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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 - 8. Chapter 8

Andiya’s Marriage

Kastan studied the map Temu’s messengers had drawn after their daily scout of Kamran Estate. The vast swath of land tucked in the northeast coast of Silver Kingdom was impressive. It was now clear that Jihan had invested some of his profits on the large estate. His lover had then taken the time to hide the estate’s existence creating a sanctuary for himself and his family.

It was hard to imagine Jihan was Lord Duyi’s son. They were so different.

“He’s paid handsomely to keep the property off the maps,” Temu said, making the final lines on the master map Kastan used.

They were in Kastan’s private quarters at the Imperial Palace. The servants responsible for Kastan’s needs all belonged to Silver Shore. Temu and Naveed made sure his quarters were well guarded, which was the only reason why Kastan kept the map on the table.

“His neighbors keep their mouth shut about the Kamran family and their business,” Temu continued. “They do not open up to stranger. Master Jihan must have paid them off well.”

Kastan smiled, knowing Jihan had gained his neighbors’ loyalty without any threat or pay. His lover had a knack for winning people’s hearts. Kastan’s gaze shifted to the jade hairpin he took from Jihan that last day. He remembered pulling it out of the knot on top of Jihan’s head, his dark silky hair falling in a soft cascade.

Kastan gripped the jade hairpin wondering if Jihan had started holding his hair up again.

“Should we continue watching them?” Temu asked, drawing his attention. “It’s near impossible to get closer without discovery. The merchants running in and out of the estate know each other. New faces attract too much attention.”

Kastan traced Jihan’s estate on the map.

“Don’t engage,” he murmured. “Keep track of Jihan and the activities at his estate. My Emperor Brother is sending out investigators searching for Jihan’s hideout. His interest in Kamran has sparked Kyra’s curiosity and Rushi’s as well. Anything could happen. Make sure Jihan stays safe, Temu.”

“Yes, Your Grace,” Temu said, and left to make sure Kastan’s orders were followed.

Alone, Kastan looked around the trappings of his station in life.

His palace quarters were elegant and majestic, every piece of furniture in the room thought out and in the highest quality possible. His clothes tailored to perfection, his crest embroidered on the edges of his silver gray robes. They felt like a weight to wear in this palace.

His return to the Imperial City Akan was victorious, but tinged with a bitter taste. His success at the border gained him undue attention with eager court officials and ministers. The Imperial Court needed his time as they worked on implementing the treaty Kyra and her cadre forged with West Nation. The Emperor had signed the treaty and had left the work of bringing it to life to Kastan and a new Minister of trade.

Kiyan was taking advantage of Kastan’s presence at the palace. He was adding on more duties so that Kastan would have no choice but to bring Rashan from Silver Shore to the palace. Kastan was holding out on that move until it was necessary.

It was a hard decision. He missed his son. Missed Rashan with an ache he could not describe. He worried Rashan was alone. It was eating at him, but the alternative was hard to bear. The thought of Rashan staying at the palace left him sick to the stomach.

He had grown up in this massive palace, longing for the wild free life outside the palace walls. Rashan loved the freedom of Silver Shore Valley. Kastan could not imagine making his son stay in the confines of the palace now. It would be cruel.

“Your Imperial Highness, Rael is here to see you,” one of the women working for Temu said at the door.

“Let him in,” Kastan said, dragging his thoughts away from his worries.

The man who entered the room was from his brother’s royal investigative bureau. Kastan knew they never showed themselves lightly. They were excellent in their work. Kastan had relied on their intelligence to save his own life in difficult situations. Kastan stepped around the table to place himself in the way of Rael seeing his map.

“Master Rael,” Kastan greeted. “What brings you to me?”

“Rael congratulates His Imperial Highness on his victory over West Nation,” Rael started. “I apologize for disturbing your rest. It’s just that we hope that His Imperial Highness has information the bureau needs.”

Kastan leaned on the table behind him, not attempting to invite Rael deeper into the room. He wanted to keep Jihan’s location hidden. He felt protective of Jihan, a feeling he found quite fascinating. He did not want to share Jihan with his Imperial Family. That alone was new and left him in a clear disadvantage.

“What information does Master Rael need from me?” Kastan asked, folding his arms against his chest.

Rael lowered his gaze to the floor.

“His Imperial Highness has met the actual Kamran leader,” Rael said with conviction.

He was not guessing, so he must have known that Kastan had interacted with Jihan Kamran.

Bloody war spies, Kastan cursed.

“His Imperial Majesty is interested in an alliance with him," Rael said. "Would you be willing to help us forge this alliance?”

Kastan kept his silence. An abrupt refusal would spark Kiyan’s undivided interest.

However, accepting Rael’s request would mean placing Jihan in more danger.

“Our dealings were minimal and focused on war supplies,” Kastan lied. “They say his family has a home here in the Imperial City Akan. Have you reached out to them?”

“We have,” Rael said, lifting his gaze up slightly. “Lord Duyi Kamran has asked his son to the capital but he has yet to make an appearance.”

Kastan held his reaction, well aware that Jihan was in his sanctuary in the North East.

Jihan was pushing his father to deal with the palace. Merchants were independent souls and not bound by the rules of chivalry the noble class clung to for survival. No one could legitimately force Jihan to appear, unless they had leverage over him.

Kastan dropped his arms to his side, his gaze on Rael. This man was one of Kiyan’s best investigators. His presence before Kastan meant that Rael was aware of the events at Kin Town, perhaps a little about how the Raven Inn came into Kastan’s possession.

“A stubborn merchant is hardly news,” Kastan said with a raised brow. “They often have a hierarchy, Rael. You brought Kamran to me when you verified them to supply the war. Who received the black tiger seal?”

“Lord Duyi took the seal,” Rael said, lowering his head.

“I would suggest reaching out to Lord Duyi for your needs,” Kastan said in a dismissive tone.

Rael winced and brought his right hand over his chest.

“Rael thanks His Imperial Highness for his brilliant suggestion,” Rael said, then excused himself to leave.

Kastan straightened up and paused when Rael stopped by the door and faced him.

“I’m sorry for being remise,” Rael said, a small smile on lingering on his lips. “His Imperial Majesty has requested your presence at a privy council in his office after the midday meal.”

Kastan nodded his acknowledgment of the request, though he doubted Rael had forgotten to tell him.

Rael was testing him for information. Kastan watched the man leave. Once he was alone again, Kastan took his master map off the table and folded it. Placing the jade hairpin on the folded map, unease bloomed in his heart.

‘Jihan,’ Kastan thought. ‘Why does everyone want a piece of you?’

*~*~*~*

Kastan’s triumphant return to the Imperial City Akan brought him undue popularity. His status as Imperial Prince of Akasha was always a burden. His military accomplishments often gave him power that had court officials and ministers wanting his attention, and listening to his opinions. It made his brother start inviting Kastan to discuss private empire matters.

