his Shadow Guard talk.

Kastan looked so good in the lamp light. Handsome, dashing, looking at him made Jihan’s heart flutter; he smiled, clutching the covers. Kastan’s dark hair was damp from a recent bath. His armor long gone, he was now dressed in a black robe belted at the waist that swept the floor where he sat, his legs in light dark pants. He had no shoes, Jihan bit his lip as it occurred to him that he found Kastan’s bare feet sexy.

Jihan wondered what Kastan would do if he got up and moved to sit on his lap. Kastan scratched his jaw and the light caught on his wedding ring. Jihan’s heart skipped again. Some days, he still could not believe that Kastan was his husband. It seemed surreal.

“I wanted to clear a few parts of worry,” Kastan was saying, dropping his hand to the table. His fingers wrapped around the stem of a goblet. Turning the goblet around, Kastan glanced at Firuz.

“Rashan wants to call you his Master. While it should be fine, I’ve seen what a Shadow Guard’s training is like,” Kastan said.

“You’ve entered the Quadrum?” Firuz asked in surprise.

“My master was Taraj,” Kastan said, making Firuz gape.

Jihan frowned. He didn’t think he’d ever seen Firuz so visibly surprised before.

“Grandmaster Taraj’s training is revered among our kind,” Firuz said. “He’s a legendary warrior even though he is not a Shadow Guard. We have all learned from his teachings. Your Grace, I cannot be the one to take on Prince Rashan. You should find one who Grandmaster Taraj has trained. His disciples are plenty—”

“Rashan wants you, Firuz,” Kastan said with a small smile. “I try to give my son what he wants as often as I can. I just worry that he is too young for the harsh nature of your kind. Master Taraj was able to refine the secrets of your kind when he taught me. It’s my hope that you’ll do the same for Rashan. Teach him how to defend himself and those he loves.”

Firuz let out a shaky breath, and Jihan held still, not willing to interrupt this important moment.

“My obligations to Jihan remain,” Firuz said. “I cannot neglect my charge.”

“Rashan and Jihan are father and son,” Kastan said with a smile. “There’s no reason why they can’t spent an hour or two together as Rashan trains.”

“True,” Firuz nodded. “Agree to approve all the techniques I teach Prince Rashan in advance. I’ll find you and explain before I bring it up with the young prince. This is the only safe way to do this.”

Kastan nodded, once again smiling. “You’re already his teacher, Master Firuz. Your concern for him is clear. I agree to this idea. You may find me and I’ll listen to what you have to say.”

“Okay,” Firuz said.

“If you’re to be his teacher, call him Rashan,” Kastan said. “Forget his title, and become someone he can find to ask questions or seek guidance as a child needs. Can you do that?”

“Only if you agree for me to ask you what to say if the question asked is beyond my guidance,” Firuz said.

“Fair enough,” Kastan said in agreement. “There is also Jihan to help you.”

“Okay,” Firuz said, then studied Kastan. “Was Grandmaster Taraj the reason you knew what to say when I was in a frenzy at Kamran Estate? The night your people invaded?”

“Yes,” Kastan said. “Which reminds me, teach Rashan all those phrases too, in case he ever meets a Shadow Guard out of control. For his safety, and those he loves.”

“I will teach him,” Firuz promised. “Thank you for trusting me with your son.”

“Thank you for taking on Rashan,” Kastan said in answer, giving Firuz a formal bow. “Please teach him all you can.”

Firuz stunned to silence could only return the bow. When Kastan lifted his head, he reached for the pot of tea and poured Firuz a cup. He took the cup and held it out to Firuz in a respectful gesture.

Firuz took the cup and drank it with a shy smile.

Jihan sat up then, amused by his Shadow Guard. This evening he was getting to see all kinds of expressions on Firuz’s face.

“I didn’t know you could get this shy,” Jihan said, drawing Firuz’s gaze.

Kastan pushed back his chair and got up, hurrying to Jihan’s side. Jihan had no chance to push the covers away before Kastan pulled him into his arms in a tight hug. He couldn’t complain, wrapping his own arms around Kastan. Jihan buried his face into Kastan’s shoulder and breathed him in, closing his eyes when Kastan sunk fingers into his hair.

“I’ll be outside,” Firuz said, though Jihan paid him no mind. A moment later, the doors slid closed and they were alone.

It felt like ages since he’d been in Kastan’s arms. He wrapped his arms around Kastan, took in a deep shaky breath at the feeling of home that flooded him.

“Is it over?” Jihan asked, his voice raw with emotion.

“Most of it,” Kastan answered, stroking his fingers through Jihan’s hair. “We’re going home after the Ancients in the Imperial Tower sentence Rushi tomorrow.”

Jihan sighed, opening his eyes to stare at the table laded with food. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d had a meal with Kastan. It seemed like ages ago. He missed their morning meals in the dining hall at Sun-filled Manor, sitting by the fire. If he could get that back, he would endure a few more hours in this palace.

He started to lean back but Kastan tightened his arms around him. He would not let him go.

“I’m sorry,” Kastan murmured. “I didn’t expect the magic that ties my brother and me would be so hard on you.”

“It was very rough,” Jihan said on a chuckle. “One of these days, you’re going to sit down and tell me the secrets between you and Kiyan, right?”

“When we get home,” Kastan said.

They sat in silence for a minute, and then Jihan started to pull away only to have Kastan hold him tighter.

“I’m sorry,” Kastan said again, when Jihan stopped trying to get away.

Jihan tilted his head, trying to see Kastan’s face. Kastan would not let him, so he rested his chin on Kastan’s shoulder and waited.

“What for?” he asked in a gentle tone when Kastan kept quiet.

“I didn’t mean to hurt you,” Kastan said. “I want you to know that I see how much you love and care for Shan. I was afraid, and…”

Jihan took in air, closing his eyes as he absorbed Kastan’s apology.

“Kas,” Jihan started to say.

“I won’t tell you to forget what I said,” Kastan said. “Instead, I’ll try my best to do better. So you never think of it. I trust you with Shan.”

Jihan let out a soft sigh. Yes, they needed to talk about this. He didn’t want his little family ending up toxic like Duyi and Laner. Thinking about his mother made him feel like he might get into a panic, so he shoved her situation aside.

“I can’t tell you that I know what being a parent should be,” Jihan said. “You have more experience than me. I do feel a little lost at times, especially when you’re away. I worry about what we’ve made Shan live through today. I wonder if it will affect him somehow, what he’ll think of us.”

Jihan shook his head.

“An.”

“I’m learning, Kas,” Jihan said, being honest. “Just…don’t be afraid to tell me what you think. Yes, it will hurt at times and I’ll want to punch you, but—”

Jihan pulled back and met worried dark eyes and smiled.

“I needed to hear the fear in your voice to know I’m not alone. I’m not alone in being scared that I’m messing up our son. I don’t want us to stop talking. Let’s not hide things from each other because we’re afraid of hurting each other. Promise me.”

Kas brushed a kiss on his forehead.

“I promise,” Kastan said.

“Speaking of Shan, where is he?” Jihan asked.

“The Generals are all looking after him,” Kastan said, “and Raven, and there will be Firuz. Safan already made sure he ate. Now, all I have to do is worry about you.”

“Me?” Jihan said, finally managing to lean back completely so that he could look at Kastan’s face. He cupped Kastan’s face and marveled at having him so close. “There you are.”

Kastan smiled.

“Here I am,” Kastan said, matching his murmur. “I missed you.”

“Not like me,” Jihan decided. “I’m afraid I’m going to start disliking this Empire.”

“Why?” Kastan asked with a short laugh.

“It feels like I have to share you with it,” Jihan said, with a sigh. “If it were up to me, I’d want you to stay home with me and Shan.”

Kastan grinned. “Will you hide me away at Sun-filled Manor too?”

“Yes,” Jihan agreed with a nod.

“What shall we do there?” Kastan asked, with a growing grin.

“Help Yasmin cook in the kitchen,” Jihan said, teasing. “Or, we could discover why there are unfinished rooms at Sun-filled Manor. Do the accounting books. Arrange the closets filled with weapons on the third floor. We could—

“Find out how long I can keep you in our bed,” Kastan said, wrapping an arm around Jihan’s waist and pulling him closer.

Jihan let out a soft, happy chuckle, when they ended up so close, he could see the deep shade of brown in Kastan’s eyes. He slid his palms up Kastan’s arms, to his shoulders, leaned in closer, dropping his gaze to Kastan’s lips. Then because he had truly missed this part of them, he took Kastan’s lips in a soft kiss.

The sharp intake of breath Kastan gave thrilled him. All thoughts of what could happen at Sun-filled Manor disappeared and Jihan lost himself in the now. In the taste of Kastan, the feel of him in his arms and their shared passion for each other. He let out a happy moan when Kastan matched his pace, turning their kiss sweet to start. He swallowed the little moan of delight from Kastan and smiled when Kastan shifted them. It felt very right to lay back on the pillows, Jihan bringing Kastan with him. Their lips locked in a delicious, passionate kiss.

He welcomed Kastan’s weight on him, felt like it anchored him, and stopped the mad world beyond. Sinking his fingers into Kastan’s hair, Jihan savored the taste of apples and green tea in Kastan’s mouth. His breath turning labored when he felt Kastan’s hard length against his leg. Sinking his fingers into Kastan’s damp hair, he caught Kastan’s lower lip in a gentle bite and opened his eyes to find Kastan looking at him with need.

He let go and licked the spot in invitation, only to close his eyes when his stomach chose that moment to growl. Jihan could only laugh after.

“Hungry?” Kastan asked, brushing a kiss on his forehead, starting to get up.

Jihan clung to him, not ready to let him go. He wanted to continue what they had started.

“Soon,” Kastan promised, kissing him. He got up and pulled Jihan until he was out of bed. “Food and then bath, or bath and then food?”

“Food first,” Jihan said, when his stomach growled again making him blush.

Kastan chuckled and took him to the table. He pushed Jihan into a chair. For the next few minutes, Jihan watched Kastan make sure he had food to eat, then go into the large bath in the opposite end of their rooms to make sure the bath was filled with warm water. Jihan ate, watching Kastan move around finding towels, and a fresh robe. He loved a domestic Kastan. A knock on their door had Kastan frowning.

Jihan finished his food and got up.

“I’ll take a bath, you deal with them,” Jihan said, when Kastan hesitated.

“Are you sure?” Kastan asked.

“The faster we deal with questions, the faster we can leave this place,” Jihan said, leaning up to brush his lips on Kastan’s cheek. “When you’re done you can find me in the bath.”

Kastan hurried away making Jihan grin.

*~*~*~*

Niku was at the door when Kastan opened them. She looked harassed and she did not want to come in.

“What’s wrong?” Kastan asked.

“You’re short on Generals,” she said, not amused. “I had hoped to join my armies at the border, but it looks like I’ll be the one to stay in the capital.”

“Report,” Kastan said, thinking about General Condi who was best suited to handle the General’s Council, and Ferino’s case in the Imperial Military Office.

“General Condi is still on the peacekeeping expedition at the border between the Iron Lands and Sun Kingdom. He has suppressed the mercenaries from Giode Kingdom. It will take him time to get back. General Moran is supporting him and keeping all other borders secure. General Kigaru is supporting Governor Tian’s policing forces in the Iron Lands,” Niku said. “None of them can get away in time for Ferino’s cases.”

“Faiza?” Kastan asked.

“He and Naveed are on the Nisa case,” Niku said. “Lord Temu is occupied with His Grace.”

“Okay,” Kastan said, studying Niku. “Ferino’s case has to be completed. Imperial funds are involved and we have to keep it clean cut.”

“I know,” Niku said, nodding. “Don’t worry, Commander. I’ll hold the imperial military office steady until General Condi arrives. Don’t forget to send me to the borders when it’s over.”

“I will send you,” Kastan said, though she looked like she was running away. He had not forgotten her connection with Rael. Maybe her stint here in the Imperial Palace would help her sort out that relationship.

“I wanted to report tonight, because tomorrow looks busy. Will you come drink with us, Commander?” Niku invited. “We should celebrate our wins today.”

““Let’s drink another time. I’m very busy tonight,” Kastan said, taking a step back into the room.

