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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.
Note: While authors are asked to place warnings on their stories for some moderated content, everyone has different thresholds, and it is your responsibility as a reader to avoid stories or stop reading if something bothers you. 

The Reluctant Consort - 5. Chapter 5

Betrayal at the Imperial Palace

Kastan studied the mysterious scholar who saved his son and realized fate was weaving a curious game. Kastan smiled when Jihan glared at him for his comment. The urge to lean in and kiss Jihan, taste the tea he drank while bluffing Jozi, was strong.

“You look tired,” Kastan noted, tracing his thumb over the dark circles under Jihan’s eyes. “When did you last sleep?”

“This morning,” Jihan lied smoothly, shifting in his chair so that Kastan had to drop his hand. “Thank you for coming to my rescue, Your Grace.”

Kastan nodded, and looked around the room at the ghost warriors lying on the floor. Naveed, Temu and Jihan’s Shadow Guard had worked in smooth coordination to cut down the dozen men. The Shadow Guard had taken down Jozi, trussing her up on the floor to make sure Jihan stayed unharmed.

How had Jihan known to come here? Why did he think these were the people causing trouble for his suppliers? Why was Jihan the only supplier to survive?

“How did you find this inn?” Kastan asked, looking at Jihan. “Why do you believe these ghost warriors are interfering with war supplies?”

Jihan clutched the green gown he wore with his right hand. His fingers caressed the silk fabric between his fingers.

“May I ask you to step back?” Jihan asked.

Kastan studied Jihan for another minute, and then he got up and took two steps back from Jihan’s chair.

Jihan breathed out and Kastan hid a smile realizing he made Jihan nervous.

Jihan stood, his movements slow, his hand clutching the edge of the table for support. This lasted a minute, then Jihan let go and looked steadier. He removed the silk gown, leaving him in his undershirt and trousers it made him look vulnerable. The long dark hair Kastan had hoped to see spilled over down Jihan’s back, an enticing silk curtain begging for a caress. The light inner shirt framed Jihan’s slender body. Kastan wondered what Jihan would do if he ran his fingers under the shirt to feel his skin.

Jihan moved the tray of teacups and the teapot. He shook out the green gown and laid it out on the table, using the knife his Shadow Guard gave him to pin it in place. Kastan moved closer to the table and stared at the crest on the back of the gown in shock: a round circle with a gold feather in flames.

“The ghost warriors who attacked my home and tried to get the black tiger seal had this brand on their bodies,” Jihan said, his words enough to shake Kastan. “We checked with the other two supplier strongholds. The men they managed to take down also had the same brand.”

Kastan touched the crest, anger growing. His brother wanted him to capture ten thousand miles of West Nation land, and yet…

Jihan turned to look at him.

“We couldn’t capture any of the ghost warriors that attacked us alive. They have an abundance of poison pills and swallow them with no fear,” Jihan said. “I needed to find their headquarters to have full proof. Entering this inn earlier was a roll of the dice. Tell me, Your Grace, do you recognize this crest?”

Kastan traced the gold burning feather, the flames licking at its tips. He clenched his fingers into tight fists and stepped away from the table and Jihan, anger filling every inch of him.

“I do,” Kastan said, turning to find Naveed and Temu standing on his right.

With a single nod, Temu moved to take the green robe. Removing Jihan’s dagger, Temu folded the gown tight and clutched it in his right hand.

Ignoring Jihan’s curious gaze, Kastan walked around the table to where Jihan's Shadow Guard held Jozi on the ground. Blood trickled down her mouth. Kastan crouched before Jozi, his gaze on the bloody white capsule shaped like a tooth lying on the wood floor.

Jihan’s Shadow Guard was fast.

“She won’t be able to end her life easily,” the Shadow Guard said.

Kastan knew that he had yet to earn Jihan’s trust. So, the Shadow Guard would not give him a name to call him by.

“You’re skilled,” Kastan complimented, his gaze shifting to Jozi.

She glared at him with an ugly stare.

“Your house remains a thousand rungs beneath mine. The burning feather shall answer my questions. How many are expected?”

Jozi tried to look away from him, but Jihan’s Shadow Guard held her fast. Her gaze returned to Kastan, and he reached out to hold her chin with his thumb and index finger.

“Your time is up,” Kastan said. “Your Mistress will find herself facing my sword. If you care for her in any way, you shall answer my question. You have interfered with war supplies. Your efforts are enough to get you killed. So, I will ask once again. How many is your mistress sending to me?”

Jozi trembled hard and closed her eyes, hiding fear from him.

“We’re doing our d-duty,” Jozi said. “W-we only s-serve as asked, Your Imperial Highness, Prince Kastan, p-please—”

“How many are expected?” Kastan cut her off, his tone chilling.

He frowned at the use of his formal title. The only people who used it so easily belonged in the Imperial City. Anyone outside the Imperial City referred to him as Duke Silver.

“I will not ask again.”

Jozi sighed and opened her eyes facing him with some of the fire she had shown Jihan.

