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The Reluctant Consort - 34. Extra 4 - The Empire's Three Days of Thanksgiving Part 1

The Empire’s Three Days of Thanksgiving - Part 1

The season of thanksgiving arrived six months after Laner’s visit to Sun-filled Manor. The Empire was alive with a festive mood. Families made plans to visit home, cook extraordinary feasts and give thanks for their blessings.

Prince Byul of Tanad Kingdom left Sun-filled Manor to visit his parents guarded by a troop of the Silver Shore Valley’s elite soldiers. He would spend his three days of thanksgiving with his mother and father.

While the Emperor, Kiyan Miran, planned a three-day visit to Sun-filled Manor in order to spend time with his sons and nephew. He thought it would be perfect to celebrate thanksgiving with his Emperor father, Duke Silver, and Prince Jihan.

Silver Shore Valley was busier than ever. This year there was no news of war, and families were welcoming their members who had moved to work elsewhere. The thanksgiving holiday was three days long, and for the first time in eleven years, Sun-filled Manor planned to host a grand ceremony at the Silver Meadow on the second day of the holiday. The manor was busy with preparations. The valley was wrapped in a festive air in anticipation.

The Valley’s Council had the important job of visiting the families under the care of the new Welfare Office. They planned to make deliveries of goodwill. The women in the council had requested Jihan’s support during the visit. It would be his first in the valley so he agreed to go along, much to the shock of his beloved husband.

On the first day of thanksgiving, Kastan opened his eyes expecting to have Jihan all to himself. Kastan sat up when he found the pillow beside his empty. He touched the sheets and frowned when they felt cool to the touch. Disappointment filling him, he caught up the red strip of paper on Jihan’s pillow and read it with an inward sigh.

‘I’ll be back in time for our morning meal. Visit the boys. Pa is taking them and the Emperor to the island to give us time alone. Love you, -An.’

Kastan smiled at Jihan’s note, his disappointment soothed.

Time alone with Jihan sounded perfect.

Ever since Jihan had hosted an Emperor in their Sun-filled Manor, he had become too popular in this valley. The number of people who took up Jihan’s time had doubled, filling the manor with unnecessary requests. His consort was busier than the Duke of Silver Shore these days.

It would be nice to have Jihan to himself for the duration of the holiday.

Kastan got out of bed and hurried through his morning routine. He left the master’s chamber dressed for a day spent at home.

The Duke’s Office would stay closed for three days.

Safan was visiting his mother.

Naveed was spending time with his parents.

Temu was the only general left in the manor. He had no family so he spent his festive days at the manor with them.

Fara was with her family, which left Yasmin in the kitchen, and Soraya who was a Hidden Keeper first. Hidden Keepers kept to their duties unless there was death in the family.

Kastan was looking forward to honoring the support the Hidden Keepers gave the valley with a toast at the thanksgiving celebration. He had much to be thankful this year.

Soraya was waiting for him in the family room. She hurried out when he reached downstairs.

“A good morning to you, Your Grace,” Soraya said, giving him a short nod in greeting. “The three young princes are in the Auxiliary House. His Grace asked to make sure they waited for you. Yasmin is preparing your morning meal.”

“Thank you, Soraya,” Kastan said, and started heading to the Auxiliary House. He thought about Jihan, and stopped. “Do you know where Jihan has gone so early?”

“The women in the village council asked him to go with them as they deliver baskets of food. He left with Master Firuz and Lord Temu,” Soraya said. “All he asked was to make sure the princes waited for you. He said he would be here to eat the morning meal with you.”

“Those busy women dare drag him out this early during thanksgiving. How bold they have gotten,” Kastan said under his breath. When he remembered the women were his generals’ wives, he sighed. “Alright. I’ll go to the children.”

The mystery of Jihan’s destination solved, Kastan headed to the back doors to visit Rashan and his cousins in their courtyard.

“Pa.” Rashan greeted when Kastan entered the auxiliary house.

The cozy living area was lit up with lamps mounted on the wall. The fireplace was bright with fire that warmed the room.

Rashan, Yan, and Yija sat at a smaller dining table arranged next to a picture window having their morning meal.

Aoi, Rashan’s Shadow Guard, helped serve warm oat porridge brought by a woman from Yasmin’s kitchen. She served the porridge into three bowls, making sure the princes each got one with a spoon. Rashan immediately reached for a banana to add to his porridge.

“I’ll have a taste too,” Kastan said, making Aoi glance at him for confirmation.

Kastan smiled at her and she nodded and got a fourth bowl.

Rashan let out a happy giggle, stood up from his chair and hurried down two steps to Kastan’s side.

“Shan, how was your night?” Kastan asked, placing his right arm around Rashan’s shoulders.

“Very good,” Rashan said. “We’re going to Grandpa’s island today. We’ll pay respects to Grandma, and Ma. Then, Grandpa will take us on a hunting adventure in the island’s forests. Do you know what lives in the island’s forest?”

“I do but it’s a secret you’ll have to discover yourself,” Kastan said, looking into Rashan’s curious gaze. “You’ll have to tell me what you find there and we’ll compare notes.”

Kastan chose to sit on Rashan’s chair. He smiled when Rashan settled on his lap with comfortable ease.

Rashan picked up the teapot closest to him and filled an empty cup for Kastan. He smiled when Kastan drank the tea with a wink.

Kastan then urged him to eat his oat porridge.

Yan sat across them. He watched Kastan with wide curious eyes.

“What about you, Yan? Are you excited to explore the island’s forests?” Kastan asked, sipping his tea.

“No,” Yan said, shaking his head with a shudder.

Kastan chuckled.

Yan was definitely Kiyan’s son.

Kiyan had hated adventurous escapades when they were young. He always preferred routine, playing in the palace courtyards or the library. Not that it made him any less a warrior. Kiyan trained when he needed, and fought when forced to, however his capacity to scheme scared even Bast. It had to be all the time spent in the library. Kastan grinned.

It made sense that Yan would take after his emperor father.

“Your Pa was the same way,” Kastan said now, smiling when Yan’s gaze filled with clear relief.

Yan remained anxious despite their best efforts to make life easier on him. The boy was a thinker. He needed a solid foundation to allow his imagination to grow and not turn into chaos.

Jihan had suggested they try to ease Yan’s worries by not placing expectations of his station on him. It would help the boy come out of his defensive shell. Allow him to spread his wings and explore the world, give him good solid experiences. Their plan was working, bit by bit, but it was hard to put away the ghost of Rushi. She had too much time with the boys.

“Yan, you’ll have Grandpa with you, and your Pa is coming along. His elite guard will provide protection on the island. Shan and Aoi will stay with you too,” Kastan said, holding Yan’s gaze. “Yija is also right by your side. You’ll have nothing to worry about during your adventures. Promise you’ll enjoy the journey.”

“I will, Imperial Uncle,” Yan said, and then color filled his cheeks when Kastan’s right brow rose. “I meant to say, Uncle Kas.”

Kastan gave him a nod of approval, glad to participate in Jihan’s newest campaign.

Jihan was working at weaning Yan and Yija from calling everyone in the family by their titles.

“Uncle Kas, can we take Neith along?” Yija asked, stroking his fingers over the sleeping tiger resting on the chair next to him.

“No,” Kastan said. “Today, you are paying respects to your Grandma. Neith will stay here with Jihan and me for the day. You’ll find her when you return.”

“Alright,” Yija said with a nod. “Uncle Kas, where is our Uncle Jihan today?”

“He stepped out for a while,” Kastan said, sipping the tea Rashan poured for him.

Aoi placed his bowl of porridge before him and he gave her a nod of thanks. He picked up his spoon and ate his share of oatmeal porridge, nodding his head at the delicious taste.

Rashan was already half done with his.

“Do we get to attend the thanksgiving celebration tomorrow?” Yan asked, chewing on a slice of sweet bread.

“Yes,” Kaveh said, coming to join them at the table.

Kastan studied his father in silence. Kaveh looked happier and content. He was dressed for travel and a day spent exploring with his grandsons. It was nice to see him smiling more.

“We’ll return tomorrow morning,” Kaveh said, smiling at Yan. “Otherwise, your Uncle Jihan will tell me off for a half a day if I keep you to myself at the island. He wants you to watch the sword dance Master Firuz and Aoi prepared for thanksgiving.”

“Yes!” Yija and Rashan both said, laughing with glee.

Kastan chuckled at their enthusiasm and settled in when Rashan asked his grandfather about the island’s forest. It felt good to sit with his son and his nephews, listening to Kaveh tell stories of the adventures the boys would have on the family island.

*~*~*~*

“Zure bids His Imperial Majesty a good morning,” Zure Niven said, as he entered the new herb workshop.

It was early in the morning on the first day of thanksgiving. The sun rising in the horizon, painting the sky full of majestic oranges.

Zure had entered the palace early, hoping to meet the Emperor before he left the Capital City Akan.

Emperor Kiyan was spending a lot of time in the new spice workshop. The production line Prince Jihan formulated fascinated him. It was designed to manage the spice production, packaging, and the smooth transportation to the palace’s new stall in the city’s market.

Zure, having had to help Lord Bowden manage the palace’s accounting books, was grateful for the productive spice workshop. The profits blooming from the spices were boosting the palace’s accounts and they no longer needed to worry about the emperor’s personal accounts.

“Zure, I did not realize we were sitting on a goldmine,” Kiyan said, as he stopped at the packaging station. “All the spices Rushi made were wasted on the palace when we could have been gaining income from them. Thanks to the extra money, I’m relieved to discover we can restart the common kitchens at the palace entrance for those in need. It weighed on me having them closed.”

Ten attendants were busy packing dried rosemary herbs into small neat bags made with raw silk, each bag had a round rose seal embossed on one side. The attendants packed the spice bags into large crates. Attendants would transport the crates to the designated stall in the market. Any excess crates would go to Kamran merchants with stalls in Vasia’s market.

Two palace attendants received the total daily sales in the evening for packages sold. The amounts were recorded in the palace accounts. It was efficient, and one of the Kamran merchant’s bosses dealt with issues arising.

“Prince Jihan has always known how to turn a profit,” Zure said. “Your Imperial Majesty deserves the credit for recognizing his talent.”

“I might have recognized his talent, but my brother won his favor first. Silver Shore Valley is on the cusp of making a delivery to the palace,” Kiyan said with a small smile. “I’m glad Prince Jihan landed on our side. I would have hated losing him to another empire. Let’s take a walk, Nivenad.”

Zure matched Kiyan’s steps as they left the workshop to head back to the main palace.

