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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 - 9. Chapter 9

Will it be a Prince Consort?

A heavy wave of festivity filled Kamran Estate.

Jihan’s staff swept the courtyards clean, lined them with hanging red lanterns and festive streamers. Beautiful flowers in vases lined the paths to the inner courtyard, and the steps into all the buildings at the estate. Deora had all the staff working in the kitchens busy preparing food for the guests who were arriving every minute.

Every merchant who worked under Kamran knew how important Andiya was to Jihan.

To hear that Jihan’s sister was getting married to Jihan’s best friend, well, that wedding needed attending. The guests came at all hours of the day and night. They brought gifts and wishes of happiness for Andiya and Ishan. Each guest a special partner in the Kamran business, no one mentioned the fact that Lord Duyi and his wife were missing.

Instead, all the guests looked forward to Andiya’s wedding, which was in two days.

Jihan had a moment of surprise when Tagon and his wife arrived at Kamran Estate.

Surprise in that he was genuinely glad to see Tagon. No hard emotions lingered in his heart, and he even smiled and greeted Tagon’s wife with sincerity. His old love for Tagon had changed. His time with Kastan had healed his heartbreak with Tagon. It felt good to look at Tagon and be glad to see him again.

“You look different.”

Tagon told him much later when they were exploring the warehouse in the outer courtyard.

Jihan loved showing Tagon the progress he had made in his operations.

Tagon always gave him the best advice.

“What’s different?” Jihan asked, pausing by a crate full of intricate candleholders.

Jihan remembered meeting the artisan at the Imperial City market. He handed Tagon one of the candleholders and watched him study it.

“These are good,” Tagon said, weighing the candleholder on one hand. “I know a few houses that would appreciate these. Send three crates to my warehouse in Sun Kingdom.”

Jihan nodded and waved the closest attendant over to give him the order. They continued their walk through the warehouse.

“You look on the cusp of an undertaking,” Tagon said, with a quick smile. “Like you have been planning a project and you’re finally seeing it through.”

“I guess you could call Andiya’s wedding an undertaking,” Jihan said, leading the way to the exit doors of his warehouse. He clasped his hands at his back and sighed. “She’s been my rock since I could remember. I’ve always wanted to make sure she’s happy. Ishan is good for her. He will make her happy.”

“Jihan, what aren’t you saying?” Tagon asked, stopping to look at Jihan. “Is something wrong?”

Jihan studied Tagon, wishing he could spill all his worries to this man he had once loved.

Yet, he could not. Tagon was a newlywed. He deserved to enjoy his married life without his ex-lover interfering.

Jihan smiled at Tagon.

“Nothing is wrong, Tagon. Why would you think that?”

“Jihan,” Tagon started, but Jihan kept walking ahead, out into the busy outer courtyard.

“Tagon, I rely on your support, you know that right? I know that you would support Kamran even if something happened to me. Andiya would take over operations, I would hope—”

“I would support her. Nothing would change. You should never doubt that,” Tagon said. “Gods, Jihan. I’m still your friend even though we’re no longer lovers.”

Jihan nodded, relieved.

“Then all is well, Tagon.” Jihan grinned. “My sister is getting married. Andiya is getting married and I’ll be an uncle soon.”

Tagon chuckled and wrapped an arm around Jihan’s shoulders.

“You must know that Andiya’s children will always have an uncle in me too,” Tagon said. “Let’s go toast to Andiya’s happiness.”

Jihan smiled.

He was glad to have his old friendship with Tagon back. Their separation had weighed on him. They spent the rest of the day together. After a hearty lunch, they ended up in Jihan’s study talking business, until Tagon’s wife came to get him for a private talk.

Jihan watched them leave his study with a sense of contentment.

There was a time seeing Tagon and his wife would have left him bitter and angry.

Now…he felt…glad and a bit envious of Tagon’s happiness.

Jihan sat back in his seat.

He sat in the silence of his office thinking about Kastan.

He closed his eyes, filling his thoughts with his memories of Kastan. He remembered sitting on comfortable cushions in Kastan’s command tent. They drank peach wine, and he teased Kastan over his strange love for Jihan's long hair. He remembered tracing the scar on Kastan’s right brow and wondering who had dared scar Kastan’s face. Kastan took his wrist in a gentle lock of his strong, callused fingers. Kastan held his gaze, and then leaned in to capture his lips in a soft kiss.

Jihan brought his right hand to his lips, the memory of Kastan’s kiss so real, as though it had happened seconds ago.

His breath caught and he opened his eyes to his empty study.

The ache inside him bloomed and he bit his bottom lip hoping to drown it.

Laughter filled the afternoon, and Jihan got up, walking to the windows to see the inner courtyard. He stayed hidden as he watched Andiya and Ishan entertain Tagon and his wife. They sat on the benches in the lotus garden enjoying afternoon tea.

They were joined by a few of the merchants who had come visiting.

Jihan watched his best friend, Ishan, fan Andiya to keep her cool in the warm afternoon.

Love, he decided in that moment was unexpected.

A soft knock came on his study door, and he turned to see Firuz enter the room. The sense of urgency in Firuz’s eyes had Jihan moving away from the window.

“What is it?”

“Your father is on his way to Kamran Estate,” Firuz said, handing Jihan a note from Garren. “He is traveling in a slow carriage. Garren says we should give him three to four days before he gets here.”

Jihan read Garren’s note, confirming that his father had stopped at the Eagle’s Claw for supplies the evening before. Duyi was traveling with men from the royal investigative bureau. Garren thought they were the Emperor’s men.

Jihan fought down panic.

“There’s more,” Firuz said, holding out a small red cloth bag. “This message came right after Garren’s arrived. It is from your father. I dared not open it.”