Kastan sat in the Privy Council watching his brother deliberate over the state of imperial finances.

“War has depleted imperial coffers,” Bowden, a retired finance minister said.

Bowden acted as adviser to the Emperor. Kastan had known him since he was a young man training in the palace fields. His counsel was unbiased and very helpful.

“I’m embarrassed to say that we shall find ourselves relying on Lord Revi’s large purse if we’re not careful,” Bowden said, his finger tapping over the large financial reports submitted by the palace accountants.

“It’s not advisable,” Kyra said, shaking her head.

She paced around the room, her skirts whispering with movement. She looked restless, had been since she arrived at the palace.

Two months and the constant nervous gazes she gave him had Kastan worried.

“I agree with Kyra,” Kastan said, supporting his sister. “Lord Revi will have power over the Emperor if he provides any more financial support. His money always comes with strings attached. Silver Shore can lend support as needed, we can take the weight.”

“Your men have returned from war,” Kiyan said, shaking his head. “They need your support first. I know you’ve promised to compensate grieving families, Kas. That comes first.”

Kastan sat back, knowing the compensations would bring his estate financial stress. However, the soldiers who had lost their lives at the border deserved his support. He had promised to look out for their families so that was what he would do.

“While Silver Shore Valley takes on the bereaved families in the military, the imperial palace shoulders its vast staff, foreign officers and the aid we provide to the people. Lord Revi has shown interest in taking over that aid, but that will give him a political platform,” Kyra continued. “His family is already too powerful.”

“I have a suggestion for His Imperial Majesty,” Bowden said, his excited expression drawing Kastan’s interest.

“Make your suggestion,” Kiyan said.

“Acquire the Kamran Merchants,” Bowden said, his excitement hard to contain. “We worked with their supply route when Queen Kyra was in West Nation. Their network was seamless. It cost us so little and we gained so much. I believe if we acquire their network, their business model, the imperial palace could become independent.”

Kastan clenched his hands into fists, his gaze going to Kiyan who was watching him.

He should have known Kiyan would hatch a plan to try to get to Jihan. The word ‘acquire’ sounded ugly to him. It would mean Jihan had no freedom to make decisions of his own. It would mean having to watch Jihan do as the Imperial Palace wanted. The thought alone made him want to walk out of the room.

“You’re shaking your head,” Kiyan said, studying Kastan. “Do you disagree with Bowden’s observation?”

“They are a civilian enterprise,” Kastan felt compelled to point out. “If they are great at achieving tasks, it is because they have worked to create that efficiency on their own. Interfering will lead to negative results.”

Kiyan smiled.

“I agree with my brother, Bowden. We can’t acquire Kamran. We can only coax them to join our side,” Kiyan said.

“May I ask His Imperial Majesty how we can achieve that?” Bowden asked.

“Through marriage,” Kiyan said, meeting Kastan’s startled gaze. “I’ve met Lord Duyi Kamran. I thanked him for his good work during the war. When I asked him what I should reward him with, he said, his wish is to have a true noble title to protect his family.”

Kastan sucked in air, as his gaze shifted to Kyra who had stopped pacing and now faced him.

“Style him a new title,” Kastan suggested.

“I could, but,” Kiyan shook his head. “It would not be enough to tie them to the royal house as they would need to be to offer financial support. Kastan, you do much for this empire. After the incident in Kin Town with the Burning Feather, I have decided we need to take steps to protect you and Rashan.”

“How would you manage that?” Kastan asked, his fingers tightening into tight fists.

“Through marriage,” Kiyan said. “Lord Duyi has a daughter. Kastan, marrying her will add to Silver Shore’s wealth, and protect your future. She can give you children, and a family to look after.”

“I have a child,” Kastan said, anger boiling up at Kiyan’s decision. “Rashan is all I will ever need.”

Kiyan continued as though Kastan had not spoken.

“Andiya Kamran’s presence at Silver Shore will increase imperial resources. Her family will be obligated to share their assets with you. It will mean the Imperial Palace will obtain independence from Lord Revi’s vast income. Kastan, your newfound wealth will mean protection from the Empress. A commander with independent financial resources is not easy to attack. You can expand our armies.”

Kastan closed his eyes, disappointed that his brother would think to use him this way. It took him a minute to calm his anger. When he was in relative control, he opened his eyes and glared at his brother and sister.

“You promised never to do this to me,” Kastan said, getting to his feet.

“I’m only thinking of your well-being and Rashan,” Kiyan said, sitting behind his desk, looking every inch the Emperor.

“No, you’re not,” Kastan said, stopping to meet his brother’s gaze. “You’re using me.”

“Kas,” Kyra tried to sooth him, but Kastan shook his head.

“This family does not get to decide who I marry again,” Kastan said, shaking his head. “I allowed it once with Jian. She was not strong enough to be Princess Consort to a man like me. She ended up dead and Rashan is without a mother. Don’t force another poor soul into that position.”

“Kas, Jian did not die because of you or because of the responsibilities at Silver Shore,” Kyra said, poking at old pain. “Can’t you see what Kiyan is doing for you here? Think of Rashan who is alone at Silver Shore Valley. What would happen if you weren’t there anymore?”

“You would look out for him,” Kastan said, meeting Kyra’s gaze. “I trust you to do that for me, little sister.”

Kyra’s eyes filled with tears and she turned away from him.

“Oh, Kas,” Kyra said, swiping her left palm over her cheeks.

“While I’m not Kyra,” Kiyan said, his tone hard. “I am your Emperor, Prince Kastan. If I tell you we need the Kamran business network on our side, I am not making a polite request. Lord Revi is an ambitious outsider. To my disappointment, so is the Empress. If they join hands, we might find our longstanding traditions overturned. We do this to make you powerful, Kastan. To make you untouchable, can’t you trust me?”

“Not with my personal life,” Kastan said, shaking his head. “It’s my life, Kiyan. I give you everything else, but who I get to bring to my bed.”

Kiyan scoffed and slammed his fist on the table.

“You were born into the Imperial family, Kastan of Akasha. Your very life belongs to the empire. As Emperor, the person or persons in your bed are of great interest to me.”

Kastan scoffed.

“Great! Then what would you do if I told you to approve marriage with Andiya Kamran’s brother. He is head of all Kamran business. Wouldn’t that suit all your needs?”

Kiyan and Kyra gaped, staring at him.

“That’s…,” Bowden started and trailed off. “Ah…we need the brother to keep working the network. Without him, it might crumble. Shutting him away at Silver Shore is a disadvantage.”

Kiyan pointed to Bowden.

“Wh-what he said sounds right,” Kiyan said, still staring at Kastan, a deep frown appearing on his forehead. “Why didn’t I k-know you-you prefer men? I thought you were pining away for Jian.”

“Like I said, who sleeps in my bed is my business,” Kastan said, shaking his head. “I refuse to take on someone weak in my house, Kiyan.”