“Five thousand ghost warriors,” Jozi said. “They will lay waste to your army of soldiers. You will never advance on West Nation’s border and shall fail your campaign.”

“Is that your mistress’s wish?” Kastan asked, leaning closer so that he could whisper in Jozi’s ear. “Does she want my power so much, she would endanger the empire?”

“It’s her right,” Jozi said, shaking her head.

Kastan scoffed and moved away from Jozi.

“You know who the crest belongs to,” Jihan said, drawing Kastan’s attention.

Jihan looked at him with expectation, but Kastan knew this bit of information would only place Jihan in more danger.

No one outside the palace could know the owner of the burning feather.

“Why are they interfering with the war?” Jihan asked. “Who would dare do this to you, Your Grace?”

Kastan moved around the table to take Jihan’s right hand. It was a miracle Jihan had survived through a quest to murder him mounted by the burning feather. Jihan had become a powerful chess piece, and Kastan knew in that moment that he needed to protect him.

“This inn is secure,” Kastan said. “It will act as a perfect base for you here in Kin Town. Your orders from the palace are with me. I’ll have General Naveed bring them to you. Jihan, you must stay here tonight, do you understand?”

“But—,” Jihan started to protest.

Kastan squeezed Jihan’s hand.

“Your life is in danger. You must stay here tonight. Thank you for bringing the burning feather to my attention. Now, allow me to make sure you stay safe. General Naveed will give you fifteen seasoned men to assist your Shadow Guard. Promise that you’ll stay here.”

Jihan bit his bottom lip, looking up to meet Kastan’s gaze.

Questions swirled in Jihan’s eyes.

Kastan could answer none of them, and it pained him.

Without Jihan, he would never have known about the burning feather and he would have lost a war without understanding why.

Jihan Kamran had saved his life without knowing.

Kastan let go of Jihan’s hand. He reached up, undoing the clasp holding his cloak in place. Kastan took up the weight of the heavy material.

Naveed and Temu both gasped when he wrapped the red cloak around Jihan.

“Promise me,” Kastan insisted, effectively placing Jihan under his protection.

“I-I promise,” Jihan managed, eyes wide in surprise.

Kastan nodded and looked around the room, finding the Shadow Guard still standing where he had held Jozi captive.

“I’ll leave him to you,” Kastan said, grateful that Jihan had a Shadow Guard.

The Shadow Guard nodded and Kastan turned to Jihan.

In a moment of absolute weakness, he touched Jihan’s hair. Most of it now trapped under his cloak, but the few strands falling on the sides of Jihan’s face were enticing. The strands as soft as he imagined, he wanted to sink his fingers deeper and stroke through to the tips.

Jihan stood so still, Kastan worried he had frozen the handsome merchant in place. He let go of Jihan’s hair with a small smile. If he came back from the terrible fight he had tonight, he vowed to discover just what Jihan looked like with only his hair wrapped around him.

“I’ll be back,” Kastan murmured into Jihan’s ear and then stepped away.

Naveed stayed, while Temu followed Kastan.

The men they had brought with them dragged Jozi out.

When they were outside, Temu ran to keep up with Kastan.

“Why is the burning feather here?” Temu asked, his voice lowered, his unease clear.

“Cut off communication with the Imperial City,” Kastan ordered. “The burning feather is plotting an attack on our rear. Alert the generals, the armies must advance to the border. Get the men from Silver Shore, we shall guard the rear.”

*~*~*~*

Late in the night, Kastan waited at the mountain pass he had taken back from West Nation. He sat on his warhorse, dressed in his armor, his helmet pulled tight over his head. He held his sword in hand, ready to attack. He prayed that he was wrong, prayed for a reprieve. He hoped that his suspicions were wrong. If he was right, he hoped he would have the strength to mete out the punishments his station demanded.

In the darkest hour, when Kastan thought his suspicions were wrong, the shadows moved. They shifted in the open lands coming from beyond Kin Town. Seeing the mass of men that Jozi had said would come broke Kastan’s heart.

The enemy should have come from West Nation’s side, and not from the Akasha Empire.

Gripping his sword, Kastan jumped off his warhorse, and sent it back to camp.

General Condi would see it and know to start his advance on West Nation. General Condi would make sure his army took back the west border this night.

It would give Kastan time to stop this dark plot brewed in the Imperial City.

The first ghost warrior reached him and Kastan held his ground, swinging his sword with precise violence. Years of training under an elite master served him. He slashed the next ghost warrior to his right, to his left, and above when one jumped high in the sky to attack him. He moved fast, never stopping or hesitating, not moving from his chosen spot. Kastan defended the mountain pass with all the ferociousness of an angry tiger.

He allowed none to pass him. He fought until men in dark clothes surrounded him lying dead or mortally wounded on the ground. He fought harder, his sword unrelenting. Shouts of battle came from the distance behind him.

General Condi had engaged West Nation.

It fueled Kastan’s energy, keeping him more determined to stop the ghost warriors from reaching his armies.