Jihan placed Garren’s note on his desk and took the red cloth bag. The material used was rich silk, the tassels on the drawstring heavy. Jihan removed the rolled parchment of paper, sealed with red wax.

A slip of folded paper fell out, and Firuz bent down to pick it up.

Jihan stood still as he stared at the imperial crest on the seal. The phoenix embossed on the red wax was enough to stop his heart. This was from the Empress Rushi. He breathed out, and looked at Firuz who took a step closer to him, as though to take on the shock himself.

Jihan’s fingers trembled as he broke the seal, and unrolled the expensive paper.

His Imperial Majesty, the Emperor Kiyan, grants Lady Andiya Kamran permission to marry his brother, Imperial Prince Kastan, Commander of Armies, Duke of Silver Shore. She shall be known as Imperial Princess Consort. This marriage is approved by the Imperial Diet.’

Jihan dropped the scroll as though burned. He took the note Firuz held out and opened it fast. The note was from his father.

Andiya is to come to the capital.

Make sure her trunks are filled with the best clothes and her jewelry case is impressive. The Emperor has given me an escort and a carriage to bring Andiya to the capital. Jihan, thank you for your hard work. Thanks to you, our family has received grace from the Emperor himself. He insists on tying our families together through marriage. We will be related to royalty. Andiya is to be Princess Consort to His Imperial Highness, Prince Kastan Miran. The Emperor has named me Viscount of Gamo, and granted our family extensive lands and a villa in Silver Nation. We’ll talk more when I get home.’

Jihan dropped his father’s letter too and slammed his palm on his desk.

A wave of anger and fear swept through him in equal measure. He worried his heart would burst out of his chest.

When would his father give him a moment of peace? Why did he feel so justified making decisions for them: for him, for Andiya?

Jihan hissed and slammed his palm on the desk again.

Viscount, he scoffed.

Lord Duyi was a genuine noble man now.

One of the courtiers, Jihan shook his head.

His gaze moved to the imperial order on the floor. In it was a grant of marriage. His sister married to Duke Silver.

Jihan shuddered.

His lover married to his beloved sister.

Bile rose up and he ran out of his study to the back of the house. He fell to his knees on the long lemon grass patch and gave up all the food he had eaten that day. His eyes filled with tears from the exertion.

When he sat back, Firuz handed him a goblet filled with cold water. He used the water to clean his mouth and wash his face.

He moved away from his sick, and sat on the pebbled path at the back of the house.

Firuz sat beside him, and handed him a small towel.

“You knew it was coming,” Firuz reminded him. “Swallow sent you a warning.”

Jihan wiped his mouth and stared at the white towel he held. He thought of Kastan’s kisses, Kastan holding him in the throes of passion, imagined Kastan holding Andiya and his stomach clenched.

“It’s different,” Jihan said. “Seeing that order makes it real and inescapable, I am officially committing treason.”

“Jihan—”

“It doesn’t help that I’m jealous,” Jihan continued, ignoring Firuz. “Why Andiya? I wish I could take her place, and get to keep Kastan for myself, but that’s not what the Emperor wants. It is certainly not what my father would like. Firuz, do you think I’m a selfish bastard for wanting to marry Andiya off to Ishan?”

“Andiya wants to marry Ishan,” Firuz said. “She loves Ishan. She does not know Duke Silver.”

“According to that edict upstairs, Andiya is now Imperial Princess Consort. What am I to do now?” Jihan closed his eyes. “Here I was, afraid my father would be the reason we all ended up dead. Instead, it has turned out I’ll be the reason for Kamran’s demise.”

“Jihan, you are only doing what you think is right.”

“Anyone else would force their sister to marry Prince Kastan,” Jihan said, “for the power, and the title…for the chance to be associated with Silver Shore.”

Jihan bit his bottom lip.

“You are not anyone else,” Firuz said, drawing Jihan’s gaze. “I chose to protect you because you are unique. Have you forgotten?”

Firuz extended his left arm to Jihan, and pulled back the dark sleeves of his tunic. On his wrist was a dark intricate tattoo with vines tangled in Jihan’s name. Jihan traced his thumb over the tattoo and smiled when it swirled and his name shimmered on Firuz’s inner wrist.

“I have never understood your kind,” Jihan murmured, pulling Firuz’s sleeve down to cover the tattoo. “How are you okay with binding yourself to one life? Why don’t you want a life of your own, Firuz?”

“As you know, Jihan, I was born in Levan in the depths of Blood Nation’s valleys,” Firuz said, his voice low, his gaze distant as he talked of his past. “My parents are Shadow Guards, making my blood pure. They gave me to the Quadrum at the age of three. I drank the Quadrum’s elixirs and lived their training. When I had lived two decades, the choice to leave and start a family was given to me. I refused it, favoring the Quadrum and the life of a Shadow Guard. It is where I’m happiest, Jihan. It is my choice to protect.”

“I heard one of you serves the Queen of Tanad,” Jihan said, folding his arms on his lap. “Surely, you would wish for such a life.”

“Don’t insult my choice to defend your twelve year old self,” Firuz said. “When I met you, you were an angry child, Jihan. The only things you lived for were to succeed and protect your sister. If your family had not made the plea to the Quadrum for a Shadow Guard, I fear you might be long dead by now.”

“I wasn’t that bad,” Jihan said, with a sigh.

Firuz chuckled.

“I remember accepting the order to find you. I left Levan thinking you were a quiet twelve year old that needed babysitting at the most. Instead, I found you in the Iron Lands main city, egging Lord Revi’s master merchant at the time for being too stupid at negotiation. You got one thousand silver taels for substandard silk from him when it was only worth five hundred. You made him so angry he wanted to kill you. You left the teahouse carrying a bag full of silver taels, pleased with yourself, but oblivious to the ghost warriors who followed you.”

“I was very aware,” Jihan protested, even though he knew Firuz was right.