Niku laughed and he closed the door on her. He secured the doors and hurried to the table laden with their leftover food. It was too much work to get attendants to get the dishes. So he took the cover they used to deliver the tray and placed it over the mess. Satisfied, he hurried to the large bath.

Jihan was leaning on the side of the tub, resting his chin on folded arms. The warm water steaming around him, filled to his chest.

Kastan pulled off his dark robe and let it fall on the floor, followed by his trousers. He entered the large round pool, the warm water delicious. Jihan turned his head to look at him, a small sexy smile playing on his lips.

“Want to play, Duke Silver?” he asked, pushing hair off his right shoulder.

Kastan closed the distance between them, and pressed against Jihan’s back, wrapping his arms around him. He sucked on Jihan’s right shoulder, trailing kisses along damp skin to the curve of Jihan’s neck. He sucked harder there and smiled when Jihan moaned and leaned back into him.

“I always want to play with you,” Kastan murmured into Jihan’s ear, turning him around so that he could take Jihan’s lips in a wanton kiss. He’d been too long without Jihan, so he let their passion burn fast and unrestrained. Joy filled him when Jihan matched him kiss for kiss, caress for passionate caress. When his length was sunk deep into Jihan, and Jihan dug fingers into his back, marking him, the world beyond their embrace disappeared and he lost himself in their burning heat.

*~*~*~*~

Jihan woke to Kastan lying on the pillow next to him.

Kastan was already awake, his gaze on Jihan, watching him sleep. The sunrays stole into their chamber, kissing Kastan’s black hair, turning it blue black.

Jihan shifted closer to him, and sighed when Kastan kissed his forehead.

“Morning,” Kastan murmured into his ear.

“I’ve missed waking up to you,” Jihan said, resting his head on Kastan’s shoulder.

Kastan wrapped his arm around him and adjusted the covers around Jihan.

Jihan snuggled into their shared warmth. He ran his hand under the covers, caressing Kastan’s chest, down to his stomach, following the dusting of hair there. He couldn’t help the smile when Kastan shifted into the touch.

Kastan kissed Jihan on the lips, caressing Jihan’s cheek, and brushing wisps of hair away from his forehead.

“What’s the plan today?” Jihan asked, when their kiss ended.

“I would have you arrange for everyone associated with our house to leave the Capital by end of day,” Kastan said. “The soldiers I pulled from Silver Shore Valley should return home, Safan and Rashan. You and me, we should all head home.”

“Okay,” Jihan said with a single nod. “I’ll make arrangements. What are you doing?”

“Making sure Ferino’s case gets started. Niku will stand in for General Condi in the Imperial Military Office,” Kastan said. “After that, I’ll hand in anything Lord Bowden and Lord Niven need for Revi’s case. Then, I’ll head to the Imperial Tower.”

Jihan frowned at the note of worry in Kastan’s voice.

“What is it?” Jihan asked, shifting to his side so that he could look into Kastan’s eyes.

Kastan sighed.

“I’m worried Neith will make me wield my sword on Rushi. Now that you talked about Yan and Yija, I’m hesitant. I still think of my mother and she died of weak health. What would they think of me if I killed their mother?”

“Kas,” Jihan said. “I don’t think Neith will do that to you. However, if she does, you’ll do your duty as the empire’s Commander of Armies. I’ll stand with you and we’ll deal with the aftermath together.”

Kastan nodded and Jihan kissed him.

“I love you.”

Kas smiled.

“I love you too,” he said, making Jihan grin.

These words were coming to him more often and they warmed him deep inside.

Jihan caressed Kastan’s cheek, trailing his fingers over Kastan’s dark beard, his lips, up the line of his nose to his eyebrows.

“You have refused to tell me how you got this,” Jihan said, tracing the scar on Kastan’s right eyebrow.

“Do you hate it?” Kastan asked, dark eyes studying Jihan.

“Never,” Jihan smiled. “I rather love it. It’s very you.”

Jihan brushed dark hair away from Kastan’s forehead.

“I’ll take you to see what gave me the scar when we’re at Silver Shore Valley,” Kastan promised.

“I wonder how Andiya is doing,” Jihan said, thinking of his sister. “Her healer worried about the baby and she was on bedrest.”

“All the more reason to head home,” Kastan said.

“Let’s have a thanksgiving feast when we get home,” Jihan said. “The armies will no longer be at wartime. You’re home, and our family is there. It will be good to say thank you for that.”

“We’ll do as you say,” Kastan agreed. “It will be the first of its kind. I don’t think we’ve ever had one. Marriage dances are plenty, lantern festivals every year, but no thanksgiving feast.”

“Then, this one will be the first of many,” Jihan decided.

Kastan rolled over him, pushing Jihan to his back so that he was laying on Jihan. Cupping Jihan’s face in his hands, he kissed him.

“We don’t have to leave this room just yet,” Kastan murmured against his lips.

Jihan grinned, stroking his hands down Kastan’s back.

“I always want more time with you, Duke Silver.”

“I’m starting to love hearing you calling me Duke Silver,” Kastan confessed kissing him.

“More than when I call you Kas?” Jihan asked, against Kastan’s lips.

“I love that one most,” Kastan said, deepening their kiss.

Jihan lost himself in the heat of their passion, always relishing the feel of Kastan in his arms.

*~*~*~*

Kastan left his family in the care of Naveed, with the agreement that the generals would help Jihan get everyone relevant to Silver Shore Valley on the road home. He made his rounds, stopping at the Military offices to check Ferino’s case. There he found Niku and the officers in charge already hard at work.

“What do we do with Yeorim?” they asked. “There’s an order to get her to Silver Shore Valley from Prince Jihan. She’s still a critical witness. We need her to appear at court to testify.”

Kastan thought about the poor woman who now carried a Baiza brand. He had no idea how to compensate Yeorim for the pain she had endured in his domain.

“Jihan is probably thinking that she has a daughter and a mother in-law to take care of,” Kastan said. “Have a scribe write her statement and make sure she’s on the convoy heading to Silver Shore Valley by end of day. Yeorim is a victim. Treat her with respect.”

“Yes, Commander. Thank you for stopping by,” Niku said.

“Direct any questions you may have on this case to Lord Zure Niven. He will help you solve any issues that may arise,” Kastan said, knowing Zure would be fair.

He left the military offices and instead of going to find Zure Niven, he opted to climb the Imperial Tower.

Ha ran into Kastan at the main entrance into the imperial tower. The tall man looked somber, dressed in dark leathers, his hair in a tight braid. The gold sword hanging on his waist was a mirror image of the one Kastan wore. A frown creased his forehead when he saw Kastan.

“Ha,” Kastan said in greeting.

“God of War is done for now,” Ha said. “Prince of Peace starts his reign. The Iron Lands are calm. General Condi managed to suppress the insurgents at the borders. General Moran is leading his troops back to Silver Shore Valley. General Kigaru has restored proper policing in the Iron Lands.”

“Thank you for that report,” Kastan said.

“The people in the Iron Lands have suffered,” Ha said, shaking his head. He walked side by side with Kastan up the stairs to the room with the fig tree. “Their lives upended. I do not think Lord Revi would have stopped at mercenaries. He had the potential to become a tyrant.”

Kastan sighed, because there were no words to describe Lord Revi.

“Peacetime is more dangerous than wartime,” Ha reminded Kastan. “Be vigilant, god of war. Peace can brew the worst evils, as you’ve seen; Lord Revi was born in peacetime.”

“I’ll be vigilant,” Kastan said.

“Good,” Ha said.

Ha led the way into the large room with the fig tree growing in the middle, walking ahead of Kastan, he stopped and glanced at Kastan.

“Your Consort worries for you,” Ha said. “He wonders what decision will be made in this tower, even as he guides your people to Silver Shore Valley. He hopes it’s one that will not force you to take on grudges from young boys.”

“As I worry for him,” Kastan said, following Ha when he started walking again.

“To tell you the truth, I’m relieved you found each other,” Ha said, coming to a stop a few feet away from the massive fig tree. “Fate is hard to predict at times. There was a chance that you would not have met him in Kin Town. Jihan could have chosen to stay in Kamran Estate and guide the war supply from there. In a way, you have Rushi to thank for the attack she sent to his estate. Without it, Andiya might have convinced him to stay and you two would not have met. This love match would not come to be.”

“I would have found him another way,” Kastan said, thinking he had always wanted to thank Jihan for saving Rashan from a runaway carriage.”

“Perhaps, but it would not have been the right time when you met again. The one in your valley would have managed to make her plan work,” Ha said, staring up at the large fig tree, the branches slowly rising now, no longer laden with a heavy weight. “There would not have been a Prince Consort, but a Princess Consort. Nisa, that troubled soul, would have found a way to stand with you in her warped sense of love. Rushi’s rush actions triggered your kismet with Jihan Kamran.”

Kastan absorbed that truth, wondering if he should now thank Rushi for attacking Jihan. Her attack had forced Jihan to move out of the Kamran Estate and head to Kin Town to find his attackers. Kastan did not want to think of the alternatives Ha described. He wanted to keep the beautiful fate they had now.

“That’s what we’re here for,” Ha said, drawing Kastan’s gaze. Ha looked at him with golden eyes that held the knowledge of the world. “We’ll always try our best to keep kismet going in the right direction. I hope that knowledge relieves you of that heavy worry you’re carrying in your heart over Rushi’s punishment.”

Kastan breathed in and let it out slow. Of course, Ha would know he was struggling. Despite Jihan’s assurances, he still worried.

“Smile a little, Your Imperial Highness,” Ha teased, turning to the doors, his gaze expectant. “Your luck is true. Your consort continues to stand with you in the most unexpected ways.”

Kastan frowned, wondering what that meant. He had no time to ask as Kiyan and Bast entered the room followed by Neith. Behind Neith was Rushi.

Rushi’s hands were tied at the wrists with gold string. Neith held the leading end of the gold string. Rushi was dressed in a plain white dress, her hair falling down her back in a limp mess. She walked with her head down, her feet in simple white boots.

Kiyan hurried to Kastan’s side when he saw him.

Rushi looked up and her dejected expression filled with hate. She broke into a run, heading straight for Kastan in an attack, but the string tightened and Neith pulled her back with a stunning show of effortless force. Rushi stumbled back and fell on her knees, screaming in frustration as she glared at Kastan.

“You! You’ve ruined my family!” Rushi accused, lifting her bound hands to point at Kastan. “You’ve ruined all my plans, destroyed my hopes. What are you? Who do you think you are?”

“If you’re seeking answers, silence will serve you better,” Neith said, waving her right hand, a white cloth sealed Rushi’s mouth, robbing Rushi’s voice from her. “Your heart’s ambitions ruined your hopes, Rushi.”

Tears spilled from Rushi’s eyes and she bent over in a silent scream.

Kiyan shook his head, as he watched her.

“This moment was coming,” Neith continued, dropping the gold string she held to the floor. The end turned into a large anchor that would not be easily moved. “The struggles in this Empire have originated from this woman. Kiyan Miran, it took you too long to notice her machinations.”

Kastan placed his hand on Kiyan’s right shoulder, when his brother sucked in air at the reprimand.

“Enough, Neith,” Bast said. “Decisions made in the past cannot change. You also cannot interfere with a mortal’s will. Their decisions belong to them, their will their own. Rushi was given multiple chances to change her ways. Do not be harsh on those who tried to redeem her for the sake of two children.”

Neith closed her eyes and shook her head. She looked like an avenging immortal in a flowing green dress, her hair held up in a tight ponytail. Instead of a sword, she carried a gold whip. The markings on the gold whip matched the anchor holding Rushi down. She met Kastan’s gaze for a moment, before she moved to stand opposite Ha. Bast joined them, making a triangle.

“Emperor Kiyan,” Bast said, waving his hand to urge Kiyan to stand in the space made by the trio.

Kastan squeezed his brother’s shoulder and moved to stand near Ha as Kiyan took up position in the middle of the triangle.

“Your left hand,” Bast said, holding out his hand to Kiyan.

Kiyan took Bast’s hand with his left and stared at the gold marriage ring on his ring finger.

“The union between Rushi and Kiyan is broken,” Bast said, and then looked to Neith and Ha. “Do you agree?”

“Agreed,” Neith and Ha both said.