The sky was lighting up when the last of the shadows came at him. His armor and dark cloak stained with blood and dirt. Kastan gripped his sword and lifted the covering on his helmet to take a better look at his surroundings. He was glad to see Naveed and Temu standing beside him unharmed. Temu sunk his long sword into the ground, breathing hard, while Naveed adjusted his hammer and stowed away his sharp dagger. Their helmets were long gone, and they looked tired from the bloody night.

Lining the mountain pass were the trusted men under Kastan’s direct command. They all lived at Silver Shore and carried no tales.

Kastan stared at the sea of black on the ground mixed in with some of his men, and felt a deep sadness threaten to engulf him. They all stood in the silence of early dawn, until one of Kastan’s soldiers came hurrying to Naveed. They had a short conversation, and then clean up started at Naveed’s nod.

“How many?” Kastan asked.

“Forty-five of our men are dead,” Naveed said. “We have left no one standing from the burning feather.”

“Temu, find a warhorse fast enough to ride to the Imperial Palace. Bring Jozi with you,” Kastan ordered. “We have no time to waste.”

“What of General Condi?” Naveed asked.

Kastan got his command seal from the leather string around his neck and gave it to Naveed.

“Support General Condi until the border is secure,” Kastan ordered. “Generals Kigaru, Faiza and Niku will be under your command, Naveed. Rely on Kamran for any supplies you might need. Hold the border until I return.”

“We’ll get it done, Commander,” Naveed said.

“Don’t forget to secure Kin Town and the Raven Inn,” Kastan said, mounting the warhorse that Temu brought him. “He’s under my protection.”

“He will stay safe,” Naveed promised, bringing his right hand to his chest in respect.

Kastan took in the men on the ground and gritted his teeth. Temu held the reins of a third horse. It carried an unconscious Jozi, who had her hands tied behind her back. She was laid over the horse’s saddle like a sack of vegetables.

“We ride,” Kastan said, then set off heading to the Imperial City.

*~*~*~*

Kastan arrived at the Imperial Palace in the dark. Not wishing to alert anyone to his presence, he and Temu opted to use the old security passageways under the palace. They were hidden, only known to the dead and his Emperor Brother’s most trusted aide.

Kastan opened the door into Kiyan’s private quarters and ushered in Temu who carried Jozi.

Kastan closed the door and turned to find Kiyan’s trusted aide, Hato, standing a few feet away.

“His Majesty has had me watching the passageways, Your Imperial Highness,” Hato said. “I’ll lead you to him now.”

Kastan nodded, wondering if Kiyan had suspected a betrayal in his ranks. He wondered if Kiyan knew it would come from someone so close to the throne. Kastan steadied Temu, who had Jozi over his shoulder. They entered Kiyan’s sleeping quarters and Hato closed the door behind them.

Hato then hurried to the large bed in the middle of the room and spent a few minutes waking Kiyan.

Kastan looked around the dim room and walked to the table where he found a jar of water and two goblets. He poured water into the goblets and held one out to Temu. Temu dropped Jozi on the ground and she gave a little moan. Temu took the goblet of water from Kastan and drank deep.

“You reek of blood,” Kiyan said, when Kastan poured more water into Temu’s goblet. “Should we prepare a bath for you, dear brother?”

“I can’t stay long enough for one,” Kastan said, drinking his own water. He handed the jar to Temu and moved to perch on the edge of one of the chairs around the table. “Are you awake enough?”

“Enough,” Kiyan said, pulling on the yellow robe Hato placed on his shoulders. He jammed his feet into the slippers on the floor and stood waiting as Hato turned up the gas lamps in the room.

Kastan finished his water and placed his goblet on the table. He sat watching his brother approach the table.

Kiyan stood a foot shorter than Kastan. He kept fit but not enough to take on a seasoned solider. Therefore, a team of elite guards kept the Emperor safe.

Kastan knew they lurked in the walls, well trained to keep their mouths shut on matters that happened in an emperor’s chambers.

In the night, at vulnerable times like this, Kastan almost caught a glimpse of the brother he had known in his childhood. He missed the smiling Kiyan who loved watching birds and eating sweet buns.

Kiyan stopped before Temu and Jozi, his gaze speculative as he took them both in. The hard exterior he had cultivated over the years to hide that vulnerable boy clung to him. It didn’t matter that he wore his inner shirt and trousers and only a robe.

Kiyan was every bit the Emperor of Akasha, so much so, that Temu lowered his head, unable to meet Kiyan’s gaze.

“Are you bringing me a consort?” Kiyan asked, with a small chuckle. “Kas, you know Rushi will murder her.”

“I don’t doubt it. That woman at your feet belongs to the Burning Feather,” Kastan said, unable to keep his anger hidden any longer. “I figured the easiest way to solve this was to have her face the Emperor.”

Jozi sat up, struggling under her bindings.

Kastan suspected she had been awake through their journey. Temu held her still when Kiyan crouched before her.

“The Burning Feather, you say,” Kiyan said, with a soft speculative tone. “How delicious this is. Why would you bring me a ghost warrior controlled by the Burning Feather in the middle of the night, Commander?”