He had been young and excited over the high of winning.

“We first met that evening, Jihan,” Firuz said.

Jihan chuckled, remembering that Firuz had caught a flying blade with his bare hand and thrown it back at Jihan’s attacker. Firuz’s skill at fighting had impressed him so much that he stood gawking for a while.

Firuz saved him that evening, and then introduced himself as Jihan’s Shadow Guard.

“You said, ‘I’ll follow your footsteps,’” Jihan repeated what Firuz told him in greeting. He shook his head now and clutched the towel he held. “You have, Firuz, every step of the way. I don’t know what crazy idea made you choose to protect me, but my footsteps have led us here.”

“You sound sad about it,” Firuz said.

“I’m leading us to our deaths,” Jihan murmured, staring at the pebbles on the path. “I’m not sorry about it, Firuz. There is no way to escape an angry Emperor.”

“My life is bound to yours, Jihan,” Firuz said. “I will follow you until the end.”

It was a waste.

Firuz was strong and capable. He deserved to continue living on. Jihan wished he could change the Shadow Guard ways, but their traditions were older than the rumored ancients living in the imperial palace tower. He also knew better than to voice his opinion on Firuz’s choices.

A Shadow Guard’s bond was not light.

Jihan had yet to hear about a Shadow Guard that had survived their chosen master’s death. Maybe he could make a legend of Firuz by saving him.

“Andiya cannot meet our father,” Jihan said, turning his thoughts to their immediate problem. “I will not be able to do anything about it. I cannot see her in danger, and Lord Duyi knows that. He will force her into the carriage and drag her to the capital."

“The wedding is in two days,” Firuz said. “What can he do if he finds her married?”

“You’ve seen him in a rage, Firuz,” Jihan said, shaking his head.

His father was selfish. Duyi was a man capable of placing his ten-year-old son in danger while he lived in comfort in the Imperial Capital City.

Now that a title was at stake…Lord Duyi Kamran, the Viscount of Gamo, Jihan scoffed.

“He will have Ishan murdered,” Jihan said, with certainty. “Ishan’s death will devastate Andiya, and I’ll end up holding two funerals in this estate. I refuse to face such a calamity.”

Firuz kept his silence.

“Where will you send them?” Firuz asked after a moment of silence.

Jihan rubbed his forehead, thinking hard.

“I can send them to Swallow,” Jihan said. “Swallow can keep them safe, and out of reach. Pa does not know Swallow. It will buy me time to face him and an Imperial Inquiry.”

“Jihan—” Firuz started.

“Andiya is pregnant,” Jihan reminded Firuz. “The existence of that child seals our fates, Firuz. The Imperial Family will not accept a child from outside the palace. If anything, they’ll get rid of it. When she marries Ishan, our own father will have it out for them. I’m the only one who wants to protect Andiya and her child now.”

Firuz sighed and closed his eyes. “An inquiry could mean you end up in an imperial prison.”

“Yes. It will strip me off this estate, the jackals will descend and everything I’ve built will collapse,” Jihan said, pain stabbing deep into his heart. “All because I can’t stand the idea of Andiya marrying Duke Silver against her will.”

“I’ll protect you,” Firuz promised.

Jihan nodded, quite aware that Firuz would do his best to keep him alive even in a hopeless situation. He would need to find a way to protect Firuz too.

Jihan shifted to get up and smiled when Firuz took his right arm and helped him up.

“I’ve never thanked you,” Jihan said, meeting Firuz’s gaze, “for following my lead all this time.”

“There is no need for thanks between us,” Firuz said, and Jihan believed him.

“I’m grateful to fate for the gift of you,” Jihan said making Firuz smile.

They started for the backdoor into the house and Firuz asked.

“Will you tell Andiya about this?”

“I want to wait,” Jihan started.

“No.” Firuz’s answer came from intuition. “Tell them tonight, let’s plan everything. I have a…feeling.”

Jihan stopped to look at Firuz for a second, and then nodded.

“Alright, as you say, Firuz. I’ll tell them this evening after our evening meal.”

*~*~*~*

Late in the afternoon, Jihan, Firuz and Tagon were busy checking on Andiya’s wedding carriage, making sure it was safe, when Swallow arrived at the estate. He came alone without his wife, and Jihan remembered that Swallow had been staying at the Imperial City Akan.

Jihan wiped his hands on the cloth he was using to shine the red carriage doors, and hurried to meet Swallow at the front gates.

Despite their past, Swallow remained his oldest friend. It was Swallow who saved him and Andiya from bandits when he first started business at a young age. It was also Swallow who helped him build Kamran into the vast network it was now.

Jihan stood watching his oldest friend dismount his horse, wiping his hands on the cloth he held. Stepping out onto the main road, he smiled a welcome and gasped when Swallow rushed him, pulling Jihan into a tight hug.

Jihan had not known he needed the comfort.

Swallow always seemed to know when he needed someone to lean on. Thinking of what was to come; Jihan stood still for a moment, then let out a tired sigh and sank into Swallow’s embrace. He closed his eyes, burying his face into Swallow’s shoulder, allowing himself a minute or two of weakness.

Swallow did not disappoint him, taking his weight, and squeezing him tight. It felt like Swallow was trying to infuse Jihan with his strength.

“I’ve got you,” Swallow murmured, pressing a kiss on Jihan’s temple.

*~*~*~*

Standing on the thickest branch of a gingko tree, Temu extended his spyglass, studying Jihan’s reaction to the man holding him outside the Kamran Estate main gates. Their connection was obvious. The kiss on Jihan’s temple enough to let Temu know their relationship ran deeper than that of good friends. It was in the way the newcomer held Jihan. More telling was how quickly the two gained privacy, as the security guards retreated and merchants hurried into the estate to leave them alone.