“Your wishes are not part of running this Imperial House,” Kiyan stated. “To that effect, you should know that I have asked the Imperial Diet to vet Andiya Kamran for her position as Princess Consort. If you have questions, approach those ancient ones in the imperial tower for answers.”

Kastan turned away from his brother, staring at the thick red carpet in his brother’s office. The golden dragon weaved into the extraordinary designs. This office and everything it stood for was extraordinary. He respected it, until it turned on him and Rashan.

“Political marriages are our lot, Kas,” Kiyan said, his tone hard to ignore. “Kyra and I have them, we’re relatively happy. You don’t want to think about it, but Lord Duyi’s daughter could give you another child. She will keep you company and help you run Silver Shore Valley. It’s for the best.”

“I am not interested in her,” Kastan said, cursed under his breath and left his brother’s office.

*~*~*~*

“You should have given him time to think,” Kyra told her brother when Kastan left the office door open in his hurry to get away.

“Kastan is at his best when he is angry,” Kiyan said, with a soft sigh. “He never talks about what he is feeling. How should I know he wants the Kamran son and not the daughter if he will not talk about it? Whatever the result, I want a wedding with a Kamran child.”

“What about the edict you wrote and gave Lord Duyi Kamran?” Bowden asked. "You asked the Imperial Diet to approve the wedding, and even allowed the Empress to make decisions on the wedding ceremony."

“Yes, I did,” Kiyan smiled. “I need to see what Andiya’s brother will do after he reads that edict. You can only know the true nature of a man when his family is in danger.”

Kyra sighed, and headed to the door.

“Where are you going?” Kiyan asked.

“To find Kastan,” Kyra said. “I’m the only one who can understand him. It’s not easy being your sibling, Kiyan Miran.”

*~*~*~*

Jihan bit his bottom lip, holding back a moan of pleasure. He ached with need, his cock full and wrapped in hot silk. Pleasure skated down his spine and for a split second it danced on that fine edge, so close…so delicious…he shifted his hips, needing more. Eyes closed, the sensation of Kastan’s mouth on his length filled his every thought, the heat doubling, driving him to madness, and sending him over that edge to ecstasy. He came hard, biting his bottom lip a bit too hard.

Jihan opened his eyes at the sting of pain on his lip, heat flooding his cheeks as his seed soaked his sleeping pants. He was alone in bed.

Duke Silver was not beside him.

Jihan brought his left arm over his face hiding his mortification. The last time this happened to him, he had been fourteen just discovering he liked looking at the men bathing in the river after a long day’s work.

Pushing the covers aside, he sat up and stared at the mess his constant erotic dreams had made of him. Kastan was in his head. He had refused to leave no matter how many times Jihan tried to ignore his presence.

“Staring at your messy sleeping pants will not make them disappear,” Firuz said, from the direction of Jihan’s dressing table. “Good morning. Your dreams must have been very lovely.”

“I don’t know what’s worse,” Jihan murmured, sliding his feet to the side of his bed. “Having you watch me disgrace myself, or me having wet dreams like a fledgling.”

“There’s nothing to be embarrassed about,” Firuz soothed, placing Jihan’s clothes for the day over the chair at the dressing table. “Go clean up, we’ll change the sheets.”

Jihan sighed and rubbed sleep from his eyes. He ignored Firuz and went to take a quick bath in readiness of the day. The warm water left him wide awake. He wondered what Kastan was doing at the same exact moment. Probably back at the Imperial Palace to meet the Emperor.

Would he return to Silver Shore Valley?

Jihan imagined Kastan was eager to see Rashan, the little prince who wanted to meet Jihan again.

Jihan finished his bath and returned to his room to dress for the day. The peach harvest was underway. They were halfway through the Gura Orchards. Jihan kept busy making sure their workers collected the peaches, sorted, and sent them to market or to the wine factory.

“The outer courtyard is busy with workers arriving for the peach harvest. Vion is making the list of groups. I reminded him to reshuffle the groups so that each one has an equal labor share. We will see how it works out today.”

Jihan listened to Firuz outline the work schedule they had agreed last night, his thoughts half on Firuz, the other part on Kastan. He dressed on auto motion, pausing only when he had to hold his hair up. He stared at the bronze clip Andiya had bought him after her return home. The puzzle of where his hairpins and clips had disappeared to was unsolved.

Jihan refused to tell her about Kastan. He…could not discuss Kastan because it left him feeling hollow.

“I’ll help you with your hair,” Firuz said, his tone quiet as he moved into place behind Jihan.

Firuz started to take the bronze clip but Jihan placed it on the tray holding the assorted hair clips from Andiya.

“Braid it together, Firuz,” Jihan said in a whisper.

“Do you really miss him this much?” Firuz asked, running his fingers through Jihan’s hair. His touch was gentle as he got to work braiding Jihan’s hair into a thick braid.

Jihan answered the truth in his heart.

“I feel like it could have been more,” Jihan said, comfortable with telling Firuz the state of his heart. “He is what I dream a partner should be.”

Firuz made no comment on Jihan’s quiet confession. Instead, he finished braiding Jihan’s hair and secured the end with a leather tie. Firuz patted Jihan’s shoulder, the touch comforting.

Jihan stepped away from his dressing table, adjusting the fabric of his sleeves under the leather arm bracers. He cleared his throat and gauged the morning light. He was not too late. The sun was lighting up the morning, sending the last of the shadows away.

Jihan's thoughts turned to his big sister. Andiya was unwell of late. She was tired and had thrown up every morning for a week now. Her condition improved at around mid-morning, enough to eat light rice porridge made by Deora. Jihan worried she had caught a common illness from waking up too early for the peach harvest.

“How is Andiya?” Jihan asked.

“Deora says she slept well. Her stomach was fine last night and she has not thrown up this morning yet. Deora does not look worried, so you should relax. Andiya will be fine.”

“My big sister is the healthiest woman I know,” Jihan said. “It’s odd for her to look so unwell. I can’t stop worrying about her.”

“Then, let’s call a healer for her,” Firuz said, taking the bundle he had made of Jihan's sheets. “I’ll send for him after I send these to the laundry for you. No one will know what happened this morning.”

Jihan turned away from Firuz, heat flooding his cheeks from embarrassment. He still could not believe that had happened to him.

Firuz gave a light chuckle and left Jihan’s sleeping quarters.

Alone, Jihan moved to a chest box he kept in the corner of his room. He opened the lid on the box and stood staring at the deep burgundy of Kastan’s cloak. It was heavy and hard to manage on his shoulders but deliciously warm when wrapped around him. It reminded him of having Kastan’s arms around him when they fell asleep.

Jihan touched the rich fabric and closed the lid fast to escape the memories of Kastan the cloak evoked.

He picked up his fan from the table, ready to head downstairs for breakfast. He stopped when a loud commotion filled the morning, and then Ishan was shouting his name.

“Jihan!” Ishan called, sounding desperate. "Jihan!"

