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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 - 4. Chapter 4

The Burning Feather

“I understand Pa,” Andiya said, studying the sweets their mother had given Jihan. She picked one out from the box and ate it. She chewed on it for a moment, and then nodded, picking out a second one. “These are good, Jihan. I’ll have Deora taste them so she can replicate the recipe. We can find a way to produce them on a larger scale.”

They were in Jihan’s library, a room he used to curate all Kamran information. Andiya sat on a chaise opposite Jihan’s desk, as she studied the sweets in the container. Firuz ate in silence in the armchair next to her.

Jihan sat behind his large carved desk reading all the messages Garren sent with eagles to Kamran Estate. He divided the messages into three piles: useful, important and curious.

“Pa is no different from Ishan, you know,” Andiya continued. "They just want to make sure their families have a strong standing in the empire."

She was taking the news of the war and their role in it much easier than Jihan had.

Jihan liked talking to her as she always gave him a second perspective in a problem.

“Noble titles come with a certain level of protection,” Andiya said, as she closed the box with sweets. “They are high risk, but if you’re smart, which our family is, we would make it generations in the nobility class. Jihan, you would not have to spend so much time moving around the empire being a merchant.”

“I like traveling,” Jihan said, sparing her a glance from the note he held.

“I’m just saying it would be nice to have you home more. You’re always working to make sure Pa, Ma and me are living with no trouble. I worry about you too,” Andiya said, with a small shrug. “Don’t be too hard on Pa for this decision. It is the most logical one for us.”

“I’m not being hard on him."

Jihan placed the last of the small pieces of parchment in the curious pile and sat back to look at his sister.

“I’m only thinking a thousand steps ahead, Andiya. I’m also working hard to make sure our family survives. I can’t account for what others might do. Court officials are devious and ambitious. Who knows what could go wrong.”

“Jihan, you have become a powerful chess piece. The information you collect, the underground network you’ve created and the size of our Kamran business make you dangerous. Don’t you think being a noble will bring you protection?” Andiya asked.

“I don’t,” Jihan said, rubbing his left brow. “It would pull us into the spotlight and that’s dangerous. We have made it this far by staying obscure.”

“Okay, An,” Andiya said, holding his gaze. “I’m just telling you to think about Pa's logic for a while. Let’s just get through the war first, and see what happens after. Reserve your judgment until after, alright?”

Jihan gave her the slightest smile, and then lifted the last note from the curious pile.

“Our last troop of ten came into the Eagle’s Claw late last night. They were in Kin Town and they say there are new merchants they could not identify. We know most of the merchants in Akasha, so who are these new people?” Jihan shook his head. “It’s a puzzle.”

Andiya frowned.

“Are you going to run the war supply from here?” Andiya asked, hopeful. “You would be safe from the worst of it.”

“I would be safe,” Jihan agreed, getting up from his chair.

The list of supplies needed required grain from Sun Kingdom, which he would get through Tagon’s connection. There was medicine for the healers who had listed herbs he sourced from the Iron Lands. Meat supplies came from the wild lands in Blood Nation. Jihan had a troop that specialized in treating meat for long periods of storage. The easiest location to receive all these items and keep them moving was Kin Town.

He needed to be in close proximity to Duke Silver’s army.

Kamran Estate was too far.

He walked around the desk and joined Andiya on the chaise. He took the container with their mother’s sweets and placed it on the table. He took her right hand, running his thumb over her short nails, and then covered her hand with both of his.

“I have to go to Kin Town, Andiya. I’ll be there until Duke Silver ends the war. I need to be closer to Mount Kin.”

Andiya closed her eyes and nodded, breathing out her fear.

“Okay,” Andiya said, after a minute. She opened her eyes. “I can handle things here then.”

“About that,” Jihan said, his gaze on their clasped hands on Andiya’s lap. “I think it would be better if you stayed with Swallow at his home in the Iron Lands until the war is over.”

“No.” Andiya shook her head. “You’re not sending me away.”

“I don’t want anything to happen to you,” Jihan said.

“Nothing’s going to happen to me,” Andiya said. “You’re not sending me away. I don’t want to go to the Iron Lands. I like Swallow, he’s very interesting to be around, but—”

“But what?” he asked, when Andiya broke off.

She looked at Firuz, her stormy gaze enough to tell Jihan he was in for a fight. He had always thought Andiya liked Swallow. Swallow was a good family friend. He visited Kamran estate often and stayed for months. He had helped Jihan build their business, always helping him make deals that benefited them both.

Andiya loved it when Swallow visited.

What had changed?

“Fine, I know you won’t bring it up, so I will,” Andiya said, looking at him. “Two months ago, when you went running after Tagon because he was getting married, I thought you would prefer to stay in the Sun Kingdom taking the little Tagon would offer you. You have no idea how relieved I was to see you today. I’m sorry that you returned because of a war, but I’m grateful for it.”

Jihan tried to pull his hand away from Andiya’s, but she held on tight.

“Tagon is over, now you want me to go to Swallow, the other man who pulled you into a numbing depression. Swallow is a great friend, yes, but don’t ask me to stay at his home. He hurt you when he married the girl his parents found for him. They are about to have a baby. How can you expect me to be there?”

“That’s an old story,” Jihan said. “Water under a bridge, Andiya, he is always on our side.”

“Forgive me for being petty,” Andiya said, shaking her head. “I can’t forgive him for what he did. Business is fine, but don’t ask me to go stay in Swallow’s home.”

Jihan pulled his hand out of Andiya’s grasp and got up from the chaise, panic seizing him. He tried not to think of his losses except when Andiya so eloquently lined them in a list. It was difficult to keep ignoring his old pain. He had lost Swallow first, and then Tagon. It was his fault for expecting futures with both men.

His mistakes, his decisions, he lived with them.

“I don’t think about what I’ve lost, Andiya, only what I’ve gained. Swallow is willing to give you sanctuary. You don’t have to worry about me, Andiya,” Jihan said, pacing around the chaise, hands clasped behind his back. “I just need you in a safe place.”

The black tiger seal he carried felt like a target. Andiya could not stay at Kamran Estate. Too many rivals would try to get to her, in order to force his hand.

“Andiya,” Firuz spoke up. “Jihan will worry with you here. Swallow can keep you safe.”