Kastan got up and pulled his sword from its sheath. He took the few steps to Kiyan and held out his precious sword. The secrets in their family were many.

Kiyan rose up and gripped the handle with his bare hands. He stood stock-still, eyes closed, and Kastan breathed in as the sword in his hands heated.

No one in the room would know what Kiyan was doing.

Yet, at that moment, Kiyan saw every bit of the battle fought at the mountain pass to stop the ghost warriors from attacking Kastan’s army.

Kiyan let go of the sword handle and stepped back. The magic that tied him and Kastan was old, created by the elders in the Miran family. It existed with only one purpose, to protect the Akasha Empire from outside forces.

Kiyan governed, Kastan protected. Those were the rules.

When their time was over, Kiyan’s son would govern, Kastan’s son would protect. Nothing could change that. Kiyan met Kastan’s gaze, and brought his right hand to his chest.

“My family has sinned against you, Commander,” Kiyan said, shaking his head with sorrow. “I will make sure it does not happen again.”

Kastan nodded, knowing his brother would not rest until the burning feather was brought to justice. He paused when he read curiosity in Kiyan’s eyes.

“I know you’ve seen something you wish to ask about,” Kastan said, placing his sword back into its sheath.

“The merchant, Kamran,” Kiyan said, his eyes sparkling with interest. “He managed to evade the Burning Feather. He is such a rarity. He seems to like you, Kas. Can we exploit that?”

“Let’s discuss the Kamran merchant after the war is settled,” Kastan said, heart pounding in his chest at the thought of Jihan under the mercy of the Imperial Palace.

He suddenly did not want to see that, so he reminded Kiyan of the war.

“I still owe you ten thousand miles of West Nation’s lands, Your Majesty.”

“Yes,” Kiyan said, nodding. “It is the only way to stop them from ever thinking of invading us again. I trust you, Kastan. Leave the Imperial Court to me.”

Kiyan waved his hand and two of the elite guard Kastan had known was hiding in the shadows entered the room. They took Jozi away, and Kastan glanced at Temu. He looked more relaxed now that Jozi was out of his custody.

“Won’t you stay for some food?” Kiyan asked. “Our sister, Kyra, will be happy to see you.”

“I need to get back to Kin Town,” Kastan said, the urge to make sure that Jihan was still safe taking over. He trusted Naveed with his life, he doubted there would be a problem, but he still wanted to see Jihan.

“I’m sorry, Your Majesty. I’ll make it up to you later.”

“No apologies needed,” Kiyan crossed the short distance between them. Not caring that Kastan’s armor was filthy; Kiyan reached up and pulled Kastan into a short hug. “Finish it quickly. Rashan must be missing you terribly.”

“I will,” Kastan said, patting his brother’s back.

Kiyan made Hato bring them two large bottles of water, bread and fruit for the journey back.

Kastan was glad to be back on the road again.

“Your Grace, what would make the Empress Rushi send the Burning Feather after you? Does she not want the empire to win against West Nation?” Temu asked, keeping up with Kastan on the road back to Kin Town and the West Nation border. “What will His Majesty do about Her Majesty?”

Kastan breathed out his anger at the thought of his sister in-law. It had pained him bringing Jozi to Kiyan. It had pained him because Rushi was Kiyan’s wife, and the mother to the next Emperor.

She was the sole mistress of the Burning Feather. He could see that her thirst for his power was going to place him in a difficult position very soon. It made his stomach churn.

“Kiyan will have to find a way to control her,” Kastan said, wondering what Kiyan would do to handle his wife. It would have to be something powerful, otherwise the matter would fall on Kastan, and his way included a sword.

*~*~*~*

Rushi, the Empress of Akasha, reached into a basket filled with fish food and sprinkled little bits for the colorful jinli fish. She liked watching them swim in the water, especially on sunny mornings like today. The Imperial Court was in session today. The war at the West Nation border made court officials and ministers nervous.

Everyone hoped Imperial Prince Kastan would end the war soon and return the empire to peace times. Their unwavering belief in Prince Kastan’s efforts frightened her on most days.

She grew up in a smaller kingdom in the northwest known as Giode Kingdom. The endless power struggles in her home led to her marriage with Emperor Kiyan of Akasha. He was the strongest man in the world. She loved him for his undeniable power and his ability to keep her brother on the Giode Kingdom throne.

Movement to her left distracted her from feeding the fish.

She turned to find her two sons running after a ball in their courtyard. They were laughing, Yan, her eldest and the heir to the empire was mild-tempered, while Yija, her second-born was wilder at spirit. They loved each other.

Yija played hard, while Yan spent most of his time learning everything his father demanded of him.

Rushi worried constantly that he would not be strong enough to govern an empire like Akasha.

Yan tripped and fell just as he reached for the ball, and instead of taking it up, he sat on the ground blowing on his knee.

Rushi frowned knowing if she moved closer she would see tears in Yan’s eyes. The worry in her heart grew as she remembered watching Rashan playing in the same courtyard weeks ago.

Rashan had fallen and gotten up in an instant, picking up the ball and continued playing. Rashan and Yija were almost alike, although not quite close.