Jihan moved to the windows that showed off the front of the house. He frowned at the sight of his best friend standing by the gate of their private courtyard. Ishan looked disheveled as though he had given little time to dressing for the door. He was in an open dark gown, his white inner shirt and trousers quite visible. His feet were in sandals.

Jihan had never seen his best friend’s hair down unless he was swimming in the river. Which hadn’t happened for five years or so, Ishan preferred his books to the outdoors.

“Jihan, come down here. I have something important to say.”

“What’s so important you’re screaming my name in the morning?” Jihan asked, fanning his face. He leaned on the windowsill, letting his gaze roam the courtyard. He lifted his right brow when he saw Andiya sitting at the table in the middle of the lotus garden. She was sucking on slices of raw mango. Deora arranged a tray of tea before Andiya, and Jihan assumed that was where they were having their breakfast this morning.

“Jihan!” Ishan said, his tone drawing Jihan’s attention again. Ishan looked on the verge of an event that Jihan could not understand. “If you’re not coming down, I’ll have to yell my problem to the rest of the world.”

“Ishan, you’re home,” Jihan said, amused by his best friend’s urgency. “There are no secrets here. What’s upsetting you so early in the morning?”

Ishan dropped to his knees and looked up at Jihan.

“Jihan, I’m here to ask your permission to marry your big sister.”

Jihan gripped the windowsill and stared at his best friend in shock.

*~*~*~*

“Marriage could turn into an opportunity,” Rushi said, a small smile playing on her lips.

She had waited, bided her time, and watched matters unfold at court.

The Miran siblings were difficult to control, but it was not impossible. Her husband might be emperor, but she was empress. Kyra and Kastan respected her seat, and even fought to protect it. After the West Nation war ended, Kastan and Kyra returned to the Imperial Palace with a strong treaty that afforded the Empire of Akasha ten thousand miles of the border town in West Nation.

Kyra negotiated new trade agreements, a security agreement at the border, and an ambassador in the form of a West Nation Prince to be stationed in the Imperial City Akan. Rushi liked to think of this new prince as a hostage, but the Miran siblings afforded him all the respect due him as a West Nation Prince.

Kastan’s success at the West Nation border had plunged him into a new pit of his own making. Success at war had the Emperor insisting on Kastan’s presence in the Imperial Court. Kastan was unwilling to bring Rashan to the Imperial Palace, so he had declined the request. He cited concern for his son and wanting to return to Silver Shore to be with Rashan.

That was when the Emperor had suggested marriage for Kastan. This new wife would stay at Silver Shore to look after Rashan, while Kastan was away at the Imperial Court.

Rushi could not stop smiling at the memory of Kastan’s shocked expression at the suggestion. He had been shocked, and it had shown, and Rushi had enjoyed the torture she saw in Prince Kastan’s eyes every time the court discussed the topic of possible marriage.

“Queen Kyra is due back to Tanad Kingdom in a fortnight,” Fortan said. “His Imperial Majesty hopes to plan Prince Kastan’s wedding in time for her departure.”

Fortan was an Empress’s advisor and a good friend Rushi had recruited when she first married into the Akasha Imperial Family.

“If Prince Kastan remains at court as His Majesty plans, Her Majesty will have a hard time gaining balance at court,” Fortan said, voicing Rushi’s concerns.

“If Prince Kastan remains at court, life will get harder. He has my husband’s full attention,” Rushi said, with a shudder.

Rushi had not forgotten her husband’s warning. She remembered the fig tree on Kiyan’s arm. She knew that one day her son, Yan, would have the same tree.

He would need to lean on Yija and….Rashan Miran.

Her gaze narrowed.

While she could not control Kastan, she could gain control of Rashan Miran.

Young minds were easy to mold. In time, she would have Kastan’s power in her palm with little effort.

Rushi smiled.

Her husband worried, though he would not tell her about what. She did know that he was intent on Kastan marrying the daughter of a wealthy merchant known as Lord Duyi Kamran.

Kastan fought the wedding, even when Lord Revi himself brought up the matter at court.

“Fortan, what do you know of Lord Duyi and his wife?” Rushi asked.

“Lord Duyi Kamran is a merchant who loves throwing lavish parties at his manor. He was responsible for the West Nation war supplies. His wife, Mrs. Kamran, attends the social group I run at the Golden Flower Teahouse,” Fortan smiled. “She’s quite easy to talk to and follows majority opinion.”

“How malleable is she?” Rushi asked, a plot forming.

“She is quite timid. I have never seen her put up resistance,” Fortan said, smiling. “What does Her Majesty need?”

Rushi touched the red petals of a rose.

Lord Duyi and his wife would be ecstatic at the notion of a daughter married into the Imperial Family. Their status would climb up a few rungs, no longer merchants but a noble family with a title granted by the Emperor. She could almost smell their gratitude.

Rushi smiled.

A grateful daughter would be willing to do anything the Empress asked, including cultivate a relationship with Rashan. A relationship Rushi could exploit, as needed. She would have Rashan Miran under her control in no time at all.

“Invite Mrs. Kamran to visit me here at the palace,” Rushi said, turning away from the roses her son loved.

*~*~*~*

Kastan watched Yan and Yija play in their courtyard, a heavy weight resting on his shoulders. They looked happy to run around but it was limited depending on the day. Most of their mornings were reserved for lectures. Yan, Yija and other noble children their age met in the palace school room learning laws and regulations of society.

They memorized old texts and rules. They discussed nothing about what the people encountered outside the palace setting. They knew nothing of the cost of war, and the struggle families faced when the taxes were too high. Compared to his son, Rashan, their education was lacking. He made a note to have Safan reevaluate Rashan’s lessons to include the impact of West Nation’s war.

Two months since the West Nation war, and Kastan had yet to find a way to convince his brother to let him return to Silver Shore Valley. His presence at court was important as he was helping with creating security measures that protected the empire from any further invasion attempts by West Nation.

The process was time-consuming work.

Kiyan insisted Kastan work from the palace.

Kastan scratched his chin.

Now he knew that Kiyan insisted he stay at the palace in order to convince him to get married.

“What do you think of the Emperor’s suggestion?” Naveed asked, from Kastan’s left side.

Naveed was leaning on the wall watching the princes play too. He had the edge of a grass blade in his mouth. Kastan wondered where Naveed had found it. The palace had such cultured gardens it was hard to find any wild grass growing here.

“Marriage to Lord Duyi’s daughter, Andiya Kamran,” Temu said. “You have made no attempt to answer His Majesty’s request. What will you do?”

“I’m interested in a very carnal alliance with Lord Duyi’s son, not his daughter,” Kastan said with a small scoff. “I’m not interested in marriage. Rashan is still too young. He would not understand why someone new is replacing his mother as Consort.”

His men fell silent after that, each of them clear on how he felt about a wife, or partner.

Kastan had promised himself never to allow another delicate partner after Jian's death. His life was not easy. It was full of hardships, wars, political turmoil, and the brutal nature of death. A consort would need to be able to take on the responsibilities of helping him run an army large enough to protect an empire.