“So can Ishan,” Andiya said, shocking Jihan into a stop. “He’s taking his mother and sister to see his aunt in the Silver Shore Valley. I can go with them.”

“Andiya!” Jihan started to protest then closed his eyes at a loss for words. “Lord Ishan does not need to be part of this.”

“He’s been part of our lives for ages,” Andiya said, getting comfortable on the chaise. She adjusted the pillows at her elbow and smiled. “You’re the only one who refuses to see it.”

“No.” Jihan pointed at her. “Swallow is the right choice. He understands danger. He can handle ghost warriors invading his home at night. It won’t be the first time. Ishan has never had to experience that.”

“Because you protect him like he is a baby,” Andiya said, narrowing her gaze at him. “Little brother, Ishan won’t mind my company.”

“And the danger?” Jihan asked.

“He’s handy with a sword,” Andiya said, with a small shrug.

“He’s about as handy as I am with one,” Jihan scoffed.

“It’s not his fault you can’t duel to save your life, An,” Andiya said. “If I must leave, I’m staying with Lord Ishan Gura. He’s the best choice.”

Jihan walked back to his desk, ignoring Andiya’s probing gaze. He tried not to involve Ishan in the dangerous side of his business. Ishan had a mother and a sister to protect. He dared not bring them into the mess that was their life.

“Ishan is your best friend,” Andiya said, she sat up on the chaise and gave him a small smile. “It hurts him that you keep him at a distance like this.”

Jihan leaned on his desk.

“I’m not sure whose side you’re on, Andiya.”

“Yours, An,” Andiya said. “Always. Please trust me. Besides, Ishan’s aunt is no pushover. She is married to a soldier in Duke Silver’s army. No ordinary danger will find us in Silver Shore.”

Jihan shuddered at the mention of Duke Silver. He met Firuz’s gaze and found a matching concern. Firuz made for a great mirror.

“Andiya,” Jihan started.

“This is what I want,” Andiya stated, getting to her feet to face him.

Jihan once promised Andiya to let her do what she wanted without question. He cursed that promise now, and folded his arms against his chest. He closed his eyes thinking Andiya might be right in a twisted logic.

No one would expect his sister to live at Silver Shore. Their family had no visible ties to Duke Silver.

Besides, short of tying Andiya up and dragging her to Swallow’s estate in the Iron Lands, and who was going to do that, he had no choice but to agree to her wish.

“Fine, do what you want, Andiya,” Jihan said. “Just promise to stay out of the enemy’s hands.”

Andiya got up, picked up the box of sweets and walked to Jihan’s side. She leaned up and brushed her lips on his jaw before she left the room.

Left alone, Jihan looked at Firuz who was drinking tea at leisure.

“You could have spoken up,” Jihan said.

“I know not to speak up when it comes to your sister, Jihan,” Firuz said, his tone amused. “She’s right about Lord Ishan. You don’t give him enough credit.”

“You think so?” Jihan asked.

“Yes,” Firuz said. “Lord Ishan would do anything for Andiya, you know.”

“I don’t need to hear that,” Jihan scowled.

Why would Ishan want to do anything for Andiya? She was not Ishan’s responsibility. Shaking his head, Jihan pushed off the table and headed out of his study room.

“Where to?” Firuz asked, having followed him.

“To find Ishan,” Jihan said. “If Andiya is to stay with him, I need to talk to him.”

“You mean to threaten him,” Firuz joked.

Jihan scowled at Firuz and continued out of the house.

*~*~*~*

Evening came after a busy day: a visit to Ishan’s house where Ishan agreed to protect Andiya for the duration of the war. Jihan then spent the rest of his afternoon planning the care of Kamran Estate in their absence and the management of the warehouse in the outer courtyard.

Vion would oversee the warehouse, while Deora would take care of their home.

Tired from a night of travel and a day filled with activity, Jihan decided to soak in a bath before going to sleep. He loved the bath at Kamran House. He built it as an indulgence, fitted in the left wing of the house near the kitchen. The room boasted a large round sunken bath made with stone and tile. Firuz and the workers had helped him device the plumbing. A pipe brought hot water from a huge vat in the kitchen, filling the tub, and when the bath ended, the water drained out using a second pipe into a garden outside the house.

Jihan liked to sit in the built in bench immersed in hot water to his chin. It felt like a warm embrace, taking away the day’s stress. Closing his eyes, he sank deeper into the water soaking his hair. He came up and leaned back on the wall, resting his head on a comfortable ledge.

Firuz brought in a towel and a dark robe, which he placed on a bench near the tub.

“You relax, I’ll be around, Jihan,” Firuz said.

“Mm,” Jihan said, already feeling the stresses of the day disappearing.

His thoughts drifted to Duke Silver. Unlike his father, Jihan had never met a royal. He was too busy riding across the Akasha Empire handling the many crises that came with running a business. He wondered if all royals looked as tall and unyielding as Duke Silver did.

Duke Silver’s features were striking, his eyes sharp as though he could see through a lie.

Jihan had found the scar on Duke Silver’s right brow intriguing. It added to his looks, instead of take away. He wondered who had dared scar Duke Silver.

Jihan drifted to sleep thinking of Duke Silver’s scar.

He woke to the gentle touch of a water drop on his right cheek. Eyes open, he stared at the dark sword inches away from his cheek and sat very still. A silver sword swept over the dark blade, and pushed it away from his cheek. Jihan breathed in and did not move. Firuz jumped up on the bath ledge fighting Jihan’s attacker away from Jihan. When they had moved three steps away, Jihan dared to take a good look at the intruder.

The man was dressed in black from head to toe, his head wrapped with a black cloth to hide his hair, and face. His eyes were the only visible part of him.

Jihan gaped.

He was looking at a ghost warrior.

He had threatened Andiya with ghost warriors and they had appeared.

Why?

Jihan lifted his left hand from the water, staring at the black tiger seal now tied to his left wrist. The ghost warrior renewed his efforts at the sight of it, doing his best to lunge toward Jihan. Firuz grabbed the ghost warrior’s collar from the back, pushed him to the floor and followed him fast, sinking his sword into the ghost warrior’s chest, right through his heart. Firuz pulled out his sword as fast as he sunk it in, and faced Jihan.

