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Stories posted in this category are works of fiction. Names, places, characters, events, and incidents are created by the authors' imaginations or are used fictitiously. Any resemblances to actual persons (living or dead), organizations, companies, events, or locales are entirely coincidental.
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The Reluctant Consort - 35. Extra 4 - The Empire's Three Days of Thanksgiving Part 2

The Empire's Three Days of Thanksgiving - Part 2

On the second day of thanksgiving, Kastan woke up to the sweet warmth of Jihan sleeping next to him. The sun was rising in the horizon, filling the living area of their chambers with soft light.

Kastan propped his head up with his left hand, and watched Jihan sleep. Since their afternoon yesterday, they had a quiet evening meal, took a bath together, and then made love. It reminded him of the days when they first got together in Kin Town. Ignoring their obligations and spending endless time together.

Kastan wondered if he could push the young princes to live on the island with their grandfather for the next three months. That way, Jihan would spend most of his mornings with him. The four boys would be leaving the valley in three months to train with the generals, and Jihan’s Set. He really wanted Jihan’s time to be all his.

Mulling over the idea, Kastan traced Jihan’s nose with his index finger, and smiled when Jihan wrinkled his forehead at the tickling caress.

“Mm,” Jihan murmured and shifted even closer to Kastan. His hair spread out behind him. His light white tunic opened at the collar.

Kastan grinned when he caught a glimpse of the strawberry he had left on the curve of Jihan’s neck. He pushed soft strands of dark hair behind Jihan’s left ear, and rubbed his thumb over the mark. He paused when he noticed his new ring and his heartbeat skipped hard.

Jihan’s gift left him breathless. It felt incredible to receive a token of love from his consort. Not that he needed a trinket to tell him that Jihan was his to love for all time. Still…he smiled at the snarling tiger shaped on fine silver. This was the best gift he had ever received in his life.

“Morning.”

Jihan’s sleep roughened voice broke into his thoughts.

“You’re awake.”

“Why are you smiling all alone?” Jihan asked, smoothing his palm over Kastan’s bare chest.

“Watching you sleep makes me happy,” Kastan said, wrapping his arms around Jihan and pulling him into his arms. Jihan felt warm and pliant because he was still sleepy.

Kastan buried his face into the curve of his neck and breathed him in.

“Do you think we can get away with hiding in here all day?”

Jihan chuckled and rubbed Kastan’s back, holding him too.

“We could try,” Jihan said, with a soft contented sigh.

They lay in silence for a moment, then a knock came on the door, and Kastan groaned.

“They are already at the door,” Kastan complained, still not letting go of Jihan.

The knock came again, this time accompanied with a call.

“Duke Silver. It’s Temu. I knock because Lord and Lady Gura are here with their family. They arrived early for thanksgiving.”

“Andiya is here,” Jihan said happily, hugging Kastan tighter, his excitement clear.

“Thank you, Temu.” Kastan called out.

“She said to take your time coming down,” Temu said. “I thought you should know she’s around.”

“Okay.” Kastan said.

Jihan started to let go and get out of bed but Kastan would not let him, holding him tighter.

“I thought we were going to ignore everyone out there,” Kastan complained, when Jihan looked at him.

“But, it’s Andiya—”

“She won’t be bored out there,” Kastan said. “Firuz, Temu, and Yasmin will entertain her.”

Jihan kissed him then. Wrapping his arms around Kastan’s shoulders, he plastered them together, and deepened their kiss until Kastan moaned at the sweet pleasure. When they broke apart, Kastan lay back on the pillows with Jihan lying over him.

“I love you.” Jihan pressed a soft kiss on Kastan’s forehead, and then got off the bed, hurrying to their private bathroom. He closed the door, clearly going to wash up and dress for the day.

Kastan groaned at the clear defeat.

“Damn it. He never plays fair. So ruthless.”

Kastan sighed staring at the high ceiling over their bed, his fingers touching his swollen lips. A moment passed, and then he closed his eyes and chuckled. The things his consort did to him….

*~*~*~*

Their morning meal was lively. Andiya brought her husband, Ishan, her son and Laner too. Andiya had also brought along their new nanny to help with the baby. The woman was busy feeding Baby Adan mashed bananas.

Kastan watched the process from his position at the head of the table. To his left, Jihan was listening to his sister with rapt attention. Their heads close together, their food forgotten, clearly locked in their Kamran world.

Kastan sipped his tea.

“They have always stayed lost in plots like this,” Ishan said, drawing Kastan’s attention. He sat on Kastan’s right since Kaveh was not around this morning. “I once tried to get between them when they were like this, and got a bunch of stinging nettle leaves down my sleeve for my efforts.”

Kastan chuckled.

“Which one did it?” Kastan asked.

“Andiya. She was thirteen. Very vengeful at the time,” Ishan said, his voice heavy with fondness. “She worried about Jihan and the plans he made for their business. They plot to keep the merchants running.”

“Were they always alone?” Kastan asked.

“Always,” Ishan said, his voice lowered, not wanting to alert Laner to their conversation.

Laner and Firuz were settled next to Andiya. Closer to the baby and the nanny than Kastan. They seemed to be having a private talk

Kastan had discovered that Laner liked to talk to Firuz because he told her about Jihan.

Matching Ishan’s tone, Kastan asked, “Was it hard for him?”

“Of course it was,” Ishan said. “Though, he would never tell me. He leaned on Andiya more.”

“Sounds right,” Kastan agreed with a knowing smile.

“In any case, they came out of it stronger than they seem,” Ishan said. “Look where it got them both. Speaking of which, I received a letter from Lord Nivenad yesterday evening. He has asked me to take on the task of helping Lord Bowden in his office at the palace. What does Duke Silver think of this request?”

“It is an impressive request,” Kastan said, placing his teacup on the table. “As you know, Lord Nivenad is Rashan’s maternal uncle. He is rough around the edges, but he is well intentioned. He dislikes being in one place for too long. This request probably means he wants to hoist off the duties he’s received from Lord Bowden and give them to you in the future.”

“Should I let him pull me in?” Ishan asked, with a frown.

“If you don’t mind the work,” Kastan said. “The politics in the Imperial Court can be distasteful, but it has its own usefulness. The Imperial Court is also packed with many officials. Not all of them are useful. Therefore, the Emperor is always looking for good ones to rely on. You need to make a decision whether you want him to see you as one to rely on.”

“What happens if I become one His Imperial Majesty can rely on?” Ishan asked.

“Then, you’ll be like Lord Nivenad,” Kastan said, with a small smile. “Kiyan treats loyal courtiers with respect. Your prestige will rise, but your enemies might increase just as much. Not to worry though. You will have Nivenad, Kiyan, and me. There should be nothing to worry about.”

Ishan studied him for a moment, and then sighed, sipping his own tea. His gaze shifted to Andiya who was serving stir-fried shredded fish into Jihan’s bowl.

“Your Grace, I don’t want to leave my family alone,” Ishan said. “Gura Estate is too far from the capital.”

“It is,” Kastan agreed with a nod. His gaze returning to the cute baby who was now half dressed in mashed bananas, smiling wide at his nanny.