Kastan turned to face his men.

“Any news on Jihan?” Kastan asked.

“Nothing new,” Temu answered. “Kamran Estate’s front courtyard is busy with merchants. Jihan spends his time within the estate walls, or at his neighbor’s courtyard. We are still not able to infiltrate their inner circle. We can only watch from afar.”

“It’s good he is safe,” Kastan said, aware that his brother was doing all he could to control Jihan.

Like Temu, Kiyan had found no way into the airtight merchant network.

Jihan kept himself hidden at home, and had not left Kamran Estate.

Kastan continued to keep the secret of Jihan’s hideaway from his brother. He thought it the best option until he could find a solution to the proposed marriage.

“Keep watch,” Kastan said. “Start sending our men back to Silver Shore, Naveed. I’ll find a way to return home in the next week.”

“Are you sure you can win against your Emperor Brother?” Naveed asked. “He has kept you here despite your many attempts to leave.”

“I’ll find a way,” Kastan said. “I meet the three ancients in the imperial tower tonight. I’ll know what to do when I return.”

“What about your father?” Temu asked. “Will you meet him?”

Kastan thought about his father. The old man preferred to live an ordinary life, away from the pressures of the empire. He shuddered at the thought of approaching Kaveh Miran with this problem. He could almost feel the pain of his father’s walking stick striking his arm. No, he would solve this alone.

“Only when necessary,” Kastan said with a grimace.

That evening, during dinner, Kastan joined his brother and sister at the dining table set up in the emperor’s private suite. The empress had overseen preparation of the food on their table. She had not joined them, preferring to spend time with Yan and Yija.

Kastan had no doubt it was the best food in the empire, but he had no appetite, so he drank water through the meal.

“Lord Duyi is eager for imperial recognition,” Kiyan said, drawing Kastan’s attention.

It appeared his brother would push his agendas in a private setting too.

“He knows nothing of his son’s business network. He only knows that the Eagle’s Claw funds his manor and is able to afford him a lavish life. I’m not sure whether to applaud him or scold him.”

“He is easy to manipulate then,” Kyra said, waving her spoon in the air. “Order him to bring his son to the imperial palace, and we can find a way to hold him here.”

“That won’t work. Lord Duyi has summoned his son to the Imperial City twice in the last month with no result. This son is either too smart or too stubborn, or both,” Kiyan shook his head. “Marriage is still our best option to tie the Kamran family and their frightening connections to us. You can’t force loyalty unless with blood relations.”

Kiyan met Kastan’s stony gaze and smiled, making his point.

Kastan placed his goblet on the table and got up from his seat.

“If you’ll excuse me, I have an appointment with the imperial tower,” Kastan said, and turned to leave.

“You’ll see I’m right soon enough, brother,” Kiyan called after him.

*~*~*~*

The Imperial Tower was a round building off the main palace built to house the spiritual texts of the empire. The walls lined with books written through the ages by scholars, wise men and women, great rulers, foreigners and histories as told by ordinary men and women. The selection of books was endless.

Kastan had found much of his education in this tower. On the top floor of the tower, the secrets of the empire lived.

Guarded in a shroud of religious and spiritual belief, Kaveh Miran had called the three guardians of the empire ancients. They provided guidance for the Emperor if he felt the need for it, or for anyone in the family who needed it. The last time Kastan had climbed to the top floor of this building he had been about to marry Jian. Those days he had hoped to find a clear escape from the Palace. The guardians gave him hope that Silver Shore Valley was his rightful place.

Now, here he was again.

The three ancient souls who acted as keepers of the Imperial Family had helped forge the Akasha Empire, and given Kaveh Miran the blueprint to form a strong government. Kastan could never tell how old they were. All he knew was that they were as mysterious as the eagles he protected at Silver Shore, and the Shadow Guards who chose their charges with absolute discrimination.

Kastan entered the round room at the top with a shiver. He paused to close the double doors, and then turned to look at the old fig tree growing in the middle of the room. Its three branches were growing tall and its leaves greener than the grass in spring.

In typical fashion, the wind rose in the room, teasing the hem of Kastan’s silver gray robes, caressing his hair, and teasing the edges of his sleeves. He stood still as a tall man with gray hair appeared before him. Dressed in white robes, he took the tail of Kastan’s silver belt, tracing his thumb over the black tiger token hanging on the end of Kastan’s belt.

“It is always a pleasure to have the Black Tiger himself walk into this room,” the man said. “Your title suits you, Duke Silver.”

“What title is that, Ha?” Kastan asked, meeting amused dark eyes. “Thanks to you, I’ve ended up with so many.”

“I personally love that they call you the god of war,” a cheerful feminine voice said, filling the room.

In the next minute, a beautiful woman in green robes appeared by the large fig tree, her long dark hair almost sweeping the ground.

“You were magnificent at the mountain pass. Prince Kastan, you are magnificent in your triumph.”

“I would have been happy to stay at Silver Shore and not face a war,” Kastan felt compelled to remind them.

“Where would be the fun in life?” the woman asked, reaching for a strand of her hair to play with it.

Kastan would have answered that comment, only to stop when a shiver ran up his spine. The short man who appeared next to Ha stared at Kastan with a hard gaze. He wore simple white robes, his hair not as long as the other two. He held a fan, which he folded and used to point at Kastan.

“You have questions,” the short man said, looking to the woman by the tree. “Neith should offer answers.”

“Why not you, Bast?” Neith asked, with a bored tone.

“Kastan is worried,” Bast said, shaking his head. “You’re the one who gave Kiyan strange advice. You should fix it.”

“What strange advice?” Kastan asked, wondering if they had put Kiyan up to the idea of him marrying Andiya Kamran.

Ha let go of Kastan’s family token and moved away from Kastan. His arms clasped behind his back, he sighed.

“Prince Kastan,” Ha said. “Your heart is unsettled. It has been since you left Kin Town. Perhaps you should head to Kamran Estate yourself and meet that young man face to face.”

“Do you mean Jihan?” Kastan asked, staring at Ha’s back.

“Yes,” Neith said, her voice filled with pleasure. “Handsome, and so very smart, he also protects extraordinary friends in his home. I think you two would make such history.”

“Then why must I marry Andiya Kamran?” Kastan asked, surprised by the anger in his voice.

They weren’t even giving him a chance to get to know Jihan, and he wanted that opportunity so very much.

“Do not feel wronged,” Bast said. “The sequence of events must keep unfolding—”

“Stop,” Kastan said, raising his hand to stop Bast from talking. “I don’t want prophecies, or declarations of the future. Why can’t you give me clear direction?”

Ha returned to Kastan’s side, and caressed Kastan’s left jaw with a cool hand. His gaze golden in the light of the room, it was unnerving to hold his gaze. Kastan found himself holding his breath.