Anger rose at the idea that Jihan would betray Duke Silver.

Kastan was all twisted up over Jihan, yet, here was Jihan accepting affections from another man.

Temu lowered the spyglass unable to look anymore. He turned to the men wrapped in black from head to toe. These ghost warriors served Duke Silver’s house. Their loyalty was unbreakable. Kastan had trained them personally.

“What are our orders?” the tallest of the ghost warriors asked.

“Keep watch,” Temu said, distaste in his mouth. “Master Jihan’s safety is important to His Grace. We are to make sure no harm comes to him. Do not engage, yet.”

“Yes, Sir,” came the reply then the ghost warriors blended into the surrounding trees.

Temu climbed down the tree to the ground. He walked a short distance to the small carriage he had brought along with him. The carriage carried a large box full of birds from the Imperial Palace.

Temu wrote a note to Duke Silver.

Jihan has made his move. Andiya Kamran is getting married to another man.

Temu hesitated over reporting Jihan’s hug with that man, but knowing the ghost warriors would report it, he included it in his note.

Jihan may have a lover.

Temu’s frown deepened as he released the bird into the sky wondering what such news meant for Kastan.

*~*~*~*

Kastan entered Kamran Manor in the late afternoon, intent on talking to Duyi Kamran. He needed to convince Duyi to accept his proposal to marry Jihan. Kiyan’s orders aside, Silver Shore’s Consort would not be someone who brought unhappiness or intrigues in his domain.

A servant received him leading him to a greeting room with long couches and low tables. It was an elegant space, decorated to mimic a nobleman’s home. The décor was expensive, Kastan thought, thanks to Jihan’s hard work.

Kastan paced the length of the comfortable long couches. He waited and waited.

On what felt like the twentieth turn, a woman appeared at the door into the greeting room. She was pretty, with a round face, gentle eyes and a ready smile. Her graying hair held up with pins in a tight bun.

Her eyes, Kastan stopped.

They reminded him of Jihan.

“Your Imperial Highness,” she said, giving him an elegant curtsy.

Her voice trembled with nerves and her fingers clutched her pale green skirts as she rose to her full height.

“Forgive me for making you wait,” she said, taking a step into the room and stopping, still gripping her pale green skirts. “I am Laner Kamran, Lord Duyi’s wife. Welcome to our home.”

Kastan nodded and moved to sit on one of the long couches.

Laner was Jihan’s mother and she looked nervous facing him.

“Lady Laner, please be at ease,” Kastan said, making a show of arranging his dark robes and adjusting the tassel holding his family crest.

Laner took slow nervous steps, hesitating for a moment before she chose to sit in the long couch opposite him.

Kastan rested his hands on his knees and watched her sit on the edge of the couch.

She did not offer him a drink. It would have seemed rude to anyone else. The simple request was tradition with every guest, except a guest from the Imperial Palace. Offering a royal food presented a political conundrum at any occasion, so most noble houses refrained from offering it. The fact that Laner Kamran had not offered him a drink was enough to tell him she was familiar with the members of his family.

“M-may I ask—?” Laner started, and then stopped.

Kastan’s brow rose. Jihan’s mother was very nervous. Where had Jihan gotten his bravery?

“We are to be family,” Kastan said. “I wanted to meet you before the wedding ceremony planned by the Empress.”

Laner smiled then, vibrating with excitement at the coming event.

“Her Imperial Majesty has been very kind with us,” Laner said.

Kastan sat alert noting the pleasure on Laner’s face as she talked about Rushi.

It sent warning bells ringing in his head.

“Her Imperial Majesty has promised to support Andiya as she enters the palace. She has promised to guide our daughter to better serve you, Imperial Prince Kastan.”

Kastan gave an internal scoff.

It sounded as though Rushi wanted to control his consort. No wonder she was so eager to get him married to Andiya.

Kastan kept his expression blank.

“You said your husband went home,” Kastan said, refusing to discuss his sister in-law.

“Yes,” she said with a nod. “Our daughter has lived away from the city too long. My husband is getting her so that we can get her ready to enter the palace. The Emperor gave him an escort. There is so much to teach her. I’m afraid we won’t have enough time. She’s learned to live a wild life thanks to her brother. I’m afraid she will disappoint you.”

“I doubt he would disappoint me,” Kastan murmured, wondering why Jihan’s mother thought him wild.

“Will your son attend the ceremony?” Kastan asked, guilt riding him hard at what Jihan must think of him.

A wave of uncertainty passed over Laner’s face and she sighed.

“I—my son is not easy. He has a mind of his own,” Laner said, sounding unsure. “It will depend on what my husband tells him to do.”

“Does that happen a lot?” Kastan asked. “Does your husband tell your son what to do?”

“All the time,” Laner said, a sad note in her voice. She shook her head and stared at her hands on her lap. “Jihan tries to hide it, but I can tell he is disappointed in me.”

“Why would Jihan be disappointed in you?” Kastan asked.

“I’m his mother and I haven’t managed to do anything for him,” Laner said, embarrassment clear in her voice, on her face. She shook her head again and forced a smile. “I’m sorry, Your Imperial Highness, for wasting your time with this. Is there anything I can do for you?”

“Yes,” Kastan said, getting up.

Two could play politics.

If Rushi wanted to control Andiya using Laner, then Kastan would find her a better opponent. Laner was too easy to manipulate. He didn’t know Andiya, but he doubted Jihan would have a weak sister. Still, Kastan needed to make the odds in his favor.

Rushi could try to control Jihan using Laner. He smiled just thinking of Rushi trying to control Jihan. Well, he had one thing Laner could do for her son.

“Lady Laner, I have someone you need to meet,” Kastan said, suddenly happy that he had not found Duyi Kamran.

“Your Imperial Highness?” Laner asked, getting up from her seat.