Kastan could understand Ishan’s reluctance to leave his family. Children grew up too fast. It was hard missing their many important stages. He had tried not to miss Rashan’s but it was not always easy.

“What is keeping you all at Gura Estate?” Kastan asked.

“Kamran Estate,” Ishan said. “Andiya has taken care of it for ages. It’s hard for her to let go.”

“Have you talked it over with An?” Kastan asked, knowing Jihan would find a solution.

“Not yet,” Ishan said, shaking his head.

“Well, as I understand it, the merchant network is not unable to handle the matter of Andiya’s absence,” Kastan said. “Your mother in-law is living there now. You still have Set and Garren to assist. I’m sure Jihan can make arrangements so that you’re able to move to the capital with your family.”

Ishan blinked and then placed his cup of tea on the table.

“Your Grace is right,” Ishan said, nodding as he took in a deep breath and let it out as though he had found a solution. “Your Grace has understood them very well.”

“It’s part of their charm,” Kastan said, winking at Ishan. “Now, once the matters of your family are settled, you will need to think of life in the capital. I’ll introduce one of my subordinates to you. He will help keep your family safe, and assist you with anything you need. You will find that working for the imperial court needs good informants and reliable strength too. Silver Shore will support you.”

“I’m very lucky then,” Ishan said with a grateful nod.

Kastan laughed.

“Actually, I’m also lucky to have you. I’ll trouble you to protect my family too, especially when they summon me for suspected treason. If you can stand by my consort and son.”

“Always,” Ishan said in solemn promise.

“What are you two discussing?” Jihan asked, touching Kastan’s left hand to draw his attention.

“It’s between me and Ishan,” Kastan said, wrinkling his nose at him. “What are you two discussing?”

“It’s between me and Andiya,” Jihan said.

“Huh,” Kastan glanced at Andiya. “He turns petty when you’re around.”

“It’s shocking,” Andiya said, eating her food with a shake of her head. “An, be good to His Grace.”

“Whose side are you on?” Jihan asked, making a face at her.

“The side that keeps me eating Yasmin’s food,” Andiya said, closing her eyes as she savored her fried fish. “This is so good.”

“We can get her to write her recipe for you,” Kastan said. “She’s been teaching the ladies she hired and won’t mind.”

“What a treasure that will be,” Andiya said with a nod. “Be careful of sharing secrets with a merchant. It’s so good I might just give the recipe to Garren for the Eagle’s Claw.”

“I’m sure An has already thought about it,” Kastan said, reaching out to caress Jihan’s cheek.

Jihan grinned at Andiya and they both chuckled.

“It’s really nice being together like this,” Andiya said with a happy nod. “Your Grace, now you have to visit our home next time. I’ll have Deora show off her skills too.”

“I will visit,” Kastan promised.

Andiya was right. It was wonderful having the dining hall filled with family.

Kastan’s gaze lingered on Jihan who was finally eating his food. Jihan had surely filled their home with warmth. Remembering his gift, Kastan held out his right hand to Andiya.

“Look what Jihan got me. Isn’t it handsome?” Kastan asked, grinning when Andiya exclaimed and took his hand to study the ring.

“An, you do know how to spoil your husband,” Andiya said. “This ring looks amazing!”

*~*~*~*~*

Later, in the afternoon, Kastan arrived at the Silver Meadow with Jihan. The rest of their family had long reached the meadow before them. Kaveh and Kiyan had returned with the princes. They left for the meadow with Andiya, Ishan and Laner, talking with animation, taking the nanny and the baby too.

As the hosts, people stopped Kastan and Jihan along the walk to the meadow to thank them for planning the cerebration. Kastan was glad to see the valley’s people had accepted Jihan wholeheartedly. Greeting him with warmth, asking him questions without reservation. Thanking him for help he offered them, others promising to visit him at the manor.

“Silver Shore Valley has become your home,” Kastan noted as they reached the large meadow packed with people.

Tables were laden with food provided by the manor, cooked by the many women who offered to share their talent.

A large stage was built in the middle of the meadow. The valley had planned performances to celebrate the day. At the moment, a group of teenage girls was dancing on stage. The boys waited off stage for their turn. Others had already performed. There were more groups to perform as the day continued.

Jihan waved at Yeorim who was serving a table filled with children. She handed over her ladle to the friend she was working with and hurried to where he stood.

“You didn’t have to come over,” Jihan said, accepting her gesture of greeting. “Yeorim looks very well. How is your daughter and mother in-law?”

“They are fine,” Yeorim said, looking around the busy field. “They are somewhere in the crowd enjoying themselves. I wanted to wish you both a happy thanksgiving. And, to thank you for planning this event. It’s been a long time since the valley had this much fun.”

“We have a lot to be thankful for,” Kastan said. “How is the butchery? Any trouble?”

“Not at all,” Yeorim said. “I am grateful to you for asking the Hidden Keepers to help us with hauling the stock as it comes. We are able to manage without trouble.”

“Good,” Kastan nodded.

“Yeorim,” Jihan said, reaching out to take her hand. “Duke Silver and I wish you a happy thanksgiving too. I hope you and your family will be happy a long time.”

“Thank you, Your Graces.”

Jihan smiled and let go of her hand.

“Don’t just serve food, remember to have some and enjoy the festivities. Okay?”

“Yes. You too, Your Grace.” Yeorim returned his smile and ran back to help her friend with the children.

“She looks happy,” Jihan said, watching her leave. “I worried she would carry the heaviness of the trial and Nisa’s atrocities.”

“She’s adjusting well,” Kastan said. It pained him to meet Nisa’s victims. It made him worry there were more bad seeds in the valley. He hoped that they could get rid of them all before they made more victims.

Jihan, as though sensing his thoughts, pressed a warm palm on his right cheek.

“Don’t worry so much,” Jihan said. “We’ll do our best to protect the valley together. Don’t carry the past. We’re here to celebrate the good in thanksgiving.”

Kastan smiled and kissed Jihan’s forehead.

“My consort is always right,” Kastan said in agreement.

“What if I’m wrong?”

“Then, we’ll be wrong together,” Kastan said, making Jihan groan and cover his mouth.

“Duke Silver, can you not let your soldiers hear you being so agreeable with me,” Jihan sighed. “I’m worried they’ll think your consort is bullying you.”

Kastan chuckled.

“I’m happy to be bullied by you daily, even at night. I’m still waiting to laze away in bed with you for a morning.”

Jihan shook his head and gave up.

“You’re impossible,” Jihan said, heading to the dais where their family waited.

“Only with you,” Kastan said, running after him.

*~*~*~*~*

“They have made up,” Ha said, watching Duke Silver and his Consort walk to the dais. “I wonder what they said to each other.”

“Duke Silver probably used the softness you talked about,” Zure said, leaning on Ha. “How is Neith?”

Ha’s gaze shifted to Neith. She sat next to Kaveh at a small round table, listening to him talk about taking the princes around his island. She listened with rapt attention, smiling wide when he laughed at something the boys did.

“She’s doing better,” Ha said. “It’s good to see her about like this. I’ll visit her often from now on. She still doesn’t want to return to the Imperial Tower yet. It’s better to let her do what she wants.”

“You were really worried,” Zure noted, studying him.