Imperial Prince Kastan was raising a wild tiger in the closed off Silver Shore Valley that Rushi could not touch. The thought scared her even now.

Shaking her head, Rushi wiped her hands on the towel her lady in-waiting handed her. She took comfort in the knowledge that her father and Minister Denom had a solid plan in place. If all went well, she would not have to worry about Prince Kastan so much. Then, maybe, one of these days, her Emperor Husband would see that Yija was good enough to take on the post of Commander of Armies when he was old enough.

“Your Majesty,” one of the palace servants called. “His Majesty requests your presence at court.”

Rushi frowned and turned to look at the young man at the door.

“Is there news from the West Border?” Rushi asked.

She was expecting a report of Prince Kastan’s total failure at holding the border. She could not wait to see Kiyan giving that job to her trusted man, Minister Denom.

“None that I know, Your Majesty. Please, they are waiting for you,” the young man pleaded, bowing his head.

Rushi straightened the folds of her skirt, glad that she had dressed for the day with the thought of meeting court officials. The deep red dress she wore made a perfect statement on her status; the gold embroidery on the sweeping hem matched the gold pins in her hair.

She looked like an empress today. She smiled at the thought and started the long walk to the imperial court hall where her husband led daily sessions.

The doors were closed when she reached them. They opened after her arrival was announced and she walked in with her head held high. The long walk to the front always amused her.

Akasha nobles on each side of the room forced to stand and give her respect. She enjoyed the ceremony of it all, until her gaze fell on the two men kneeling in the open space before the emperor’s dais.

Then the walk turned into torture as her heart squeezed tight and she had to force her steps to remain steady as she approached her husband. She kept her gaze on Kiyan, refusing to look at her father and Minister Denom as she walked around them. Her skirts swept over her father’s legs as he knelt. She climbed up the stairs to the dais, gave her husband a low curtsy and sat in the chair beside him.

The court filled with murmurs, and Rushi found herself trying her best to keep her expression neutral.

“Now that Her Imperial Majesty has graced us with her presence, His Imperial Majesty should allow us to interrogate Lord Villes and Lord Denom.”

Rushi glanced at the speaker and almost scowled when she saw the outspoken Lord Revi. He was old enough to be her grandfather, and owned too many lands in the Iron Lands.

Kiyan trusted his advice too much.

She could never win against Lord Revi.

“Lord Revi’s request is granted,” Kiyan said, his tone mild.

He sat on his throne relaxed, untouched.

Rushi could never tell what he was thinking when he was like this. Did he know of her plot? What about Prince Kastan? Was there no news?

“We have in custody a leader of the ghost warrior faction called the Burning Feather,” Lord Revi said. “After careful interrogation by the Minister of Justice, she gave us information on the attacks carried out on the war suppliers serving under the black tiger seal.”

Rushi bit her bottom lip. She could not talk in this setting. Any word out of her now would give her away.

“The Burning Feather is not a house we recognize,” one of the Lords of the Court noted.

“We stopped recognizing crests with fire when Akasha became an empire.”

“What is that supposed to mean? How can a crest not associated with a court official exist in this empire? Lord Revi, explain this matter?”

“I would if you give me time, Lord Ranka,” Revi said. “A crest with fire represents a family associated with a queen. Queens in our history have carried a phoenix to represent their status. Their families adopted fire to show their affiliation.”

“Are you suggesting the Burning Feather is associated with Queen Kyra of Tanad Kingdom?” someone shouted with anger.

Rushi’s gaze shifted to Kiyan’s sister who stood on Kiyan’s right side.

Kyra’s presence was hard to miss.

Rushi liked her openness, but she had never made an effort to be friends with Kyra beyond what was cordial. The tight circle the Miran siblings had was hard to break.

“Queen Kyra of Tanad has provided an army to assist His Imperial Highness, Prince Kastan in the war. She is a daughter of Akasha,” Lord Revi said. “Queen Kyra always seeks our empire’s prosperity.”

“I thank you, Lord Revi, for your confidence in my intentions,” Kyra said, acknowledging Lord Revi’s defense of her.

“Then are you suggesting that the Burning Feather belongs to our empress?” Lord Ranka asked, shock clear in his words.

Rushi tensed, glancing at Kiyan.

Her husband made no move or effort to defend her. A stab of anger filled her heart at that small betrayal.

“Lord Ranka’s suggestion is absurd,” one of the Lords defended. “Why would Her Majesty want His Imperial Highness to fail in our defense?”

Rushi stayed still. The question was valid.

Still, what did they know of being a foreigner living in a new land?

How could she explain to these people that she feared Prince Kastan’s growing power? The fierce black tiger that roared and everyone listened. Did they even give her children a moment’s thought?

Who would help protect her children if Kastan decided to take on the throne?

“The Burning Feather belongs to me,” her father, Lord Villes, spoke up from where he knelt.

Rushi bit her lip hard as her father did his best to protect her.

“They are associated with my house," Lord Villes said.