Kastan watched the ring on Kiyan’s hand dissolve into dust. The dust drifted to the floor and disappeared as though it had not existed.

Kastan turned his own ring and prayed that fate would allow him and Jihan to stay together and never separate in this way.

“Your fate is yours, Kiyan Miran,” Neith said, placing her hand on Kiyan’s shoulder. “Your heart may turn cold for a time. Disappointment will do that to a soul. However, there will come a time you’ll find a reason to smile again. Remember, a parent does not always have a blood bond to a child.”

Kastan could attest to that statement.

“Rise, Akasha’s Emperor. You are now mother and father to your sons and the empire. You are tasked with ruling the empire with benevolence,” Ha said. “Fate will lead your happiness to you.”

Kiyan got up and left the triangle no longer wearing his wedding ring, and with no wife. His expression was blank, but Kastan knew his brother was not happy.

Neith, Bast and Ha moved to where Rushi knelt. They made the same triangle around her as they had with Kiyan.

“Kastan,” Neith said, making Kastan stiffen. “Do you remember what I told you when we were in the forest outside your Silver Shore Valley?”

“That I might need to wield my sword against Rushi,” Kastan said, surprising Kiyan who looked at him with an unreadable gaze.

“This matter,” Neith started.

“Prince Jihan asked that we consider the fact that Silver Shore Valley has provided the evidence needed to remove Rushi,” Ha said, making Kastan’s eyes widen.

Ha glanced at him and winked.

“If you look at it this way, hasn’t Duke Silver’s wielded his sword of justice?” Ha asked, making Bast and Neith look at him in surprise.

“You would choose to champion the merchant?” Bast asked. “When did he get to you?”

“He burned incense and called me with his blood. He only begged for leniency. There was no demanding. He pleaded. In the end, I can only say that he’s only pointing out a fact,” Ha said, with a shrug. “Besides, Rushi’s crimes are not for Kastan to judge. She was the Empress when she committed them. The sword wielding rests on us.”

Kastan held his breath as the three ancients fell silent in contemplation.

“Fair enough,” Neith said after a period of silence. Her gaze shifted to Rushi on the floor in front of them. “Rushi, you formed the Burning Feather and charged ghost warriors to infiltrate two palaces. One belonging to your brother, the other is Akasha’s Imperial Palace. The Burning Feather’s movements have resulted in countless deaths. This counts as your first charge: the death of innocents in direct relation to the Burning Feather.”

Neith waved her hand and the cloth covering Rushi’s mouth disappeared.

“You may speak to defend yourself,” Bast said.

Rushi sat back on her haunches and looked to Kastan and Kiyan.

“I created the Burning Feather to protect Yan and Yija,” Rushi said. “It is what I know I needed to do to protect my sons, to keep them in power, here in the Empire of Akasha and in the Giode Kingdom. What I’ve done with the Burning Feather has been to protect my sons.”

“Death of an innocent only builds resentment,” Ha said. “Resentments can grow and turn into a weight that your soul will never be able to repay back.”

Rushi sighed. “What of the weight of my resentment? Kiyan took my father from me and expected me to continue on without revenge.”

“Your father, Lord Villes, did what he did to protect you,” Neith said. “His actions granted you some good karma, but you’ve stained the gift of love he gave you with more blood.”

Rushi fell silent.

“The Burning Feather has helped you fuel your ambitions,” Ha said. “Your attempt to murder the Imperial Consort is born of this ambition. Prince Kastan has done nothing to you, yet you’ve tried to kill him, control his son and murder his consort at every turn. It’s almost irrational.”

“He holds too much power,” Rushi said, shaking as she came up on her knees, her eyes going wild again as she looked at Kastan. “What’s the difference between him and Kiyan at the moment? Silver Shore Valley might as well be the Imperial Palace. His power is immeasurable. He has armies at his disposal. What makes you think he won’t rise up against Kiyan? Against my sons? You stand here judging me, why don’t you turn your judging eyes to him?”

“Yan and Yija are under his protection,” Neith said. “The Commander of Armies should be the strongest man in the empire to be able to keep an Emperor and his heirs alive.”

“Yan and Yija will have him and Rashan to depend on in the future,” Bast said. “The Empire’s future is certain.”

“You refuse to understand that Kastan’s life is ruled by the Emperor of Akasha,” Ha said. “He lives the way he does because the Emperor of Akasha wills it. He commands the tens of thousands of men at will because his Emperor wills it. It is not the other way. Kiyan is the Empire of Akasha. The Empire of Akasha is Kiyan. In truth, His Imperial Highness, Prince Kastan is Kiyan’s personal Shadow Guard. Why do you refuse to see it?”

“What of my sons?” Rushi asked. “What stops Kastan from taking control when my son is off age and his father decides to retire like the Emperor Kaveh?”

“Kastan is not you. He is loyal, to his brother and to the Empire. He is content with what he has at Silver Shore Valley,” Bast said. “If he wasn’t, you would not be here, Rushi. Yan and Yija would not exist and Kiyan would not be emperor. Kastan would be the Emperor. This is not that reality. This empire has Kiyan as Emperor, and Kastan as Commander of Armies.”

“It should be your hope that Rashan will learn from his father,” Neith said. “That way Rashan can be Yan, and this Empire’s, Shadow Guard in the future.”

“Your second charge is blind ambition fueled by greed,” Ha said. “It has darkened your heart, made you too toxic to mother a future emperor. What do you say to this charge?”

“A mother should not be judged for loving her children too much,” Rushi said, shaking her head. She sat back on her haunches and stared at her shaking hands. “What will my sons do without their mother? Have you thought of that? Are you going to tell them the truth?”

“Yes,” Neith, Ha and Bast said together.

“It shall be recorded in your history books,” Bast said. “Your case becomes the first precedence of an Empress who dared manipulate courtiers into treason. It shall be taught to Yan and Yija.”

“You’ll only paint me in an ugly light,” Rushi said, looking to Kiyan. “Are you going to let them destroy me before our children? Do you even care at all?”

“Our sons will grow with the truth,” Kiyan said. “I will not hide anything from them. I’ll do my best to make sure they grow up strong enough to rule this empire better than I do.”

Rushi started to stand, but Neith stopped her. She coiled her gold whip around Rushi.

“For the souls of merchants, stablemen, palace attendants, scribes, palace guards, wives, daughters, and sons who have died at your direction, I sentence you to death,” Neith said.

Ha unsheathed his sword and placed the blade on Rushi’s neck.

“For the crime of attempted murder,” Ha said, “I sentence you to death.”

“For the sake of your sons,” Bast said. “The ancients in this tower shall mete out your punishment. You shall not enter the Imperial Mausoleum, the final resting place of all in this imperial family after death. Instead, you will be buried in the Imperial City Akan’s cemetery, next to your father, Lord Villes.”

“Who wants to wait for a man who never loved me,” Rushi said with a scoff. “Kiyan, if we meet in the next life, ignore me. Walk away from me and let me live a life where the people close to me see me.”

“Rushi—,” Kiyan started to step forward, but then stopped, shaking his head. “You’re the one who did not give us a chance.”

Rushi stared at him in shock, and then shook her head.

Kastan was surprised when she looked at him, and bowed her head.

“I leave Yan and Yija’s protection to you,” Rushi said. “My brother will not give up his legacy in Giode Kingdom easily. If you can, while Yan is Emperor of Akasha, make Yija the King of Giode. It will be the least I would ask of you, Commander of Armies.”

Kastan placed his right hand on Kiyan’s right shoulder in support.

“Yan and Yija will live their destiny,” Kastan said.

Rushi nodded and seemed to let out a relieved sigh.

Neith, Ha and Bast gave her no more time to talk. Neith pulled her whip, it crackled with bright light and Ha sunk his blade into Rushi’s heart. It ended as fast as it started.

Neith withdrew her whip and Ha pulled out his sword, taking a step back. Kastan gaped when both of them spat out blood.

Neith turned away from them, while Ha simply left the room, disappearing.

“Kiyan, the scribes in the tower will write Rushi’s crimes and publish them to the empire,” Bast said. “I’ll leave your sons to you.”

“Thank you,” Kiyan said.

“Kastan, I know you’re leaving now,” Bast said. “You still have to clean up your valley. Don’t let Nisa poison it any longer. Your consort is waiting for you.”

“Thank you, Lord Bast,” Kastan said.

Bast nodded to the door, holding Neith’s right arm tight, as though his strength was holding her up.

Kastan gripped Kiyan’s right arm and led his brother out of the room. He made sure to shield Kiyan as they walked past an unmoving Rushi, and out the door of the Imperial Tower. He did not let go of his brother until they were outside in the midday light.

“My children do not have a mother,” Kiyan said, stopping and taking a deep breath as though the situation was finally hitting him. “What should I do? Kas, what should I tell them about her? Where do we go from here?”

Kastan placed his hands on Kiyan’s shoulders and stepped into his personal space, forcing Kiyan to look at him.

“You breathe in and out,” Kastan said. “Rushi made her choice. Yan and Yija will have to live with it. They will make it if you do. Focus on them for now and nothing else.”

Kiyan held his gaze for a full minute before he nodded and took in a deep breath.

“Okay,” Kiyan said. “You’re right. March forward to the future.”

“Yes,” Kastan said, with a slight smile. “Kyra will be here to stay with you before you know it. Let her fuss on you and the boys.”

Kiyan took in another deep breath and nodded.

“I miss you, Kas. Are you sure you don’t want to stay a little longer?”

“Jihan’s sister is at Silver Shore Valley,” Kastan said. “She’s pregnant and we’re worried for her. There’s also Nisa to deal with.”

“True,” Kiyan sighed. “Alright, then let’s make plans to see each other soon. Would you mind it very much if I came to see your Silver Shore Valley? Now that Ferino has embezzled money, I have a reason to come visit officially, and stay a few days.”

“You’d be very welcome,” Kastan said, wondering what Jihan’s response to this news would be. He wanted to hurry and find out what expression Jihan would give him.

Kiyan smiled, a small pleased smile that then morphed into determination.

Kiyan took a step back and straightened his robes. As though sensing his confidence returning, Rael and Isani moved in to stand behind their Emperor.

“I have to go in to the office,” Kiyan said. “I’ll leave you to your journey, Kas. Thank you for coming in time yesterday. I truly want Rashan to like me as an uncle. I did not want to hold him in the palace against his will.”

“I’m sure he likes you enough,” Kastan soothed.

Kiyan smiled.

“Alright, go to your consort. I’m sure he’s waiting for you eagerly.”

Kastan brought his right hand to his chest and gave Kiyan a formal bow.

Kiyan lingered for a moment, and then he turned and hurried away, followed by Rael and Isani. When Kiyan turned down a wide corridor heading to the main palace, Kastan let his hand drop to his side, and stared up at the sky. Rushi was gone. The worst of it was over. Just one little problem to solve at Silver Shore Valley and then peace would reign.

*~*~*~*

Neith sagged against Bast, her body shaking with every effort to breathe. Punishing a mortal was interfering. The punishment of such an act included physical pain, and her power sealed for a few days. This was why she had hoped Kastan would mete out Rushi’s punishment. Never could she have anticipated that Jihan would plead for consideration from Ha. And that Ha would choose to listen and grant the plea.

“The merchant’s reach has truly grown,” Neith said, shaking her head. “The dark cloud in Silver Shore Valley has also grown. Andiya’s child is born safe, so I don’t know what else could be wrong. Bast, you must help me keep watch these next few days. Promise me. I did not interfere when Rushi planned that ridiculous attack in the palace. This cloud, I need you to interfere if need comes.”

Bast sighed. “You give me a lot of work, Neith. Do you know you stress me?”

“Who else can stress you but me?” Neith asked, as Bast lifted her and took her to the long couch near her mirror. “Find Ha too. He’s going to hide away as he works through his pain. That idiot never wants anyone to see him when he’s weak.”

“Ha is in good hands,” Bast said, making sure Neith was comfortable. He arranged a pillow under her head, and crouched beside her. “He will find Zure Niven and get all the care he needs.”

“The Blood Nation Prince?” Neith gaped. “Why don’t I know this?”

Bast chuckled and stroked Neith’s dark hair that was now trailing to the floor.