“Come with me,” Kastan said, not giving her a choice.

He held out his hand to her, and she blushed.

Laner took his hand without complaint.

Kastan led her out of Kamran Manor.

He would take Laner to his Emperor Brother and have her tell Kiyan about her conversations with Rushi.

*~*~*~*

Naveed collected messages from the military office, most of them addressed to him, and one to Duke Silver. He did not linger at the military office, instead hurrying back to the auxiliary palace where Kastan was staying. His stomach growled on the way and he rubbed it thinking about their evening meal.

It wasn’t easy eating in this place. He missed home and Yasmin’s food. She made the best spicy chicken he ever tasted and she always let him eat as much as he wished. He missed her too.

Oh, when were they getting back to Silver Shore?

The Imperial Palace was exhausting him.

Naveed slowed down when he reached the entrance of the auxiliary palace. There was an older woman crying at the front entrance, a handkerchief pressed to her mouth. Two attendants from the Kastan’s palace hovered around her.

A carriage approached from the palace stables.

“Wait,” Naveed said, as one of the attendants hurried to open the doors of the carriage. “Why is she here?”

“His Imperial Highness brought her from Kamran Manor,” the attendant answered. “We are to send her back.”

Naveed frowned and turned to the crying woman. Her eyes wet with tears, she pressed her handkerchief to her cheeks. Naveed gritted his teeth. Kastan might not worry about his reputation, but Naveed did. It was not good to have a crying mother in-law.

Shaking his head, Naveed moved closer to the woman.

“Apologies, my lady, but may I ask what has you so upset?” Naveed asked. He lifted the token with the black tiger seal on his waist. “My name is General Naveed, and I work under His Imperial Highness.”

She stopped, and turned to him, her eyes wide.

“Are you here to take me back in there?” she asked, horror in her gaze. “Please don’t, I beg you. It was embarrassing enough.”

“What was embarrassing?” Naveed asked, confused.

“I-uh-I wasn’t prepared,” she said. She gripped the skirts of her dress. “I’m even in the dress I’ve worn all day. There was no warning. He just presented me to His Imperial Majesty without telling me. I couldn’t even speak right, just stuttered my way through.”

She gasped in mortification and covered her cheeks with her hands.

“No one can know about this. Please don’t take me back.”

One of the attendants opened the carriage doors, and the lady ran, stumbling down the remaining steps to reach the carriage. She was inside before Naveed could even call out a goodbye.

The carriage took off in the next instant.

Naveed shook his head at the mysterious woman and hurried up the steps to find Kastan. He found him grinning at an imperial scroll. The emperor’s seal was hard to miss.

“What has you so happy?” Naveed asked.

“Kiyan is letting me marry Jihan; he changed the edict and is letting me marry a Kamran child. Son or daughter, he does not care. All he wants is their wealth tied to the imperial family.”

“How did you accomplish that?” Naveed asked.

“Magic,” Kastan joked, tucking the edict into his pocket, excitement clear on his face. “I can’t wait to see Jihan and tell him. He will be upset with me for forcing him into marriage, but we’ll reach an understanding.”

“Does your magic have to do with the crying woman I just met at the entrance?” Naveed asked.

Kastan stared at Naveed, and then sighed.

“She is Jihan’s mother. Lady Laner Kamran. I introduced her to my brother. Had her tell him what the Empress has been telling her. Kiyan was not too happy about the idea of Rushi controlling this Andiya through Laner,” Kastan said. “I pushed Lady Laner through the telling, but it had results. Kiyan changed the wording on the official edict, and here we are. I need to reach Kamran Estate.”

Naveed shook his head at the narration and pulled out the messages he had gotten from the military office. He handed Kastan his note and waited.

Kastan read the message fast and slammed his palm on the table.

“Jihan!” Kastan hissed. “Why can’t you ever wait for me? We need to head to Kamran Estate. We must get there before Lord Duyi and his imperial escort, if we don’t, Jihan will end up dead.”

“Why?” Naveed asked.

“Jihan has planned a wedding for his sister to another man. I’m assuming it is someone she loves and is hoping to escape the palace,” Kastan cursed under his breath as he grabbed up his cloak. He pinned it on himself and picked up his sword. “We’ll need to travel fast to get to him.”

Naveed started to turn away, but then stopped when Kastan hesitated, his gaze on Temu’s note.

“Your Grace?” Naveed asked, stepping up to the table.

He glanced at the note Temu had written, his gaze stopping at the last line.

Jihan may have another lover.

“It’s a speculation,” Naveed said. “You’ve trained us to give you all information gathered at any point, whether it’s an assumption or the truth. It is always good to know before you confirm. Temu could have seen wrong.”

Kastan kept his silence, though his grip on the sword handle tightened.

“You’re right, Naveed,” Kastan murmured. “I can wait to ask him myself. Anyway it’s not that we were…I—”

Naveed stared at Kastan in surprise. The hesitation was new. He had never seen Kastan hesitate over an answer.

“Your Grace, we should plan our exit out of the palace if we are to get to Jihan,” Naveed said, grabbing the note from the desk. He would have a talk with Temu about writing such speculative information.

His voice catapulted Kastan into motion.

Naveed could only hope they got to Jihan in time.

*~*~*~*

Jihan watched the woman representing Ishan’s mother cut a lock of Ishan’s hair, and then move to his sister, Andiya, and snipped a tress of her hair. Andiya smiled, as the woman stepped back and held up the combined hair. She tied the bunch together with string.

“As your hair is bound together, may you live for all eternity,” she said.

Jihan smiled, as the room erupted with cheers from Ishan’s family and those from Kamran. Andiya blushed, hiding her face behind a fan. The bridal headdress she wore, the most expensive and luxurious that Jihan could afford.