“I’m sorry they got so close. There were a dozen of them. Our men have suffered under the attack, but he was the last one. The house is secure,” Firuz said.

Jihan stood, taking the robe Firuz held out to him. He wore it fast, not caring that the bottom soaked in the cooling bath water. He got out of the bath, and on bare feet, he walked to where the ghost warrior lay dead. He was careful not to step on blood.

“Andiya?” he asked, knowing Firuz would have protected her too.

“She’s in the basement with Deora and Vion,” Firuz said.

Jihan nodded and bent down to pull off the dark fabric covering the ghost warrior’s head. He did not know the face, nor would he dare to guess. Ghost warriors were a secretive bunch. Instead, he took the knife Firuz handed him and tore the fabric of the ghost warrior’s right sleeve. Lifting the ghost warrior's arm, Jihan stared at the brand mark near the ghost warrior’s armpit.

A round circle with a falling burning feather, the detail enough to tell Jihan the owner of the brand had access to a skilled workshop.

Jihan got up, stepped over the ghost warrior and led the way out of the bath. Firuz hurried around him when they reached the corridor leading to the front doors. It was around nine in the evening. Hundreds of lanterns lit up the courtyard beyond the open front doors.

Jihan stepped out of the house after Firuz and stopped at the top of the short steps, his gaze on the one man Yin from security had kneeling on the courtyard stones.

Five men from the security office stood surrounding the prisoner.

Jihan glanced at Firuz’s sword, which was now clean. His gaze then searched the private courtyard and found ten dead men on the ground. Jihan sighed and walked down the steps to stop before the one kneeling.

Jihan crouched down after securing the belt on his long gown. He touched the mask around the ghost warrior’s neck. Yin must have torn the fabric to reveal the ghost warrior’s face.

Ghost warriors were trained to infiltrate and accomplish given tasks. They covered their bodies from head to toe in black, not an ounce of skin shown. The skin around their eyes painted with charcoal or black oil. They hid their identities and the noble houses affiliated with them. Ghost warriors were not easy to hire. They were ran exclusively by noble houses: each noble house keeping a set of loyal ghost warriors.

Jihan frowned.

“Your master must want my black tiger seal,” Jihan said, lifting his left wrist to show the ghost warrior the seal his father gave him.

The man’s eyes went wide, and he made to lunge at Jihan.

Yin clamped his hand on the ghost warrior’s shoulder and squeezed.

Firuz came up on Jihan’s left side and rested his sword on the ghost warrior’s neck.

“A dozen of you would accomplish your task and murder an entire household,” Jihan continued, unfazed by the ghost warrior’s dark gaze. He pulled his left sleeve over the seal covering the silk thread holding it in place on his wrist.

“You made a mistake with my household,” Jihan said. “You didn’t expect him.”

Jihan nodded to Firuz who pressed his sword tighter against the ghost warrior’s neck.

Jihan had yet to hear of a ghost warrior managing to best a Shadow Guard.

In the world of a Shadow Guard, a ghost warrior was an opponent that could return their attacks, but ultimately, their level of skill was intermediate to the advanced Shadow Guard.

The ghost warrior shuddered and Jihan smiled, straightening up. He stepped away from the ghost warrior.

“He won’t talk,” Jihan said, breathing out, looking around the messy courtyard.

Andiya would have to commission new flowerpots for the courtyard.

Jihan sighed, and glanced at the ghost warrior who fell back on the courtyard in a violent shudder. Foam filled his mouth and Jihan shook his head. He never understood ghost warriors.

Why kill yourself when you were at a disadvantage? Had they never heard of live to fight another day?

“Poison in his back tooth,” Yin said, after a quick check on the now dead ghost warrior.

“I figured,” Jihan said. “Strip them and find if they have similar brands.”

He waited in the cool courtyard for Firuz and Yin to rally the others and complete the task. Firuz double-checked the eleven men in the courtyard and returned to Jihan’s side.

The brands were all similar, a burning feather in a circle.

“Get Deora,” Jihan said, “Have her draw the brand on paper and not to miss any detail. We’ll find out more about the brand from our network.”

Jihan squeezed Firuz’s right arm, grateful for his Shadow Guard. Without him, he might have died in a tub of water. Firuz gave him a shy smile and hurried into the house to get Andiya, Deora and Vion.

“How many injured?” Jihan asked Yin.

“Ten men,” Yin said. “We have two dead in the security office. Firuz helped us. Without him, we would have missed the attack. He heard them coming, but they are fast and were in the inner courtyard before we could really fight back. Firuz went after the one who came in to the house for you.”

Jihan nodded, once again grateful for Firuz.

“We need to get on the move, Yin. Once you’ve cleaned up, start getting ready to get on the road to Kin Town.”

“I’ll make sure it’s done,” Yin said, hurrying away.

Jihan turned to climb the stairs and paused when he saw Andiya in her nightgown, her hair wild around her shoulders. Her eyes were red from recent tears.

Jihan walked up the steps and stopped before her.

“Do you understand my worry now?” he asked her.

She pushed her hair out of her eyes and nodded.

“Who could have sent them?” Andiya asked, not shaking with fear, but anger.

Jihan thought about the burning feather.

Through the years, he had compiled a comprehensive list of noble family emblems in the Akasha Empire. It paid to know who one was doing business with and why. Jihan had no memory of a burning feather in that list.

“I don’t know,” Jihan said, turning to the see Deora and Vion crouching over the ghost warrior at the bottom of the steps.

Vion held a lantern up for Deora as she sketched the brand mark.

Not knowing who had sent ghost warriors after him worried him. He liked knowing all the players in the game.

Andiya took his left arm and tugged him into the house.

“Your hair is wet,” she said. “You’ll catch a cold. I’ll help you dry it and then you need a few more hours of sleep before you are on the move again. You need to be careful out there, Jihan.”

“Andiya—”

“It’s our last night at home together,” Andiya chided. “Please, indulge me for a few hours. Who knows when we’ll get to see each other again? Firuz and Vion will handle the mess outside.”

Jihan sighed and allowed his sister to lead him to his suite of rooms.

*~*~*~*

The next morning, Jihan stood with Ishan at the outer gates.

Ishan’s traveling carriage waited on the road. His mother and sister were in the house getting Andiya.

“You look tired,” Ishan noted, hands clasped behind his back.