“For a while,” Ha nodded. Then he pressed a kiss on Zure’s forehead. “In any case, it’s over now. Look, Duke Silver is about to make a speech to officiate the day. He still can’t look anywhere else but at the merchant prince. They are too much.”

“I think they’re perfect,” Zure said, grinning when Ha wrapped an arm around his shoulders.

“I think you’re perfect too,” Ha said in answer, making him fight a blush.

*~*~*~*~*

“Papa,” Rashan said, rushing to join Jihan when he sat down behind the main table at the dais. The tent cover above the dais protected them from direct sun. Jihan pulled out the chair on his left so that Rashan could sit on it.

“How was the island?” Jihan asked, arranging Rashan’s ponytail, his fingers combing the curly strands falling down his back. The boy was growing taller by the minute. Soon, he would grow taller than Jihan.

“It was fun,” Rashan said. “Grand Pa took us to pay respects to Ma and Grand Ma. I told them about you. How you take care of us. I promised to bring you with me the next time. Will you let me introduce you to them, Papa?”

Jihan swallowed down the lump of tears that formed at his throat at Rashan’s uncomplicated acceptance. They had been together for so many months now and this child could still undo him with a few words. He met inquiring dark eyes and nodded.

“I’ll come with you, Shan,” Jihan promised.

Rashan smiled wide as though he had let go of tension he had carried with him

“Great. We can bring them the bottle of Gura wine you like to drink,” Rashan said. “I think they would love it.”

“I think so too,” Jihan nodded, happy that Rashan was eager to share such a moment with him. He shifted closer and kissed Rashan’s forehead before the boy could react.

Rashan froze, looking at the crowd then at his cousins before he turned to Jihan.

“Stop doing that when we’re out here,” Rashan said, half scowling and half smiling.

“Why?” Jihan asked, rubbing the spot he kissed with his thumb. “I’m just showing you how much I love you.”

“Yeah, yeah, it’s embarrassing,” Rashan complained.

“I don’t mind being embarrassed with you,” Jihan said, grinning wide. “Did you hunt a tiger in your grandfather’s forest?”

“No,” Rashan said. “We hunted rabbits, and big scary vultures. I brought down six with my arrows.”

“How brave,” Jihan said, patting Rashan’s shoulder. He noted Firuz’s frown behind Rashan. Firuz shrugged when Jihan raised his brow in question. The moment passed.

“Papa is very proud of you.”

“Next time, I’ll bring you back a big fish from the island’s lake,” Rashan said. “I know you love fish. I saw you and Pa fishing on the boat.”

“Then, I’ll look forward to eating the fish Shan brings me,” Jihan said.

“Mm,” Rashan took Jihan’s left hand and held on, playing with his wedding ring. “When Adan is old enough, I’ll teach him how to hunt too.”

“I’m sure you’ll be the best teacher he ever gets,” Jihan said.

“Can we visit Uncle Ishan and Aunt Andiya’s home? I’ve never seen Kamran Estate and the orchards where Gura wine comes from.”

“I’ll take you to see it,” Jihan said. “We can even visit Yoru’s tree. Would you like that?”

“Yes. I have only seen Vanira’s tree.”

“Mm, Yoru’s is just as magical,” Jihan said, with a nod, glad that Kastan had taken him to see Vanira too.

“Papa,” Rashan said, and then stood up.

Rashan pushed his chair back and Jihan was surprised when the boy leaned on him and whispered into his ear.

“I heard you gave Pa a token. I heard Aunt Andiya and Firuz talking about it. What about me?”

Jihan grinned.

“Do you want one?”

“I’m also your family, right?” Rashan asked, still whispering in his ear. “Adan got your Kamran jade. Pa got a tiger ring. What about me?”

Jihan hid a smile. He had known Rashan would feel left out if he discovered about Kastan’s token. Thankfully, he had prepared Rashan’s gift too. Still, he could not resist teasing him.

“You get me,” Jihan said, looking into Rashan’s shocked expression. “Aren’t I a great token?”

“Papa,” Rashan said, making an unwilling face.

“What? I’m a token that can even hug you tight,” Jihan said, pushing his chair back so that he could hug Rashan.

Rashan allowed it for a moment, and then moved away shaking his head.

“But,” Rashan said. “I can’t carry you with me everywhere I go.”

“Who said that?” Jihan asked, looking around as though to find this person. “If you hold my hand I’ll come with you wherever you want.”

“Papa.” Rashan stared at him, his gaze filling with worry, then growing disappointment at the idea that Jihan had forgotten to get him a token too.

Jihan could not bear to see it, so he reached into his pocket and pulled out a black box.

The Lehin grandson was quite gifted with making trinkets. Rashan’s gift had taken longer than Kastan’s ring. However, he had worked at patience with the blacksmith to give Rashan something special.

“Okay, okay. Don’t wear that face,” Jihan soothed, pulling Rashan closer. “Even though you can’t take me with you everywhere, I want you to know that I will always be there for you. Do you believe it, Shan?”

“I do,” Rashan said, nodding.

“Good boy. Here,” Jihan handed him the black wood box. “To my greatest worry, you will start training with the generals in your father’s army. You and Aoi are excited but it’s different for me.”

“We’re not leaving forever,” Rashan soothed his eyes bright as he stared at the box. “I’ll come home often.”

“I know,” Jihan said, still unwilling to think of the young princes gallivanting around the empire with the generals. He hated to think of what they would all encounter. Letting out a soft sigh, he patted Rashan’s hands. “Open it.”

Rashan nodded and opened the black box. Inside was a fine gold disk the size of Rashan’s palm. It had a small button latch. Rashan placed the box on the table and pressed the button with his thumb. The lid of the gold disk snapped open to reveal a beautiful compass carved with the care of a master forger.

“The needle points to the polestar,” Jihan murmured. “Master Bero has already shown you how to read the stars, and how to use the compass. Practice with it. In a time of need, it will lead you straight home, so keep it with you.”

“It’s so handsome.” Rashan grinned touching the gold lid with reverent fingers. He closed it and held it using the little hanging handle. “I love it, Papa.”

Jihan nodded and pulled off the Kamran jade tassel he wore on his belt. He took the compass from Rashan and spent a few minutes attached it to the jade tassel. He handed it back to Rashan.

“Now you also have my Kamran jade. Happy? You got more tokens than your Pa.”

Rashan hugged him tight.

“I thought I would get a ring,” Rashan said, making Jihan chuckle.

Jihan rubbed his back savoring this voluntary show of affection from Rashan.

“Rings are for your partner when you find him or her. Besides, when you come off age, your father will give you a ring to mark your personal household. Then, maybe you’ll give it to your person.”

“Not yet though,” Rashan said.

“Not yet,” Jihan said, as Rashan let go of him and stepped back to hang the tassel on his belt. The compass with the Kamran jade was placed next to Rashan’s usual green jade.

“Thank you, Papa.”

Jihan nodded, and then smiled when Rashan rushed off to show his cousins his gift.

Shaking his head, Jihan happened to look to his right and found Neith watching him. She lowered her head a fraction in acknowledgment and he returned the gesture. He was glad to see her true form. He remembered the sacrifice she gave to keep him with Kastan and he thanked fate for the chance to live.