The final part of the ceremony was taking place at Ishan’s Gura Estate. Ishan’s family looked on as their son married his wife. Jihan was glad to see they looked happy with Andiya. Ishan’s mother and sister were so excited, they kept grinning like their brother.

Ishan sat next to Andiya grinning like a man who had accomplished the biggest feat.

Which he had, Jihan decided.

He smiled watching as the woman in charge poured two cups of tea and took them to the bride and groom.

“This is the nuptial drink to toast your happy life together,” she said, holding the tray as Ishan and Andiya both took a cup.

Jihan watched as Andiya turned to Ishan, they touched their cups together and drank deep. The smiles on their faces enough to tell him they belonged together. He couldn’t have wished for a better man for his sister.

The ceremony was a success.

Later that night, Jihan and Firuz helped Swallow pack Andiya and Ishan’s luggage. Once the carriages were ready, Ishan led Andiya out of his house. She was dressed for travel and instead of the smile she had all day, she now had frown lines creasing her brow. She detached from Ishan the moment they reached Jihan and Firuz.

“Are you sure about this? You shouldn’t have to face Pa alone. We can help you,” Andiya said.

“Think of the baby,” Jihan reminded her, pressing his palm to her stomach. “I don’t want anything to happen to you, Andiya. Go stay with Swallow for now. Take care of yourself until he’s born. Then you can come back and help me.”

“What if something happens?” Andiya asked, holding on to Jihan’s hand. “I—”

“I’m here,” Firuz said. “Nothing will happen to him. I promise you, Andiya.”

“Ru Ru, I’ll hold you to that,” Andiya said, her voice wavering. Tears filled her eyes as she looked at Jihan. “I can’t believe this is happening. I had hoped we would have a good time celebrating my wedding. I almost understand your frustration with Pa, An.”

“Shh, don’t cry.”

Jihan used his palm to wipe tears away from Andiya’s cheeks. He looked behind her to see Ishan had moved closer.

“Don’t worry about me. You concentrate on taking care of your health for the baby’s sake. Ishan will make sure you’re safe, so will Swallow. I’ll face Pa for both of us. You know I always get my way, somehow.”

Jihan made sure to sound confident in his abilities to thwart Duyi Kamran and an Emperor’s will. He had no way of winning, but Andiya needed to believe that he could.

Otherwise, she wouldn’t leave with her new husband. He must have sounded confident because she threw her arms around him and held on.

“Make sure not to get hurt. My children will need their uncle,” Andiya said.

Jihan wrapped his arms around Andiya. This was probably the last time he would get to see her, so he breathed her in. He swallowed down the tears that threatened to fill his eyes and met Ishan’s gaze.

‘She’s under your care now,’ Jihan thought.

“I’ll protect her,” Ishan said, answering his silent words.

Jihan nodded and let go of Andiya, pushing her into Ishan’s arms.

Andiya sobbed as Ishan took her to the carriage.

Jihan gritted his teeth to escape the emotion threatening to tear him apart.

Swallow approached him then.

“Andiya is the heir to my estate,” Jihan stated. “If I end up under imperial guard, you see to it she’s not found.”

“Your father won’t make it easy,” Swallow said. “Jihan, come with us.”

“I can’t,” Jihan shook his head. “I need to give you enough time to save my sister. I’ll deal with Duke Silver’s anger. Thank you for doing this.”

Swallow leaned closer and pressed a kiss on Jihan’s right jaw.

“You were always braver than me,” Swallow murmured. “I can’t help falling for you all over again, Jihan.”

Jihan chuckled and poked Swallow’s shoulder with his index finger.

“Stop playing,” Jihan said, with a small smile.

“At least it’s made you smile,” Swallow said, stepping back. “I have a group who met your father’s entourage on the outskirts of Vasia. They say the Emperor’s escort includes a man named Rael. He is from the royal investigative bureau. You need to be careful, Jihan. If the Emperor doesn’t get what he wants, he will try to take you.”

“I know,” Jihan said. “This is not about weddings, it’s about my business. I’ll have to find a way through it.”

“Duke Silver has a nasty temper. He won’t take kindly to being humiliated like this.”

Jihan swallowed at the thought of Kastan angry with him over Andiya’s wedding. It hurt. He felt betrayed by the idea that Kastan would want Andiya, as his wife.

Still…

“I’ll deal with it,” Jihan murmured.

“You’re not alone, Jihan. We’ll help you anyway we can,” Swallow said.

“I’ll owe you for this,” Jihan said, and waved at Swallow when he turned to leave.

The day had started with celebrations.

Jihan didn't think he would ever forget the beautiful sight of Andiya in her bejeweled red wedding dress, a veil over her head as she walked out of their home. Music filled the air, dancing and happy shouts from the wedding guests on the way to Ishan’s estate, and the ceremony after, all of it perfect.

Now the day was ending with melancholy.

Jihan watched five carriages head out of Ishan’s estate, heading to Swallow’s home in the Iron Lands. His sister and her husband were well hidden in one of the five carriages. Anyone watching would assume the guests were leaving to return to their homes.

Jihan folded his hands behind his back and started a slow walk out the gate.

Firuz followed him.

“Andiya made a beautiful bride,” Firuz said, as they strolled to the Kamran Estate gates. “It would have been nice to have them visit in three days as a couple.”

“It would have been,” Jihan agreed. “Deora would cook for them and Vion would pack fish for Andiya and Ishan.”

Firuz sighed, then stopped on the road, drawing Jihan’s gaze.

“What?” Jihan asked, looking around the empty road.

Most of the guests were still at Ishan’s estate, where Ishan’s family had arranged for them to sleep.

Kamran Estate was quiet this night, so the gates were closed.

“I don’t know,” Firuz said, turning around in the same place, his arms at his side, and a dagger in his right hand. Something was bugging him enough to feel he needed a weapon.