He was dressed for travel in a deep purple long tunic, his sleeves fitting with leather arm bracers holding them in place. His dark trousers disappeared into fine leather boots. His hair secured in a heavy gold clip with the Gura crest on the gold hairpin going through the clip.

“After all these years, I still don’t understand why your family’s crest is an olive branch. Don’t you ever feel like changing it into a fierce animal?” Jihan teased.

Ishan scowled at him.

“I didn’t choose it, you know. They come with the title. Besides, my grandfather must have thought our family would end up full of great scholars.”

“Ah ha,” Jihan said, smiling at Ishan. “I would still try to make mine a tiger or a mountain lion.”

“The tiger’s taken,” Ishan said, referring to Duke Silver’s family crest. “Duke Silver makes it impossible for anyone else to take on the tiger as a seal.”

“How frightening,” Jihan said, impressed by Duke Silver’s latent power. He admired such things. “Ishan, have you ever heard of a house using a burning feather as a crest?”

“A burning feather…,” Ishan stood thinking for a moment, and then shook his head. “Fire crests are used by a queen’s direct family: her parents, uncles. Before Silver Kingdom joined Akasha, the queen’s relatives used a burning leaf as their crest. After the Imperial Family came into existence, that practice disappeared. The Empress came from outside the empire, so her relatives would use crests from Giode Kingdom in the North West.”

Trust a scholar to know the past, Jihan thought.

“Where have you seen a burning feather?” Ishan asked, curious.

“Oh, around,” Jihan said, waving his hands, keeping his tone nonchalant. “I can also be a scholar sometimes.”

“Says the cunning businessman,” Ishan said, amused. “You’re keeping something from me again.”

“I trust you with Andiya,” Jihan countered. “She’s my precious older sister. Please look after her.”

“What about Kamran Estate?” Ishan asked, looking into the busy outer courtyard.

“Vion and Deora are here. They will look after it. Besides, with Andiya in your care, they will come looking for me at Mount Kin.”

“When will you be back?” Ishan asked.

“I’ll update you on progress,” Jihan said.

“As you wish,” Ishan said, and then he took Jihan’s right arm. “Jihan, you know you’re like a brother to me, right?”

Jihan nodded, kicking at a non-existent stone on the ground.

“You’ve helped my family since we were young. So, don’t ever hesitate to ask me for help again,” Ishan said, making Jihan look up at him in surprise. “I’ll feel insulted.”

Jihan gaped and would have replied to that loaded comment, but Andiya, Ishan’s sister and his mother chose that moment to appear.

Jihan gave Ishan’s mom a handshake, and smiled at Ishan’s sister. He thanked them for staying with his sister. When he got to Andiya, she stared at him with sad eyes. Reaching up, she cupped his face with cool hands.

“Don’t get injured. Eat on time, sleep and try not to annoy Duke Silver,” Andiya said. “Tell us if you need help. We’re not completely hopeless.”

Jihan nodded agreeing to all her orders. She leaned up on her toes and kissed his forehead.

“Don’t worry about me,” Andiya said, letting him go.

Jihan nodded and helped her into the carriage with Ishan’s mother and sister.

Ishan gave Jihan a quick hug and mounted his black horse. Ishan had ten men and three women on horses with him. They looked like a family traveling home, which was innocent enough.

One moment they stood waving at Jihan, the next they were gone down the road heading to the Silver Shore Valley.

“Jihan,” Firuz said behind him.

“Yes, Ru Ru,” Jihan said, using Andiya’s nickname for his Shadow Guard.

He got a grunt in protest and chuckled.

“Are we ready?”

“Yes,” Firuz said.

“Good, everything we do from now on has to be calculated. We can’t afford to fall into the burning feather’s hands.”

“Everyone is alert,” Firuz promised.

Jihan gave Andiya’s disappearing carriage one last glance and turned back to the courtyard.

*~*~*~*

West Nation’s initial attack came with no mercy. They advanced on the open lands leading to the mountain pass at Mount Kin determined to take control of the mountain and then Kin Town.

Kastan arrived at the border in time to stop the enemy from taking Kin Town. He drove the West Nation army into the mountains and made camp on the wild lands outside Kin Town that flowed into the mountain.

Kastan kept seven generals with him each leading an army of their own. He deployed ten others to crucial points along the borders in the neighboring Sun Kingdom to ensure there would be no other points of entry. The remaining generals he kept in their stations around the empire to ensure peace in the unsettled times.

Kastan perched on an uncomfortable stool in the command tent and watched the seven generals arrange the map of Mount Kin on a large wide table in the middle of the tent. Their goal was to collect as much information as they could about the mining tunnels and caves in Mount Kin. Taking back Mount Kin was essential as the people of Kin Town were now without their livelihoods.

“Commander,” Naveed said, approaching him. “Kamran has made their first delivery. Our men are with food and meat, and the healing tents are stocked with medicines.”

“Have you met the head of the business troop?” Kastan asked, curious.

“Not yet,” Naveed shook his head. “We are receiving reports of attacks on our other two suppliers. They were to provide weapons and army uniforms. I’ve deployed officers to investigate.”

Kastan frowned. He expected supply disruption in a war. It was the most basic attack. Either the West Nation Army had spies in the empire, or someone in the empire was working for West Nation.

“Make it high priority,” Kastan ordered. “I also need to meet the head of Kamran officially, Naveed. He should have a black tiger seal to identify his orders.”

“Yes, Commander,” Naveed said, right hand to his chest, he gave Kastan a short nod and left the command tent.

“Commander,” General Baiza said, drawing Kastan’s attention. “My men have brought information on the caves on Mount Kin. We have a family living in Kin Town with detailed maps of the caves and mining shafts. They are happy to lend them to us for the duration of this war.”

Kastan got up and moved to the large table.

“Let’s see these maps,” he ordered.

*~*~*~*

Someone wanted Duke Silver’s war to fail and working hard to make sure it did.

Jihan had been on a horse for the past two days, first traveling from Kamran Estate to Vasia, and then on to Sun Kingdom. When all his supplies were on the move, he headed back to Blood Nation.

He was acting as a decoy.

His men working much harder to ensure supplies reached Mount Kin.

Thanks to Set and Garren, they discovered an obscure road running from Sun Kingdom, through Mount Kin, and into Kin Town.