Adjusting his chair, Jihan looked at the front of the dais and his heart skipped when he saw Kastan standing at the front, facing the crowd. The busy field had turned silent as the valley’s people moved closer to hear what their Duke had to say.

Kastan stood tall, dressed in rich navy blue brocade, he looked relaxed. No trace of the formidable commander of armies, instead he looked like a noble prince this afternoon. His hair was left to fall to his shoulders today. His rings were the only jewelry he wore, and the black jade hanging from the belt at his waist. He wore no sword. It was a time of peace after all.

Jihan found he loved this version of Kastan the most.

Jihan’s eyes widened when Kastan turned to look at him before he started his opening speech. He smiled and Kastan winked at him before he faced the crowd again.

“Welcome to Silver Shore Valley’s thanksgiving celebration,” Kastan said, his low baritone at the pitch for everyone around the dais to hear. “It feels like a first because we have not had any celebration like this in recent years. I want you to know that it feels good to be able to see all of you gathered here with wide smiles. I’m happy to join you in this meadow, filled with such a joyful atmosphere to celebrate thanksgiving. We, my family and I, feel honored to host this one because it means we are in a moment of peace. This is a moment to be grateful for the people in our lives, family and friends, neighbors and comrades in arms.”

Kastan paused as his audience clapped in acknowledgement of his words.

“I do not have too many words to say,” Kastan said, then turned to look at Jihan again. He held out his right hand to him, and Jihan froze for a moment. “Other than to ask my consort to help me wish you all a happy thanksgiving.”

Jihan pushed his chair back, and got up going around the large table. He adjusted his collar, and belt, and then took Kastan’s right hand. Jihan stood next to Kastan and faced Silver Shore’s people. Silence fell for a full minute before he found his voice.

“His Grace has said all that should be said,” Jihan said, finding the words. “This day is for you. For us to thank you for the hard work you do to protect and build our home. I’m thankful to be one of you. So, enjoy the food, the performances, join in the games, have fun. We wish you all a happy thanksgiving.”

Kastan kissed his cheek, making the crowd break out in laughs and applause.

Temu handed them both a pair of scissors. He led them to a string on the edge of the dais where Kastan and Jihan cut a taut string. An explosion of colorful papers fell from rice paper bags hang over the crowd and cheers of surprise and excitement filled the afternoon. Temu took the scissors and Jihan clapped in awe, staring at the colorful pieces filling the air with a wide smile.

“It’s beautiful,” he said, excited by the festive air.

“All of these would not be without you,” Kastan said, coming to stand behind him. He wrapped an arm around Jihan as they stood watching the colorful pieces float in the air as the crowd cheered and music filled the meadow.

“I’m grateful for you in my life, Jihan Kamran Miran. Thank you for a stunning thanksgiving.”

*~*~*~*~*

Kiyan sat with Yan and Yija standing on each side of his chair. He wrapped arms around them both and pulled them close. His gaze on the colorful papers floating down to the ground, adding a festive atmosphere to the afternoon. The musicians started playing a lively tune. The scent of food and baked goods filled the air. A group of boys got on the stage and started a dance.

“What do you think?” Kiyan asked, his gaze on Yan, then Yija. “Do you like Silver Shore Valley?”

“It’s the best place in the empire,” Yan said, smiling as he watched Jihan and Kastan. “They make it this way here.”

“They sure do,” Kiyan agreed. “I heard from your grandfather that you want to train with Rashan as he joins the generals around the empire.”

“Yes.” Yija nodded, leaning on his father with an eager expression. “Uncle Kas is willing to let us gain experience. See the empire and meet the people. Uncle Jihan thinks we should also travel with his business troops and understand how people trade. He said we need to experience it so that we can know when a courtier is trying to cover our eyes.”

“This Merchant Prince is really calling out our imperial family. He is right,” Kiyan said. “I imagine Yija wants to go with Rashan to the generals and Yan would prefer the merchants?”

“How did you know?” Yan asked, looking at his father in surprise.

Kiyan grinned.

“Because it is what I would choose. I prefer your Uncle Jihan’s knowledge base than war. It is my hope that the empire lives only in peace with no wars to come. Maybe Yan will get to see that era instead of me. Still, you should join in all the activities your uncles’ plan. Don’t shun any experience. It will be good for you.”

Yan nodded and returned to watching the festivities.

“Pa,” Yan said.

“Yes, Yan,” Kiyan said.

“I—I hope you find someone to make you smile the way Uncle Jihan makes Uncle Kas smile.”

“Although, I doubt it will be the same,” Yija said. “Grand Pa called them fated. Said it is not always like them.”

Kiyan chuckled.

“What is your Grand Pa teaching you?” Kiyan mused. “In any case, if I don’t find someone, you two can make me smile. Deal?”

“Deal,” Yija said.

“I’m grateful for this place,” Yan said, after a while. “For Uncle Kas, Uncle Jihan, Shan, Master Firuz, and Grand Pa. And everyone who stays with us at Sun-filled Manor.”

Kiyan pulled them both into a tight hug.

“Well, I’m grateful for you two,” Kiyan murmured and held his sons tight glad they had found somewhere they could trust with their souls.

*~*~*~*~*

Late in the night, the fires and lanterns came on to keep the party going.

Jihan sat on the dais next to Kastan enjoying a cup of Gura wine.

Firuz studied his charge for a moment. It was nice to see Jihan taking it easy. Jihan had once worried that this place would not become home. Now, a year and some months into his marriage, he looked happy, content.

Not an ounce of disappointment on him even when Andiya and Ishan excused themselves as they went in search of Ishan’s relatives. The couple wanted to spend the evening with Ishan’s aunt.

Jihan waved them off with a small grin.

Firuz smiled as he turned to prepare for the sword dance he and Aoi had prepared.

“How was the island?” Firuz asked Aoi, as he wore the black and red robes that Jihan had gotten Master Rabo to make for their performance.

Firuz tied the gold belt tight around his waist, and made sure his boots were on securely. Then he sat to tie black and red ribbons on his wrists.

Aoi followed suit, and sat on the bench opposite him adjusting the ribbons on her wrists. Her hair was in a tight ponytail on top of her head. The mask she would wear was resting on her forehead, ready to be pull down as needed.

“The island was full of wild animals,” Aoi said. “There is some sort of barrier near the His Majesty’s grounds that keeps them from entering the compound to find His Majesty. We crossed it and entered the wild lands. The Princes had quite an adventure when they went hunting after the memorial at the family crypt.”

“Rashan?” Firuz asked.

His student had progressed to the point of no return. Now, it was time to temper Rashan’s skill. To make him able to face a deadly army and survive, even thrive. To do that, he needed a comprehensive training regime. Some of that training would require drawing blood, and getting hurt. None of it could be done near Jihan’s soft heart.

So, Duke Silver had decided to keep the coming rigors of Rashan’s training from Jihan.

“Shan is a good hunter,” Aoi said. “A skilled archer. He caught twenty pheasants while the two princes were still at six.”

“Ah, that’s what he lied to Jihan about,” Firuz said. “He told him he got six.”

“Perhaps he doesn’t want His Grace to worry,” Aoi said.