“Prince Kastan, you have been patient and supportive of your family’s obligations. Don’t lose hope now. Bast means that you must reach Kamran Estate for fate to answer your question,” Ha said. “Once the last piece of the puzzle falls into place, you will find yourself at Jihan’s estate, making a decision that decides your future. It won’t be long now.”

“What about Andiya?” Kastan asked, confused.

“What about her?” Neith asked.

“I thought you were here to ask about Jihan?” Ha asked, smiling at him.

“Andiya is a wonderful soul,” Bast said, walking to the large fig tree in the middle of the room to join Neith.

Kastan frowned and Ha kissed his forehead, his gaze still amused.

“You’ll be happy again,” Ha said, his tone full of promise, it had Kastan’s heart beating fast.

Ha turned to join Bast and Neith and they disappeared as fast as they appeared, leaving Kastan in a state of confusion.

Why had he come up here again?

Kastan shook his head.

They never ever gave him a straight answer.

*~*~*~*

“Andiya is with child,” Ishan said, still on his knees. “My child, Jihan, I’m here to take my wife home.”

Jihan pressed fingers into his eyes and turned away from his best friend. He was not sure how to react. The first instinct was anger. He had trusted Ishan with his sister. He had expected his best friend to look out for her, not seduce her and make her pregnant. Why was Ishan telling him, and not Andiya?

Gods…his sister was…what?

“I’ll pay any amount of dowry you ask—,” Ishan started.

“Wait!” Jihan interrupted Ishan, turning to look at Andiya. He shook his head. “Andiya, Lord Gura is talking but I can’t seem to understand what he’s saying. Will you make sense of it?”

“Jihan,” Ishan said.

“I said to wait!” Jihan snapped at Ishan.

His gaze remained on his sister who placed the slice of mango she held on her plate. Her silence was enough to let Jihan know Ishan was speaking the truth.

The world he knew tilted and for a moment, he had no control.

“An, you’re going to be an uncle soon,” Andiya said, not moving from her spot on the bench. “I’m sorry it had to happen this way. It was a surprise for me too.”

“A surprise?” Jihan wiped a hand down his face, feeling betrayed.

Their lives were already hard enough, hiding away from the Imperial Family, adding on a child born to a disgraced noble house….

Jihan cursed under his breath and turned away from both his sister and best friend. Letting out a frustrated sigh, he walked back to the house, climbing the steps; he took up a stick the night watchmen used to kindle fire.

Walking back down the stairs, his gaze on Ishan, he twirled the long stick calculating the best way to let out his frustration.

Firuz stepped in his way, protecting Ishan.

“Move,” Jihan said, gripping the stick tight, his gaze on Ishan. “Don’t get in the way, Firuz.”

“You’ll get hurt,” Firuz said. “I have to get in the way.”

Jihan clutched the long stick, his gaze never leaving Ishan who got to his feet, eyes wide.

“You haven’t even given me a chance to explain,” Ishan said, lifting his right hand, as though to calm Jihan.

“I left my sister in your care while I faced war. What part of my request included kissing her, and-and hugging her and…and,” Jihan closed his eyes and gripped the stick he held tighter. “Y-you compromised her. How long were you going to keep it from me?”

“I’m here now to ask you for her hand in marriage,” Ishan said, raising both his hands up in surrender. “Jihan, I love Andiya. I want her to be my wife.”

Jihan cursed again. He stared at his best friend for a moment, and then his gaze cut to Andiya who sat on her bench eating slices of raw mangoes, watching them as though they were in a play. Her recent illness filling any doubts he might have about Ishan’s claim.

Still, it annoyed him that Ishan had sneaked in without a word. Stealing away his sister with one powerful move, Jihan had no way to fight back.

He shook his head and turned to Firuz.

“Go break his arms for me,” Jihan said to Firuz.

“Why?” Firuz asked, meeting his gaze, his tone bored.

“He touched my sister!” Jihan yelled. “Now do it!”

Firuz sighed and crossed the distance to Ishan.

Jihan gave Ishan points for not running when Firuz approached him. Ishan’s arms dropped to his sides, and he bit his bottom lip when Firuz took his left arm. Nervous energy wrapped around him as Firuz tightened his grip.

“Start with his right,” Jihan said, feeling mean.

“You’re not serious about this, are you?” Ishan asked, his tone wavering, his worried gaze on Jihan now. “Jihan, come on, you’re my brother. When I marry Andiya, we’ll be family. Do you want us to start our new life like this? How will I provide for your sister without a good arm?”

“You don’t have to worry about that. I’ll provide for Andiya,” Jihan said, shaking his head. “How could you—?”

Firuz gripped Ishan’s right arm and smiled at Ishan.

“Don’t fault me for this, Lord Gura. I’m bound to him so I have to do what he wants.”

Ishan sighed and nodded his hair a mess around his shoulders. He looked like a crazy man losing his wits even as he desperately tried to cling to them.

“Firuz, it’s not your fault. I know my friend’s temper. He is irrational when it comes to his dear big sister. I can’t fault him right now. This is a lot to take in. Andiya has looked out for him forever, so I can take a little pain. Make sure to make it easy for me to heal. I know it will be painful…”

Ishan continued, as Firuz delayed his orders.

“An,” Andiya called from her spot on the bench. “Would this be a good time to tell you that I seduced Ishan in his carriage when we were at Silver Shore?”

“Andiya!” Jihan found himself shouting in exasperation.

“I just couldn’t resist him,” Andiya continued, ignoring Jihan’s glare. “Look at him. He’s so handsome, and that scholarly cloud wrapped around him is hard to ignore. The man knows about everything. I couldn’t help myself. I pressed my palms to his cheeks and took his lips with mine. What do you think of that?”

Jihan gaped, his gaze sliding away from Andiya to the crowd of merchants now standing at the gate watching the scene unfold.

The merchant community, while private from everyone else, had an excellent knack for spreading news. Everyone they knew would have a full account of this incident.

Jihan closed his eyes and shuddered.

“Don’t rile him up, my dear,” Ishan called to Andiya.

“I have to, my love,” Andiya said. “If I don’t, you’ll have no arms, which will be really sad. How will you hold our children, Ishan? Firuz’s strength is no joke. I’m just protecting my husband to-be.”

“Shut up both of you,” Jihan shouted, breaking the stick he held.

He dropped it and reached up, digging his fingers into his hair. He held on for a full second, and then dropped his hands to his sides.

The annoyance he was feeling had nothing to do with Andiya and Ishan.

No, it had to do with him…and the frustration of having to walk away from a man he would have wanted to keep.

Jihan was jealous of Ishan’s freedom. Now that he knew a child existed, Jihan would make sure Andiya and Ishan ended up together. He did not have that option. The thought left him sad. He pushed it away and focused on the matter at hand.

“Firuz, let go of Ishan,” Jihan said, beckoning Firuz back to his side. “Ishan, my dear big sister is worth more than all the precious stones you can find in this Empire of Akasha. Go home and think about what bride price you would afford for one such as her.”