The road needed repairs along the way but Jihan always made sure his business troops had qualified carpenters and masons. They had started working the day Jihan arrived at Kamran Estate. Four days should have gotten their first supply run delivered to Duke Silver.

Jihan's men had foiled two more attacks during their journey. The first attack came as a barrage of arrows on a narrow path to Vasia Town. The attack was designed to kill Jihan, but Firuz had saved him, again.

The next attack came right after Jihan and Firuz entered Blood Nation, heading to Kin Town. The empty carts Jihan was leading to Mount Kin were set on fire by flaming arrows. His men had responded accordingly, using the little water they had to try to put out the fire. The boxes on the carts were charred, but Jihan led them forward, knowing he needed to continue the march to Kin Town.

A large eagle circled his pitiful convoy, and Jihan stopped his horse and held out his left arm. The eagle landed on his leather arm bracer, its talons clamping on his arm. When he was fifteen, the eagle would always land on his left shoulder, afraid he might not be able to carry its weight. Now, it was different.

“Yoru, you’ve been hunting,” Jihan teased the eagle. “You’ve gained weight.”

The large bird gave him a keen look, and then opened its beak and Jihan held out his hand to catch the small wooden tube. Yoru was the secret to his steady information network.

“Thank you,” Jihan said. “Are you going back to your nest?”

Yoru inclined his head to the right indicating yes. His nest was at Kamran Estate, the largest one in the area, but Jihan would never let anyone outside the family know.

Eagles were coveted birds in the Empire. He worked to protect them, which was why Yoru was loyal to him, but it was not an easy feat. Yoru's nest was home to over a thousand eagles. With Yoru's friendship and support, Jihan and Set used the younger eagles to convey messages to Kamran Estate. Yoru and five other older eagles were special. Jihan kept their secrets from everyone but Firuz who was bound to him.

“Go on,” Jihan said, lifting his hand to prompt Yoru's flight.

Yoru hesitated, and Jihan lifted his left brow at him.

“What?” Jihan asked.

Yoru held his gaze and a sharp pain flitted through Jihan’s brain.

‘You will meet trouble if you stay here.’

The whisper filled his head and for a moment, Jihan felt like his brain might split from the invasion into his senses.

Jihan breathed out, looked into golden eyes, and smiled.

“Don’t worry, Yoru. I’ll return to Kamran soon enough. You’ll have to catch me fish when I get back,” Jihan teased.

Yoru gave him a skeptical look then inclined his head to the right and took off in a powerful sweep.

Jihan watched his favorite eagle fly off and felt a tad nostalgic wishing he could ride off with Yoru heading home.

“Here,” Firuz pushed a dark kerchief into his hand. “You’re nose-bleeding. He must be worried to have done that to you.”

Jihan wiped the blood off his nose, and opened the wooden tube Yoru had given him. It was from Set. The only other man Yoru trusted. Jihan had known to keep Set because of Yoru. Uncapping the tube, Jihan removed the white roll of paper in the tube and read the coded message from Set.

“Our first supplies have made it to Duke Silver,” Jihan told Firuz. “The other two merchants given the job with us are dead. Ghost warriors attacked them the same night Kamran Estate endured them. They weren’t lucky. Set thinks he has found the owner of the burning feather crest. He wants me to head into Kin Town and find the Raven Inn. He advices me to include Duke Silver.”

Firuz sighed.

“That sounds like he’s sending you into trouble,” Firuz said.

“Also, Garren says Duke Silver wants to meet me,” Jihan finished.

He tore the paper into tiny pieces and set them into the wind. Dropping the wooden tube into his pocket, Jihan picked up his reins and looked back at the charred carts still following them.

“I suppose this charade has to end somewhere,” Jihan said, looking at Firuz. “Let’s go to Kin Town, and peddle the story of our grand attack. I’m sure someone is eager to hear the news. Once we’re in Kin Town, we'll find our way into this Raven Inn and see who is attacking us.”

Firuz reached back to pull the hood of his cloak over his head, casting shadow on his features.

Jihan urged his horse forward, Firuz followed him, behind them a series of twenty black carts followed, led by two men each.

*~*~*~*

“Kastan has reclaimed Mount Kin and the mountain pass into the open lands,” Kyra said, moving the little black tiger boxes that represented Kastan’s armies.

She arranged them on Mount Kin on their map and along the mountain pass to the open lands.

“It took him longer than he expected,” Kiyan said, helping Kyra by moving the enemy forces deeper into the open lands and the West Nation border. “West Nation still has five thousand miles of our open lands and Kastan has suffered losses on the fight to reclaim Mount Kin. What's the news on General Baiza?”

“Mount Kin has too many tunnels and caves. It was necessary to take control. General Baiza led the initial attack. Half his men made it, but their luck ran out when one of the tunnels caved in,” Kyra said. “Kastan is said to have left a team of men to help dig them out."

“It’s sad news to hear that General Baiza has fallen, but Kastan will need to keep moving. At the very least, Akasha now has its assets back,” Kiyan said, pacing around the huge table with the map of Blood Nation.

Kin Town was an important town, the mountain as well, and Kiyan needed to make sure an invasion such as this never occurred again. Kiyan crossed his arms against his chest, studying the map on the table. The open lands beyond Mount Kin were flat plains. Kastan would face West Nation on open ground, fighting the enemy army full on.

“What’s this?” Kyra asked, pointing to the black string he had tied over Mount Kin coming from Sun Kingdom.

“A mystery,” Kiyan said with an intrigued smile. “Our messengers report that there has been interference with our supply routes. Two of the three merchants we recruited were found dead in their strongholds.”

“Who remains?” Kyra asked. “Should we worry as he must have ordered the attacks?”

“Our thoughts too, but that is not the case,” Kiyan said, shaking his head. “The messengers report that he too has had to fight off attacks. His first supply suffered a loss on his first entry into Blood Nation. He intrigues us because he found an alternative and Kastan’s armies are now well fed and tended to.”

“Hmm,” Kyra said, studying the black thread snaking over the jagged mountain surface. “How did he find such an obscure path? It looks like only miners would know it exists.”

“Curious still is that he has escaped a trap the other two could not,” Kiyan said. “This business leader is more cunning than he seems.”

“How do we get control over him?” Kyra asked, her eyes sparkling with anticipation.