“I’m afraid the worry is inevitable,” Firuz said, finishing with the ribbon strips. “Aoi, since you’ll be going with Rashan to stay with the generals, I want you to teach him the true sword dance.”

“Brother, we only made this one for the performance. Our true sword dance is too dangerous—,” Aoi started to say she could protect Rashan without his need to learn a deadly skill like the Shadow Guard sword dance.

“I know you can protect him,” Firuz said. “However, Rashan is to be a Commander of Armies in the future. Wars are not simple. The empire is stable for now. Duke Silver is thinking of the future. Prince Yan is the Emperor-to-be. He is sure Yija will take the throne in his mother’s homeland. Duke Silver is anticipating there will be those who try to stop this future. Prince Rashan must be equipped to conquer a kingdom. You are now Rashan’s Shadow Guard. You shall be a Shadow Guard to the Commander of Armies. Your role is to give him everything you have. Only then can you protect him. Do you understand?”

“I understand, Brother.”

“Your time away from the valley will give you time to teach Shan the sword dance. When you return and he has mastered it, I will continue his training from there,” Firuz said.

“Why did you never teach Prince Jihan the sword dance?” Aoi asked.

Firuz thought about Jihan holding a sword, then using it to cut himself because he accidentally held the blade and shuddered.

“My master and yours are too different to compare. Jihan can cut himself with the knife used to slice bread. He is useless at fighting, but do not let him sell you anything. He will take your family’s house and make it his own for a piece of silver. He excels in tricking money from others. That’s best for him. I’ll handle the swords.”

Aoi snorted out a laugh and glanced at Firuz when she tried to suppress it.

Firuz laughed then at her expression and she grinned.

“No wonder he could marry Duke Silver,” Aoi said.

“One is good at war, the other at making money. They were bound to meet.”

Aoi agreed with an amused nod.

“So, we must support Rashan to match them.”

“Yes. That’s what Duke Silver hopes.” Firuz stood and reached for the pair of swords he would use for the sword dance.

Aoi picked her pair and shook her head, studying the long silver blades. Their handles painted red.

“This brings back memories from childhood. I got so injured trying to perfect this dance, my instructor worried I would cut my hands off.”

“Me too,” Firuz said, with a small chuckle. “I celebrated for a week when I finally understood what I should do.”

“I bought a jar of Gura wine,” Aoi said.

“Then,” Firuz glanced outside the small tent they were using to prepare.

He saw Jihan talking to Kastan, their heads so close no one could guess what they were saying. They were clearly speaking sweet words to each other. These two…people would be too shocked if they ever heard how easy it was for Jihan to bully Duke Silver.

“Aoi, would you like to share a cup of Gura wine when we are done to celebrate thanksgiving?”

Aoi glanced at him in surprise, and then smiled.

“I would love that very much,” Aoi said, with a swift nod.

“Then, it’s decided,” Firuz said.

He pulled down his mask, and Aoi did the same.

Firuz gave her a nod then led the way out of their little preparation tent to the stage in the middle of the field.

*~*~*~*~*

Raven hurried into the Silver Meadow hoping he was not late for the Shadow Guard dance. He had wanted to see it today as he doubted he would get another chance.

“Raven.”

He paused, a frown of impatience creasing his forehead as he looked to see who was calling him. Then he smiled when he saw Soraya waving at him from one of the tables near the food buffet. She was standing next to three other girls the same age as her. She waved him over and he changed direction.

“I wondered if you were going to make it,” Soraya said, reaching into her pocket, she pulled out a red jade token. “Lord Temu told me to pass this to you when I see you. Show it to the soldiers guarding the tables near the dais. He left a seat for you.”

“Oh,” Raven took the red jade and stared at it. It looked like the one that marked Prince Jihan’s office. He thanked Soraya. “Are you guys okay here? Don’t you want to move closer to the stage?”

“We are okay,” Soraya said, sitting down next to her friends. “We are happy having a good long talk. They are leaving for the capital next week. Let me spend more time with them.”

“Okay,” Raven said. “Happy thanksgiving, Soraya.”

“You too, Raven.”

Raven left them with a wave, and made his way to the tables near the dais. Sure enough, four of Lord Temu’s soldiers guarded near the dais. Raven showed the closest one the red token and got a nod of entry. His gaze shifted over the people sitting at the round tables near the dais. Family belonging to the generals in the valley and some of the village council folk. On the dais, Duke Silver was conversing with His Imperial Majesty.

Prince Jihan’s sister was talking to the old Emperor Kaveh, and her husband was laughing as he talked to the young princes. There was no sign of Prince Jihan, which could only mean the Shadow Guard dance was about to start.

“You made it.”

Raven shifted his gaze away from the dais. He smiled when he saw Lord Temu standing a few feet away from him. The general was dressed down today. He wore black robes. The fabric decorated with pale blue shapes. His hair was held in a simple ponytail. There were no visible weapons on him. Though Raven was sure he had a few daggers hidden in his leather belt and boots. Handsome was a simple word for the Lord General this evening.

“You are late,” Temu said.

“Were you waiting, Lord General?” Raven asked, with a quick grin.

Temu studied him for a moment, and then shrugged.

“I just thought if you stayed any longer, you would miss the whole thing.”

Raven nodded.

“What a tragedy that would be,” Raven said, smiling. “Lord General looks youthful this evening.”

“Come sit,” Temu said, turning around too fast for Raven to see his expression.

This general is too fun to tease, Raven thought as he followed Temu to one of the round tables at the front. It had a great view of the stage. Temu pulled out a chair for him.

Raven sat and looked up to find Temu waving at someone.

“Did you eat?” Temu asked as he took the chair on Raven’s right. He too sat facing the stage.

“Not yet,” Raven said, rubbing his stomach. “If Prince Jihan heard me, I would get a scolding for neglecting mealtimes.”

“As you rightly deserve,” Temu said.

One of the women who worked in Yasmin’s kitchen placed a tray with steaming food before Raven.

“Master Raven, you’ll like the food today. Madam Yasmin made the beef stew you love so much. She even added healing herbs in it. It’s delicious,” the woman said. “When you’re done eating, I’ll bring you a full mug of Gura wine.”

“Thank you,” Raven said, rubbing his hands together, as he breathed in the scent of food. “Madam Yasmin sure knows how to look after us.”

The woman patted his shoulder and hurried away.

“Aren’t you eating?” Raven asked Temu.

“I’m already full,” Temu said. “Eat, Raven. There’s no need for ceremony at this table.”

Raven grinned and picked up his spoon. He took the first bite and moaned with joy at the delicious taste of beef and the perfect blend of herbs in soup in his mouth. If he could live with being shameless, he would beg Prince Jihan to adopt him as a second son. Just to eat this beef stew daily.

He took a second bite, chewed and swallowed.

Raven sat back and looked at Lord Temu.

“Do you think Prince Jihan will accept a second son?” Raven asked.

Temu scowled at him.

“What? I would make a very good son,” Raven insisted.

“So much nonsense,” Temu said, shaking his head. “If you like the beef stew so much, why don’t you just marry me and Yasmin will feed you. I don’t plan on leaving Sun-filled Manor until I die.”

Raven gaped.