“How goes the fight to clean out the Burning Feather remnants?” Kiyan asked, clasping his hands behind his back.

“We’re making progress,” Zure said. “I’m happy to report the palace no longer has Lord Revi’s people in place. The former empress’s people have been removed too; others went into hiding in the city. There are key hidden players we need to find. General Niku is working alongside Rael to uncover their identities. Your Imperial Majesty, I came to find you this early because I have a point of concern. The new Governor for the Iron Lands. The current governor reports pockets of resistance from Lord Revi’s remaining supporters. He is worried about a smooth transition and hopes you will appoint a stronger man at the helm.”

“Prince Kastan has stationed Generals Kigaru and Faiza to the Iron Lands,” Kiyan said. “Their work is to support the governor’s forces and curb attacks from remaining rebels. I have read several reports from them about estates still resisting the change over from Lord Revi’s control. The strife has led to fights between lords and commoners. You are right to be concerned. The Generals need imperial political support to restore order.”

“With your blessing, I’ll head to the Iron Lands in person after the thanksgiving festivities end to provide imperial support,” Zure said. “Do you have someone in mind for the position of Governor of the Iron Lands?”

“Grandmaster Lehin has written us a message,” Kiyan said, as they entered the main palace heading to the emperor’s private residence. “He recommends one of his relatives, Tion Lehin, for governor. Grandmaster Lehin says Tion is a budding scholar, and has served in the Iron Lands magistrate’s offices before. The Lehin family has no idea what to do with a scholar, as they are a family of blacksmiths. He hopes a skilled courtier can take Tion into his confidence and help him run the Iron Lands.”

“New blood is welcome,” Zure said. “However, a member of such an old family means they will have grudges to appease. Lord Revi dealt the Lehin Clan many grievances. We will have to contend with the possibilities of revenge against Revi’s retainers.”

“Still, this Tion will know the Iron Lands best,” Kiyan said. “It is a fief that needs fresh ideas from one of its own people. On the matter of revenge, their anger is understandable. Lord Revi was harsh with the noble families who would not support him. However, I also understand that their revenge will only cause more cycles of blood. Such matters might destabilize the Iron Lands even more. We can forbid acts of revenge. Force these families to bring their cases to the imperial magistrates with full evidence of wrongdoing. If he becomes governor, Tion Lehin will have to agree to these terms. He should learn how to control his relatives and the Iron Lands nobles.”

“Quite an attractive idea, but it won’t be easy to implement,” Zure noted, understanding Emperor Kiyan’s reasoning.

The Iron Lands were untamed lands. It’s people free to live as they pleased. They gave their family clans great importance. They were fiercely loyal to these clan bonds and would only be ruled by a person who understood this about them. This made Tion Lehin the perfect man for the job.

Still…Lord Revi had left too much damage in the Iron Lands.

Zure feared any man or woman who had helped Lord Revi would face the worst from these clans.

“We can make Tion the Governor, and hand him a custodian to check him,” Emperor Kiyan suggested.

“Not one,” Zure said, stopping when Kiyan turned to look at him. “One custodian will be viewed as an imperial spy. Tion’s rich family ties will easily overwhelm this one imperial custodian. Why don’t we make an imperial council to oversee the governing of the Iron Lands? The governor will report to the council, and Duke Silver’s generals will find full support in the council, as well. This council will help us use the generals to rebuild the Iron Lands’ defenses and political standing. Make sure the Iron Lands are not overwhelmed by corruption as before.”

“Does this council come from, and report to our Imperial Court?” Kiyan asked.

“Yes. I have stolen the idea from the council Prince Jihan formed at Silver Shore Valley to oversee finances forwarded from the trade station to the Imperial Palace,” Zure said.

Kiyan studied Zure, then smiled and nodded in approval.

“Good. The merchant prince is quite insightful,” Kiyan said. “Then, I’ll trust you with this work, Nivenad. It would be good if the Iron Lands found stability. I look forward to your good news.”

“Thank you for your trust, Imperial Majesty.”

“I will release you to your duties,” Kiyan said, pointing to the double doors ahead that opened into his personal chambers. “I need to prepare to head out to see my sons.”

“Zure wishes you a joyful thanksgiving, Imperial Majesty,” Zure said, bringing his right hand to his chest, he gave Kiyan a formal bow.

“And to you, Nivenad,” Kiyan said, then added with a knowing smile. “Give my wishes of thanksgiving to your extraordinary beloved partner.”

Zure blushed and looked up just as Kiyan turned away.

In that moment, it became quite clear that nothing missed the Emperor’s attention in this Empire of Akasha.

Biting back a chuckle, Zure took two steps back, before he turned and hurried out of the main palace heading to his new offices in the outer halls of the imperial palace.

****

Jihan returned home in high spirits. It felt good to meet the families on the newly updated welfare lists. Well, it was also heartbreaking; as the reality of it was that, they had lost a family member during the West Nation War. Offering gifts and baskets of food was a small compensation for the loss.

Jihan had tried to spend more time in each home, and listen to thoughts, worries, and wishes they gave him, but it still felt like too little. Any smiles they directed at him made him glad that he had brightened their days.

These families’ smiles also reminded him to be grateful for his own family: Kastan, Shan, Firuz, Andiya and Ishan, their new baby, his mom, and everyone in his Kamran Network. His family had grown to include Temu, Naveed and Safan. Yasmin, Fara and Soraya, even Raven of the Hidden Keepers office. He smiled at the thought of them all.

Yes, he was grateful for his growing blessings.

Jihan would have liked to spend his first thanksgiving morning with Kastan, but sharing his blessings with others was good too. Besides, he was home in time for a morning meal with Kastan.

Jihan entered the manor with a wide smile, removing his cloak, and dropping it on the table at the entrance. He removed his riding gloves and placed them on the cloak.

“I’m starving,” Jihan said, glancing at Firuz who walked beside him as always. “I hope Yasmin made fried fish today. I’m craving some.”

“I’m sure she did,” Firuz said. “She has been after you to eat. You should consider taking a break these next three days. You’ve been too busy.”

“Can’t help it,” Jihan said, as they headed to the dining hall. “The celebration at the silver meadow needs to be memorable. It is our first as a family.”

“I’m sure it will be fine,” Firuz said, pausing in the act of opening the dining hall door. His gaze shifting to where Soraya hurried toward them from Jihan’s office.

“Your Grace,” Soraya said, when she reached them. “Duke Silver is in the auxiliary house with the princes and your father.”

“Oh, great, we’ll go eat with them,” Jihan said. “Thank you, Soraya. Now, I order you to lock up my office and go visit your family. I don’t expect to see you in there until thanksgiving ends.”

“Your Grace, but—”

“No buts. I’ll be very angry with you if I find you in there,” Jihan said, already heading to the back doors. “Bring me the sweets your mom makes. Shan has been missing them.”

Soraya gave a soft sigh, and gave him a swift curtsy when he turned back to find her hesitating.

“Can I spend time with Yasmin?” Soraya asked.

“Only if you’re going to let her feed you until you are stuffed,” Jihan said with a wide grin.

Soraya laughed and Jihan nodded in approval. He followed Firuz out the back doors and fought the urge to run to the auxiliary house.

Jihan grinned with pleasure when he saw Kastan sitting at the dining table with Rashan on his lap. The two princes sat opposite, listening to Kaveh, who told outrageous tales about the wild beasts in his island’s forests.

“…the wild boars are larger than leopards and race at speeds fast enough to drop hundred year old trees. You should hide if you hear them coming, otherwise you might lose a leg should you be too slow,” Kaveh said.

“Pa, your stories are always too gory for the morning table,” Jihan chided as he crossed the room to where Kastan and Rashan sat. He smiled when Kastan tilted his head toward him for a kiss.

“As they should be,” Kaveh said, with a laugh. “We are raising wild tigers in this house.”

Jihan kissed Kastan’s lips tasting apple and cinnamon oatmeal. He grinned when Rashan tilted his face to him too. Jihan kissed his right cheek.

“So you say,” Jihan said, bowing his head in Kaveh’s direction in greeting. He walked around the small table to kiss Yan and Yija’s cheeks, then tugged on the short ponytails on their head, making them chuckle.

Satisfied, Jihan returned to Kastan’s side.

Kastan pulled out the chair to his right for him.

Jihan slid into it with a sigh, and accepted the cup of tea from Aoi. He nodded in approval when she handed Firuz a cup of tea too. He hoped daily that Firuz would find love with her, which was asking for the moon, but he hoped the fates heard him.

“How was it?” Kastan asked, as Kaveh continued regaling the princes with tales of wild animals.

“Good,” Jihan said, sipping his tea, meeting Kastan’s keen gaze. “It was okay. I was reminded of all the reasons why I should be grateful. I can’t help praying that you never fight another war.”

“An,” Kastan murmured, leaning in to kiss his cheek.

Jihan let out a sigh and placed his cup of tea on the table. He shrugged and took Kastan’s right hand, squeezing it tight. His heartbeat skipping when Kastan let him hold on for the next few minutes in silence. They both knew his wish was just that. Any sign of trouble beyond Silver Shore and Kastan would be out there with his soldiers fighting for peace. Not Kastan alone, Jihan’s gaze settled on Rashan who sat on his father’s lap with a wide smile on his face. This child would have to join his father too. He was no different from the families of soldiers in this valley.

“How are the preparations for the celebration tomorrow?” Kaveh asked Jihan, pulling him out of the strange cloud of worry.

Jihan smiled then, glad to think of thanksgiving.

“They are mostly complete. Everyone knows what they are cooking, performing, and constructing in the silver meadow. Firuz and Aoi let me watch their performance and it will be fun for everyone. You guys don’t miss it.”

“We won’t,” Rashan and Yija said in clear excitement.

Their energy pushing away any lingering sad feelings for Jihan.

“Grandpa says we’ll be back in time to attend,” Rashan said.

“Good,” Jihan nodded. “Your Pa and I will miss you if you don’t make it.”

“Still, you two should spend time together,” Kaveh said, glancing at Jihan, then at Kastan his gaze pointed. “I’ll keep the boys with me even when we get back. Kiyan will also be around, so you won’t have to worry about anything.”

“Right,” Jihan said, sure he would still worry about having the Emperor running around their manor at will.

Kaveh seemed to read his thoughts.

“Kiyan will only spend his time here during the day,” Kaveh said. “His nights will be at the palace. Bast is helping him out with the means to do that. In any case, he can also sleep in with Yan and Yija.”

“Ah, the helpful ancients,” Jihan said, forever surprised by the ancients who protected this imperial family at will. “What about Neith? Do you think she will ever change back?”