“Does that mean you are accepting my proposal?” Ishan asked, delighted.

Jihan bit his bottom lip, his gaze shifting to Andiya who placed the mango slice she held on the table. She ran down the path of the lotus garden to join Ishan on the main path to the house. She wiped her hands on her skirts and took the steps to reach Jihan.

“Are you accepting him, An?” she asked, her tone hopeful.

Her gaze even more so, she believed in him.

“You know the decision of your marriage lies with Ma and Pa,” Jihan said, knowing their father would mount a protest the size of the empire on this matter.

“I have not seen them in years. They don’t know me, Jihan, not as you do. That’s why I’m asking you,” Andiya said, moving to take Jihan’s right hand in both of hers. “I only ever care what you think, An. You’ll fight for me and Ishan, won’t you?”

Jihan met Andiya’s gaze and once again found himself unable to deny her what she wanted. He wished for her happiness and would do anything to give it to her. He looked away, staring at the lotus garden for a moment, and then he turned to find Ishan watching him too.

“I’ll make her happy,” Ishan promised, as though reading his thoughts.

“I know you will,” Jihan said, then pulled Andiya into a hug. “If Ishan is who you want, then by all means, have him. Be happy, Andiya.”

Andiya tightened her arms around him and laughed a joyful pleased sound that filled Jihan up with warmth.

A round of applause filled the morning, and Jihan looked up to find his workers and the visiting merchants all clapping at the good news. Shouts filled the morning and Jihan held his sister as a few men called out to Andiya.

“Congratulations, Lady Andiya!”

“Lord Ishan, you’re very lucky to get our Andiya!”

Jihan let go of his sister, and watched her hurry to Ishan’s side. She kissed Ishan in celebration and he groaned wondering how he had ever hoped to keep them apart.

“Should we send a message to your father?” Firuz asked.

Jihan watched Deora and Vion hurry to congratulate Andiya and Ishan, followed by everyone in the outer courtyard.

Thinking about his father, Jihan frowned.

“Sometimes, it is better to beg for forgiveness after the deed,” Jihan murmured. “Let’s write to him at the latest possible moment.”

“When will that be?” Firuz asked.

“When Andiya is the mistress of Gura Estate?” Jihan asked, with a half-smile.

Firuz gave a groan and shook his head.

“You’re courting trouble, Master Jihan.”

“Aren’t I always?” Jihan asked.

He breathed in, long and hard, looking up at the bright morning.

Well, if he couldn’t find happiness, he would make sure that his sister kept hers, no matter the cost.

“Firuz, let’s plan a wedding. I feel like celebrating,” Jihan said, looking at his sister.

Vion was dancing around Andiya in celebration, clapping his hands.

Andiya laughed at Vion’s antics, the joy on her face was enough.

Jihan met Ishan’s gaze.

With tacit agreement, Jihan turned and led the way to his study in the house, Ishan following him.

*~*~*~*

Two days later, on an afternoon, Kastan arrived at the military command offices in the Imperial Palace after a busy morning training new recruits and found a letter from the Imperial Diet. It was an approval of his marriage to Andiya Kamran, signed and sealed by the Empress Rushi.

Kastan clutched the scroll tight and left his office, eager to find his brother. His blood was boiling with anger when he found Kiyan in his wife’s spice workshop in the back of the palace. Rushi was busy grinding herbs, her staff moving around her in constant motion. She gave Kastan a sly smile that only served to anger him.

“You promised to give me time,” Kastan said, holding up the marriage approval and looking at Kiyan. “Kiyan—”

“Isn’t it rude to address His Imperial Majesty by his name, Your Imperial Highness,” Rushi said, her tone too sweet.

Kastan wished he could ignore her comment, but she was the Empress, and his brother’s wife.

“I apologize for the oversight,” Kastan said, after a moment.

He lowered his head in Rushi’s direction, and then turned to his brother.

“I requested time to think about this marriage, Your Imperial Majesty.”

“Time is not something I can afford,” Kiyan said, his tone unapologetic. “Imperial Prince Kastan is obligated to help this empire, as needed. Right now, this empire needs you to marry Andiya Kamran. Your Emperor is giving you an order. Do you dare refuse to obey?”

Kastan’s grip on the scroll tightened and he lowered his gaze.

“But—”

“The Empress is responsible for making sure our Imperial House is in order,” Kiyan said, cutting off Kastan. “She is willing to arrange a lavish ceremony for your wedding here at the palace. I thought it was a good idea to celebrate your victory over West Nation. Rashan can visit with us for a while…” Kiyan trailed off, drawing Kastan’s gaze, “before you return to Silver Shore as a family.”

Kastan’s gaze widened as he stared at his brother.

The last time they had talked, Kiyan had hoped to keep him at the palace while his new wife stayed at Silver Shore. Meeting Kiyan’s complicated gaze, Kastan tried to decipher what his brother’s decision meant.

Why had Kiyan decided to order him into a marriage, why when—?

“His Imperial Majesty is very kind, don’t you think?” Rushi asked Kastan, drawing him out of his thoughts.

Kastan’s gaze shifted to Rushi, and for a moment, he thought he read a complicated exchange between the Emperor and his wife.

Knowing when he was defeated, Kastan brought his right hand over his chest and bowed his head in respect.

“The wedding is in a fortnight,” Rushi continued, acknowledging his bow with a nod. “The bride’s parents are expecting a visit from you, Your Imperial Highness. They are very partial to gifts.”

Kastan grimaced and dropped his hand to his side. He left the workroom soon after, walking fast, heading to his private quarters followed by Naveed. When he was behind closed doors, he read the marriage order from the Empress again, and cursed.

“Ask Temu to ride fast to Kamran Estate,” Kastan said. “This is as good as an edict and Jihan will do his best to escape it. Stop him if you can, otherwise, his whole family will end up like Lord Villes.”

“Yes, Your Grace,” Naveed said.

“Naveed, send a message to Safan,” Kastan said. “Tell him to keep Rashan at Sun-filled Manor.”

Left alone, Kastan removed his military uniform and hurried to change into civilian clothes.

Rushi was right.

He needed to meet Duyi Kamran and have a talk.

The royal order in his hands looked like a plot devised by Rushi. He did not know what she wanted out of his marriage to Andiya, but he would was certain he would not let her have it.

*~*~*~*

“Taste it.”

Jihan stared at the peach slice his sister held, its juices slid down her slender wrist, dripping to the cobbled courtyard floor. Andiya brought the juicy morsel closer to his lips once more and he gave in. He opened his mouth and took in the fruit slice.

Sweet and tangy taste exploded in his mouth and he smiled at Andiya.

“Delicious,” Jihan said, his gaze returning to the ledger he was writing.

“Delicious,” she mocked his tone, and then laughed, jumping off the platform where he sat.

She ran down the stairs to the open space below.