“Lord General.”

“Call me Temu.”

“Oh.” Raven closed his mouth and stared at the handsome Lord General. “Okay.”

“Okay to what?” Temu asked.

“Okay to calling you Temu,” Raven said, blushing hard. He picked up his spoon and sipped at soup. “As for marrying you, maybe we should spend time together, eat a few more meals, and discover if it would even work, maybe kiss at least once or twice. I’m willing if you are.”

Temu coughed and Raven glanced at him to find his cheeks had turned a fiery red in the evening light. Raven grinned and took a big bite of his beef stew.

He reached for the jug of water in the middle of the table and poured water into a goblet. He handed it to Temu.

Temu drank the water, and once he stopped coughing, he sat back in his seat, his shoulders straight.

“You would not be the second son,” Temu said, after a minute.

“Huh?” Raven glanced at him.

“Prince Jihan,” Temu said, nodding to the dais where three princes were talking to Lord Gura. “He has already adopted three others. You would be the fifth son.”

Raven stared at Temu then burst out laughing.

“Okay. Fifth son is also good,” Raven said. “He is usually the most spoilt. I can live with that.”

“I can’t,” Temu said, shaking his head. “I don’t think I can afford paying dowry to the Merchant Prince and the War God.”

Raven laughed even more and shook his head.

“Lucky for you, my parents are humble farmers. I hope you like pigs. I sometimes have to help them chase piglets in our farm.”

“I don’t mind helping,” Temu said, with a happy pleased nod.

“Speaking of him, where is the Merchant Prince?” Raven asked.

“There,” Temu pointed to the stage.

Excitement grew at the sight of the stage. Five columns alight with fire poles surrounded the stage. Five drums were arranged at each of these fire columns. Three men and two women stood behind the large round drums. Prince Jihan was one of the men. He was accompanied by Set, and the third man was probably associated with Kamran. Raven did not know him.

All the drummers wore black trousers and red tunics. Prince Jihan’s hair was held in a tight ponytail with a red ribbon. The long strands left to fall down his back. They all held two drumsticks. Raven was surprised to see Prince Jihan twirl the drumsticks with ease.

“I didn’t know he could perform,” Raven said.

“They have been practicing at the trade station,” Temu said. “Although it looks like something they have done before.”

“Wow,” Raven sighed. “Why didn’t they ask me? I would have joined in.”

“You’re always so busy with the Hidden Keepers. When would you have taken time to meet them for practice?”

Raven’s shoulders slumped in defeat at Temu’s direct hit. He took a bite of his beef stew and chewed with a sigh.

“Don’t look so disappointed,” Temu said after a while. “Isn’t it better to watch? How many people can say they have been entertained by an Imperial Prince as he drummed for a Shadow Guard sword dance?”

Raven thought about it, and then nodded his head in agreement.

“True,” Raven said, looking at Temu. “You are right. It’s better to watch.”

Temu studied him for a moment, and then shook his head.

“You’re so easy to coax.”

“I’m even easier if you roast a chicken for me and give me to eat. I’ll follow you everywhere you go.”

Temu stared at him in shock, and then grinned.

“I should have known the way to win you is through food.”

“Why do you think I would accept Prince Jihan as my Pa?” Raven asked, shaking his head.

Temu stared at him, blank.

“He fed me at first sight,” Raven reminded him.

“Fate save me,” Temu said, shaking his head. “Okay, be good and eat in peace. Who knows, I might let you recognize him as your father in-law.”

Raven smiled and shook his head. It was fun to tease Temu.

“Does that mean you’re his fifth son?” Raven asked.

“No,” Temu said, scowling at him.

Raven chuckled and focused on eating.

The meadow quieted down. The lamps dimmed around them leaving only the firelight on stage. Prince Jihan and his fellow drummers all turned to the crowd. They bowed once to signal the start of the performance. Then they turned and started drumming the huge round drums in slow beats. Beats that grew in pace and sound until they turned heart shaking. They were a summoning, a call to arms. Then they stopped and two figures jumped on stage.

Raven forgot his food, and stared at the two Shadow Guards standing on opposite sides of the stage. They were dressed in black and red silk robes. Fitted tight on the torso, and breaking into wide strips from the waist down. The black trousers the Shadow Guards wore disappeared into blood red boots. Their wrists decorated with red and black ribbons that waved in the air. They both held a pair of long gleaming swords. Raven took in the details of the black masks covering their faces, leaving only their eyes to see. Their hair held in tight knots.

They stalked each other on stage. Firuz going one way, while Aoi did the opposite. Their swords held at rest, behind their backs. Their steps deliberate. Then the drums started. Beat, by beat, their steps matched the growing pace. Then, a mock attack of swords started. The Shadow Guards movements were graceful. Their swords looked like an extension of their arms.

They danced with flowing motions. Their swords slicing in the air, making the fire dance with every arc. The drums beat faster; the Shadow Guards matched the beat. Faster and faster they went until it looked impossible to follow. Yet, the Shadow Guards kept up, their swords cutting in the air, fast, deadly. It was poetic and beautiful.

At the climax, Raven held his breath as he watched Aoi jump into the air, her swords held up as she came at Firuz. It looked like she would either fall or cut off Firuz’s head.

Firuz used his pair of swords to swipe her pair, flipping her in the air, and she drooped on her feet, steady. The drums slowed their pace, beat by beat, turning into a steady heartbeat. Firuz and Aoi turned and faced the dais placing their swords on the stage.

They bowed the end of their performance as the drums came to a full stop.

The meadow was silent, stunned by the performance, and then it exploded in a round of applause. Rashan jumped down from the dais, racing to congratulate them.

Raven stood too, clapping hard, his heart racing. Still reeling at the sight of the awe-inspiring performance. The fearless nature of a Shadow Guard so brutally displayed, he could barely…think. It was too amazing!

“They’re breathtaking,” Raven said, still clapping.

“I would call it dangerous,” Temu said, his gaze on Firuz and Aoi s who were still on the stage.

The two turned to the drummers. They brought their right hand to their chest and bowed in Prince Jihan’s direction.

Prince Jihan smiled and brought his hand to his chest too, bowing to them. He then turned to his fellow drummers.

“I suppose it is reassuring to know they each are loyal to someone in the valley,” Raven said, when they sat again. “One of them might actually decimate the forces we have here.”

“I thought you admired them?” Temu asked.

“I do,” Raven said, smiling. “In the same way we admire tigers in the wild. No one wants to meet one to pet it.”

“You’re so strange,” Temu chuckled. “I’ll be sure to tell Firuz you think he’s a dangerous tiger.”

“Don’t,” Raven said, using his spoon to threaten Temu.

“What will you give me if I don’t?” Temu asked.

Raven stared at him for a moment, and then leaned in and kissed Temu on his lips. It was a big, delicious one. Temu gasped and returned it without much protest. When Raven broke the kiss, he grinned because Temu’s reaction to their abrupt kiss was to sit still, like a statue, unmoving.

Raven poked him with a finger, and Temu did not move, just blinked at him in shock.

“Sigh, I just got him, now I’ve broken him,” Raven murmured, dipping his spoon into his meat stew. “Lord General, I’ll kiss you again. Get used to it okay.”