“In time,” Kaveh said, his gaze shifting to the slumbering tiger on the chair next to Yija. “She needs the energy to do it.”

Jihan nodded wishing he understood more, but not wanting to. Sometimes it was better to know less.

Yasmin entered the lively living room with a frown when she saw Jihan and Kastan.

“Your Graces should be in the main dining room,” she said in greeting. “I have made fried fish for Prince Jihan. Why are you two here?”

Jihan’s stomach growled, making Rashan and Yija giggle, while Kastan pushed his chair back. He lifted Rashan and stood. He placed Rashan on the chair and pushed it back.

“Firuz, you keep the princes company for a while,” Yasmin said, when Kastan took Jihan’s hand and led him out before he could protest. “I’ll take care of your charge’s meal.”

“But—,” Firuz started.

“Stay,” Yasmin ordered with a pointed finger, and then rushed after Jihan and Kastan.

****

An hour after his visit with the Emperor, Zure finished writing a letter to Lord Ishan Gura of Gura Estate. The letter was a request for Ishan to visit Zure’s manor in the capital as soon as the thanksgiving festivities ended.

Zure would be working in the Iron Lands to fulfill the Emperor’s plans for the next year or two. He wanted to entrust Lord Gura with his office work here in the palace.

Zure sealed the letter by pouring hot red wax and stamping his ring on it. The howling wolf on his crest settled on the wax and dried. Taking the letter, he called out to his right-hand man in the outer room of his office.

“My Lord,” the tall man who walked in said in greeting.

“Send this letter to Lord Gura through the Eagle’s Claw in Vasia Town. I’m sure he’ll get it faster if we go through the inn’s manager. Lord Gura’s reply shall be his arrival in this capital. Prepare a comfortable residence for him to use in the capital. You will assist him with anything he needs as he takes on my duties in this office.”

“I’ll send the letter and make arrangements right away, My Lord.”

“Thank you, Leria,” Zure said.

“I have a development to report,” Leria said. “You asked us to watch Lord Duyi Kamran. The Viscount left for his titled lands in Gamo. He was alone.”

“Ambition can truly cripple the weak,” Zure said, sitting back in his chair with a small smile. “Support any measures Prince Jihan takes to control Lord Duyi. I would like to help the merchant prince keep Duyi under control. Consider Lord Duyi a problem that concerns my house from now on.”

“I will make arrangements, My Lord,” Leria said.

“Leria, as of this morning, the Imperial Palace is observing three days of thanksgiving. Go home and be with your family,” Zure said.

“What about you, My Lord?” Leria asked. “Will you be alone?”

“I won’t be alone,” Zure said. “Do send the carriages with gifts for my family to our estate. My wife will be expecting them. I’ll try to stop by there on the last day of the thanksgiving festival. If not, I will head to my family estate after thanksgiving to prepare for the trip to the Iron Lands.”

“I understand. I’ll make sure the carriages set off. Happy thanksgiving, My Lord,” Leria said, giving him a short nod.

“And to you and your family, Leria,” Zure said.

Leria left him alone and Zure rested his head back on his chair, closing his eyes.

A smile curved his lips when he felt the softest brush of a kiss on his forehead. Warmth filled his insides and the tension that had accumulated since his talk with Emperor Kiyan dissipated.

“You look tired,” Ha said, his breath caressing Zure’s skin at his temple.

Zure opened his eyes to see his lover standing on the right side of his chair.

Ha kissed him on the lips.

Zure closed his eyes, savoring the taste of Ha.

Their kisses always felt addictive, so decadent and delicious, Zure felt mad with lust each time. He moaned in protest when Ha broke their kiss. Taking in a deep breath, he forced his hands to stay put on the arms of his chair. If he let go, Zure was afraid he would do his best to cling to a god.

“You’re so determined to keep control,” Ha murmured against his lips.

Zure opened his eyes and met a warm gaze studying him with amusement.

“Don’t you ever think that I do want you to hold on to me?” Ha asked. “Hold on and not let go, even when it’s very difficult for both of us.”

“Ha.”

“Hold me, Zure,” Ha said, stepping back from Zure’s chair.

Zure gripped the arms of his chair for a minute. Heart thumping against his chest at the challenge in Ha’s gaze. He tried not to fall deeper into his desires with Ha. It would be so dangerous. Ha was so…

Ha lifted his right brow and Zure let out a defeated sigh.

Who was he lying to?

His heart had long given in to Ha. Their love was not easy, certainly not ordinary, but it was theirs.

Zure got up, pushing the large chair back. He moved closer to Ha, who opened his arms in invitation. Zure took the steps separating them and slipped his arms around Ha’s waist. His fingers sinking into long silver hair, he looked up when Ha wrapped his arms around him and pulled him into a tight hug.

“This feels true,” Ha murmured into his ear. “Don’t be afraid to keep us, Zure.”

Zure nodded and pressed his forehead into Ha’s left shoulder.

“His Imperial Majesty is going to Silver Shore Valley to spend time with his sons,” Zure said, pressing closer to Ha.

He smiled when Ha held him tighter.

“What about you?” Ha asked. “What do you want to do these three days of thanksgiving?”

Zure thought about Emperor Kiyan who was working at restoring trust in a fractured court. At the same time, his prince sons were facing a new life with their uncles at Silver Shore Valley. The emperor was making a conscious effort to be there for his two princes, and in a way to mend the frayed bonds with Kastan and Jihan.

It made Zure wonder whether he was neglecting his own duties to his family in Blood Nation.

He sighed and Ha brushed a kiss on his head.

“Thinking about your boys?” Ha asked.

“Don’t read my thoughts,” Zure warned.

Ha chuckled.

“No need when your sigh gives you away, my love,” Ha said. “You only sigh when you’re thinking about your children. They have grown up, Zure. They are happy with their lives. Their mother finds amusement in others. They all take you as you are. You have done everything you could to provide for them. You have no reason to feel sad.”

Zure groaned. It was useless to hide his worries from Ha.

“I think I’m a terrible Pa. I only show up for family occasions and expect too much of all of them,” Zure said. “Running our estates takes all their time, governing Blood Nation takes even more out of my wife, and my eldest son.”

“No Pa sees himself as being accomplished when it comes to parenting, Zure,” Ha said. “Your sons do not concern themselves with your lack of time for them. They are committed to Blood Nation’s prosperity, as you are. It is what your family does. Your eldest son is not afraid of his duties.”

“I hope every day they find their own moments of happiness,” Zure said. “I hope they don’t resent me because I choose to give my affection to Hana now. She has no one on her side but me.”

“Hana looks happy running The Green,” Ha said. “You should know, her master asked one of his men to substitute for her these three days. She is spending her thanksgiving days in the house she bought near the Eagle’s Claw. Garren of the Eagle’s Claw has invited her to his family’s celebration. She will not be alone. Do you want to visit your family, Zure? I will take you.”

“Let’s visit them all on the last day of thanksgiving,” Zure said, and tilted his head back so he could look into Ha’s golden eyes. “These two days, I’m giving them to you, Ha. You’ve been worried, which is rare for you. What is on your mind?”

“I’m Ha. The empire is always on my mind.”

Zure chuckled and tugged on the silver strands of hair he held at Ha’s back.

“Yes, almighty ancient one, your power is inspiring. Still, you worry,” Zure said, bringing his right hand up to touch the line of strain on the corner of Ha’s mouth. “What would make one such as you worry?”

Ha closed his eyes leaning into Zure’s touch, and then let out a soft breath as Zure caressed his cheek, resting his cheek on Zure’s palm.

Zure’s breath caught when golden eyes opened and collided with his. It was the same each time. His heart skipped with violent need when Ha looked at him. He figured it was the surprise of this stunning creature looking at him with love.

“Neith is on my mind,” Ha said, on a very heavy sigh. It certainly sounded like it could shake the earth. “She expended energy to save the merchant prince and lost her form. She refuses to ask Bast and me for help. I worry my sister has chosen to exile herself at Silver Shore Valley. While it is admirable, I wish she would make the effort to return to the tower. I miss talking to her.”

Zure nodded, knowing Ha’s love for Neith and Bast was deep and unconditional.

“Let’s visit Silver Shore Valley then,” Zure said. “You’ll see Neith. I will meet my nephew again, and play with the merchant prince.”

“Your attachment to Jihan is almost as puzzling as Neith’s fascination with him,” Ha said.

“He is an interesting man,” Zure confessed with a grin. “I’ve never met anyone who put so much effort into building wealth. The rest of us maintain an empire that came into existence with our ancestor’s effort. Prince Jihan is different. He came from a simple merchant home. He is now as powerful as an emperor is, if not more. He is worthy of attention.”

“You and Neith have too much in common,” Ha said, then kissed Zure, a slow consuming kiss that had Zure forgetting about the merchant prince and all his merits.

“How are we to travel?” Zure asked, breathless, when they broke apart. “I can call my carriage—”

“Don’t let go of me,” Ha said.

Zure locked his fingers together, his arms around Ha’s waist, and buried his face into Ha’s chest. He sometimes forgot his lover was beyond human limitations. They had teleported to places around the empire before. It was never easy for Zure. He always felt disoriented when they reached their destination. Before he could think to complain, Ha gripped him tight and transported them. Shifting them from Zure’s office in the palace, they passed through white space, which always felt compressed and filled with roaring waves.

Zure closed his eyes at the usual strain on every cell in his body as Ha transported them, and then it stopped, leaving him feeling shaky.

Zure felt a cool breeze brush his robes and then it sent Ha’s long hair into a wild frenzy. He lifted his head from Ha’s chest and gaped at the large bridge over a steep cliff with a river flowing down below. To his right was the majestic Sun-filled Manor. Lush gardens and tall trees growing around it. To his left the bridge continued on leading to a rocky path leading to an open plateau.

“…I’m not walking on that bridge because you order it, Kas,” Jihan’s voice drifted to Zure.

Zure forced his fingers to let go of Ha’s robes and stepped away from Ha to see Jihan leaning on a table under a large tree.

“My fear won’t go away because you will it. It just won’t work that way,” Jihan said, facing his husband.

“You can’t live in our home for the rest of our lives, and never walk the bridge to see what’s beyond that open plain,” Kastan said, his arms crossed against his chest.

Jihan faced his husband with determination.

Kastan’s expression seemed even more unmoving. They were clearly having an argument where none of them was going to concede soon.

Kastan stepped closer to where Jihan was leaning on the table and glared. His demeanor enough to shake a seasoned soldier.