“We can’t find a way in to their ranks. They are too paranoid,” Kiyan said, shaking his head.

“I wonder what Kas has to say about them,” Kyra said, grinning with glee.

“I wonder too,” Kiyan said, touching the black string for a moment. “Minister Denom is not happy. Kastan’s progress is too efficient. With Mount Kin’s mines secure, what can he do but keep watch as Kastan advances to the border.”

“I heard that he asked you to send another envoy to West Nation and negotiate a new treaty,” Kyra said. “Will you do it?”

Kiyan walked away from the map to the large chair he used in his private study. Sinking into it with a sigh, he stared at the memorials on his desk. Each one had a plea from Minister of Trade, Denom, to send a new envoy to West Nation. His wife’s father and Minister Denom were upset their plans had not worked. Their attempt to gain control of the mines had failed. Kiyan would make it near impossible for the two men to lift their heads in his court.

“No more envoys, I’ll let Kastan seek his victory. Denom watched us unleash Kastan on West Nation. It is only right for Kastan to take back the border and ten miles of West Nation’s lands. That is the only way to stop any more attacks on our border. After that, we shall consider a treaty.”

Kyra sighed, her gaze on the open lands where Kastan was now camped, making ready for the next attack.

“Then we should get Kas more weapons, and make sure his armies have armor,” Kyra said. “Perhaps we should seek out the help of this Kamran leader.”

“You’re right,” Kiyan said. “We’ll make him the sole supplier. He should take over from the others.”

*~*~*~*~*

“Commander, Temu reports,” the guard posted at the entrance into the command tent said.

Kastan gave a nod, reading the last message from his Emperor Brother.

Kiyan wanted Kamran to take on the supply of weapons and armor.

Kastan frowned, wondering if Kamran was involved in the attacks on the other two merchants.

Naveed had yet to discover those responsible for the attacks. If he had, he had yet to report his findings.

Temu walked into the command tent with a frown.

“Commander, we have made arrangements for the injured. Those who cannot continue will head back to Kin Town. We’re moving them now.”

“Supplies from Kamran have arrived again,” Temu continued. “The medicines they brought come from the Iron Lands. Our healers will be able to save at least half of the men we would have lost to severe injuries.”

“That’s good news,” Kastan said, taking the note from his brother and handing it to Temu.

Temu read it, his frown deepening.

“There is one more thing. We have a mysterious man in holding. He walked in to camp and made it past our defenses with no trouble. He refuses to talk to anyone but you, Commander. He arrived this morning and we've been interrogating him for the past four hours. We have tried everything, and he still won’t talk. Only says that we are wasting time. There is something about him...Will you meet him?”

Kastan picked up his sword from its holder near his chair and wore it on his waist

“Might as well,” Kastan said. “Where are you holding him?”

“The supply tent,” Temu answered.

Kastan led the way out of the tent, wondering if he was finally going to meet the head of the Kamran business.

At the supply tent, he found Naveed crouched before a metal chair, his gaze hard as he stared at the man sitting in the chair. His wrists were bound with a rope and they were resting on his lap. The dark hood over his head hid his features from Kastan.

Temu and Naveed could not physically harm the man unless he produced a weapon. He had not, so Naveed kept his distance, even as he asked,

“Who are you? Why must you speak to the Commander?”

Kastan stepped deeper into the tent.

The man in the chair sat up straight and despite his restrained hands, he reached up and pushed the dark hood off his head.

Kastan’s gaze widened.

“You!”

“I apologize to His Grace, Duke Silver, for the dramatics but they cannot be avoided. Duke Silver, my master is in danger. I’m here for your help.”

“Where is Jihan?” Kastan asked, surprising Temu and Naveed.

Kastan was surprised to discover the fear in his heart was real. He could not imagine Jihan in danger. He had yet to repay him for saving Rashan. Temu and Naveed knew of Jihan, but Safan was the only one who had met Jihan and his Shadow Guard.

Damn it, what would make a Shadow Guard come looking for him?

“He asked me to bring you with me. The ghost warriors attacking your suppliers are in Kin Town,” Jihan’s Shadow Guard said.

“Yes, but where is Jihan?” Kastan asked, wondering why Jihan would know about the men attacking his suppliers.

“Jihan is with the ghost warriors, Your Grace,” the Shadow Guard insisted. “He walked into the Raven Inn in Kin Town this morning and asked me to get you. He didn’t think I would be able to take on a hundred ghost warriors on my own. I’ve been here too long. We need to go, now.”

“Why is Jihan in Kin Town?” Temu asked, in shock.

The Shadow Guard undid the rope tying his wrists with his mouth, his motions fast, even as he stood, surprising both Temu and Naveed. He slipped the knife he kept up his sleeve into his right hand and gave Naveed a chilling, warning smile.

Kastan grabbed Naveed’s right shoulder to stop him from approaching the Shadow Guard.

Kastan’s right hand rested on his sword handle, as he watched the Shadow Guard reach into his trouser pockets under his tunic. He produced the black tiger seal belonging to Kamran at the moment and held it up for Kastan to see.

“Your Grace, Jihan is the head of Kamran,” the Shadow Guard said. “You’re obligated to protect him.”

*~*~*~*

The Raven Inn was a strange inn. It catered to no walk-in customers. Instead, allowing specific clients and only if the inn managers knew who they were.

Early in the morning, Jihan had barged into the inn in a sorry dusty state, begging for service. He had sent Firuz to Duke Silver knowing it would take an army to get him out alive. It was now four hours later and Firuz was not back yet. Jihan had spent most his time dawdling in the bath the servants gave him, and then he feigned sleep for three hours on the comfortable bed in his room. The servants had left him alone until an hour ago when their manager came in from an errand.

The inn had come alive then.

The servants forced Jihan awake and helped him dress. In an instant, he gained a new set of inner shirt and pants and a long green robe that threatened to drown him. The servants then dragged him downstairs to the dining room and offered him tea, as he waited to meet their manager.

Jihan picked up the teapot on the table, the water inside it hot enough to scald. He poured it over the tealeaves in the sieve, watching them soak and turn into tea in the cup underneath.

When the cup was full, he stopped and placed the teapot on its warming stand. He took the sieve and placed it on its holder.

The golden liquid in his cup was light and beautiful.