Temu moved then, reaching for his goblet of water for a sip. His cheeks were bright red again, making Raven chuckle. So easy to tease.

*~*~*~*~*

“Master Firuz, you and Aoi were amazing tonight,” Rashan said, as they arrived back at Sun-filled Manor. “I want to do the sword dance with you one day.”

“What now?” Jihan asked from behind him. “Does it look that easy?”

“Papa, I’ll be careful,” Rashan said, grabbing on to Jihan’s right hand. “You don’t have to worry about me so much. Will you drum for me if I learn?”

Jihan gave Kastan a helpless glance then nodded.

“I promise to drum for you, but doing it when you’ve lived three decades is also okay.”

“Papa,” Rashan made a face at him.

“What? You don’t think I’ll have the strength at the time?” Jihan asked.

“I want to do the sword dance next thanksgiving,” Rashan said.

“Spare my heart, will you?” Jihan begged.

“We are going to have a thanksgiving celebration every year, right?” Rashan pushed, as they stopped at the stone garden.

“Yes, we shall have one every year,” Jihan said, smoothing back Rashan’s hair. “I think it will be an occasion to look forward to.”

“Great,” Rashan said, then hugged Jihan. “Then I’ll do the dance every year. I’m tired today. I’ll go to sleep early. Happy thanksgiving, Pa, Papa.”

“You too,” Jihan sneaked in a kiss on his forehead.

Rashan let go and moved to hug Kastan, then Firuz.

Yan and Yija stepped forward next.

“Uncle Kas, Uncle Jihan, today was amazing,” Yan said. “We loved the celebration. I hope we can always be part of it every year.”

“Of course,” Jihan said, reaching out to caress Yan’s right cheek. “You’re one of us now.”

“Great,” Yan smiled.

“I also want to learn the sword dance,” Yija said, looking at Kastan, then Firuz. “Will you let me?”

“We’ll talk about it with your father first,” Kastan said.

“I’ll wait for your decision. Uncle Jihan, Yan and I, we want a token too.” Yija said, stepping forward to look into Jihan’s eyes. “Shan said you gave him and Adan tokens because they are your family. Aren’t we your family too?”

Jihan blinked, and looked to Kiyan for help.

Kiyan did not speak up to help him. Instead, he gave him an expectant look.

Kaveh only gave him a nod when he looked to him.

Their quiet expectation surprised Jihan. It looked as though he had adopted three more sons. Byul would have to be included if he gave these two a token.

Crouching down, Jihan met Yija’s gaze.

“You know, not getting a token from me does not mean you’re not part of my family. I think of you as family already. You know that, right?” Jihan asked.

“Yes,” Yija nodded. “I still want a token like Shan and Adan.”

Jihan then met Yan’s gaze.

“And you?” Jihan asked. “Do you also want a token like Shan’s?”

“Yes. I want to be known as your family too,” Yan said.

“Okay. Well, I’ll think hard on what to give you. In three months,” Jihan paused, thinking of the time he had before the boys went off to play with real swords. It was so short…so short. “I’ll have them by the time you’re meeting General Niku.”

“Great!” “Yes!” Yija and Yan both said.

Jihan accepted tight hugs from Yan, and then Yija.

“Happy thanksgiving, Uncle Jihan. Uncle Kas.”

The two princes raced after Rashan to the Auxiliary House for baths and rest.

Jihan stood with Kastan as they faced Kaveh, Kiyan, Zure, Ha, and Neith.

“You’ve made our thanksgiving memorable,” Zure said, stepping forward to shake Jihan’s hand. He smiled. “I’ve enjoyed spending time in Silver Shore Valley. It felt good to visit my sister’s grave with Rashan.”

“We hold a memorial every year,” Kastan said. “You’re welcome to join us, Zure.”

“I’ll look forward to it,” Zure said, letting go of Rashan’s hand.

“Visit us anytime,” Jihan said. “Rashan would love to hear more about his Ma. I’m sure you have stories of her when she was young.”

“I’ll do my best,” Zure promised, looking at Ha.

“Merchant Prince,” Ha said. “I’ll share news with you to thank you for a wonderful day. Giode Kingdom is suffering a salt shortage. Most of their major merchant networks were tied to Lord Revi. Their supply chain has died out. They are now looking for a new supplier. Their kingdom’s muddled king is hoarding salt he should give to the people who need it. I feel that your network can manage to fill the gap. I’m sure you’ll find a way to save Giode’s people from salt scarcity.”

Jihan held his hands out, palms pressed together in gratitude.

“Jihan thanks the ancient one for your lesson. I will make arrangements.”

“God of War,” Ha said, meeting Kastan’s gaze. “I’ll visit my sister often. I hope it is alright with you if I drop by.”

“Ha is always welcome in our home,” Kastan said.

“Then, I’ll see you two around,” Ha said. He wrapped his arm around Zure, and as they shimmered out they both said, “Happy thanksgiving.”

“I’m staying the night,” Kiyan said, when Kastan looked at him. “I’ll sleep in Yan and Yija’s suite. You don’t have to worry me. Kas, Jihan, thank you for a wonderful thanksgiving.”

Kiyan gave them no time to answer as he hurried in the direction of the Auxiliary House to join his sons.

“Jihan,” Neith said, coming forward to kiss his cheek. “You, Firuz and Aoi were amazing. I loved your performance.”

“I’m glad,” Jihan said with a smile. “Firuz and Aoi did the most work.”

“In the same words as Kiyan, I also don’t need anything else. I’ll stay with Kaveh,” Neith said, moving back to stand next to Kaveh.

Neith smiled at Kastan. “I hope you don’t mind.”

“Not at all,” Kastan said, not about to comment on the clear affection they had for one another. It was not his place at all.

“Then,” Kaveh said, his wide smile matching the one on Neith’s lips. “Happy thanksgiving you two.”

Kaveh then led Neith in the direction of the Auxiliary House, leaving them staring after them.

Firuz cleared his throat next, and Jihan turned to look at him.

“Are you leaving too?” Jihan asked.

“I have an appointment with someone,” Firuz said. “I’ll see you tomorrow. Happy thanksgiving to you both.”

Jihan watched Firuz hurry after Kaveh and Neith.

“The Auxiliary House seems busier than our main house,” Jihan said, looking at Kastan. “What do you think Yasmin is feeding people over there?”

Kastan laughed, and shook his head.

“I hope it means that we don’t have to give up our morning tomorrow. Everyone will be too wrapped up in their…interests,” Kastan said, taking Jihan’s right hand. “What do you say we find our interest? Have I told you how gorgeous you looked drumming for Firuz? Why did I not know you played drums?”

Jihan led the way to the stairs with a small smile.

“So you can discover it now and tell me how gorgeous you think I am,” Jihan said, leading him up the stairs to their chambers. “Have you seen Temu this evening?”

“In passing,” Kastan said. “He was occupied. I don’t think he will make it to the manor tonight.”

“You might just get your wish in the morning then,” Jihan said, as the passed the empty rooms along the wide hallway. “We are alone in this whole house.”

Kastan tugged him to a stop, and held him tight, kissing him in the hall. A wanton kiss that would lead to a night of bliss. Jihan sighed as he wrapped his arms around Kastan’s neck.