Jihan straightened to his full height and pushed Kastan back with a steady palm on Kastan’s chest. He turned ready to head to the manor. The white and gold robes he wore matched the warm day, his long hair down his back shifted with every movement he made. The red jade pin holding a tight knot on top of his head gleamed in the sunlight.

“We are done talking about the bridge,” Jihan said. “I’m heading back to the house. You can come along if you still want to spend the day together.”

“No,” Kastan said, taking Jihan’s right arm at the elbow, he stayed Jihan’s progress with a gentle tug. “This is not what I want for you, An. You need to fight your fear. Face it or it will consume you.”

“I don’t need to fight anything,” Jihan said. “I finished my duties very early to make time. I even sent Soraya away to make time. We are finally free of obligations for three days, Kas. What I want is to spend time with you. Yasmin made a delicious meal for us this morning. All you needed to do was eat with me, and maybe we could have gone for a walk after. Instead, you brought me out here to push me, again. We have argued about this bridge for months. You won’t give it a rest, not even today on the first day of thanksgiving.”

“An.”

“I need you to understand that I will get over my fear on my own. You can’t bully me into walking on the bridge. You will not make me do it.”

“I’m pushing you for your own sake,” Kastan insisted.

“You are still not listening to me,” Jihan said, holding Kastan’s gaze.

It didn’t matter that he had to look up to do it.

Zure would have thought Jihan afraid to face off with the terrifying Duke Silver, but he was holding his own without fear. In fact, he met Duke Silver’s determination with a matching force. Their fight was quite thrilling to watch.

“Let go of my arm. If you won’t spend this morning with me, then I’m going to visit the Lehin grandson at his new workshop. He has something I need to pick up.”

“But you were gone all morning. I woke up without you—” Kastan complained.

“Yes,” Jihan said, cutting in, poking his left index finger into Kastan’s chest. “The women in the village council needed support on their errands. I gave it because I’m your consort and we’re building a healthy community here. For Shan, for us, and the soldiers who fight for this empire with us. After a very trying morning facing bereaved families, I wanted to spend time with you, but you won’t allow it. You brought me out here in a plot to get me to like the stupid bridge you and Temu built. I don’t know why it matters so much.”

“Because this is your home. Putting your fear off won’t make it go away,” Kastan said.

“Pushing me to face it all the time won’t make me like the bridge faster,” Jihan said, and tugged his arm out of Kastan’s hold. “You help the children get to the boats for their trip with the Emperor Lords. I need time alone.”

“An.”

Jihan walked away from Kastan fast, joined by his Shadow Guard. The two took a path that would lead them to the front of the manor.

Zure’s gaze lingered on Jihan’s Shadow Guard.

The Shadow Guard stopped to stare at the bridge, his gaze intent.

Zure stepped back into Ha’s arms, embarrassed at having been caught intruding on a private argument between Duke Silver and his Consort. Seeing the couple stand together at important occasions, looking so strong and stable, almost made one think they did not argue.

“The Shadow Guard can’t see us,” Ha said, his tone assuring. “It is taking effort to mask us from eyes honored by Bast. The Shadow Guard senses our presence but he’s not quite certain.”

“What about Duke Silver?” Zure asked, watching Kastan kick the bench by the table in frustration.

Kastan cursed under his breath, his hands at his waist, as Firuz gave up on the bridge and hurried after his fleeing charge.

“Duke Silver is too preoccupied,” Ha said, watching Kastan too. “He is a warrior first. He has spent too much time among fellow warriors. He does not know any other way to fight down fears but to plunge in and fight. His Consort is afraid of this bridge but it is a feeling the Duke can resolve with warmth instead of hardness.”

“Should we tell him?” Zure asked.

“Where is the fun in telling him?” Ha chuckled and took Zure’s right hand. “Duke Silver needs to make up with his Jihan on his own. Come, I sense Neith sleeping in the master’s chamber in the main house. Duke Silver is fuming and Jihan has left the manor. What perfect timing.”

“What about the little princes?” Zure asked.

“They are in the separate house with their grandfather, Kaveh, and…the Emperor,” Ha said in wonder. “I believe Bast has given Kiyan an artifact that allows him to visit his sons easily.”

“I want to be with them,” Zure said.

“Whatever you want, my love,” Ha said, and took them to the front of the manor.

Zure clutched Ha’s hand when they materialized before the massive front door of Sun-filled Manor. Ha touched the knocker mounted on a snarling tiger head, the knock on the door rang through the manor.

A young woman opened the door a few minutes later and lowered her head in greeting when she saw them.

“A good morning, My Lords,” she said. “Please come in.”

“I’m here to visit His Imperial Majesty,” Zure said, pointing to Ha with his freehand, he smiled. “This is Neith’s guest. What is your name, beautiful lady?”

“Soraya, My Lord.”

“Soraya, I’m starving,” Zure said. “Do you think I could get some food?”

“Yes, as a matter of fact you can,” Soraya said, ushering them into the hall.

Knowing Ha would probably teleport to Neith’s side, Zure took Soraya’s right arm and launched into a detailed description of his hunger. He made sure to describe how it was making it hard to think. Soraya chuckled at his antics and led him to what she called the dining hall, and when Zure looked back once, it was to see that Ha had disappeared.

*~*~*~*

Ha stood in the middle of Jihan and Kastan’s chambers.

Signs of the pair’s shared life stamped the space with ownership. Open ledgers on a desk facing the main door, an abacus lay on a book about military tactics next to the ledgers. The sitting area on one end of the large room had a long couch pushed close to the many windows showing off a wonderful view of the Silver Lake in the distance. Pillows piled on one side showed two people had used the long couch of late.

A large vase filled with swords and spears by the corner spoke of Kastan. Beside the vase stood a small round table holding a leafy potted plant. The fern had branches growing wild, meant to hide the spears.

Ha imagined Jihan had added the ferns to soften their sanctuary. There were ten potted plants around the sitting area, each one doing its best to hide large vases filled with swords, spears and arrows. Ha chuckled and added a bit of magic to the potted plants letting them grow to achieve Jihan’s aim for now. In times of crisis, the leaves would pull back as needed for Kastan or Firuz’s use.

Ha gave his attention to the large bed on the opposite end. It had a snarling tiger carved on its headboard. The covers were neat on the bed, but a green robe lay discarded at the foot. A familiar red cloak rested over the green robe, and a closed fan sat forgotten on the red fabric.

Neith rested on a corner of the rich red fabric of the cloak. Her black and white coat of fur shining. She made a beautiful black and white tiger cub. Her fur calling for fingers to sink in for a luxurious caress.

Ha stepped closer to the ducal marriage bed and stared at the carving on the headboard. The workmanship was intricate and stunning. The tiger carved into the wood infused with protection symbols he recognized as Neith’s work.

Ha smiled.

“Bast claims you hide your heart. I think we simply didn’t know where to look. Kaveh is lucky that you care for his children with so much effort. Are you going to keep sleeping?"

Ha touched the red cloak and discovered that it belonged to Kastan, but Jihan had recently used the cloak during his morning ride to deliver goodwill. Jihan also stopped by a new blacksmith’s workshop to ask about a package, red mud found outside the blacksmith’s workshop stained the edges of the cloak. Ha wondered what Jihan was having the blacksmith make for him.

“You’re noisy on a quiet morning,” Neith’s voice filled his head as she shifted on the cloak, licking a paw before she closed her eyes.

“Are you still unwilling to walk on two feet?” Ha asked. “How long are you going to stay as a tiny cub?”

“I don’t have the energy to change,” Neith said, her voice lazy, sleepy. “Might as well enjoy myself in this manor eating and sleeping like a queen. Jihan spoils me more than enough. He even lets me drink his most expensive Gura wine.”

Ha retrieved the fig branch Bast handed him two days ago. He stared at the thick branch on his palm for a moment.

“Are you willing to walk on two feet, Neith?” Ha asked again. “I think you would prefer to have the choice to change into a cub or into your body. Your pretty dresses miss you.”

“I’m too lazy to find the kind of power that will restore what I gave,” Neith said.

“Are you willing?”

“Yes,” Neith said, then yawned. “Alas, there is no—”

Ha broke the branch and directed the yellow energy spilling from the branch’s fresh cut to the black and white tiger. He added his own energy to the yellow energy and smiled when the little tiger cub grew larger.

When the light faded, Neith was a large beast, much bigger than a normal tiger. She jumped off the bed and shook out her fur, stretching her powerful muscles with a soft sigh.

“Where did you get this much power?” Neith asked, as she shifted into her true form.

She wore a simple white tunic, and her thick long hair was silver. She would need time for her hair to return to its usual vibrant black. Her eyes were gray too.

“You gave too much to the merchant prince,” Ha said. “It’s been a long time since you worked at bringing a soul back to this realm.”

“I could not lose him like I did Shana Miran,” Neith said, bringing her hands up over her head in a lazy stretch. “The merchant was desperate. He didn’t want to leave his husband and said Kastan deserved more from us. He made it easy to steal him back from the veil. He was unwilling to leave.”

“Are you saying Shana was willing?” Ha asked.

“She was…,” Neith dropped her arms to her sides and met Ha’s golden gaze. “She was tired. Her body long failing her, it was her time. To return would have been a torture, her body hurt and her duties as Empress broke her. I could not force her back.”

“Then, let’s say you succeeded this time, Neith,” Ha said, his gaze returning to Duke Silver’s headboard.

“The wards?” Ha asked.

“I’ve been crafting them since that day. It’s for them to find peace as they rest,” Neith said, a small smile curving her lips. “Jihan and Kastan are protecting the empire’s future in this manor. They deserve peaceful nights.”

Ha closed the distance between them and pulled Neith into his arms, giving her a tight hug.

“Can you not hibernate for years, Sister? I miss you,” Ha said. “Bast is too serious. The Imperial Tower is boring without you.”

“Then, visit me often,” Neith said, wrapping her arms around Ha. She rubbed his back and buried her face into his shoulder. “I like spending time with Kaveh Miran. He’s quite entertaining when he wishes it. Jihan also needs support. I like sitting with him after a long day. He is still getting used to being a Duke. He is learning how to merge the merchant to the consort.”

“So, you want to stay here at Sun-filled Manor?” Ha asked, disappointed.

“I’m not always with Kaveh or Jihan,” Neith said.

She squeezed Ha before she stepped back.

“Despite the restorative energy from you and Bast,” Neith said. “I don’t think I can enter the Imperial Tower at will, yet. I’ll need a few more months to get back to fighting form. You are welcome to visit me here, Ha.”