“We are not as restrained as you are, Neith. You work so hard to hide your heart and your affections in an effort to protect yourself. Mine I’ve lavished on the Shadow Guards. Ha gives his strength to Kastan Miran and his heart to Zure Niven. We all try to find some comfort in our attachments,” Bast said. “Don’t you think you should too?”

“Who would waste their time on me?” Neith asked, suddenly tired, feeling her age and the hundreds of years she had lived.

“Kaveh Miran looks at you with kind eyes,” Bast suggested. “You also went to help him celebrate a life coming to this world. Don’t you think you pay attention to his joys and tears too much?”

“He’s pining for his lost wife,” Neith scoffed.

“Kas’s Ma died a long time ago,” Bast said, watching Neith as she closed her eyes. “Your heart has also stayed closed for a long time. Maybe try spending time with him, and you might comfort each other with friendship.”

“If that’s all it takes, then shouldn’t I find Jihan?” Neith asked.

“He’s a child to you,” Bast teased. “Besides, Duke Silver will resent you.”

Neith chuckled. “He’s quite jealous.”

Bast sighed and straightened to his full height. He waved his hand over Neith’s mirror to find the dark cloud hanging over the cliffs at Sun-filled Manor.

“You rest, Neith,” Bast said. “Think about what I’ve said. I’ll watch over the souls at Sun-filled Manor until you can.”

*~*~*~*

Kaveh Miran and Yasmin waited at the front door at Sun-filled Manor. Kaveh smiled wide as the Duke’s Coach came to a stop and the doors opened. Kaveh hurried down the steps to help Rashan out of the carriage. He lifted Rashan up and held him with a laugh.

“Shan, you’ve grown taller after a couple days,” Kaveh said. “What did they feed you in the capital?”

“Sweet potatoes,” Rashan answered, making Kaveh laugh with joy as he let Rashan down.

“There were other foods too,” Jihan said, as he jumped out of the carriage. He took Kaveh’s outstretched hand in greeting, accepting the hug Kaveh gave him. “How is my sister?”

Kaveh let go of him and stepped back with a wide smile.

“You’re an uncle,” Kaveh said.

“What?” Jihan gaped, and then panicked, gripping Kaveh’s arms. “Andiya?”

“She’s healthy,” Kaveh said. “She’s giving her healers hell when they try to make her stay in bed. I’d say she’s doing very well.”

Jihan gasped and let go of Kaveh. He took off in a run into the manor. Firuz followed him close as they went around the stone garden, down the wide corridor to the back door. Out into the back and turned right. Jihan ran along the cobbled path to the auxiliary house. He threw the glass doors open, startling the women sitting in the common room with a large fireplace.

“Andiya!” Jihan called, eager to see his sister, he started for the stairs. “Ishan!”

“Shh, why are you in a panic?” Andiya asked, her voice startling him.

Jihan stopped and turned to stare at the four women sitting on the comfortable chairs by the fire.

“Andiya!” Jihan said, when he recognized his sister.

She was dressed in a pale blue silk dress, her hair in a neat ponytail. She did not look like someone who had just given birth. He imagined the experience of giving birth would leave her tired and in bed for days. She smiled at him and it seemed like she was full of energy.

“An,” Andiya said, getting up and coming around the armchairs around her to reach him. She pulled him into a hug, and he shook off the shock. He hugged her tight.

“You’re back,” Andiya said, holding on to him. “Ru Ru, you protected him well.”

“It’s my duty,” Firuz said, behind Jihan. “I’m so glad you’re doing well too.”

Jihan let go of his sister, and pulled back to stare at her.

“Why are you walking around? What about Peanut? Is he fine? When did he come? Why didn’t you send me a message?”

“Twenty questions as usual,” Andiya said, with a chuckle. “I’m walking around because I keep telling you that I was not sick. Peanut is fine, sleeping now. He came the night you left to go to the capital. I didn’t want you to know because you would have stayed and you needed to go with Rashan.”

“What?” Jihan asked, gripping her arms. “Andiya, what if you needed something and I wasn’t here. You should have told me. Why would you keep this from me?”

“An,” she said. “Women have given birth since forever without a man’s help. I don’t see how you would have helped had you stayed, other than to worry me. So, it worked well this way. You protected Shan from his Emperor Uncle. I brought Peanut into the world, another little boy for you to protect as much as you want. Or were you going to help me give birth?”

Jihan stared at her for a full minute, before he shook his head, knowing a losing argument when he heard one.

“Big sister is always right,” Jihan said, stepping back with a nod. “Can I meet Peanut?”

“Definitely,” Andiya said, taking Jihan’s right hand and leading him upstairs. “Maybe, you can convince Ishan to come out for some sunshine. He won’t leave the baby alone.”

Jihan grinned, glancing at Firuz, his excitement hard to hide. They entered the master chamber Andiya and Ishan were using.

Ishan sat perched on a stool next to a basinet on the right side of the large bed. He held the edge of the rocking basinet, moving it slowly as he stared into it. He looked up when he heard them, and smiled wide.

“Jihan, I have a son,” Ishan said, in a loud proud whisper.

Andiya shook her head at her husband’s excitement.

Jihan hurried to pat Ishan’s back congratulating him.

“Come, meet your nephew,” Ishan said, taking Jihan’s arm and pulling him closer so that he could look into the basinet.

Andiya bent over the bassinet and with care, she lifted the small bundle wrapped in soft white and blue blankets. She cooed, pressing her lips on the baby’s forehead as she turned to Jihan.

“Come here, An,” she urged, and he stepped closer to her. She pulled down the blanket around the baby’s chin, and let him have a good look.

“He’s so small,” Jihan murmured as he stared at the little baby in Andiya’s arms.

Small face, eyes in perfect harmony though closed at the moment, a small nose, and mouth. The blanket slipped and he gave a quiet gasp at the small tiny fingers in a tight fist.

“He’s perfect,” Jihan said, smiling.

“Hi Peanut,” he said in a whisper. “I’m your uncle, Jihan. Welcome to the world.”

“You can hold him,” Andiya said, scaring him, making him step back.

“Me?” Jihan said in shock. “I might drop him. No.”

Andiya chuckled.

“You won’t drop him,” Andiya teased. “The only thing you should worry about is what I’ll do to you for not holding my baby, An.”

Jihan sighed and would have brought up more reasons why he could not hold the baby, but Andiya placed the delicate bundle in his arms. Heart racing, he held the baby against him, arranging his arms as Andiya directed, until he was holding the light bundle on his own. For something so precious, the boy in his arm felt weightless.

He remained asleep: vulnerable and fragile, it scared Jihan.

“We should get ghost warriors for him,” Jihan said, holding the baby closer to his chest. “Ishan, your Gura Estate needs more ghost warriors working there. We should also get a healer who knows how to cook for children. We also need a—”

“You’re already planning his whole life,” Andiya chided, caressing Jihan’s cheek. “Stop worrying and just enjoy the moment. You’re worse than Ishan at this rate. He even suggested building higher walls around both Kamran and Gura Estate.”

“Why?” Firuz asked, standing next to Jihan as he watched the baby sleep.

“Because he remembered that he and Jihan used to jump over the walls to go play in the wild forests when they were young,” Andiya said with a chuckle.

“Ishan is right,” Jihan said, nodding. “I’ll send you builders, Ishan.”

Andiya sighed and shook her head.

“At this rate, I should be afraid my son will grow up coddled,” she said, moving to sit on the side of the bed.

Firuz joined her and they sat in companionship.

“Never,” Jihan said, smiling at the baby in his arms. “What name have you given him?”

“His Majesty named him and promised to give him a blessing,” Andiya said. “You’re holding Adan Kamran Gura.”

“Adan, meaning of the earth, it is a very good name,” Jihan said, looking to Ishan. “It’s kind of you to name him Kamran too.”

“You’re my brother, Andiya is my wife,” Ishan said. “Kamran is my family too.”

Jihan smiled looking at the boy who represented his unbreakable bonds with Ishan and Andiya.

“Adan, your Uncle Jihan is going to do his best to be there for you and your parents,” Jihan said. “You’ll never have to deal with your Grand Pa Duyi on my watch.”

“And his other grand pa,” Ishan added. “I’ll make sure he never has to deal with my Pa either.”

Jihan glanced at Ishan.

“Speaking of which, I gave your name to Lord Zure Niven,” Jihan said. “When you get a message from him, it’s up to you to decide what to do.”

“The Blood Nation’s Prince has my name?” Ishan asked in surprise.

“Yes,” Jihan nodded, rocking Adan in his arms. “I told him you were a talented scholar who needed direction.”

“Jihan!” Ishan gaped making Jihan laugh. “How could you?”

“Relax, it’s all for the good,” Jihan said. “The Imperial Court is going to undergo a massive change with Lord Revi’s arrest. Zure Niven is loyal to the Empire. He’ll work to help the Emperor. Still, he’s a spoiled prince with too much time and money on his hands. He’ll want to find people who can help instead of doing all the work himself. You’ll be perfect for him.”

“I’ll tell him you said that,” Ishan threatened.

“He’ll laugh because I’m right,” Jihan said, grinning at Ishan. “In a way, we’re similar.”

Baby Adan yawned and Jihan stopped rocking him to stare.

“He’s so cute,” Jihan said, falling in love. “Andiya, why is he so cute?”

“Adan is going to be very lucky in this life,” Andiya said, crossing her arms against her chest. “He’ll have you two wrapped around his fingers.”

“It’s your fault for making him look this cute,” Jihan said, rocking Adan again.

Andiya laughed then, a full-bodied laugh that had everyone who heard it smiling.

*~*~*~*

Kastan watched Jihan smile at Andiya’s baby. He looked so happy, Kastan could not make himself step into the room and interrupt the moment. The little family they made was beautiful to watch.

“Your Grace,” Deora said, “You should join them.”

“No,” Kastan said, clasping his hands behind his back, remaining at the door. “Let them spend time together. Jihan misses his sister when she’s not around. I want him to get as much time with her as he can while she’s here. Soon, he’ll only have letters from her.”

Deora nodded, a small smile curving her lips.

“I have to ride out, but if you can help Yasmin prepare for a feast this evening. We should celebrate Adan’s birth as a family. Rashan and I will meet Adan then. Do you think Lady Andiya will be alright for a family gathering?”

“Yes,” Deora said. “She’ll be happy that you want to celebrate Adan’s birth. I’ll make sure to help Yasmin prepare.”

“Thank you for taking care of them,” Kastan said, patting Deora’s shoulder. “I’ll leave them to you.”

Deora brought her right hand to her chest and gave Kastan a respectful bow.

“They are family too,” Deora said. “As you are, Your Grace.”

Kastan thanked her, looked at Jihan smiling again, before he left the auxiliary house. He passed the dining hall where he found Yasmin arranging chairs around the dining table. He made sure she had everything to prepare for the feast. Then he joined Kaveh and Rashan who were sitting in the more comfortable living area. Rashan was regaling Kaveh with his adventures in the capital.

“Pa, I have to ride out to deal with the Baiza matter,” Kastan said. “I’ve asked Yasmin to prepare a feast for Adan’s birth.”

“I’ll assist her and make sure everything is ready,” Kaveh said, with a ready smile. “It’s exciting to have a young soul in the manor.”

“Do I get to meet Adan?” Rashan asked, excited at the prospect.

“His Ma will bring him to see you this evening,” Kastan said. “He’s still very small, so we’ll refer to your aunt’s guidance. Okay, Shan?”

“Okay,” Rashan said, clapping. “I can’t wait.”

Kastan smiled at his son’s excitement.

“You’ll be an older brother Adan,” Kastan said. “I hope that you’ll protect him as one.”

“I will, Pa,” Rashan said, straightening his shoulders with pride.

Kastan nodded and glanced at Kaveh.

“I still don’t know how I should compensate the victims Nisa branded,” Kastan said.

“General Baiza was kind hearted to his officers. He gave to those in need,” Kaveh said. “I would compensate his daughter’s victims with the Baiza fortune. Let them attend the trial at the magistrate to air out their grievances.”

“Kiyan told me to send Nisa to the Imperial Palace for punishment,” Kastan said.