“Happy thanksgiving, Kas,” he murmured against Kastan’s lips.

****

On the third day of thanksgiving, Duke Silver finally got his wish. He stayed in bed all morning with Jihan, sleeping in, talking, sharing lazy kisses. He loved listening to Jihan talk about his merchants. He loved sharing his own plans for the valley, the army, sharing his worries about the princes training with the generals.

“Do they have to leave the valley?” Jihan asked, holding Kastan’s right hand, and playing with his fingers. They lay on the long couch by the windows, watching the horizon as they talked. Jihan rested on Kastan’s chest, their gowns tangled around them.

Kastan combed Jihan’s long hair with gentle fingers as he spoke.

“They won’t leave the valley at first. The generals will train them one by one in a closed camp on the east side of the valley. After, they will have to work with the soldiers to understand how the army works. Rashan needs to build friendships and alliances. The same way you have Set and Garren.”

“I understand,” Jihan said, studying Kastan’s hands. “It’s still hard to think of them not being here.”

“I’ll be here,” Kastan murmured.

“Mm, I know,” Jihan nodded, they fell silent for a moment, and then Jihan shifted so that he could look at Kastan. “Last night, Ha’s information, it gave me an idea. Are you willing to listen to my scheming?”

“What kind of scheming?” Kastan asked, bringing his hand to touch Jihan’s nose.

“The kind that will get you Giode Kingdom where you want it.”

“I’m listening,” Kastan said.

“Giode must be facing more than one type of crisis. I know you plan to give Yija that crown. So, since I worry about an all out war, you’ll let me help you.”

“An,” Kastan started to protest.

“It’s happening. Now, Yija is young, but he is still this Giode king’s nephew. The nobles that support the crown can be used to support Yija’s claim. We can start understanding who these people are. Do you agree?”

“Yes,” Kastan said, knowing it was useless to keep Jihan out of this.

“Giode merchants now need to trade with us for salt. Before I married you, I would have been the one to go and make the initial trade.”

“No,” Kastan said, shaking his head. “You’re known by everyone now. I can’t risk you.”

“Don’t worry,” Jihan said, kissing him. “I will let Set do it. If he gets burned, I still have another partner in Kyra’s territory. He is useful there, I’d rather we use him as a last result. Set will create a business troop to start trade with Giode. Naveed and Temu can add officers who are able to collect the information that you need. If you explain what you would be looking for to Set, he can help too.”

“Won’t it put the business troop in danger?” Kastan asked. “Giode Kingdom’s king is muddled, but it makes him dangerous and paranoid.”

“We’re not going to get another opportunity like this,” Jihan said. “The merchants in our network understand the risks. I don’t think we can both sit around and wait for them to fall into chaos. We’ll work together to find a way to protect them.”

Kastan nodded.

“You’re right. Then, I can move essential troops to Sun Kingdom,” Kastan said, thinking about the Empire’s map. “Taen City has a military base we can use, even though to keep this scheming low key we should probably get a private residence.”

“I can help with that,” Jihan said. “My friend Tagon will get us the resources.”

“Is Tagon a friend like Swallow?” Kastan asked.

Jihan hesitated, and then started to sit up, but Kastan held him in place.

“How many more do you have?” Kastan asked, frowning when he met Jihan’s honeyed gaze.

“Only those two are worth mentioning,” Jihan said.

Kastan sighed.

“This Tagon—"

“Is married,” Jihan said. “His wife is very pretty. They are happy.”

“Hm,” Kastan studied him. “I’m going to go crazy with jealousy every time I hear you talk about him.”

“Then, let Set deal with him,” Jihan said.

“I should keep you locked away in Silver Shore Valley,” Kastan threatened.

“Don’t you dare,” Jihan scowled at him.

Kastan fumed for a minute, and then pulled him down for a kiss.

“Consort of mine, are you done scheming?”

“No, it’s a very involved plan,” Jihan said. “We still need to find a way to get information to Silver Shore Valley in time. Then, how to respond to what we learn. Who to use to approach people we need to turn to our side.”

“Then, I’ll listen to what you suggest,” Kastan said. “At what point do we tell my brother?”

“We’ll have to plan that too…”

Kastan smiled as he listened to Jihan scheme a plot to keep him away from war. He was sure this was only the beginning. After all, he had come to understand that the one thing Jihan worried most about was having him and Rashan fighting a war.

Kastan held him tight and hoped that all this scheming would fulfill Jihan’s wishes. He truly preferred having more days of lazing around on a long couch listening to Jihan plan their future. Their bliss.

*~*~*~*

Once again, these are snippets of everyone's lives. :) Hope you enjoyed the little glimpses into them.
Cheers, Sui.
Suilan Lee, 2019-2021
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Stories posted in this category are works of fiction. Names, places, characters, events, and incidents are created by the authors' imaginations or are used fictitiously. Any resemblances to actual persons (living or dead), organizations, companies, events, or locales are entirely coincidental.
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I love almost everyone left in this story!

I love how Kas fights to protect Jihan from putting himself in danger. It drives him crazy that Jihan doesn't do what he's told, the way his army does, he doesn't know how to handle it! There have been so many small things that amazed me with him, I think the first was when Jihan was remembering playing cards with him in the army camp, and Kas kept cheating. Or, when Andiya was chastising him, after she first met him, for being cruel to Jihan. Kas responded he would be as cruel as he needed to be to protect him. 

Laner, in the previous chapter, when she told Jihan she didn't want to 'Let it go. She had been letting it go for years," and then continued on to tell him where it had gotten her. I fell in love with her at that moment.

Duyi, he is why I had to put the "almost" in my first sentence here.

Temu, I was indifferent to him until, they were on their way to pick up the butcher. Jihan had read the message from Set, and was explaining to Temu how his merchant network works, he has one man collecting the money, and a different man reporting, and their numbers need to match. When he realized Jihan wasn't as soft as he had previously thought, and developed a great deal more respect for Jihan, thats when I started liking him.

Raven, I liked him from the first time we saw him. Rather than take a bath before going to the mansion, he went up the hill, he realized his mistake when Temu led him into the mansion so he could vent. Rather than try to weasel his way out of it, he manned up and vented, that took some balls.

Yasmin, I love how she orders them around like they are all her children, even Firuz, and he obeys. Yet, she will take the time to make lemon tarts with Rashan after he upset Jihan.

Ha, whether he knew it or not, he gave Jihan a reason to send people into Giode kingdom. I tend to think he knew he was giving Jihan a way to get spies in, and also clueing him in to the fact that they need to be watched, he's a God after all.

Neith, I love how she watches over Kastans family, and how she finds the possibiliy of  love. 

Rashan, he's never had to face the real world, and Jihan is determined to protect him. Jihan will have Set and all his spies wore out trying to protect Rashan. He is as determined as Kas is to protect him.

Jihan, everybody except Duyi loves him!

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Thought I didn't need this chapter apparently I did happy for Temu and Raven kaveh and neith Ha and zure would have loved to read about love for kiyan after what rushi put him through he deserves some happiness thank you hand on my chest 

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Was truly a great story! Just as much or more son the second time!! I'd love a part two! 

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