Jihan studied it for a moment, and then took in the aroma.

“Mm, the scent of a good cup of tea,” he said, smiling, his gaze on the woman sitting directly opposite him. “I love tea, do you?”

“No, I prefer peach wine,” the woman said. “I collect Gura wine. Have you heard of it?”

“Which noble lord does not know Gura Wine?” Jihan asked, picking up his cup of tea and taking a small tiny sip.

He had made sure all nobles knew about Gura Wine to get better sales. If there was one who didn’t know, he would find them soon enough and pour them a cup.

Jihan placed his teacup on the table and adjusted the sleeves on the green robe he wore. He was playing a casual scholar once again, his hair free around his shoulders. He was supposed to be a rich scholar too lazy to spend his days studying, as he should. The act would either kill him or save him.

It all depended on Firuz now.

“You would be surprised,” the woman said, picking up the jar of Gura peach wine, and pouring herself a cup.

She slammed the jar on the table, and sipped from her cup. She wiped her mouth with the back of her hand and smiled at Jihan.

“You’re too pretty,” she said. “I’m a girl and I think you’re too pretty. Do men mistake you for a woman?”

“None that I’ve met,” Jihan said, with a casual laugh. “Are you envious?”

“Not at all,” the woman said. “I like my looks. Plain as they are, they allow people to underestimate me. They take one look at me and think, ‘oh, she’s not a beauty and has to work hard for everything. She’ll do anything we ask.’ Can you imagine that?”

“I can,” Jihan said, sipping his tea again.

He rested his left elbow on the table as though bored, and made a study of the woman sitting across him. She was not striking, but her face was pleasant. She would probably look very beautiful if she made some effort, a little color on her lips, and darkening her lashes. He would also recommend a month long use of creams on her face to soothe her skin and soften it.

She could turn heads if she wanted.

“Why are you here?” she asked him.

“Do I need a reason?” he asked, sitting back in his chair. “This is an inn. I’m a needy client. Do you turn away business often? I assure you that I can pay for my room and food.”

“The Raven Inn is not for one such as you,” she reasoned. “You walked in here alone, your horse tired from hours of travel. You asked for a bath and food, nothing else. Are you on the run?”

Jihan feigned a laugh.

“From who would I be running from?”

“A lover,” the woman said with a rough laugh, the men sitting in the tables around her chuckled along. “Your father? You seem like the type to cause a father trouble, or a husband who wants to kill you for sleeping with his wife.”

Jihan laughed, this time it was genuine.

Yes, he and his father fought often, never about a cuckold husband. If it were to happen, he imagined it would be a cuckold wife, Tagon’s wife maybe.

Shaking his head, he traced the rim of his teacup as one of the men walked up to the woman talking to him and rolled out a scroll for her to read.

Jihan gave the sundial in the middle of the room a glance. It was almost midday. Where was Firuz? He was supposed to have brought that Duke Silver already. Any longer and he was going to be drinking soup in the underworld.

“Waiting for someone?” the woman asked, glancing up from the scroll she held.

“Not really,” Jihan said, pointing at the white stone sundial. “That is a stunning piece. Not everyone thinks of doing that, building it in the middle of the room and leaving the center part of the house open. We all put them near a window or in the courtyard. Why build such a large one right there?”

“Why not?” the woman asked.

“Lady of the Raven Inn,” Jihan turned to look at her. “I think you should tell me your name so I may stop thinking of you as ‘the woman’. I have a bad habit of memorizing people’s faces and giving them the first name that comes to mind. You can’t imagine the tone ‘the woman’ sounds like in my head. It’s not flattering—”

“I don’t think you value your life,” the woman said, cutting him off. “You won’t need to know my name in the next few minutes. Your head will be on the floor.”

Jihan touched his neck in mock surprise, though he was genuinely afraid.

“I thought you said you liked my looks,” Jihan said, giving her a wide-eyed gaze. “Was that a lie?”

“Not at all,” the woman said with a shrug. “As pretty as you are, you’re a mystery I have already solved. Your presence here means the game is up, Master Jihan Kamran. I have to applaud you. My men have had a hell of a time finding you. Now you walk in here, as if you had an appointment, how bold of you.”

Jihan stared at her for a minute, and then dropped his hand away from his neck. He sat up straight in his chair and his smile disappeared.

“How do you know my face?” Jihan asked.

“A drawing sent to us,” the woman answered. “How else would we know how to get rid of you at your Kamran Estate? You’re a hard one to take out. You have some grit walking into this inn alone.”

“Who says I’m alone?” Jihan asked, hoping his bluff would turn into reality soon. “What is the burning feather?”

“Not your business,” the woman answered.

Jihan was aware of the men sitting around the room shifting in their seats to look at him. Their swords, knives and mallets were at the ready. Jihan hid his shudder and prayed Firuz was riding with the wind.

“Who is behind you?” Jihan asked. “How can you dare to interfere with Duke Silver’s army?”

“Duke Silver is only as dangerous as you think of him. We are of the ghost warrior class. Nothing scares us,” the woman said. “I’ll tell you my name since you so want to learn it.”

“Wait!”

Jihan lifted his hands to stop the woman from talking. His gaze moving over the men who were now standing one by one, their weapons gripped in their hands. He was afraid the moment she said her name he was going to end up dead.

Jihan smiled when she lifted her right brow at him and dropped his hands.

“I should finish my tea,” Jihan said, pointing to the near empty cup. “If I died now, don’t you think I’ll always wonder what the last taste of the tea would be?”

“The audacity on you,” the woman said, sitting back in her seat. “Is this how you survive? Why has no one stabbed you yet?”

“It’s a wonder to me too,” Jihan said, picking up his teacup and bringing it to his lips. He gave the sundial another glance, and groaned inwardly.

Firuz, where are you?

Jihan sipped his tea as slow as possible. When he was done, he called on all his ancestors, including the ones who had gambled away their family’s money. They would surely know how to escape any trouble that found them.

Placing the teacup on the table, Jihan looked at the woman opposite him, expectant.

“My name is Jozi. I’m a ghost warrior, and you are our target,” Jozi said with a disturbing smile. “How do you want it, one whack to the neck, or the hoard coming at you?”

“Which one will take longer?” Jihan asked, pushing his chair back, ice flowing in his veins.