“The Emperor has no time deal with Nisa Baiza,” Kaveh said, shaking his head. “The fallout from Lord Revi and Rushi’s crimes will be enough to occupy all his time. The Imperial Court will undergo change. He’ll need to clean out those in the palace who helped Rushi. She must have had many people helping her. Spare him time, Kas. If he asks you can send him to me.”

“Pa is right,” Kastan said. “Then, I’ll be back before the feast starts.”

Kaveh nodded and Rashan waved goodbye.

Kastan adjusted his cloak over his shoulders and checked his sword belt as he headed out of the manor. Outside, he found Temu, Naveed and Raven waiting for him.

“General Faiza is moving officers from the magistrate to arrest the people working in the Baiza Estate with Nisa,” Naveed said.

Kastan mounted his horse and they headed to Bottom-Cliff Estate.

It was time to empty that important place and ready it for a new owner.

*~*~*~*~*

Since her visit to Sun-filled Manor, Nisa had opted to stay in the Baiza Estate. She hoped Lord Revi and the Empress would manage their plans, and relieve her of her self-imposed exile. The last news she got from the manor was that Prince Rashan was heading to the Capital City Akan. She hoped Jihan succumbed to his injuries before Rashan and Kastan returned.

Nisa sighed.

The waiting was hard.

“Muge, why has Ferino not visited the estate these last three days?” Nisa asked. “It’s been quiet. Do you think they’re worried about Prince Consort’s condition in the manor?”

Muge frowned, looking out the windows in the study to the kitchen courtyard below.

“All the cooking women come on time, and the stable master is at work as usual,” Muge said. “It’s been a bit quiet, but that’s also usual when something big is happening in the Capital. Everyone is just nervous waiting for the outcome in the palace.”

Rushi had promised to send her a message the moment Prince Rashan was placed under her care. What Nisa hated the most was the waiting.

She paced her bare study. The place emptied of her personal papers, each one in crates lined in the main floor downstairs. She hoped they would be shipped to Sun-filled Manor instead of her aunt’s home. She was stubbornly staying at Bottom-cliff Estate, delaying renovations for the new general as she waited for news.

“I wonder if the generals are also waiting,” Nisa said, a frown creasing her forehead. “Not even the soldiers who patrol our road have come in for water.”

“We’ve kept the gates closed,” Muge said. “In case something goes wrong. Ferino worries what will happen if we are discovered. He told me earlier to make sure we kept a low profile to get through this unscathed.”

“He’s a rough brute,” Nisa said with a scoff, “but his advice is always sound. Anyway, I suppose there is no need to worry. Ferino has not sent a message to warn us. He’s more paranoid than me.”

Muge nodded in agreement.

“I heard he’s been keeping the butchery open as usual,” Muge said. “He sent meat to our kitchen last night.”

“That’s good to know,” Nisa said, dropping into an armchair. “Maybe we can have beef stew for our midday meal. This waiting around is exhausting. I can’t wait to ride up to Sun-filled Manor and help kick out that fake Lady Andiya when Duke Silver returns. It will be a new day.”

Muge smiled and started to turn away from the kitchen courtyard. She stopped short, clutching the windowsill when she saw General Faiza ride in through the back gates of the estate. He led a troop of soldiers who entered the kitchens, stores and the stables.

“Lady Baiza,” Muge said, the fear in her voice enough to get Nisa getting up and hurrying to her side.

“What is it?” Nisa asked, looking out the windows too.

She clutched the drapes when she saw General Faiza on his horse, directing his officers who dragged out the women working in the kitchen.

“What is he doing?” Nisa asked, turning to head downstairs.

Kastan’s Generals were misbehaving of late. First Lord General Temu had been rude with her at the manor, and now General Faiza was here mistreating her people. Why were they so unruly?

Nisa ran down the stairs, clutching her skirts wrapped in a cloud of anger and annoyance. The moment she stepped on the last stair, her front door crashed into pieces, the wood breaking and falling in splintered pieces on the polished floors. Nisa fell back on the stairs, holding on to the banister in shock.

Lord General Naveed and General Temu stalked in, making for her with determined steps. She started to get up but they reached her and took her arms, lifting her.

“What are you doing?” Nisa asked, her voice a note away from turning into a scream. “How dare you break into Bottom-cliff Estate? This is an act of war. The General’s Council will have your heads. Stop manhandling me!”

Naveed and Temu dragged her out of the house without pause. Down three steps into the front courtyard where Nisa gaped when she saw Kastan waiting. He stood with his back to her; all she could see was his red cloak sweeping the cobbled paths of her courtyard. The gold snarling tiger shifting as the cloak waved in the wind. It made her heart shake with fear.

Her heartbeat stuttered when he turned and she saw that he held his sword in his right hand. The gold handle gripped tight, ready for an attack.

Naveed and Temu pushed her to the ground, forcing her to her knees.

“I don’t understand why you’re doing this to me,” Nisa said, hating the tears that filled her eyes.

“Nisa Baiza you’re under arrest,” Kastan said. “Naveed, find Muge, put her in chains beside her mistress. Search this manor for her ledgers. I don’t care if you have to tear the house down to find out why she needed the welfare funds. We’ll build a new house for General Moran.”

“Your Grace,” Nisa said, fear coloring her voice, as Naveed left Temu with her and led more officers into the house. “Why am I arrested? Why are you—?”

“Stop acting,” Kastan said, crouching down so that he could look into her eyes. “Nisa, you’ve truly lost your mind living in this Bottom-Cliff Estate. What dreams have you entertained that made you think you could turn my valley into a slaver’s den? You even dared try to send my consort and son to the underworld. How bold you are.”

“Your Grace must be mistaken,” Nisa said, shaking her head, afraid of the dark gaze watching her.

She didn’t think she had ever seen this side of Duke Silver. He was cold, ready to bring the sword he held down on her neck. Did he truly know the truth?

No, she shook her head. There was still Ferino to blame. She could get out of this.

“Your Grace,” Nisa started.

“You used Ferino to embezzle precious funds from the Welfare Office,” Kastan said, narrowing his gaze on her. “Why?”

“He forced me to do it,” Nisa said. “He gave me no choice.”

“Try again,” Kastan said. “I have Ferino’s ledgers. I also have his wife and his mother. They suffered under you, Nisa. You branded Yeorim, and whipped Ferino’s mother. She hates you enough to confess all you’ve done. So, Nisa, you shouldn’t lie to me.”

“I’m not lying. Ferino brought those names to me and forced me to submit them,” Nisa said, her heart pounding in her chest. “He brought the funds to me and threatened me, Your Grace. You have to believe me. The butcher planned it all. He even arranged for the Burning Feather to attack His Grace.”

“Your lies continue,” Kastan said, shaking his head in disappointment. “I wonder what your father would say if he saw what you’d done.”

“Leave him out of this,” Nisa hissed. “He’s gone.”

“Yes,” Kastan said. “Thankfully he won’t have to see what you’ve become. Since you won’t confess your wrong doings, I’ll find all the evidence and put you through a public trial. Raven!”

Kastan straightened to his full height and Nisa followed his gaze to the Hidden Keeper standing behind him.

“Yes, Your Grace,” Raven said.

“Find all her branding victims. We’ll compensate them with the remaining amounts in the Baiza Estate,” Kastan said.

Nisa’s stomach dropped and she sat on the ground, her hands flat on the cobbled stones in shock. Someone in her estate had betrayed her.

“No,” she said, shaking her head. “You can’t do that. Do you know what I’ve had to go through to retain those funds? I need that money to keep the academy running, to keep Lord Revi at bay.”

Kastan turned to look at her, and she met cold dark eyes.

“I’ll be happy to tell you that Revi is arrested. If he’s the one you gave the money you embezzled, the joke is on you.”

“There is still the Empress,” Nisa said, consoling herself.

“Rushi is gone. The Empire has no Empress. Nisa, I wish you’d stayed still. I hoped to find you a good husband and make sure you were happy. Instead, you chose to be a villain in my valley. Now, it’s my duty to make sure you pay for your crimes,” Kastan said, and pulled out a rolled scroll with the Emperor’s seal. “Your title is hereby stripped from you. You are now a criminal.”

Nisa closed her eyes.

“It doesn’t matter,” Nisa said after a period of silence. “You might be rid of me, but at least the Prince Consort will no longer be at your side. He will be gone and you’ll remain alone, Duke Silver. I at the very least managed that part.”

Kastan chuckled and she looked up to find him smiling.

“Looks like the people in my valley remain quite loyal. No one has told you the truth yet,” Kastan said. “Jihan is alive and well, saved from your cruel machinations, Nisa. You’ll be gone from this valley, and Prince Consort and I shall continue our lives in peace.”

Nisa gaped as she looked to General Temu, who nodded to confirm Duke Silver’s words.

“That day—,” she started, thinking of the day she went to the manor.

“His Grace watched you from behind the screen,” Temu said. “He saw through you first.”

Nisa dug her fingers into the cobbled stones, hate growing at the luck the merchant seemed to have amassed this lifetime. She let out a frustrated cry.

Why could she never win against Jihan?

*~*~*~*~*

That evening, Jihan watched his family sitting around the long dining table. Kastan sat at the head of the table with Kaveh sitting to his immediate right, followed by Rashan and Safan. Then there was Temu, Naveed and General Faiza. Jihan sat on Kastan’s immediate left, with Firuz to his right, followed by Andiya, then Ishan. Yasmin, Fara and Deora were helping to serve food, and with watching Baby Adan.

“The dining table is packed with family,” Kastan said, drawing his gaze. “It’s good to see.”

Jihan nodded, and smiled, picking up his goblet of water, he took a sip.

“I think we should have them over more often,” Jihan said. “Every month, maybe?”

“Sounds good,” Kastan agreed. He picked out a large piece of grilled fish from a platter near him and placed it on Jihan’s empty plate. “Eat, An, stop watching everyone.”

“Where did you go this afternoon?” Jihan asked, placing his goblet on the table.

Firuz passed him a bowl filled with a mix of vegetables grilled to perfection. Serving corn, tomatoes, green peppers and onions in his plate, he looked up when Kastan didn’t answer to find Kastan watching him.

“What?” Jihan asked, passing Kastan the bowl.

Kastan took the bowl and passed it to his father, never looking away from him.

“What?” Jihan asked, leaning toward Kastan, worried. “Did something happen?”

“No,” Kastan said, with a smile. “I just remember sitting here the day you were attacked, wondering when you would return home.”

“It was difficult to get a decent conversation out of him,” Kaveh said, with a grin for his son. He helped Rashan serve vegetables on his plate, and then passed the bowl to Safan. “Kas missed you, Jihan.”

“I missed him too,” Jihan said. “It will be good having him home now. You still haven’t told me where you disappeared to this afternoon?”

“Nisa,” Kastan said, taking a bite of his fish. He nodded in satisfaction as he chewed his food.

“Yasmin, this is very good,” Kastan said, raising his voice so that she could hear him.

“Thank you, Your Grace,” Yasmin said, from where she was checking on baby Adan. “Deora and Fara helped me today.”

“The food is delicious,” Kastan said, and then turned to Jihan. “We arrested Nisa, Muge, her nanny and a few of the women working in the kitchens who were helping her brand her victims.”

“You should have brought me along,” Jihan said with a grin. “That is one woman I would have loved to watch brought down from her sick throne.”

“I’ve handed the ledgers we found in her estate to Raven,” Kastan said, reaching for the bowl filled with lemon cream sauce. He served himself a healthy helping and handed it to Jihan.

“The Hidden Keepers will comb through them faster now that they know what to look for. They should discover where she is keeping any of the money she stole,” Kastan continued. “We also found the victims of her branding. Raven is still writing their names. They have reached thirty-seven so far.”

Jihan sighed and sat back in his chair to stare at his food.

“I’m glad that is over, but there is no way to wipe away those terrible memories for Yeorim and those thirty-seven victims, Kas. Nisa has done a lot of damage.”

“While the damage cannot be erased, it can be avoided. Nisa went unchecked because of her status in the valley,” Kaveh said, shaking his head. “Make it easier for citizens like Yeorim to approach the Duke’s Office, or even the magistrate to report an injustice.”

“The valley’s council can help come up with ideas,” Temu said. “The women leading in the villages can reach out faster than we can, find a way to keep such atrocities from happening again.”