“Duke Silver is busy these days securing borders, cleaning out bad blood associated with the late empress from the army stations,” Ha said. “Zure is also going to the Iron Lands to help transition a new governor. I’ll accompany him.”

“It looks like we’ll face more months apart,” Neith said, reaching up to pinch Ha’s right cheek. “Apart is always together, Ha. You know this truth. Besides, like I said, you’re welcome to drop in on me if you want.”

“I’ll talk to Duke Silver first,” Ha said. “It’s not good to stop by at will without letting him know.”

“Agreed,” Neith said, pinching Ha’s cheek again. “So, what brings you to the manor today?”

“You,” Ha said. “Also, Zure wanted to spend time with the merchant prince and his nephew.”

“Rashan, Yan, and Yija are going to pay respects to the Empress Shana for thanksgiving,” Neith said. “Zure should go with them to visit his sister, Duchess Jian. Duke Silver and Jihan are staying back. Everyone in the manor has conspired to give them time alone.”

“Really?” Ha let go of Neith when she moved away from him. “I saw them arguing in the gardens at the back. Merchant Prince left saying he needed to be alone.”

“They have been at odds these past six months. Arguing over the bridge and a fear Jihan cannot control. It is frustrating them and everyone in the manor. Yasmin and Rashan conspired and planned a getaway for everyone to give Duke Silver and Jihan time alone,” Neith said.

She touched the white tunic she wore and frowned. She snapped her fingers and her frown deepened when nothing changed.

Ha snapped his fingers and changed her plain white tunic to a long pale-yellow dress that shimmered in the light. She liked beautiful clothes, so he made the ruffles on the skirts many and beautiful with shiny beads to match the bodice.

“You spoil me,” Neith said, touching the fabric with a wide smile. “There are thanksgiving celebrations in this valley. We can join them. Will you accompany me these three days, Ha? I promise to let you and Zure have a good time.”

“You never have to ask, Sister,” Ha said, holding out his right arm to her.

Neith took his arm, and leaned on him as he led her out of the master’s chambers. She glanced at the plants he had helped grow for Jihan.

“You’re also interfering in the merchant prince’s efforts,” Neith noted.

Ha chuckled.

“It is Zure’s influence.”

“How are you in love with a mortal?” Neith asked.

“Drop the judging tone. You’ve been in love with Kaveh for his lifetime,” Ha countered. “We’ll both suffer after their time.”

Neith let out a loud sigh as they went down the stairs.

“We’re both idiots then,” Neith decided, when they were halfway down the stairs.

“I suppose,” Ha said, then squeezed Neith’s hand. “Still…it is better to have loved them than to remain untouched. Zure is a gift, as Kaveh has been to you. Leaving you generations to care for. You are attached to Duke Silver and those who live in this manor because Kaveh favors it most, even though you will not admit it.”

Neith let out a soft sigh.

“Ha,” Neith said. “You’re luckier than me who loved a mortal whose heart belongs to another. So, love Zure without reservations. I will be there for you later, Brother.”

Ha smiled and helped Neith down the remaining stairs knowing her vow was true.

*~*~*~*

Kastan returned to the auxiliary house in a state of frustration. He found Rashan wearing his cloak at the entrance, while Aoi helped Rashan adjust the ties on his traveling boots.

Attendants filled the living area and the corridors outside. They carried travel bags for the three princes to waiting carriages. Kiyan’s guard, Rael, helped with preparations, and Kaveh stood waiting by the door.

“Where is Jihan?” Kaveh asked, when Kastan moved to stand next to him.

“He left as soon as we went out for a walk,” Kastan said, shaking his head, his frustration coloring his voice. “I can’t get him to stay still.”

“You argued. It is partly your fault,” Kaveh said. “You are arguing because of your need to push him to the bridge. Stop forcing him and he will sort out his fear in his own time.”

“Pa, I can’t watch him live in fear over a bridge for the rest of our lives,” Kastan said, shaking his head. “I want him to be comfortable in our home. What if he needs to cross the bridge to get to Bottom-cliff Estate for help? What happens then?”

“I pray he does not need to use the bridge for such a thing,” Kaveh said. “Not with you, Temu, Safan, Naveed, and Firuz here. Happiness can come from you supporting his choice to wait. Stop hounding him every chance you get to face an experience that scarred his heart.”

“Rashan experienced it too. He is doing very well,” Kastan said looking at his smiling son. “He runs on the bridge and does his exercises there with Aoi. How come he’s not afraid?”

“Shan is young and well adjusted,” Kaveh said. “He has two parents who worry about him, and make all his fears go away. As a result, he is resilient and strong. It is different for Jihan. This one will take him time. You have to remember he had to face a murder plot before the bridge. He went over a cliff to keep his life. Thankfully, he had Firuz, but the experience must have been unpleasant. You express your own fears over that incident more than once. Then Nisa came with her unprecedented attack. Jihan lost his life on the bridge, Kastan. If Neith did not choose to visit us and grant life, we would be dealing with the worst. You know that better than me.”

Kastan let out a soft hiss at the memory. He hated to think of watching Jihan lying so still on their bed. His heart squeezed tight and he shook his head.

“Please, give Jihan time,” Kaveh said, his tone solemn.

Kastan closed his eyes wishing he could escape the memories too. He opened his eyes when he heard Rashan and Yan talking quietly.

Kaveh faced Kastan. His gaze narrowed.

“Now, where did Jihan go? We’ve done all this planning to let you and Jihan spend the day together. Rashan worries when you two are fighting.”

“I told you, he left after we argued,” Kastan said. “Said he wanted time alone.”

“You’re an idiot if you believe it. Don’t let this fight grow bigger,” Kaveh said. “Accept that you can’t fix all his fears. There are problems Jihan needs to sort out on his own, Kas. All you can do is support him. Learn how to accept that truth.”

Kastan let out another impatient sigh.

Kaveh smiled in the face of his frustration and reached up to pat Kastan’s left cheek.

“Marriage is not only love. It is also compromise, patience, and understanding, and a host of other parts you’ll discover soon enough,” Kaveh said. “You might find it easy to get over the scare at the bridge, but it’s different for Jihan. Try to look at it from his point of view. As much as you were losing him, he almost left you and Shan. That’s not easy to deal with, Kas.

Kastan stilled.

Kaveh’s explanation sinking deeper than any arguments he had used on Jihan.

Rashan ran out into the courtyard, ready to travel, brushing past them with an excited shout.

Yan and Yija ran after Rashan.

Kaveh squeezed Kastan’s left shoulder. He then followed the three princes down the short steps to the courtyard and the carriages beyond.

Kastan frowned when Kiyan came to stand next to him.

“When did you get here?” Kastan asked, looking at his older brother.

“I came in time to see you and Jihan start arguing in the back gardens,” Kiyan said with a grin. “It was such a shock, that I hurried in to see the boys and avoided you two. You have been the perfect couple as far as I’m concerned. I thought you never argued.”

Kastan scoffed.

“You haven’t caught us on a bad day. We make fireworks explode when we disagree. Once he left me after sharing a bed with me all night. I was so stunned because I thought we were doing well. I didn’t see him again for months. When I did find him, I was raging with jealousy over his ex-lover. He was full on drunk after downing a gallon of Gura wine. I pulled my sword on him and he told me to kill him.”

“Isn’t that how you ended up married?” Kiyan asked.

“I suppose,” Kastan said, shaking his head.

“From there, you two stood as a unit to face the rest of us,” Kiyan said with a small chuckle. “Now, we are at peace, living our lives. Naturally, you’re now having internal fights.”

“This is not a fight. It is a disagreement,” Kastan said.

“Disagreements are fights, Kas,” Kiyan said, grinning wide. “You upset Jihan enough for him to tell you he needs time alone. I know my marriage was a mess and can hardly compare to yours. However, when Rushi was upset with me, I always brought her red roses from the garden. I cut them myself to alleviate her anger. The roses always diffused our fights. Got us talking again. Do you know what Jihan likes?”

“Tea, his fan,” Kastan said. “Gura wine, riding too fast chasing his eagle, and watching plays.”

Kiyan chuckled, shaking his head.

“You, it’s good you know all these things. Use one of them to do sweet things for Jihan. He’s your husband not a warrior you’re training in the field. Day in day out living with the commander of armies. Jihan is too good to you, Duke Silver.”

Kiyan started to step down the steps only to see Zure emerge from the main house into the courtyard and head toward them.

“Who did you leave in the Capital Palace? Why is everyone descending on my Sun-filled Manor?” Kastan asked in surprise.

“Nivenad might be my retainer but he has a powerful benefactor,” Kiyan said on a chuckle. “Ha must be here to visit Neith.”

“The ancients are lingering close these days,” Kastan noted. “Rashan gained a Shadow Guard. You’re arriving at my manor as often as you want. And Neith is living here.”

“It happens when we are at peace,” Kiyan said. “Bast says it is their way of celebrating the empire’s stability.”

“I’m sure they will also be the first to let us know when the empire is in another crisis,” Kastan said. “Take Zure to Pa’s island. He has not greeted his sister in a long time.”

“You are doing your best to chase us out of the manor,” Kiyan teased.

“I have to find a way to sweet talk my consort,” Kastan said just as Zure reached them.

“Duke Silver,” Zure said. “Imperial Majesty, forgive me for intruding. I came to visit for thanksgiving. It’s a long time since I came to Sun-filled Manor.”

“Nivenad, you are always welcome here. Still, I’m going to need you to follow Kiyan,” Kastan said, patting Zure’s left shoulder. “Go pay respects to your little sister, Jian. Spend time with Rashan, Yan and Yija, on their adventure. I’ll see you tomorrow.”

“Your Grace—” Zure started.

“Come on, Nivenad.” Kiyan took Zure’s right arm and dragged him to follow Kaveh and the little princes. “There is trouble in paradise. Kas needs time to fix it.”

Zure chuckled, following Kiyan without question.

*~*~*~*

Jihan returned to the manor late in the afternoon. He carried two black boxes that he slipped into his pocket the moment he saw Kastan pacing the main hall.

“You’re back,” Kastan said, stopping when he saw Jihan.

Jihan paused and Firuz stepped around him heading to the kitchens, leaving them alone.

“Why are you waiting by the door?” Jihan asked, his brown eyes filled with surprise. “Duke Silver must be very idle today.”

Kastan closed the distance Jihan was maintaining between them and gripped Jihan’s arms.

“Did you eat? Are you still angry with me?” Kastan asked, doing his best to read Jihan’s gaze. “Why are you spending time with that strange Lehin grandson?”

“Yes, yes, and I have my reasons,” Jihan said.