He was in the middle of a circle, with no weapon. He would need to be very fast to get to a window or the door. If he could just get free, he was a great runner.

Firuz had made sure of that. Heart pounding, he stared at Jozi, unable to get up.

Jozi seemed to be waiting too, for him….

He couldn’t be sure.

Taking in a deep breath, Jihan started to get up and sat back when a knife landed in his teacup breaking the ceramic and sinking into the table. He stared at the vibrating handle, air coming out of him in a harsh gasp. He recognized the black handle on the knife with the intricate markings. He had gifted it to Firuz when he turned twenty.

Jihan reached for the knife, just as Jozi got hers, heart in his throat, the room exploded into screams and activity.

Jihan did his best to pull the knife out of the table. It had sunk in deep. He cursed Firuz’s strength. He stood and pulled at the knife until it came out of the wooden table. Holding it in triumph, he looked up and stared at his Shadow Guard standing inches away from him.

“What took you so long?” Jihan asked, it was the only thing that came to mind after the sight of the ghost warriors now lying on the floor. “Jozi was going to cut off my head with her sword. I’m going to need three jars of wine just to forget today.”

“What were you planning to do?” Firuz asked, coming up to Jihan. He adjusted the green robe on Jihan’s shoulders and made sure his inner shirt was secured. “What are you wearing?”

“They gave these clothes to me,” Jihan said, slapping Firuz’s hands away. “Anyway, I was going to get up and find a way out.”

“You would have died on the first step,” Firuz said, anger in his voice. “This was a stupid plan. I’m not participating in your next one.”

“It was not stupid. It was a perfect plan until you came late,” Jihan said, holding up the knife Firuz had sunk into the table. “Why did you have to throw it with all your strength? It took a ridiculous amount of energy to pull it out.”

“It was the only way to keep you in one place,” Firuz said, squeezing Jihan’s right shoulder. “We didn’t want you mixed in with them. There was a risk you would get hurt in the fight.”

“We?” Jihan looked at Firuz as he handed him back his knife.

Firuz nodded behind him and Jihan looked around Firuz to see Duke Silver and two men watching them, their swords drawn, blood on their blades.

Jihan blinked and turned to Firuz.

“You found him,” Jihan said, smiling wide. “Ru Ru, you’re really the best.”

Firuz grunted at the nickname and Jihan laughed, sinking into the chair he had used. His knees were weak after all the adrenaline had vanished. Firuz moved to the side enough for Jihan to see Duke Silver, but not for them to reach Jihan.

“Your Grace,” Jihan said, pressing his right hand on his chest. He bowed his head and looked up after a moment. “I apologize for having met you like this. I thought it would be better for us if I found the people who were terrorizing our supply routes. I did not want you to misunderstand Kamran.”

“Jihan Kamran,” Duke Silver said, moving closer, but stopping an arm length away from Firuz. “What a coincidence this has turned into. I hoped to meet you again but not under these circumstances.”

Jihan met Duke Silver’s gaze, having to look up, as he could not find the strength to stand. It left him at a disadvantage. He wished he still had Firuz’s knife for protection. Duke Silver’s gaze made his heart tremble. Made him forget what he was doing in a rogue inn in the middle of Kin Town. Made him forget who Duke Silver was to him, he bit his bottom lip and dragged his gaze away from Duke Silver to Firuz.

“The woman, Jozi, is alive,” Firuz said, as though reading his plea. “Duke Silver's people should take her into custody. Your Grace, I hope Master Jihan is safe with you. I’ll help your men gather evidence.”

“Do you trust me, Shadow Guard?” Duke Silver asked Firuz.

“I do not. I trust your intentions. You need my Master Jihan to continue supplying your armies, so I know he is safe with you,” Firuz said, handing Jihan his knife again. “Jihan, I’ll find you fresh clothes.”

Jihan nodded and stared at the knife handle. He had been relieved to see this knife sink into the wood. He had been worried Jozi would make good on her threat to sever his head.

“Your Shadow Guard is right.”

Duke Silver stated after a few minutes of silence.

Jihan looked up to find Duke Silver standing right by his chair. His heart exploded into another race, and he gripped Firuz’s knife tight.

“Your plan was very stupid. If I were Firuz, I would turn you over my knee and beat your ass for putting your life in such danger. What were you thinking?” Duke Silver asked, crouching before Jihan, his blood red cloak sweeping around him. “Don’t you care if you live or die, Jihan Kamran?”

*~*~*~*

*~*~*

Merry Christmas!!!
:wizard::wub:
Character List
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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Interesting story, but the time jump and all the K names keep me a bit muddled. I’ll continue to read on, though!

Edited by Geemeedee
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On 1/9/2020 at 10:48 AM, Geemeedee said:

Interesting story, but the time jump and all the K names keep me a bit muddled. I’ll continue to read on, though!

The names were getting all mixed up in my head, too. So, I went back and re-read the 1st chapter to get all the characters straight (so to speak). After the re-read -- and reading chapters 2-4 in one day -- the characters are more settled in my mind. Sometimes binge reading is a good thing!

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I suspected that Jihan, a consummate pragmatist, would have a simple, if not plain, workspace, so the carved desk is somewhat of a surprise:  I guess that he is still a connoisseur of the finer things in life.

So, Jihan has been hurt in love and feels that he will never have a partner.  Perhaps his negative experiences are making him stupid (at least this once):  "Why would Ishan want to do anything for Andiya? She was not Ishan's responsibility." Really, Jihan?

Hmmm. Jihan finds Kastan's scar intriguing. And so it begins.... 😊

Poor Jihan:  He can't even take a bath without being attacked. And his attackers--ghost warriors marked with an emblem suggesting involvement of the Empress' family.  What will Kiyan do with the information that the attempt to sabotage Kastan's campaign may have come from his own household?

Interesting.... While Jihan is a strategist, he is also audacious when he sees the need for immediate action (even if his plan almost gets him killed).  Sui, that was one intense cup of tea!

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Just a guess, but I think this large group of ghost warriors is someone who doesn't like Duke Silver, because he is a threat to her power.  That many warriors must be funded by a very powerful person, say, like the Empress.

Jihan is very intelligent, but is damned reckless in this situation.  Great chapter, and in case I forgot to mention, I'm hooked!

Intoyou GIF by SORAN

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