Murmurs exploded in court, and Kiyan sat up in his seat, his gaze hard as he looked at her kneeling father.

“Do you understand what your confession means?” Kiyan asked, speaking for the first time since the debate started in the room.

Rushi curled her fingers into tight fists. Fear gripped her. An attempt to harm Prince Kastan, who was fighting for the empire, was treason. In her own kingdom, her father’s sins would be enough to depose her.

“Yes, Your Majesty,” Lord Villes said, bowing his head. “I understand.”

“Lord Revi, continue,” Kiyan said, his tone once again untouched.

“The Burning Feather mounted an attack on Prince Kastan with five thousand ghost warriors last night,” Lord Revi reported. “Their intention was to stop His Imperial Highness from advancing to the West Border. The plot was thwarted and Prince Kastan was able to protect his rear.”

“What of the West Nation border?” Lord Ranka asked, fear coating his words.

“There have been no reports from the Commander,” Kiyan said, his tone unhurried. He was not worried, and that soothed Lord Ranka's fear. “We must first deal with the treason in the Imperial Court. Any more attempts to stop the Commander of Armies on his mission shall mean death for the perpetrator.”

A warning, Rushi thought with a shudder.

“Lord Revi, your report is missing one vital part,” Kiyan said.

“Yes, Your Majesty,” Lord Revi continued. “Our witness insists that her master ordered the attack to ensure that Prince Kastan fails his campaign. Their intention was to show His Majesty that Prince Kastan was incompetent with his duty.”

“Lord Villes,” Kiyan said, getting up from his chair.

Rushi bit her bottom lip harder to keep from screaming out her protests.

There was no one here to speak for her father. He was not from the Akasha Empire, but a man from Giode Kingdom. She was the one who had begged for his help in bringing Kastan down.

“Our Akasha Empire must seem strange to you who is from our northwest neighbor, Giode Kingdom. Our Miran name must also seem odd to you, and you must wonder why four kingdoms would come together to make an empire and place our family in charge,” Kiyan said, walking down the shallow steps to pace around Rushi’s father and Minister Denom.

“Emperor Kaveh made a promise to the elders the day he took on this burden. Our family is blessed with one burden. There must always be three to carry this burden,” Kiyan said, glancing at Rushi.

Kiyan gave Rushi the slightest of smiles.

That slight smile was enough for Rushi to realize that Kiyan was staging a play for his courtiers.

Kiyan already knew that she was the mastermind behind the Burning Feather.

She sucked in air, hoping to steady her racing heart.

“One governs, one protects, and one guides,” Kiyan recited, walking around Lord Villes. “In my lifetime, Kiyan governs, Kastan protects and Kyra guides. Nothing can ever change this status quo, even a failed war campaign. I trust my brother, Kastan, with my life, and therefore this empire.”

Rushi’s gaze widened and she shifted her gaze to Kyra.

Kyra gave her a censoring look and Rushi suddenly felt, once again, left out of the golden Miran Era. She was Empress. Yet, the siblings held her in tight check.

She had no real power in this empire. If she did, her father would never kneel in this court.

“Do you think us fools for asking Prince Kastan to defend our borders?” Kiyan asked, looking at Lord Villes.

“No, Your Majesty,” Lord Villes said, lowering his head, his fingers bunching his robes. “His Majesty does not make mistakes.”

“Oh, there are plenty of mistakes,” Kiyan said, glancing at Rushi again. “Many mistakes that cannot be avoided, instead they must be handled. You and Lord Denom dared touch the one who protects after forcing us into a war with West Nation. Your actions are treasonous. You shall pay for your sins.”

Rushi got up and hurried down the steps.

She dropped down on her knees and lowered her head.

“Be merciful, Your Majesty,” she cried, tears filling her eyes at the thought of her father dead.

“Her Majesty’s reaction is understandable,” Kiyan said, walking up the steps to the dais.

He stood with Kyra on his right, his gaze on Lord Villes and Rushi.

“Rushi remains a filial daughter to her father. However, Rushi, you are no ordinary woman, but the mother of this empire. Your son will take my place in the future. Your pain is understandable, but not acceptable. Unless you condone Lord Villes’ actions, then we must take a closer look at this case.”

Lord Villes moved closer to Rushi and pushed her to stand. She got up because he pinched her arm so hard she wanted to cry out. One of Kiyan’s attendants wrapped an arm around her waist, and Rushi looked to Kiyan.

“This husband asks you to wait in our private quarters,” Kiyan said. “I will spare you the cruelty of seeing your father punished, Rushi. Thank you for attending court.”

The moment Kiyan finished talking, the attendant led her out of court, only letting go of her once the doors closed.

Rushi pushed the attendant away from her and let out a short scream of frustration, her gaze on the closed doors. She wondered what she had ever done to deserve such a husband.

*~*~*~*

Kastan rode into Kin Town late in the evening.

Tired and hungry, he led his warhorse to the Raven Inn.

Temu followed him, equally tired.

The front doors of the inn were open, and the place was busy with activity. Men carrying large packages in to the inn, women cleaning up the windows and floors.