“Ishan! Did you hear him? The peach is clearly tastier than anything he has ever had. Why does he sound like he’s bored? Tell me, Ishan, what am I to do with this little brother?”

Jihan noted down the number of crates they were taking from Ishan’s orchard and glanced up to see Ishan wrap an arm around Andiya’s waist. His older sister laughed when Ishan twirled her around, holding her tight against him.

Jihan placed his pen on its holder and watched them tease each other.

Their love was sweet to look at, and marvel over. The news of their coming child had everyone at Kamran Estate and even at Ishan’s Gura Orchards excited. Their families bound into one by the pair.

Jihan wondered what their parents would say about this match.

The courtyard was alive with activity. Workers coming in from Ishan’s orchard, carrying crates of peaches to be taken by Jihan’s workers in carts to the wine factory. The women who worked in Ishan’s estate cooked in the corner, in anticipation of feeding the army of workers today.

Ishan and Andiya moved between each group keeping up morale, or so it would seem to others, but Jihan knew how much Andiya loved Ishan. They stayed close to each other because Ishan worried for Andiya’s wellbeing. He wanted her healthy for their baby.

They were also stealing time together because Jihan had yet to decide on a wedding date.

He watched Ishan help Andiya sit on a bench, and shook his head when Ishan knelt next to his sister, looking up at her like a man lost.

Jihan envied them their connection. Looking away when Ishan whispered into Andiya’s ear, Jihan could not help wondering what Kastan was doing.

Would Kastan ever think to whisper in his ear?

The thought had him shaking his head at how unlikely that was.

“Jihan,” Andiya called to him, and he turned to find her holding two huge peaches.

She held them to her eyes and made a pout.

Jihan chuckled at the silliness of it all. Ishan grinned and the courtyard erupted into laughter as Andiya continued her antics to make Jihan laugh.

Jihan indulged her for a few minutes, until the next batch of crates came into the courtyard and he had to pick up his pen to note them down. He worked steadily for the next hour, and right as lunch was ready, he looked up to see Firuz enter the outer courtyard from the stables.

Jihan finished writing the number of crates that had just passed, and the cost in his ledger. He pushed the ledger aside when Firuz reached him and crouched beside him, the grip on his sword tight.

“Master Jihan,” Firuz said. “There is news about your father.”

“Is he alright?” Jihan asked, afraid his father had finally annoyed the wrong nobles.

Jihan had ignored his father’s summons to appear in the Imperial City twice in the past few months. He was trying to keep a low profile, in the face of the Imperial Family taking an interest in him. He wished his father would stay still for a moment and let things cool down.

Firuz handed Jihan a rolled note.

“This came in from Swallow. He is doing business in the Imperial City Akan.”

“So, what’s the news from the Capital?” Jihan asked, unrolling the note to read.

“The Emperor has made a royal announcement,” Firuz said, his expression filled with urgency. “He insists on a royal wedding between a Kamran child and Second Prince, Duke Silver.”

Jihan sucked in air, his gaze on his sister who sat next to Ishan adding grilled fish slices on his bowl.

“Father?” Jihan asked.

“He is delighted by the idea of his family tied to the royal family, even though it is a second marriage for Duke Silver,” Firuz said. “Your father is making preparations for the wedding as we speak. He will come to take Andiya to the capital personally.”

Jihan looked away from his smiling sister and stared at the note he held. Heart pounding with worry at the thought of Andiya forced to marry into the Imperial Family. His sister was happy. She loved Ishan. They were having a child together.

Their father would never understand that love. He would force Andiya to give it up.

“Should we tell Andiya?” Firuz asked.

“Not yet,” Jihan said. “Let’s finish the harvest. Today is the last day. I’ll tell them both later this evening, after we figure out what we’ll do.”

“Alright.”

“Contain this news.” Jihan glanced at Ishan and Andiya, nodding when Andiya smiled at him. “You and I will need to work hard to reduce the damage from this royal announcement. I’m afraid Kamran Estate might suffer a huge loss at the end of it. There can be no mistakes.”

“Yes, Master.”

Firuz got up and hurried off, leaving Jihan to read the note from his ex-lover, turned friend.

JK,

Congratulations on succeeding with your war supply run. You’re always the best, Jihan. I’m in the Imperial City and word has reached me that you’ll have to face the Imperial Family as in-laws very soon. The Dragon calls it a reward for your family’s good work.

Beware of this gift given by the Dragon Seat. The war exposed Kamran, leaving you open to jealousy and envy from court officials. Your network is powerful and The Dragon seeks to own it. Your father is blind to the Dragon’s reasons; he has jumped at this opportunity to gain nobility.

Jihan, I know you. I also know that your sister’s happiness is important to you. Whatever you plan, please be careful. Let me know if I can help you in any way,

Your faithful friend,

Swallow.

Jihan reread the letter twice, and then reached for the bowl left by Andiya an hour ago for drinking water. He sunk the letter into the bowl, soaking it with water. His gaze stayed on the ink fading from the paper, his thoughts on the difficult future ahead. He could never have imagined catching the Emperor’s attention.

Jihan could only hope his father was not too eager to be father in-law to a prince.

A hopeless fantasy, he thought.

Duyi Kamran seemed to have achieved his goal with the ultimate prize.

It was now Jihan’s turn to disappoint his father for the first time in his life. Andiya would have her happiness.

*~*~*~*

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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The whole time I was reading this chapter, a scene from The Lion in Winter kept playing in my head.  In it Eleanor of Aquitaine is arguing with her son, Prince Richard and he says:


You're so deceitful you can't ask for water when you're thirsty. We could tangle spiders in the webs you weave

 

Of course the fact that the fabulous Katherine Hepburn and in his first major role, Anthony Hopkins were doing the acting the scene simply crackled with electricity. 

I don't think the Empress is really that smart or subtle, and if the Emperor can't control her; she will definitely need to be removed.  But this engineering by her, will at least bring matters to the head.  I am starting to think much less of the Emperor as well, he is either blinded to his wife's actions or truly doesn't understand what is behind them; either makes him maybe just as dangerous to the survival of the Empire as she is..

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Excellent chapter! Andiya’s seduction of Ishan and the fact that she’s pregnant with his child, complicates Jihan’s choices after receiving the Royal Decree. We know that he defy’s the decree and is prepared to die for his sister’s happiness from the prologue. Now we just have to wait to see what other twists and turns are going to happen before the end of this amazing story. I’m definitely looking forward to the next chapter! 😃❤️

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IMO the Empress is very flawed by her upbringing and is still trying to control that which she should not. I had to laugh that she thought she could control or even influence Andiya even a little, based on the intelligence report on Jihan's parents.

I do have to admit that I reread parts of this chapter after reading @travlbug's analysis.  I agree that Kiyan is testing both Kastan and Jihan.  I also think Kiyan is a lot more intelligent and crafty than I thought before.  He is getting what he wants using his wife, siblings and court without their knowing what is really happening.

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