Kastan squeezed Jihan’s arms.

“Are you not going to tell me why you’re going to the new blacksmith’s workshop?”

“What are you going to do if I don’t? Shake it out of me?” Jihan asked.

Kastan closed his eyes, took in a deep breath, and let go of Jihan’s arms. He stepped back and clasped his hands behind his back. It took some effort. He really did not want to continue fighting with Jihan. Taking in another deep breath, he let it out slow and opened his eyes. He met Jihan’s gaze again.

“An,” Kastan said, keeping his voice low, gentle. “I have made a mistake today.”

Jihan blinked, studying him closely.

“What mistake?” Jihan asked after a while.

Kastan cleared his throat and nodded glad for the question.

“I made you upset in the garden. I was not—”

“I think you don’t truly know what mistake you made,” Jihan said, and started to walk around him.

Kastan held Jihan’s right arm at the elbow and stopped him.

“I was unreasonable this morning,” Kastan said fast. “I didn’t listen to you.”

“You did not want to listen to me,” Jihan said. “You never asked me what I want to do about the bridge. You want things to be your way. I need you to know they can’t always be that way.”

“I know,” Kastan said. “And, I’m sorry, An.”

Jihan faced him then, and narrowed his gaze, studying Kastan’s contrite expression. Dark eyes looked back at him with sincerity. The grip Kastan had on his right elbow was gentle, even as it was restraining.

“Will you do it again?” Jihan asked, his tone softening. He reached up to press his palm to Kastan’s right cheek. “Will you force me to walk the bridge?”

“No,” Kastan shook his head, and closed his eyes. “I’m not happy about it, but I’ll follow your wishes, An. I will not make you walk on that bridge.”

Jihan grinned at the frown that remained on Kastan’s forehead. He rubbed his thumb over the dark stubble on Kastan’s chin and leaned up on his toes to press his lips to the frown.

“I know it matters to you that I get across,” Jihan said, when Kastan opened his eyes and looked at him. “I also want to feel at ease at the thought of that bridge, but it will take time. I’m sorry it’s taking me longer. Seven months might seem long but I still feel like it happened yesterday. I’ll work on it.”

“Ok,” Kastan murmured and kissed him, taking his lips in a soft comforting kiss.

Jihan let out a relieved sigh when Kastan wrapped his arms around him and held him close. He buried his face into Kastan’s shoulder.

“The children?” Jihan asked.

“They left without a problem,” Kastan said, rubbing his back. “Rashan was excited for the adventure.”

Jihan smiled and touched Kastan’s collar.

“He’s more excited that his plan with Yasmin worked,” Jihan said. “The house is empty today.”

“Yes it is,” Kastan said. “Ha took Neith for a walk. Soraya left to visit her family. Yasmin is planning to visit Safan’s mother. We might plan a wedding with them soon.”

Jihan played with the collar of Kastan’s robe for a moment, and then leaned back so that he could look into his husband’s eyes.

“What does Duke Silver do when the manor is empty?” Jihan asked with a wide grin.

“Take my consort to my most favorite place in Silver Shore Valley,” Kastan said with a wide smile. “Let’s go for a ride.”

“But—,” Jihan started only for Kastan to let go of him, take his right hand and turn him around to the door.

Kastan paused long enough to grab Jihan’s cloak and his own, and then they were outside mounting Kastan’s warhorse. The black destrier did not complain when Kastan dragged Jihan onto the saddle too. The strong black horse followed direction when Kastan urged it out the red gates, and along the path leading out of their property.

“Where are we going?” Jihan asked when they went out the black gates.

“Patience,” Kastan said, brushing a kiss on Jihan’s temple.

Firuz followed behind them at a discrete distance.

Kastan urged his horse into a faster pace. They took the cobbled path through the trees, as though heading to the main town. They came to a cross road with the path on the left leading to the main town.

Kastan turned his horse right, taking the path that would go straight to Bottom-cliff Estate. Jihan relaxed against him, and the tension that had built between them all day dissipated.

*~*~*~*~*

Riding with Kastan felt novel and familiar.

Jihan watched his husband’s capable hands holding the horse’s reins and smiled wide. It was interesting fighting with Kastan. Kastan carried their altercations to heart. Worrying about them until they talked again and smoothed things out.

Today’s fight was not intentional. Even though Jihan had known, Kastan would try to take him to the bridge.

Kastan was not alone.

It bothered Jihan that he could not reconcile his fears. However…the memory of falling over the previous rope bridge to catch Rashan lingered.

No. Actually, the memory of Kastan leaning over him when he was dying on their bed worried Jihan most.

Kastan’s head bowed as though the world was ending. Jihan begging Neith to be there for him, and the feeling of being unable to touch Kastan no matter how much he tried to hug him. There was no easy way to explain the experience.

Instead, Jihan wanted to try to be careful with his life. He wanted to be there for Kastan, never to see him so broken. The bridge reminded him how easily the forces behind fate could thwart his wishes.

Letting out a soft breath, Jihan leaned back on Kastan’s solid chest, sinking into his warm presence.

Jihan stopped watching Kastan’s hands on the reins and focused on where they were going. He was surprised to see a pair of solid black gates ahead. The guards opened them without question when they saw Kastan.

Kastan rode into the quiet compound, leading their horse along a wide road lined with tall trees. They grew tall into a canopy, hiding the house ahead.

“Where are we?” Jihan asked, taking in the neat bushes that soon appeared in a large yard filled with short grass.

Kastan led the horse up the road to the front of the large house.

“This is Bottom-cliff Estate,” Kastan said.

Jihan could not control his surprise. His shoulders stiffening as he thought about the woman who had lived here and almost cost him everything. The house was quiet. The front doors tightly closed. No one came out to greet them.

“Moran has taken it over now,” Kastan continued, his tone gentle, soothing. “He is in the process of renovating it, and doing his best to change the estate’s reputation in the valley. Perhaps he’ll bring in a partner who will nurture it in the future. The era of Nisa Baiza is truly over.”

“I’ll pray for General Moran’s good news,” Jihan murmured, letting out a soft relieved sigh. “It’s good enough that the people who work here are no longer under the Baiza yoke.”

“Yes.” Kastan led his horse around the sizeable house to the backyard, taking a small obscure path between the trees.

“Where to now?” Jihan asked. “I thought we were visiting General Moran.”

“Moran is not here. He is with his parents for thanksgiving. You’ll see where we’re going in a few minutes,” Kastan said.

Jihan turned to look at him, his gaze questioning. He sighed when he got a kiss on the tip of his nose for his efforts.

“We’ll be there soon. I promise you’ll love it.”

Jihan hoped he loved it too.

Kastan took the flat path until he reached a steep hill where the path turned rough and precarious. The horse needed skillful guidance to keep climbing the hill. Jihan put all his trust in Kastan and focused on the motion of the horse and the feel of Kastan’s arms around him. They climbed for a period, their progress slow and careful.

Then, Kastan brought the horse to a stop, and Jihan saw that they were standing in a clearing at the top of the steep hill behind Bottom-cliff Estate.

“Dismount, An,” Kastan said, holding the horse steady with one hand. He helped Jihan climb down with his right.

Once Jihan was steady, Kastan dismounted fast and secured the horse’s reins around its neck. Leaving it to graze on the grass around them.

Jihan shook out his dark cloak and looked around the open plain where Kastan had brought them.

They stood on a rocky plateau, dusted with tufts of grass.

Jihan frowned and took a few steps forward. He walked around a thick wild berry bush, and gasped at the sight of a familiar bridge and Sun-filled Manor’s grounds beyond. The cliff seemed steeper on this side. The fall down more treacherous with jutting rocks and no clear foothold. The bridge was the only safe place to cross to the other side. This had to be the route Nisa took.

“Did you bring me—?” Jihan started, only to have Kastan take his left hand and turn him away from their home.

“I did not bring you to the bridge. We’ll go back the way we came later,” Kastan said. “I made a promise not to push anymore. Trust me, An.”

Jihan let out a soft sigh, and nodded. He clutched Kastan’s hand and allowed him to lead him away from the bridge and the rocky plateau. They walked with slow lazy steps until they left the rocky terrain and stepped into thick tall grass. The higher they went on the growing slope the taller the grass grew until it reached Jihan’s waist.

The wind blew, bending the tall grass blades, and Jihan glanced at Kastan walking beside him.

Kastan was dressed down today. No sight of his usual silver and black robes or the armor he wore to train in the training fields. Instead, he was dressed in deep blue robes embroidered with gold tigers on the bottom hem. His boots of fine leather were decorated with silver studs. He wore no sword on his leather belt, just the black jade token of his station. His hair was left to fall down to his shoulders.

Jihan glanced at the hand holding his. It was strong and warm, holding his with ease. It tightened when Jihan tripped over a rock, keeping him steady. He smiled and decided to hold on to this hand for as long as he could.

“What are you thinking?” Kastan asked, his tone teasing. “Not looking where we’re going. You’ll fall on your face.”

“Why do I need to worry about that when you’re here,” Jihan said, looking around the long grass. “Besides, you’re the one who dragged me from the house and brought me to play here. Should we worry about snakes?”

“Probably,” Kastan said.

“What?” Jihan gasped, and stopped, glaring at Kastan.

Kastan grinned, and Jihan let gripped his hand tighter, forcing them into a run. He ran as fast as he could until the tall grass turned short and they were free of the threat of snakes.

Jihan stopped then, staring in awe. They stood in a field of white flowers. The white flowers were so many; they grew as far as his eyes could see. It felt endless. In the middle of the strange sea of white flowers, a very thick tall tree grew. It was the thickest tree Jihan had ever seen. Larger than the one at Kamran Estate where Yoru lived.

“Is that an eyrie?” Jihan asked, when Kastan stood behind him.

“Yes. Silver Shore’s Eyrie,” Kastan said, sliding his arm around Jihan’s waist, pulling him closer. “This place is called the Field of White. I discovered it on a training journey with my old master when I was very young. The oldest eagle there encouraged me to build a home in Silver Shore Valley. Now, many years later, I wanted to share this place with you.”

Jihan placed his hand over Kastan’s on his waist and stared at the massive tree hosting a clan of eagles. Here on the highest cliff, the highest point of the valley, they lived untouched by humans. Safer than even the Kamran eyrie, which he had protected all his life.

“It’s beautiful, Kas.”

“I’m glad you like it,” Kastan said, pressing a kiss on his temple. “The only people who come here are Rashan, and the Hidden Keepers. The eagles are not welcoming to others.”

Jihan nodded, then turned back and spotted Firuz trailing behind in the tall grass. He seemed unconcerned by the threat of snakes.