Kastan got off his horse and a young boy came running down the front steps to take the reins from him.

Kastan nodded at the young boy and hurried up the steps. It was close to eight in the night. He wondered if Jihan had gone to bed already, after all, the day had been tiring for all of them. It took ten minutes to find Jihan. Everyone they asked directing them to a different location in the inn.

Temu offered to search the top floors of the inn, while Kastan decided to wander to the back of the inn. He made his way through a busy corridor and found himself in a large kitchen. He stopped when a cloud of smoke rose from the wood stove near the windows. Violent coughs accompanied the smoke and Jihan rose up from behind the stove, arm over his mouth, as he hurried to the window in search of fresh air.

Kastan chuckled at the sight.

Relief flooded him and it surprised him.

“I don’t know if there will be rice tonight. We’ll all have to make do with fruits for dinner,” Jihan said, still coughing. “I can’t make the stupid fire light.”

“Sounds tragic,” Kastan teased, making Jihan turn around to face him at the kitchen entrance.

Tears slid down Jihan’s eyes from the smoke. Dark smudges decorated Jihan’s cheeks and his forehead. Dressed in a black tunic, his hair in the tight bun Kastan hated, Jihan looked like a hungry child in desperate need of a bowl of rice.

“You’re back,” Jihan said.

“Is that all you can say to me?” Kastan asked.

Jihan stared at him, then cleared his throat and wiped his arm over his eyes, taking away the tears.

“Um,” Jihan looked around the empty kitchen. “Congratulations. Your army has taken over the border. We are all at ease again.”

Kastan smiled, and shook his head. He walked to the worktable in the middle of the kitchen and got to work removing his gloves. He undid his arm bracers and the shoulder pads on his upper arms. He untied his dark cloak and got to work undoing most of his armor.

Jihan remained leaning by the window until he was done. Left in a white shirt and his leather pants, Kastan rolled his shoulders and folded back his sleeves.

“Are you sure you should remove your armor?” Jihan asked, when Kastan turned to look at him. “I mean—”

“I’m hungry too,” Kastan said, closing the distance between them. He smiled when Jihan clutched the window seal, pressing back on the half wall. “I’m not keen on fruits for dinner.”

“So...,” Kastan crouched by the wood stove with three burners and held back his laugh when he saw the large logs stuffed in the stove. He started removing the large logs from the stove, and flashed Jihan a short grin. “I’ll start the fire, if you cook.”

Jihan watched him work for a few seconds.

“I’m sure there is food waiting for you with your army. Your men would make sure your meal is ready,” Jihan said, moving to a table near the wall. He poured water into a small bowl and washed his hands, making sure to fold back the sleeves of his dark tunic.

“Ah, but I would have missed out on cooking with you,” Kastan said, hiding a laugh when Jihan bent over the bowl and splashed water over his face.

Jihan used a kerchief to wipe his face.

Jihan then dumped the kerchief in the bowl and took it outside.

Kastan concentrated on lighting a fire with kindling he found in a small bucket under the stove. Jihan must have not seen it when he started his fire-making adventures.

When Jihan came back in, he looked more composed and the fire was lighting.

Kastan added a split log, careful not to turn off his burning kindling.

Jihan kept his silence, and Kastan found he liked that about the young merchant. He found a stool and perched on it, tending to the fire as Jihan moved around the kitchen.

In minutes, they had rice cooking on one burner, and Jihan was busy cutting up vegetables for the stew. He was making a large batch of food, so Kastan left the fire and washed his hands to help.

They worked in silence until the back door opened and Jihan’s Shadow Guard walked in.

“Jihan,” Firuz said, placing a bowl with rabbit meat on the worktable. “It’s cleaned and ready to cook. Do you want me to cut it?”

“Yes,” Jihan flashed Firuz a smile.

Kastan finished chopping a batch of green onions.

Jihan took them from him and threw them into the wok he had over the fire. He stirred with expertise and nodded for Kastan to take on the job of garlic. Kastan made a face at the patience the cloves would need.

Jihan ignored him. He continued adding chopped mushrooms, snow peas, and shredded cabbage into his wok.

Firuz also joined their silence and in the next hour, they ended up with a delicious stew, rice and roasted rabbit meat.

Jihan urged Kastan to sit at the head of the worktable and handed him a cup of warm peach wine.

Kastan was glad to sit, the hours of travel finally catching up. Firuz disappeared out of the kitchen, while Jihan set the table. Firuz returned less than five minutes later followed by three men and one woman.

“Your man, Temu,” Firuz said to Kastan, “has gone to the magistrate’s office to get reports. He said to tell you he will be back.”

Kastan nodded and watched in fascination as Jihan’s staff sat around the large worktable to enjoy their evening meal. Jihan sat on his right and spent the first few minutes making sure Kastan had enough to eat.

Firuz sat on Jihan’s right, never far from his master.

The atmosphere quickly filled with chatter about the day and the decisive battle at the border.

“They should have never invaded our border,” one of the men said. “Duke Silver’s Generals matched them back through the night. They stood no chance against our army. I have half-a-mind to join our forces.”