“Temu, see that it gets done,” Kastan said. “For now, we find Nisa’s victims and do our best to compensate them. As for the Welfare Office…”

Kastan looked at Jihan. “Temu ask the officers in charge to find Jihan. He’ll help them avoid another embarrassment.”

Jihan grinned and nodded.

“What happens to Nisa now?” Andiya asked.

“The Emperor has stripped her titles away, and the Baiza fortune will be used to compensate her victims. We are collecting evidence from her personal belongings and then she’ll be sentenced by the magistrate according to the law of the land,” Kastan said. “Hard labor or taken to an Imperial Prison.”

Jihan wished there was a more severe punishment for Nisa’s crimes against Yeorim. Time in prison was good for a woman like Nisa, but it held risks. What if she escaped? What if she managed to pay off a guard? Was he bloodthirsty for wanting Nisa dead?

“We’ll see what the magistrate has to say,” Kastan said, as though reading Jihan’s thoughts. “If her sentence is not good enough, we can always intervene and send her to the Imperial Palace. Kiyan will send her to the dungeons at the Imperial Palace.”

Jihan nodded, though he remained apprehensive about Nisa. She gave him a bad feeling.

“Enough about Nisa,” Faiza said. “We’re here to celebrate the birth of a baby boy. He has no need to know about this woman. Tell me, Lady Gura, what do you think Adan will grow up to be?”

“A scholar,” Ishan said.

“A merchant,” Jihan said.

“A warrior,” Kastan, Kaveh, and Rashan said in a chorus, echoed by Safan, Naveed and Temu.

They all spoke at the same time, and Andiya could only burst out laughing.

“As you can see, his future is full of possibilities,” Andiya said, shaking her head in amusement. “For the record, I just want a happy child.”

Faiza chuckled.

The feast continued as everyone on the table shared what they thought Adan would grow up to be. There was talk of a happy future. Smiles and teasing, praises for Yasmin, Deora and Fara on the good food. Laughter, more teasing…friends turning into family, family becoming friends.

Jihan soaked it in, feeling greedy when he wanted more of these evenings.

“You look happy,” Firuz murmured next to him. “Everyone here does.”

“It feels surreal,” Jihan said in answer, being honest. He was very lucky, he decided.

A warm hand covered his right hand and he turned to find Kastan watching him again. He tangled his fingers with Kastan’s and smiled.

“Thank you,” he mouthed to Kastan.

Kastan gave him a slight nod, and squeezed his hand.

Later, after they had eaten and left the dining hall for the more comfortable chairs in the family living area, Kaveh Miran led a small ceremony to give Adan a blessing. Jihan watched as Deora picked up the baby, and started with General Faiza. She gave him baby Adan, and he stood holding the small bundle with care.

“Welcome to the world, Adan,” Faiza said. “May you grow up happy as your Parents wish, and be filled the courage of a wild tiger.”

Faiza handed the baby to Deora and reached into his overcoat pocket. He retrieved a string of red jade beads that he pinned to the blanket covering Adan. Deora thanked him and moved to Naveed.

“It’s an honor to meet you, Adan,” Naveed said, rocking the baby with a gentle smile. “Your parents are so happy to meet you. I hope for you all the best experiences in the world, and when you’re sad, know that you’ll have a family to lean on.”

He placed a bracelet made of silver charms on Adan’s blanket and handed him back to Deora with gentle care. Deora thanked him with a nod and wide smile and moved to Safan.

Safan gifted Adan a string of green jade beads, and wished him happiness. Temu gifted Adan a silver locket and a pair of red shoes with tigers embroidered on the side. He wished Adan strength and courage.

Deora moved to Rashan and Jihan smiled as he watched Rashan carefully holding the baby. His expression serious, as he focused on the task.

“I’m Rashan Miran. I can only promise to be your good brother,” Rashan said, making Andiya cry. “I’ve never had a brother so it will be new. I can teach you everything I’ve learned until now and later.”

Jihan bit his bottom lip, clutching Kastan’s arm as Rashan gave Deora the baby. He pulled out a green jade ring from his pocket and held it out to Deora.

“For the baby,” Rashan said with a wide smile. “He can wear it when he’s older. It will match mine.”

“Thank you, Prince Rashan,” Deora said, taking the ring and handing it to Andiya for safekeeping.

She moved to Firuz, who stood shaking his hands out, and letting out a nervous breath. Deora was patient with him. When he was holding the baby, Firuz smiled and stared at Baby Adan.

“May you live a happy life, Adan,” Firuz said, he brushed a kiss on Adan’s forehead and gave the baby back to Deora.

She smiled at him in encouragement as he reached into his pocket. Firuz’s gift was a protection amulet. It was made of wood, with a prayer for protection carved in beautiful designs. It had a red string hanging from it that he tied around the blanket covering Adan.

Jihan took in a deep breath and smiled at Deora when she turned to him. He took Adan in his arms, swallowing back his emotions. Deora had neatly pinned the Generals’ gifts on the blanket wrapped around Adan.

“Adan,” Jihan said. “This family is happy to have you as one of us. Know that you’ll have many watching over you as you grow up. I pray that your life will be full of happiness, courage, love, and all good things. Be good to your parents.”

He handed the baby to Deora and reached into his pocket. He pulled out an ornate blue jade with a green and white tassel hanging from it. It was the Kamran Estate token. He placed it on Adan.

“Kamran is you,” Jihan said. “You are also Kamran.”

Andiya sniffled again, and pressed a handkerchief to her eyes.

Deora thanked Jihan with a wide smile and moved to Kastan.

“Duke Silver what will you gift our Adan?” she asked, with a teasing smile.

“There’s already so much jade on him,” Kastan said, taking Adan in his arms.

Deora took Jihan’s gift and handed it to Ishan for safekeeping.

Kastan rocked the baby, peering into the baby’s open eyes.

“He’s so calm,” Kastan said. “He must know he has the Generals of this Empire and a Shadow Guard handing him gifts at will.”

Everyone laughed, including Andiya who wiped away her happy tears.

“Adan, you’re nephew to my beloved,” Kastan said. “You are loved by your parents. They wish you happiness and prosperity, so it is my wish too. As for my gift, how about I become your benefactor. Treat my home as yours and I’ll take it as I’ve gained a son.”

Kastan handed the baby to Deora and reached into his pocket, pulling out a gold band that had adjustable coils. He placed it on Adan.

“Adan may find me using this gold band wherever I may be. I will never turn him away,” Kastan said.

Andiya and Ishan stood, and brought their right hands to their chests bowing in thanks.

Deora lowered her head too.

“Duke Silver’s gift is very hefty,” she said, winking at Jihan. She turned to walk to the armchair where Kaveh Miran sat. “I wonder what His Majesty will offer our Adan.”

Kaveh stood with a matching smile, taking Adan with care. Adan fussed a little, and Jihan sat close to Kastan watching Kaveh soothe Adan with a murmur, rocking him from side to side.

Deora moved to the side so that everyone could see Kaveh.

“My gift starts by blessing this child this evening,” Kaveh said, when Adan was calm. “Andiya and Ishan asked me to bless him as the oldest member of this family. I’d like to thank you both for giving me the honor.”

Andiya and Ishan both stood up and moved to stand next to Kaveh.

“Adan Kamran Gura, you have received many wishes and gifts from the friends and family joining us today. May your life fill with unconditional love, good health, warmth, and happiness. May all who are here help you and support you, as you grow. When you’re old enough, it is my hope you become a source of strength to your parents,” Kaveh said.

“Andiya and Ishan,” Kaveh said. “We thank you for sharing your great joy with us. We’re all here to support your family, to add to your strength and efforts as you nurture Adan. We as a family give thanks for this precious new life.”

Kaveh pressed a gentle kiss on Adan’s forehead, and handed him back to Andiya, not letting go until Andiya had him.

Kaveh’s gift was a gold band similar to Kastan.

“My son’s promise is mine,” Kaveh said. “Adan may see me as his benefactor and honorary Grand Pa.”

Jihan grinned at this description. He motioned Rashan to join him on the long couch, and the boy hurried to sit next to him. Rashan leaned on Jihan’s lap and Jihan rubbed his back as they watched Kaveh talk to Andiya and Jihan in hushed tones.

“Papa, will I ever get a little brother or sister?” Rashan asked.

Jihan’s eyes widened at this question and he turned to find Kastan grinning at him. He had no words, so he glared at Kastan to answer. When Kastan bit back a laugh, Jihan pinched his right arm, forcing his husband into submission.

Kastan wiped a hand over his face to hide his amusement, and cleared his throat. He looked at Rashan.

“Shan,” Kastan said. “I like having your Papa to myself. Don’t you?”

“I do,” Rashan said, frowning.

“If we get a baby in this house, he’ll be busier than ever,” Kastan said, with a straight face. “It’s hard enough sharing him with all of Kamran. Don’t you think it’s better for us to keep our family as it is?”

“You know we can get a surrogate if you want a baby,” Jihan hissed at Kastan.

Kastan shrugged and lifted a questioning brow at Rashan.

Rashan seemed to be in deep thought, his gaze shifting to Adan who had started crying in his mother’s arms. Andiya moved away leaving Kaveh and Ishan talking while she tried to calm Adan down.

“Pa is right,” Rashan said after a while. “I’ll just be Adan’s brother then.”

“Good man,” Kastan said, stroking Rashan’s hair back with an approving nod.

“Are you sure, Shan?” Jihan asked, looking at Rashan who was now watching General Faiza with interest.

“Yes, I’m sure,” Rashan said. “Can I sit with General Faiza?”

“Yes,” Kastan said.

“But,” Jihan started, as Rashan got up and skipped to General Faiza’s side.

Kastan kissed Jihan’s cheek, distracting him.

“I am jealously guarding your time, so stop trying to add more family members to steal it from me,” Kastan said. “I’m not willing.”

Jihan laughed then.

*~*~*~*~*

A fortnight after the blessing ceremony, Andiya and Ishan returned to Kamran Estate with Adan and Deora. General Kigaru escorted them home, as he also needed to return to his usual post in Sun Kingdom.

Sun-filled Manor returned to normal.

Kaveh Miran spent his days helping Rashan with his studies, riding with Jihan and Firuz to inspect the farms and the trade station, or training with the armies’ new recruits.

Kastan dealt with the Duke’s Office, and the ongoing Nisa Baiza case.

Nisa was held in the prison in the magistrate’s compound. She was under heavy guard, as Naveed and Temu both feared she would manage to pay off a guard. Her trial was slow. The numbers of the branded had reached sixty. Kastan could not believe that the woman had been so cruel while living so close him. Raven and Naveed were managing the compensation process for the victims. The magistrate would charge Nisa on each count of branding, which meant her years in prison had increased.

The Hidden Keepers had found ledgers in Nisa’s personal documents. She had borrowed money from Lord Revi and been unable to pay it. The money she borrowed was used to gain a footing and recognition in the academy Rashan attended. She gained the recognition, but then, it was soon time to pay back Lord Revi. Her father would not increase her allowance, so she took advantage of Ferino’s status as an officer. She forced him to submit names of the fallen in order to get funds from the welfare office. She signed them all off and forward them in the name of her father. She then used the funds to pay Lord Revi. No wonder he had known the valley wsa struggling financially.

Kastan sighed, wishing for a speedy end to Nisa’s case. He was tired of listening and discovering all the lies she had crafted. In two days, Nisa would finally face the charge of Jihan’s attempted murder using the Burning Feather. The magistrate was sure this charge would get a more severe sentencing. Kastan was eager to get it over with and be rid of Nisa for good.

As for Jihan and Firuz, they were now able to manage the twenty shops belonging to the manor. With Temu’s help, they met with the business owners of all the shops owned under Sun-filled Manor. Where the merchant was unable to continue paying rent, Jihan offered to clear balances due, leaving the merchant debt free. The shop would then return to the manor so that it could be rented out to someone else.

Ferino’s butchery was now under the care of Ferino’s mother. She had hired a young man to take on the running of the butchery. Jihan spent an afternoon with her to straighten out how much rent was due to the manor, and what he expected of them to keep their relationship amicable. All twenty shops changed owners, and the manor now expected rent from each one at the end of the month. It was a great weight off Jihan’s shoulders.