“What about Shadow Guards?”

“The eagles will accept him because he is other. I’m sure he’s already been here,” Kastan said. “He is blessed by Bast. Aoi too.”

“Good to hear,” Jihan said. “Can I meet them? Do you think they’ll like me? Yoru had extended the invitation, but I’m nervous—”

“I’m sure they’ll want to meet another who protects their kind,” Kastan said, pushing Jihan into a slow walk to the large tree. He kept his arm around Jihan.

“Who planted the flowers?” Jihan asked, as they walked through the field of white flowers.

“I don’t know. I found them here. They grow this way no matter the season. I suspect it has something to do with the magic the eagles keep. Or the ancient ones. I don’t ask.”

“The eyrie at Kamran is surrounded by a wild forest. The wild animals only find those who would do the eagles harm,” Jihan said, with a small chuckle. “Maybe the flowers have the same function. Do you think Firuz will know if they are dangerous?”

“Probably,” Kastan said. “Shadow Guards are also forged in the same mysterious ways. Gentle to their charges and deadly to those who would do harm.”

“Hm,” Jihan agreed with a nod.

They walked for a few minutes in silence, and then Jihan broke it.

“Kas, have you been very worried about me not walking on the bridge?”

“Yes,” Kastan said. “Mostly, I want you to tell me what’s making you so worried that you can’t even bear to look at it.”

Jihan sighed and stopped just as they reached the first thick root of the tree. There was a low wooden bench mounted on the ground near the huge root. Jihan moved to sit on the bench and patted the seat next to him for Kastan.

Once Kastan settled, Jihan took his hands and met dark eyes.

“I keep thinking of you watching me die in our bed,” Jihan said. “I was so scared that day. Neith would not agree to be there for you. I blamed myself for making you tell me you loved me. I tried to hug you, but I couldn’t. I remember feeling helpless. I can’t stop thinking about it.”

“An,” Kastan said, his voice coming out in a whisper. He squeezed Jihan’s fingers in his and closed his eyes. “We should have talked about it.”

“It was not an easy moment for us,” Jihan said, bringing his right hand up to press his palm on Kastan’s cheek. His thumb stroking Kastan’s dark stubble again, he smiled. “I love you too much to want you to relieve that moment with me. I—”

“Then, we won’t,” Kastan said, cutting in.

“Ok, I want that too.” Jihan nodded in agreement. “Still, I need you to understand. The bridge makes me afraid that I can’t keep my promises to you. That I won’t be able to stay with you and Shan…with your Pa, Yan, and Yija, and the family we’ve made. It scares me.”

“You will,” Kastan said, kissing him on the lips. “You will stay with us for a while yet.”

Jihan returned the kiss, and then when Kastan ended it, he let out a sigh when Kastan dragged him into his arms.

“Let’s deal with your fear as you want,” Kastan murmured into his ear after a moment. “Just remember I’m right next to you if you need me. I’ll even build a wall around the cliff if you want me to.”

Jihan chuckled at Kastan’s clear love, his fingers bunching Kastan’s robe.

“Okay.” Jihan nodded, and pulled back to look up at the massive web of branches growing above them. “How old do you think this tree is?”

“Probably as old as the ancients,” Kastan said, stroking his fingers through Jihan’s hair, pushing it back over his shoulder. “The oldest eagle here is called Vanira. She has guarded this eyrie a long time. She found me hanging on a branch at the cliffs near the bridge. I was on the verge of failing the task my master gave me. She tried to catch me but her talons were too sharp. She scratched my face in the process.”

Jihan gasped, his hand going to the scar on Kastan’s right eyebrow.

“Of course,” Jihan said with a short chuckle, tracing his thumb over the scar. “Only an ancient eagle would dare mark one such as you.”

“I did not think it was funny at the time,” Kastan said, leaning in closer, letting Jihan study the scar, even though he had seen it many times now. “I was very relieved when she decided not to grab my face. Otherwise, your husband would have numerous scars on his face.”

Jihan kissed the scar, a soft touch of his lips.

“Who tells you I would look at you if there were more?” Jihan asked, pushing Kastan away to look up at the oddly quiet tree. “Where are the eagles?”

“Higher on the tree. The lower branches have no nests,” Kastan said. “Would you really not have looked at me if I had more scars?”

“Hm?” Jihan dragged his gaze away from the lower tree branches, took in Kastan’s expectant look, and chuckled. “What tells you I agreed to be with you because of your face?”

“An.”

“Kas,” Jihan said, patting Kastan’s arm. “Call Vanira. I want to meet her. Do you think she will land on my arm?”

“No way we are risking it.” Kastan shook his head. “She can land on the bench. An, tell me why you looked at me.”

Jihan glanced at Kastan, noting the question in Kastan’s eyes. Then because he had a sincere token to give, he gave all his attention to Kastan.

“Do you remember when you found me at the Raven Inn in Kin Town?” Jihan asked. “You were with Firuz, and I was almost murdered by that crazy Burning Feather master.”

“She would not have gotten to touch you,” Kastan said. “I threatened to spank you for putting yourself in danger.”

Jihan nodded with a small chuckle.

“I removed my overcoat to show you the burning feather on the back of it, and after…you covered me with your red cloak. I could see Temu and Naveed were surprised by the action, but you didn’t care. You just looked at me, and promised to keep me safe. Other than Firuz, I had not met anyone else who wanted to keep me safe. That you did want to was enough for me to look at you, Kas.”

“Later, I found you at that inn doing your best to smoke the place.”

Jihan smacked his right arm and scowled when Kastan grinned.

“You were very handsome with soot on your cheek, coughing up a storm,” Kastan said. “I just wanted to kiss you silly.”

Jihan sighed, and reached into his pocket to retrieve the black box he had gotten from the Lehin grandson.

Kastan watched him as he opened the box with care. Jihan removed the ring, placed the box back into his pocket, then faced Kastan feeling oddly nervous.

“You gave me your family ring when you asked me to marry you,” Jihan said, touching the ring on his right hand. He smiled at the feel of the black jade stone. “It was a surprise I didn’t expect. You see, I always thought I would live and die as the master of Kamran with only Andiya and her children to spoil. Then, you came along and offered me…”

Jihan turned to the field of white flowers around them; there was Sun-filled Manor below.

“Well, yourself and all of this,” Jihan said, then smiled as he faced Kastan again. “I was afraid I would not get to keep you for a while, but now…I, well, I’m really glad you looked for me after I left you in Kin Town. So…um…”

Jihan paused, reaching for Kastan’s right hand.

“Why are you so nervous?” Kastan teased.

“I don’t know.”

Jihan held the ring forged by the Lehin grandson, and then focused on sliding it onto Kastan’s right middle finger. It fit smooth and snug. Jihan let out a relieved sigh, then met Kastan’s amused gaze.

“I was afraid we didn’t get the size right. My family has no crest. I borrowed yours. I hope you take this ring as my token to claim you as mine too. I’ll give you the same words you gave me. Kastan of Silver Shore Valley, my heart and body are yours to call your own until the last day I draw breath.”

“And the time after too,” Kastan murmured, studying the ring on his right middle finger. It was made of the finest silver, the band wide and comfortable, and the tiger head on the top designed to embed on wax, sealing his house. “Is this what you were working on with the Lehin grandson?”

“Yes. Do you like it?” Jihan asked.

“I love it,” Kastan traced his thumb over the snarling tiger head on his ring. “I love it very much, Jihan.”

“I wonder if it will work like yours,” Jihan wondered, watching Kastan study his ring. “Will you be able to take it off?”

Kastan tried to roll off the ring from his finger, and to Jihan’s surprise, it did not budge.

“Your will is strong,” Kastan said, his smile wide. “I feel claimed.”

Jihan laughed, and reached for Kastan’s hand. He tugged on the ring, and it started to come off easily.

“Wow, I thought it only worked for the Miran blood,” Jihan said, returning the ring back to its position. He smoothed the pad of his thumb over Kastan finger.

“You’re a Miran now. Our traits will work for you,” Kastan said. “You were the moment you wore my ring, An.”

Jihan nodded and felt the anxiety he had felt a moment ago dissipate. He took Kastan’s hands in his and felt relieved when he saw Kastan’s wedding ring on the left and his token on Kastan’s right. It was perfect now.

“So, now that I’ve claimed you too, are you going to worry about how long it took me to look at you?” Jihan asked, meeting Kastan’s gaze.

“I could have sworn it was when you saved Shan on the streets,” Kastan said.

“No, not after Safan almost took my hand off. Besides, I didn’t know who you were,” Jihan said. “You seemed like a lord that I didn’t want to get tangled with.”

Kastan shook his head. “Thank goodness for fate then.”

“Mm,” Jihan nodded. He sighed and shifted to look up at the tree again. “Now, are you going to let me meet your eagle? Or do I have to wait for Yoru to introduce us? Or maybe she’s not here…do you think she went hunting?”

“Vanira, my consort wishes to meet you,” Kastan said, his tone light as he watched Jihan study the tree. “Don’t keep him waiting or he’ll think you don’t wish to meet him.”

Jihan frowned, searching the tree branches, and then he gasped when he saw a huge eagle flying straight at them. It was larger than Yoru. The wingspan quite wide. Jihan gripped Kastan’s hands tight, hoping not to look frightened by the massive predator. It could not land on the back of the bench where they sat, so it chose the armrest on Kastan’s side, folding its wings tight. Its talons gripping the wood. Vanira was majestic, and so huge, Jihan doubted he could handle her on his shoulders.

“Wow,” Jihan said, moving closer to Kastan, practically leaning on him as he studied Vanira. He wanted to touch her, but was unsure. Vanira looked wilder than Yoru.

‘Vanira greets the War God’s consort.’

The words filled Jihan’s head in the same pathway Yoru’s followed. The voice was ethereal and feminine.

‘The one before never came to see us here.’

Jihan smiled.

“Jihan greets Vanira. I’m happy Kastan brought me to meet you. Thank you for teaching Yoru many things.”

‘He’s lucky to have met a protector who cares about our kind. I see now. You and the War God match.’

“Why do you call him War God?” Jihan asked, glancing at Kastan who wrapped an arm around him and held him closer.

‘I met him in the middle of a fight. He has run too many wars since. There’s no other word for him.’

“It is true she has seen me fighting too many times,” Kastan said. “She said the same thing to Rashan when they met.”

“You can hear her?” Jihan asked.

“Mm,” Kastan nodded. “She’s older than Yoru, able to carry out conversations with more than one human. Unlike Yoru who is still young.”