Jihan frowned.

“Firuz, what is it?”

“I feel eyes on us,” Firuz said, his gaze sweeping the surrounding trees. “It’s so…I can’t ignore the feeling of being watched.”

“You can check it out,” Jihan said, moving to stand at a lamppost they had installed on the road to Kamran Estate. “I’ll wait right here.”

“That is what they want,” Firuz said, “to separate me from you.”

Jihan met Firuz’s gaze.

“Since we know what they want, then there is nothing to worry about,” Jihan said. “Go on Firuz. They won’t appear until you leave.”

Firuz gave a frustrated sound then leaped on to the closest tree, fading into the night.

Jihan breathed in and out, calming his nerves. The urge to run was strong, but that would place him in danger. He needed to stay where Firuz could see him. He wondered who could be watching him here at Kamran.

He didn’t have to wait long before two men came down the closest trees. They took the steps to stand a few feet away from Jihan.

Jihan stared at the dark clothed men, and thought of the ghost warriors who had once attacked him in his bath.

Frowning, he wondered if the Burning Feather had sent more assassins.

One of the men pulled down the cloth covering his face, and Jihan’s eyes went wide with recognition.

“Lord Temu,” Jihan said in surprise.

“Master Jihan,” Temu said, giving him a short nod in greeting.

“Why are you here?” Jihan asked, looking around the road, wondering if Kastan would appear next.

His heart pounded in excitement, until he remembered the order lying on his office desk. He had stared at it more hours than he dared admit. His heart filled with anger in those moments. He wondered what Kastan could have said to the Emperor to warrant a marriage.

Or had Kastan met his father?

He wasn’t sure where to direct his anger.

“I’m here to clarify two things,” Temu said, his tone unfriendly. “One, are you aware that His Grace, Duke of Silver Shore is slated to marry your sister, Andiya Kamran?”

Jihan bit his bottom lip.

Admitting that he knew about the edict would have him arrested by Temu. He still needed to buy time for Swallow to get Andiya and Ishan out.

Jihan held Temu’s gaze and answered, “I am not aware of any such thing.”

Jihan kept his tone steady, even while his heartbeat skyrocketed.

Temu nodded.

“Second, are you—?”

Temu broke off, and looked back at the ghost warrior behind him. He then shook his head and turned to Jihan.

“The man who hugs you at will,” Temu said. “Is he your lover?”

’The man who hugs me at will’,” Jihan said, amused. “What does that mean? I meet so many people who hug me. Lord General, would you be specific?”

Temu scowled and looked away.

It was obvious that he had not meant to ask the question. It gave away the fact that he had been spying on Jihan. Temu had to be talking about Swallow.

Jihan hoped Temu’s ghost warriors had not heard any of his plans.

If they had seen Swallow hug him…

It must have been out here on the road, the day Swallow arrived at Kamran Estate.

Jihan’s brow rose and he smiled at Temu, who was still scowling at the ground.

“Lord General, I didn’t know you were interested in gossip. Should I tell you who I’ve been kissing too?”

Temu looked up and took a threatening step toward Jihan.

The single step had Firuz returning to Jihan’s side in a blink.

Firuz blocked Temu’s way to Jihan, his stance ready for a fight.

Temu cursed under his breath and stepped away from Firuz.

“Jihan, for my master’s sake, can you not cause any more trouble,” Temu said, his parting words before he disappeared with the ghost warrior.

Jihan closed his eyes and leaned on the lamppost, afraid.

“They are watching,” Firuz said, his gaze shifting over the trees around them. “I can hear them moving from branch to branch, heading deeper into the trees. They stopped at three miles away, their movements are sure.”

Jihan rubbed his forehead.

“They have been here,” Jihan said, pushing off the lamppost and heading towards home. “Let’s go Firuz. They won’t attack without orders. If they have been here, they must know a lot about us.”

“Aren’t you worried?” Firuz asked, following him, and making sure to stay a step behind Jihan in case Temu returned.

"Nothing to do about it tonight."

Jihan imagined Temu would not be here without Kastan’s order. A part of him was pleased that Kastan had taken the time to find Kamran Estate. The other part…worried.

Kastan was still an Imperial Prince.

None of them could change that.

*~*~*~*

Preparing for the worst was not easy.

The next morning, Jihan set about reducing the number of people at Kamran Estate. He had a hard time convincing his staff at Kamran Estate to leave and head for Set’s hidden stronghold. It took his promise to follow them with Firuz when he had arranged everything at Kamran Estate.

A lie of course, Jihan thought, as he watched Deora and Vion leave the estate using the hidden exit behind his house. They would find their way to the main roads through the wild forests.

Vion would protect Deora, even though she was not one to need protecting.

One of the eagles would lead them to Set.

“They will feel hurt when they discover your true intention,” Firuz said, as Jihan locked the little gate. “If you had asked, they would have helped you protect Kamran.”

“And it would be blood on my hands,” Jihan said, heading back to the empty house.The estate was now empty, save for him, Firuz and three guards. "I'm afraid of that weight, so I've chased them away."

The three guards were usually posted in Ishan’s Gura Orchards.

Jihan assumed he could always send them away to Ishan’s estate before trouble descended.

If nothing else, he had saved lives this day.

Jihan stopped in the kitchen and got the largest jar of peach wine he could find. He took two cups and led the way to the front veranda. He pulled out a seat at a table he rarely used because he was too busy working or traveling. The table on the veranda showed off the beautiful front garden that Andiya had planned.

The lotus garden so beautiful, Jihan wished he could see his sister sitting there again, as she had her breakfast.

Jihan poured the peach wine into the two cups and handed one to Firuz, then sat down.

Firuz hesitated, and only picked up the cup of wine when Jihan glared at him.

“To life,” Jihan toasted Firuz.