It allowed him to focus on the workshops within Sun-filled Manor. There was the fabric workshop, the furniture workshop, and the metal works.

“Master Rabo,” Jihan said, one afternoon when he finally got the chance to enter the fabric workshop. “You’ve finally agreed to meet me.”

Jihan strolled through the busy fabric workshop, and stopped to watch a woman embroider a tiger on red cloth. Her work was flawless, her hands moving with experienced elegance.

“I want to apologize for my behavior,” Rabo said, standing behind Jihan, his gaze wary when he glanced at Firuz. “I had no idea what you were going through, Your Grace. I was inconsiderate.”

Jihan shrugged.

“It’s over now,” he said, there was no need to complain over the past. “Tell me, how many people would you need to expand this workshop? How do you train new embroiders and tailors? Where do you get your supplies?”

Rabo explained his process for Jihan, taking them on a tour of each section of the workshop. They moved from fabric quality checks, the designers of the robes, the cutters to the tailors. And the small team of women who embroidered the fabric.

“We take on apprentices,” Rabo said. “I can only afford a few number each time. If we had a budget to allow more apprentices then maybe the workshop could be expanded.”

“Write up your thoughts and plans, bring them to the manor,” Jihan said, heading to the door. “Ask the builders to design your ideal fabric workshop. I need a building that you know can manage to produce a large amount of quality garments and embroidered fabric. We’ll discuss what you come up with when we meet again.”

“Are you serious, Your Grace?” Master Rabo asked, stopping at the workshop entrance. “You’re not joking with me, are you? I’ve wanted to be able to employ more people in here. So, if you’re not serious—”

“I believe you’re wasting time talking to me when you could have already found paper and pen to write,” Jihan said, cutting him off.

Rabo dashed back into the workshop, mumbling to himself.

Jihan chuckled and shook his head as he looked at Firuz.

“Now that you have the manor in good shape financially,” Firuz said. “Do you think we can start some renovation on it? I still want to fix that stone garden. It looks so sorry and neglected.”

“Yes, I think it’s time,” Jihan said, as they walked to the red gates.

He was walking past the Duke’s Office when Temu hurried out to catch up with him.

“Your Grace has requests,” Temu said, holding four small passbooks.

“What kind of requests?” Jihan asked, stopping to take the passbooks Temu handed him. He looked them over, but discovered he didn’t know any of the names on the passbooks. He handed them back to Temu. “Who are they?”

“Three people who want your advice on their businesses in town,” Temu said. “One who has recently moved here and belongs to Grandmaster Lehin’s family.”

“Ah, the Iron Lands forger,” Jihan said. “Their work is strictly weapons. He would benefit talking to Naveed or you.”

“This one says he wants to make tilling equipment and not weapons,” Temu said with a wince.

Jihan smiled at the prospect of a rebel in a family of weapons forgers, what a find. He would be eager to make a difference and willing to be innovative.

“I’ll meet with him, but not today. I’m heading home.”

Temu grinned. “Then I’ll arrange appointments and let you know.”

“Good,” Jihan said, waving at Temu, he and Firuz continued to the manor’s red gates.

The attendant there opened the gates for them without fuss, greeting them with a sunny smile.

“It looks like we’re finally making this our home, Firuz.”

“About time,” Firuz said, as they walked up to the front door. “Let’s go to the roof and discover where the light comes from above the stone garden.”

“Are you going to make me climb high places?” Jihan asked, when Firuz grabbed his arm. “You know I don’t like heights.”

“What’s there to worry about? I’m here,” Firuz said, leading the way to the back of the manor to find a ladder.

Minutes later, Jihan groaned, as Firuz pushed him up the high ladder until they were standing on the tiles covering the roof. His knees felt weak at the height, but Firuz held his arm tight, keeping him steady. They explored the massive roof, and Jihan was surprised to discover that the manor had an unfinished wing attached to the auxiliary house behind Yasmin and Fara’s rooms. The space was sealed off tight with no access from the inside, probably a safety measure because of Rashan.

“I should ask Kas where the drawings of this manor are. We can open up this side and add more space. We could have our guests stay closer,” Jihan said, considering the unfinished roof. “I can also get a proper office.”

“See, if you hadn’t come up here you would not have seen what needs to be done,” Firuz said, leading him to the front of the manor.

They had to climb down two roofs to find the glass opening that showed off the stone garden. Firuz made sure Jihan was steady when they found it, and spent a few minutes brushing off dried leaves and caked dust from the glass.

“An, can we start work on renovating this manor?” Firuz asked, looking up at him. “I think it would be an interesting project.”

Jihan grinned because this was the first time he’d ever heard Firuz request a project he wanted. It looked like the manor had turned into home for his Shadow Guard too.

“Sure, Firuz,” Jihan said, stretching his arms above his head. “After all, we’ll live here forever, might as well make it comfortable.”

Firuz grinned and continued to brush off leaves from the glass. He found a latch on the side of the glass, unlocked it and pulled the glass window open with a pleased hum. He peered down to the stone garden below. When he secured the glass window open, he looked to Jihan with an expectant look.

“We are not jumping down through there,” Jihan said, shaking his head when Firuz got up and started moving to him. “Firuz, no way we’re jumping down. I’m using the ladder to get down.”

Firuz chuckled, moving as though born to walk on roofs. He wrapped an arm around Jihan’s waist, holding him close.

Jihan was not proud of the strangled scream he let out as Firuz then jumped down through the open space to the stone garden. Firuz landed perfectly on his feet, but Jihan clung to his Shadow Guard as though the earth might swallow him whole any moment.

He took in deep breaths when he was steady on his feet, and froze when he saw Kastan watching them from the dining hall door. Kastan pressed his fist against his mouth, clearly holding back a laugh.

“What?” Jihan asked, pushing off Firuz and coughing away his embarrassment.

He wiped away invisible dust from his dark robes and took a step out of the stone garden, cursing under his breath when his knees shook and he stumbled once.

“Were you screaming?” Kastan asked, when Jihan reached him.

“I was not,” Jihan said, walked past him and entered the dining hall.

“You just screamed, Jihan,” Kastan said following him. “I came running—”

“You heard wrong,” Jihan insisted, going straight to the small table by the fireplace. “It must have been a bird.”

“It must have been a huge bird,” Kastan said, as Jihan sat and reached for the jug of water in the middle of the table. He poured himself water in one of the goblets on the tray, and took a sip. Then, Kastan added with an uncontrollable laugh, “A big bird named Jihan.”

Jihan got up to chase Kastan around the dining table, threatening to wash him with the water in his goblet if he did not stop teasing him.

Firuz left them alone, chuckling to himself at what people would say if they were to see Duke Silver and his Consort playing like children.

*~*~*~*~*

The next day, Kastan hurried to the manor from the Duke’s Office at midday. He had just received a message from his brother and he wanted to catch Kaveh before he returned to the training grounds.

Jihan was supposed to be home, but Rashan was at the academy today.

Kastan entered the dining hall expecting to see Jihan and Kaveh having their meal. He was disappointed when he only saw Kaveh Miran.

“Pa,” he said in greeting, holding up the note, his gaze searching the room. “There’s a message from Kiyan. I’d like you to look at it with me.”

Breaking the imperial seal, Kastan unrolled the scroll and read Kiyan’s message.

“What’s the message about?” Kaveh asked, joining him.

“Kiyan has a request,” Kastan said. “He wants Yan and Yija to visit Silver Shore Valley. He hopes we can find a way for them to stay in the valley for a while to learn with Rashan. It will free him to spend time cleaning out his court without worry.”

“It’s a good plan,” Kaveh said with an approving nod. “When we were forming the Empire, I had all of you stay in the Silver Lake Island until I was sure things would be safe.”

“Hmm,” Kastan sighed. “Taking care of an Imperial Crown Prince is hard work. Yija might also be bound for the Giode Kingdom throne. Their presence in this valley complicates our lives.”

“They are just children,” Kaveh reminded him. “Treat them the same way you treat Rashan and all will be fine.”

Kastan studied Kiyan’s note for a moment, then sighed.

“Pa is right. Fine, but I’ll need to talk to Jihan before I agree to this,” Kastan said. “He’s also going to be involved in their care. He should have a say.”

“Then have both boys stay at Silver Lake Island with me to start,” Kaveh said. “Then, when your consort has made peace with Kiyan, they can come stay with you. The auxiliary house will give them plenty of privacy and some independence. They will also get to know your consort and Rashan without intruding on your daily lives. What do you think?”

“I’ll discuss it with Jihan,” Kastan said, handing Kiyan’s message to Kaveh. “Where is Jihan? He was supposed to be here with you. I heard he has appointments at the Duke’s Office this afternoon.”

“He’s by the cliffs,” Kaveh said, sipping tea from a cup Kastan hadn’t noticed he held. “He said something about sending Yoru with a message for Andiya. He’ll be back soon.”

“Oh,” Kastan said. “I’ll go get him. We’ll eat together.”

“I’ll wait for you,” Kaveh said, distracted as he read Kiyan’s message.

*~*~*~*

“This message is to let Vion know to open the warehouse stores,” Jihan said to Yoru. “Tagon is sending in a delivery from Sun Kingdom and it might arrive late in the night. There is also a letter for Andiya.”

“I’ll get it to her,” Yoru said.

Jihan adjusted the round container tied on Yoru’s foot and capped it. He made sure it was comfortable for the eagle, before he stepped back and looked into Yoru’s eyes. He blinked in surprise when he found them a stark white, as though the clouds filled them.

“Yoru?”

The eagle turned its head away from him, looking to the high bridge over the cliff.

Jihan had not thought about that bridge since the first day he moved into Sun-filled Manor. He had always wondered where it led, and maybe one of these days he should find out. He frowned, turning back to Yoru, but the eagle still stared in the direction of the bridge.

“Yoru,” Jihan said, touching the eagle’s head.

He frowned when Yoru spread out his massive wings and flapped them, as though to push Jihan back. He flapped them wildly, and Jihan’s frown deepened when Yoru let out a loud call that startled the birds in the trees.

Firuz jumped off the table where he was meditating to join Jihan, grabbing his right arm, his gaze shifting to the bridge, same as Yoru.

“What’s wrong?” Jihan asked.

“There’s something on the bridge,” Firuz said.

“A threat?” Jihan asked, when he noticed that Firuz had unsheathed his sword. “Should we call for help? Pa is in the dining hall.”

“No time,” Firuz said, as Yoru launched into the air, circling the manor above, calling again.

Jihan frowned when Firuz did not insist on returning to the manor, his gaze intent on the bridge. The threat was not to Jihan, just unknown. Firuz did not want to move him closer in case Jihan got in trouble.

Taking deep breaths, Jihan decided to discover what it was that had both Firuz and Yoru distressed. Yoru called again and he got a response from three eagles, and then the sky above started filled with eagles.

Jihan started running to the entrance of the wooden bridge, searching for what was making everyone so nervous. There were thick tree branches covering the bridge at its entrance. Jihan could not see beyond the sagging branches.

“I don’t see anything—,” Jihan said, then stopped when the branches shifted and two figures appeared, stepping off the bridge and on to the grass in a stumble.

“Papa!” Rashan screamed.

Jihan froze a few steps away from them.

Very slowly, he held out his hands in panic at the sight of the deadly blade pressed on Rashan’s neck. The figure holding Rashan was covered in a dark cloak from head to toe.

Jihan swallowed down fear, hands shaking when Rashan struggled against his captor.

“Baby, don’t move so much,” Jihan said, meeting Rashan’s frightened eyes. “Don’t struggle so much. I’m here. Nothing will happen to you.”

“I can’t intervene,” Firuz said, standing right next to Jihan. “That blade is too sharp and it’s pressed against Rashan’s vital vein. One mistake and Rashan will be in danger.”

Jihan breathed in, and fought to keep his calm. He looked away from Rashan to the hooded figure holding Rashan hostage.

“Who are you?” he asked, though he suspected it. The figure was slight, not tall enough to be a man. “What do you want? I’ll give it to you.”

A soft annoyed chuckle came, and it made Jihan’s blood run cold.

“I wonder if you can,” Nisa hissed from beneath the cloak, making Jihan shiver. “You thought you’d won. You were wrong. Here I am holding Kastan’s heir in my hands. Tell me, merchant. This boy is Kastan’s most precious treasure. Even Rushi could not get her hands on him. Whoever gets him has the power to control the Duke. I have him now. How do you think you’ll win against me?”