“Amazing,” Jihan said, returning to study Vanira. “Do you think Yoru will get there too?”

Very likely,’ Vanira said.

“It will be good if he can talk to Kas, and Shan,” Jihan said. “I can’t wait. Your home is beautiful, Vanira, and the flowers are stunning. How do they grow? Are they enchanted? How many eagles are in your eyrie? Do your young ones travel out of the valley? I’m asking too many questions. Are they too many?”

Vanira chuckled.

‘War God, your consort has a very adorable side. How did you bind him to you?’

“With difficulty,” Kastan answered, pressing a kiss on Jihan’s cheek. “Take your time answering his questions. We have all the time today. An, we are in no rush.”

And so, an afternoon came where Jihan asked an ancient eagle a thousand questions, while Kastan held him and added in to the conversation in a Field of White Flowers.

When it grew dark, Vanira wished them a good night, as she followed them back to Kastan’s horse. Firuz joined them then, coming from across the bridge. He bowed his head in respect to Vanira who stood on the berry bush near the bridge.

“Are we going to go back down to Bottom-cliff Estate?” Jihan asked, thinking about the steep climb they took earlier.

It was dark now. He worried about Kastan’s horse carrying two people down. It did not seem safe at all.

Why not take the bridge?’ Vanira asked.

Jihan froze, his gaze on the bridge behind the berry bush. His heart squeezed tight.

“I’m afraid of it,” Jihan said, feeling guilty about the strange problem he could not seem to settle.

Because of the accident a while back,’ Vanira noted. ‘I remember that day. You were almost lost, but the ancient guardian, Neith, brought you back. It was a blessing, child. Once you should cherish.’

“I do, everyday.”

Then, let your husband carry you across the bridge,’ Vanira said. ‘Don’t risk both your lives down a steep hill in the night. Shan is still hoping to spend time with you both for a while yet.’

Jihan stared at her in surprise when she decided to fly off right then.

“She just told me off, didn’t she?” Jihan laughed, glancing at Firuz and Kastan.

“You don’t have to do it,” Kastan said. “I can get us down the hill with no issue.”

“No,” Jihan said, shaking his head. “It’s absurd when home is across a bridge.”

“Then you should try Vanira’s idea,” Firuz said. “Ride on Duke Silver’s horse. Let him get you across the bridge.”

Jihan took in a deep breath and stared at the bridge for a moment. This was silly. He took a step forward, determined to get on the bridge, and walk across. However, the tight feeling in his chest got stronger the closer he got to the bridge, and he stopped, breathing too hard, it felt like he might never breath right again.

Jihan took a step back, and stopped when warm arms wrapped around him and turned him away.

“I’ve got you.” Kastan helped him mount his black warhorse, and then climbed behind him a second later.

“Here,” Firuz held out a strip of black cloth to Kastan. “Cover his eyes. Jihan, it will help you get across.”

Kastan wrapped the cloth around Jihan’s eyes, his motions gentle. When it was done, he placed his hands on Jihan’s arms and pulled him back until he was resting against Kastan’s chest.

“Yasmin promised to cook your favorites for our evening meal. Do you want to have a picnic with me in our chambers?” Kastan asked, his hands moving away from Jihan’s arms. He took the reins from Firuz, and started guiding the black horse forward.

“Yes. It’s only us at home anyway,” Jihan said, his voice shaky with anxiety, as they entered the bridge. The horse’s shoes rapped against the wood and Jihan tensed. “Firuz can rest too.”

“Then, let’s spend tonight exploring each other,” Kastan said, his voice a low baritone as he spoke into Jihan’s right ear. “I have a complaint. You’re so wrapped up in all the happenings of the manor. I feel like I never have enough time with you. How should we solve this, my dear consort?”

“W-what do-do you want?” Jihan asked.

“I’ll selfishly keep you in bed tomorrow morning and let everyone fend for themselves.”

“Kas,” Jihan chided, then bit back a moan when Kastan sucked on the sensitive skin on the curve of his neck. He sunk into Kastan’s warmth as the lips sucking on his skin rained kisses along the side of his neck. Jihan closed his eyes as pleasure rose, he let out a soft moan of protest when the kisses stopped.

Their horse came to a stop, and the black cloth wrapped around his eyes came off.

Jihan let out a soft gasp when he saw the lighted gardens behind the manor.

“We made it across,” Kastan said.

“You distracted me,” Jihan murmured.

“Mm, it worked,” Kastan said.

Jihan nodded, and shifted so that he could look into Kastan’s eyes.

“I’ll work on getting used to the bridge. Just don’t push it anymore. Okay?”

“Okay.” Kastan nodded.

“Then,” Jihan dismounted with Firuz’s help. “Want to have that meal with me?”

Kastan jumped down too, and Firuz took the horse’s reins from him.

“I’ll take him to the stables,” Firuz said. “You two, have a good night.”

Firuz hurried away guiding Kastan’s horse.

Jihan chuckled at Firuz’s clear escape.

“I’d love to have a meal with you,” Kastan said, holding out his hand to Jihan. “Shall we?”

Jihan slipped his hand into Kastan’s, smiling when warm fingers wrapped around his.

“Can I visit Vanira often?” Jihan asked as they started for the main house.

“Sure,” Kastan said. “Firuz can take you, or I can take you.”

“Do you think General Moran will be annoyed if I show up at his place often?”

“He won’t be annoyed,” Kastan said. “You can also bribe him with some Gura wine and he will give you Bottom-cliff Estate to keep if you want. He likes the expensive one you keep in our living room.”

“Really?” Jihan chuckled. “Is that why he visits Soraya often?”

“Don’t tell him I told you.”

Jihan laughed.

“I’ll send him a couple of bottles so he won’t notice me using his manor to go up to see Vanira.”

“She can also visit you like Yoru…”

****

Surprise! Happy New Year!
I just wanted to give you these sides which have been with the main story in my drive. They are slice-of-life style. Nothing too serious. Do forgive me if there are some mistakes. It's been a while since I got back to it. I wish you a really good year.
The second part will be out in 24hrs.
Suilan Lee, 2019-2021
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Stories posted in this category are works of fiction. Names, places, characters, events, and incidents are created by the authors' imaginations or are used fictitiously. Any resemblances to actual persons (living or dead), organizations, companies, events, or locales are entirely coincidental.
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Chapter Comments

19 hours ago, Danilo Syrtis said:

Thanks for that extra chapter ! ❤️

Since you said « chapter 1 », I suppose ther will be at least another extra chapter 😁

it is great to know more about neith, ha and bast 👍
i just wondered why the chapter takes place during thanksgiving since it is over already, and not during the lunar new year 🤔

btw New Year Asian GIF by Hello All since it is tomorrow 🥰

There is one last part about six years later. Short and sweet about the new year. I'll post it tomorrow. Happy new year too!

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19 hours ago, scrubber6620 said:

Thank you for this wonderful gift. It feels like meeting old friends--easily fitting in and learning about their full lives, struggles, and loves.

Life has its ups and downs for them. But they have good hearts and can work through problems.

Life's like that, hahaha. It was fun getting back to them.

17 hours ago, SwordcaneLal said:

Just two days ago, I thought about how you’d promised 5 extras and reread this whole story, wondering when we’d get the last two parts.
I’m so grateful that you’re weaving in so many of the bits and pieces that had been mentioned before. Yasmine visiting Safan’s mother; Niku and Rael working together to find the traitors; Neith admitting her love of Kaveh; and visiting the Silver Shore eyrie. This was lovely. Happy New Year!

I know, finally I got them out. I have tried to capture all the little leftovers, but the story has ended up a bit dynamic. I feel like if I continue, Rashan might even get married hahaha. Thank  you so much for reading this story and thinking about it. Happy New Year!

16 hours ago, centexhairysub said:

What a truly divine chapter.  So glad we got to visit old friends and see how they are doing.  Everything is not perfect but they all seem to be getting on with their lives.

I do worry about Neith, but Ha seems sure that she will eventually be back to where she should be.  Both she and Ha will mourn those they love when they pass on; but loving them now brings a joy that will not be soon forgotten.

Jihan and Kastan are like any couple; they both know how to hit the other's spot.  They will grow in love for each other all the days.

So glad that all the young Imperial Princes are getting to bond in this manner; it bodes well for the future.

Thank you so much, @lilansui, what a true gift.

Neith is strong. She has Ha. :) I suppose she's the bittersweet character of this story. It happens. Everyone else is doing their best to live it up. I'm glad you enjoyed it.

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16 hours ago, Theo Wahls said:

Happy New Year to you, Sui.

Thanks for a very warm and deeply feeling chapter. It is nice to revisit and catch up on such a great love story, the story of Kas and An. 😘

Happy New Year Theo! It really is a feel good chapter.

15 hours ago, SwordcaneLal said:

After saving Kyra, it sounds like she was in cub form for some years. I wonder why Ha feels a worry and impatience this time?

He gets bored with Bast. Neith is fun but right now she's sort of wanting to stay at Sun-filled Manor for a little R&R. I imagine her getting over this funk later and running around on adventures with Shan, Yan, Yija and Byul. I think that would be fun.

14 hours ago, Hellsheild said:

Yay! love these characters! 

Yay! 

12 hours ago, mgl said:

Thank you for a new chapter!  

祝你兔年幸福安康!

Happy New Year! May you get loads of good luck in this new year too!

9 hours ago, drsawzall said:

And a very Happy New Years to you Sui, filled with joy and health and the love of those closest to you!!!

Thank you ever so much for returning to this amazing story and am looking forward to second part shortly!!

Chinese Zodiac Rabbit | Year of the Rabbit | Chinese Zodiac Signs Meanings

Happy New Year too! May your year be filled with good luck and many blessings too.

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Chinese Party GIF by League of Legends   May the year of the Rabbit bring you good fortune, health and happiness, Lilansui!  

 

I love this story and thank you for adding these "extras" to remind me of these wonderful characters you created.  It is a fitting story of peacetime, prosperity and hopefully longevity for the story, its author and the characters.

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This was a lovely, wonderful surprise. Thank you!  I am looking forward to reading the rest of the segments.

Just a comment:  There are so many people and it’s been a while.  We need a character list!

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On 1/22/2023 at 9:35 PM, Clancy59 said:

This was a lovely, wonderful surprise. Thank you!  I am looking forward to reading the rest of the segments.

Just a comment:  There are so many people and it’s been a while.  We need a character list!

There is a character list : you have the link in each chapter’s bottom (at least until chapter 25) just before the comments 🙂 

many readers wanted one, so @lilansui posted that one ❤️

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