“Why don’t you?” the woman asked.

“Then I would leave Jihan on his own. No one in my village would think well of me. Jihan helped our family farm when we would have lost it. I could never leave him.”

“You’re not tied to me,” Jihan said, taking a bite of his stew. “You are free to choose your own life, Sinta.”

“I know that, young master,” Sinta said, passing the bowl of roasted meat to Jihan. “You had better eat some more meat. You’ve barely rested these past days. You might fall off your horse if you’re not eating enough.”

Jihan grumbled under his breath and ate the meat Firuz placed in his bowl without complaint. The more the group around the table talked, the more Kastan found himself fascinated by Jihan.

Jihan seemed to have rounded up a group of people who worked with him for profit, but also saw him as family. They respected his views, his ideas and chided him as part of their family.

Kastan finished his stew and moved his bowl aside.

Jihan drank water, never once touching the jars of peach wine moving around the table. The meal ended with a round of thanks to the cook. Sinta and the woman took over cleanup, while the remaining two men cleared the worktable.

“You must be tired now,” Jihan said, drawing Kastan’s attention. “Will you be riding to the magistrate’s office?”

Kastan shifted in his seat to look at Jihan, once again suffering the mad urge to pull Jihan’s hair free. His shoulders were tight, and his eyes were gritty.

Still, he wanted to spend time with Jihan, get to know him.

“Can I stay?” Kastan found himself asking. “I need a few hours of uninterrupted sleep.”

Jihan held his gaze for a while, Kastan wondered if Jihan read his intentions.

Firuz certainly did, he sat very still, and his jaw clenched tight in what Kastan thought was disapproval.

Jihan broke their gaze and stared at his empty cup.

He bit his lip for a moment, then nodded and stood up.

“Follow me,” Jihan murmured.

*~*~*~*

After a hot bath and change of clothes, Kastan lay on the large bed in Jihan’s sleeping quarters. His head resting on the pillow, as he watched Jihan move around the room handing Firuz lists for supplies and notes to send out to suppliers. He must have dozed off, because a soft caress over his scarred eye brought him out of the haze of sleep. He stayed still, eyes closed.

“What’s this plan?” the Shadow Guard’s voice drifted to Kastan.

“There’s no plan,” Jihan murmured.

“You have Duke Silver in your bed. You had better have a plan.”

Jihan sighed, and his touch disappeared.

“Sometimes, things happen without a plan too, Firuz. There’s nothing wrong with touching what you can’t have. Send those notes to Garren and Set. Tomorrow, we’ll start working on making this inn a profitable business.”

Kastan opened his eyes slightly to see Jihan reach up and undo his hair. He smiled and rolled to his side so that he could watch Jihan prepare for bed. He fell asleep to the sight of Jihan massaging his scalp with a soft moan.

*~*~*~*

Character List
love,:wub:
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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Do  you know how many times a day i check  if you have updated this story? You are not being fair 😌😔😔😔😔

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Before I move on to the next chapter, I want to share my hypothesis about what the royal edict is going to be: the edict will be for Jihan to marry Kastan. It will be misunderstood by Jihan, however, whose drive to protect his family and his heart--as well as his natural secretiveness--will lead to a Shakespearean comedy of errors. Just my guess, but it has been growing in certainty although I am likely to be wrong considering @lilansui's penchant for twists and turns. In any case, I'm counting on her penchant for HEAs to make everything right in the end. 😊

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I love the juxtaposition between the relationship of Emperor and Empress and the (growing) feelings between Kastan and Jihan.

While Rushi's father, in taking the blame for treason, needs to be punished, Kiyan walks a tightrope.  If he executes the father, then Rushi will be his enemy for life.  If he spares the father, then he will appear weak.  While banishment might be an option, the punishment may still be seen as unacceptably weak, and Kiyan's order that Rushi be sent to her quarters (so as not to observe the punishment) indicates that corporal punishment--possibly up to death--is about to be inflicted. While Rushi's motive was to help her second born come to power, she may have lost her father while gaining nothing for her son.  (If Kiyan understands her motivation, he may be able to stem her enmity by giving Yija a powerful place in Kastan's army, and as uncle and nephew are alike, it may actually be a good fit.)

A question:  Kastan, Kiyan, and Kyra are all siblings. Yija is Yan's sibling.  Why wouldn't Yija, as a matter of course, become the protector (for Yan) after Kastan? If Rashan becomes protector, and his progeny after him, then the protector becomes farther removed from the Emperor every generation, and this would not appear to be a sound strategy.  That said, if Yija were going to become protector regardless, then Rushi would have had no reason to undermine Kastan.  A pretty conundrum.

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@travlbug has made some very good points.  The other point to consider is whether all three youths survive to reach their full potential.  Rashan nearly lost his life to an accident.  There is also the question of whether any of the boys will grow up to the point that they are attracted to women and have their own children.  Duke Silver didn't feel that attraction.  Also, like so many arranged political marriages, things often fail if love and trust cannot be found in the marriage.  Great chapter once again!

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