“I can’t win when you’re holding Rashan,” Jihan said, working to keep his tone calm. “Nisa is right. I’ve lost. Just don’t hurt him.”

“That depends on you, merchant,” Nisa said, pushing the hood of her dark cloak off her head. She looked crazed with her long hair falling down her back in a wild mess, her eyes shone with an emotion Jihan could only describe as insanity. “Tell your Shadow Guard to step back.”

Jihan cursed under his breath, and he looked to his right to see Firuz holding a dagger instead of his sword. Firuz was ready for an attack if he saw an opening.

“You know he won’t listen,” Jihan said, trying to keep Nisa talking. “How did you get out of your cell at the Magistrate’s compound?”

“I still have people who are loyal to me,” Nisa said. “Muge gave up her life for me to get out of that hellish place. She stole the key from a guard who stabbed her for attacking him. She wanted me to get away and go live in another kingdom, but I can’t do that. Not when I knew how to get to Rashan. I’ve ran the academy for ages, I know how to get in and out undetected.”

“The academy,” Jihan said, hoping that stalling would get Yasmin, or Kaveh to notice the eagles filling the skies above. “But Master Safan is always with Shan.”

“She stabbed Master Safan,” Rashan said, his eyes filling with tears. “She sunk her dagger into his back. I don’t know if he’s okay, Papa. He wasn’t moving when she dragged me away.”

“It’s going to be okay, Shan,” Jihan said, fighting back his own tears at the fear in Rashan’s eyes. “Master Bero will have found him. I promise.”

Rashan closed his eyes and tears slid down his cheeks. Jihan glared at Nisa.

“Is this what you are after?” Jihan asked. “Do you want to scare Rashan like this? What do you think it’s going to get you?”

“I don’t care what it gets me. I just know that I’m holding someone Duke Silver cares about. If he won’t have me, then he won’t have you,” Nisa hissed, her hands shaking, the dagger on Rashan’s neck nipped his skin and Jihan hissed.

“Be careful,” Jihan yelled, shaking with frustration. “Don’t hurt him, and I’ll get you what you want.”

“Are you being truthful?” Nisa asked, her eyes rolling with skepticism. “Merchant, I know your kind is blessed with a silver tongue. You must be lying to me.”

“You’re holding my son,” Jihan said. “I would not dare lie to you, Nisa.”

“So you care for this little prince, do you?” Nisa asked, grabbing Rashan’s ponytail and tilting his head to look up at her. “What about you, Shan? Do you care about the merchant?”

Rashan bit his lip, refusing to answer her even as more tears spilled from his eyes.

“Stop it!” Jihan hissed at Nisa. “Stop taking it out on him. He has nothing to do with the problem between us. You tell me what you want, and I’ll give it to you. As long as you let Rashan go, I’ll give you anything.”

Nisa let go of Rashan’s hair to glare at Jihan.

“What if all I want is for you to die?” Nisa asked. “I want to sink this blade into your heart and stop it from beating.”

“Fine,” Jihan said, with a nod. “Let go of Rashan, and I’ll let you try.”

Nisa stared at him, and then burst out laughing.

“You’re ridiculous,” Nisa said. “Who would believe your words when there’s a Shadow Guard standing right next to you?”

Jihan bit his inner lip, fighting tears of frustration when he met Rashan’s frightened gaze.

“Nisa,” Jihan said, sounding desperate.

“Begging does not suit you. You know, I always wondered why my father got to climb the cliffs behind our house and I couldn’t. Today, I led this boy up those same steps my father took, and when we reached the bridge, I laughed,” Nisa said, shaking her head. “All this time, I could have just found my way along this bridge and found Duke Silver. I could have stolen him from you a long time ago. Your marriage would never have happened and this boy would be mine to control as I wanted. Why didn’t I do it?”

She scoffed and took a step back toward the bridge, dragging Rashan with her.

Jihan followed her, knowing he would jump off that darned bridge with her to save Rashan.

“I want to see Duke Silver,” Nisa said. “You can either go get him, or I and this little prince will discover how deep this valley below the bridge is.”

“He’s coming,” Jihan said, knowing someone would have noticed the eagles in a frenzy above them. “Please, Nisa, I’ll let you hold me hostage if you let Rashan go.”

“Stop bargaining,” Nisa said, stepping on the bridge, pulling Rashan again.

Rashan clung to the rope serving as a railing, his hands gripping the round rope tight. Nisa tried to pull him off, and Rashan struggled. Her dagger returned to Rashan’s neck, cutting his skin, making him cry out in pain.

“Please, don’t hurt him, Nisa,” Jihan begged. “Shan, stay still. Stay still, baby. I’m right here. Don’t struggle with her. I promise nothing will happen to you. Nisa stop pushing the dagger into him, just stop!”

An arrow flew between him and Firuz.

It sunk into Nisa’s left shoulder, making her scream, the force of the arrow pushing her deeper into the bridge. Jihan was sure the crazed state of her mind was what made her recover so fast. Suddenly she was grabbing Rashan’s ponytail, pulling him back past the sagging tree branches.

Terrified for Rashan, Jihan ran after them. He was in time to see a second arrow sink into Nisa’s neck. Nisa fell back against the railing rope; she lost her footing and slipped over the bridge. The grip she had on Rashan’s hair was too tight. She pulled him over with her.

He didn’t stop to think.

Jihan threw himself at Rashan, managing to grab Rashan’s right arm. The rope railing strained against their combined weight. Jihan couldn’t help his frightened shout as the rope snapped, and they were falling. Nisa let go of Rashan’s hair.

Rashan screamed and Jihan held Rashan's arm with both of his. A rope wrapped around Jihan’s right leg, tight and painful, it stopped their fall, suspending Jihan and Rashan above a deep valley. Jihan gritted his teeth to keep from crying out as the rope on his right leg tightened. He was upside down, holding on to Rashan who was swinging below him. He was beyond fear, his ears rung, and his heart was threatening to burst out of his chest. He could not move or shout, or…

Thankfully, Nisa was no longer holding Rashan. She had fallen into the valley below, lost in the mist that lingered there.

“Jihan,” Firuz called from above him, his voice low as though afraid talking louder would upset the balance.

“Hurry,” Jihan said, his arms aching with the effort of holding Rashan’s weight.

“We’re pulling you up now,” Firuz said, his voice strained.

No one spoke after that.

Jihan held back his scream at the pain on his right leg as the rope tightened, pulling him up inch by inch until Firuz could grab his left leg. Jihan’s arms burned with the effort, still he held on to Rashan, ignoring all pain.

A hand reached passed him to grab Rashan’s arm, pulling him up easily as he was lighter than Jihan. Jihan was glad for the relief, though he didn’t let go of Rashan’s arm until a foreign voice said Rashan was safe.

Jihan let out a soft sigh and relaxed a bit, still upside down staring down at the endless valley. With Rashan safe, he took in a deep breath and shook out his right hand. A shift above had the rope holding him slacking and Jihan dipped, Firuz lost his grip on Jihan’s left leg.

Jihan sucked in air as he swung from side to side, and as the rope tightened around his right leg again, he found himself swinging too hard to his right.

“Watch out,” Kastan’s panicked voice filled Jihan’s ears.

Jihan looked to his right and gasped when he saw the jutting rock on the side of the cliff. They had fallen over too close to the side of the cliff. When it became obvious he couldn’t avoid hitting the rock, Jihan brought his arms up to cover his head. He tried hard to avoid the rock, tilting his body as best as he could, but he wasn’t fast enough. He swung into the jutting rock at an awkward angle, hitting it with force enough to make him grunt, his arms absorbing most of the hit. The side of his head smashed against a part of the rock and the world turned to black.

*~*~*~*

Suilan Lee, 2019-2021
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Chapter Comments

Good story, dont like the ending... especially if that is the end... Jihan didn't deserve to be done dirty in this story, lost limb... ok but full on death isnt cool.. i will never read this story again if this is how Jihan's story ends.

Edited by Shaggy_93
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Wow another chapter 2 days after the previous one ! thx ❤️

So Rushi got what she deserved !👍

Humm is Bast trying to put Kavey and Neith together ? 😆 Ha and Niven ? what a big surprise !😁

Nisa should be branded so she would know what it is like 😡 the brand should even be on her face so that everyone know her punishment !

Hopefully Kastan arrived on time to save Jihan and Rashan ❤️

awesome chapter ! 👍

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4 minutes ago, purrbaby said:

I  refuse to believe that you are ending this story this way, even though you’ve already marked it “complete.”

What ?! i can't believe as well ( i just checked after that post ! and it is indeed marked "complete" 🙈) !

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59 minutes ago, Danilo Syrtis said:

What ?! i can't believe as well ( i just checked after that post ! and it is indeed marked "complete" 🙈) !

This amazingly epic story is listed as having 30 chapters on the author’s page. This is chapter 29.  My guess is that the completion status was submitted along with the final chapter but somehow got posted before the chapter. I have faith we won’t be left with Jihan literally hanging! 

Edited by 84Mags
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39 minutes ago, 84Mags said:

This amazingly epic story is listed as having 30 chapters on the author’s page. This is chapter 29.  My guess is that the completion status was submitted along with the final chapter but somehow got posted before the chapter. I have faith we won’t be left with Jihan literally hanging! 

Unfortunately there is a prologue so there are in fact 30 chapters visible to us now. 

In hoping that there is some plan (in this story or a sequel) to not leave everyone hanging with this cliff hanger. 

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My God I do not believe it. there must be more . A postscript! An epilogue! Sui what happened do we get a happy ending? Please.Tthank you. Kisses>

What ever it takes.

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This is very cruel of you to leave us with this cliffhanger (literally).  To put Jihan (and the rest of us) through all those trials and tribulations only to have that Bitch Nisa have the final laugh and win against His Grace even in death - put it this way… I don’t know whether to applaud your sense of the dramatic or scold you for being heartless and leaving us with an unfinished story. Grrrr!

I just hope that your 30 chapters does not include the prologue and you will bring us to a resolution - one way or the other.

Frustrations aside - a masterful story brilliantly told. Thank you (even though I am wrath with thee!)

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Nope. Sorry. The story doesn’t end like this. I’m vetoing this story ending. Jihan wakes up a few days later, to a worried Kastan, who proceeds to tell him all is well and they live happily ever after.

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Sui armored in sunglasses and an umbrella to hide face says: -->  So, this was not an intentional cliffhanger.  In my defense, I chose the wrong date on the scheduler and it ended up like this...all is well, with His Grace, proceed to chapter 30.  I'll add in some shorts of love and sweetness and peach wine to make it up. 😎

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Nope, nope, nope, nope, nope, nope, nope, nope.

This is NOT the end of this story!  You have been cruel and sadistic in your cliffhangers in the past, but there is NO way you are going to leave us with this as the ending with about five zillion loose threads! I don’t care if it says ‘Complete.’

Rushi got what she deserved (although I am sorry Neith was forced to do it, I am glad Kastan was not).  Nisa did also, although I would have like to have seen her executed or branded and jailed for life.  Obviously, that didn’t work.  We need to find out how and who let her escape.  
 

Now we need to make certain that Jihan hasn’t been maimed for life.  Did Safan survive his attack? How will the butcher be punished?  So many questions!

I LOVED the Welcoming Rite for Adan.  It was so beautiful! We have a new baby coming in our family any time now and his cousin’s christening coming up soon.  That ceremony would be so beautiful for them.

Now. Get back and get us the rest of the story!

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2 hours ago, lilansui said:

Sui armored in sunglasses and an umbrella to hide face says: -->  So, this was not an intentional cliffhanger.  In my defense, I chose the wrong date on the scheduler and it ended up like this...all is well, with His Grace, proceed to chapter 30.  I'll add in some shorts of love and sweetness and peach wine to make it up. 😎

No cliffhanger, but i think most of us almost got a heart attack 🤣

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I was cuss in’ the author out in my head until I saw there was one more chapter. This one was lovely and cinematic, as usual.

Everyone is so freaked thinking this was the end, no one talked about how Zure Niven’s boyfriend IS A EFFIN GOD.  😶

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