“To life,” Firuz said, with a small smile and tossed back his cup.

Jihan poured a second cup and sat back.

“Home has always been the best,” Jihan said, staring up at the blue afternoon sky. It had taken him so long to clear the estate that the day was almost gone. “Pa is almost home. I wonder what he’ll think of this empty place when he gets here.”

Jihan drank deep from his cup.

“Firuz, will you grant me a favor?” Jihan asked, peering at his Shadow Guard.

“Anything,” Firuz said, as Jihan had expected he would.

“Drink with me,” Jihan said. “You don’t need to protect me here. Pa won’t make it home until tomorrow. Let’s just be this afternoon. Please don’t turn me down.”

Firuz narrowed his gaze for a moment, but then did as Jihan asked, pouring more wine into his cup. It was very rare for Firuz to deny Jihan’s requests. Jihan could only hope this one request would not betray their trust forever.

Jihan touched his cup to Firuz’s in a toast and drank deep.

*~*~*~*

When the sun disappeared and the skies turned dark, Jihan ordered the three remaining guards to leave the gates open and head to Ishan’s to get food. They gave him puzzled gazes, but he ignored it and chased them away. He returned to the veranda to finish the last of his peach wine.

The storm of ghost warriors mixed in with Duke Silver’s soldiers arrived just before nine in the evening. He watched the extraordinary march into his estate with an amused gaze. The ghost warriors perching on the roofs of the buildings around his compound reminded him of wraiths.

How apt. They were here to oversee his end.

Jihan drank the last of his wine and placed his cup on the table. He sat back and watched Temu hurry up the steps onto the veranda.

Temu grabbed Jihan’s right arm and pulled him up to his feet.

“You should have stayed still,” Temu said, anger clear in his voice. “I told you not to cause trouble. Why couldn’t you be patient?”

His question was punctuated by the sound of a breaking vase in the house. Temu’s soldiers had entered in there in search of Jihan’s staff.

“Lord General is very harsh on my home. I assure you that I’m the only soul here. There’s no need to be so aggressive,” Jihan said, his voice slurred.

“Where is your Shadow Guard?” Temu asked, looking around, his grip on Jihan’s arm tight.

“I’ve sent him away,” Jihan said, full of regret.

He had played a trick on Firuz. He laced Firuz’s cup with the sleeping powder Firuz so loved to use and made Firuz pass out. The elixirs in Firuz’s body made it impossible to drug him for too long.

So Jihan had to work fast to take advantage of the momentary lack of cognition that had Firuz unaware of his surroundings.

It took effort to drag Firuz downstairs to the basement.

Tears in his eyes, Jihan had used chains forged in the depths of Mount Kin to restrain his loyal Shadow Guard. He then forced Firuz into the vault in the basement, and secured the door with a combination lock.

Firuz woke up as soon as the door closed and his furious screams had torn Jihan’s heart apart.

“You left yourself wide open. You’re a fool,” Temu said, leading Jihan down the steps and forcing him to his knees. “Stay put while we check the estate. I still can’t believe you’ve gutted the place.”

Jihan knelt with no complaint.

Temu left him in the care of a big burly ghost warrior who drew his sword.

Jihan ignored the busy foot traffic entering his home. They ran a thorough search, looking for Jihan’s staff, or Andiya. He found pleasure in the fact that they would not find anyone.

Jihan looked up to the sky instead, taking in a deep breath and letting it out slow. He closed his eyes when a raindrop landed on his cheek. A second followed the first, and soon, they started coming faster. His guard did not attempt to shield him from the rain, so Jihan settled in for a good soak.

The guard’s sword rested on his shoulder, the sharp blade pressed against his neck. His clothes soaked from the rush of rain that had slowed down to a drizzle.

Strange, but the worst moments in his life always seemed to coordinate with the rain.

How did the heavens know to match with his tears?

His knees hurt from kneeling on the stones in the courtyard at Kamran Estate. He shifted to ease the ache and the sword at his neck nicked his skin. He hissed at the sting.

Jihan imagined it could cut ten pigs with one sweep in the hands of its skilled master. The blade shifted away from his neck and he closed his eyes again at the small relief. The man holding the sword to his neck had no softness in him. It wouldn’t matter how much Jihan pleaded, he would follow orders and kill Jihan if it came to it.

Then, a scream cut through the night and Jihan forgot his discomfort.

Heart in his throat, Jihan watched two more men drag his older sister and her husband into the courtyard.

How had they found them?

A strangled cry escaped his lips when the man holding his sister pushed her to the ground next to him.

Jihan reached out to steady her.

“Can’t you be kinder?” Jihan asked, his eyes filling with tears, he couldn’t believe all his hard work had gone to waste.

He could only hope Swallow had survived whatever attack Temu’s men had mounted.

Andiya kept her hands over her stomach to protect her unborn child. She leaned into Jihan, her tears clear on her cheeks, her gaze on her husband, Ishan.

Ishan knelt on the ground, maneuvering so that he was protecting Andiya with his body when one of the men reached for her again.

“Leave her alone,” Jihan said, angry with their captors and their brutish ways. “She is pregnant. Tell me, how will you take responsibility if anything happens to the baby?”

The men stopped reaching for Andiya, and Ishan moved closer to his wife, holding her with care.

Ishan glared at their captors too, his arm around Andiya, trying to give her the warmth he could.

“Why are you doing this?” Jihan asked, when his sister gripped his left arm, her fingers trembling with fear. Jihan found his fight. “How dare you invade Kamran Estate?”

“Don’t blame us,” a gruff voice said above Jihan. “You brought this on yourself.”

Jihan wished he could refute the accusation, but in the end, all he could lament was that his plan had not worked.

If it had, his sister and her husband would have already left and found refuge in the Iron Land with Swallow. He had been willing to face the consequences of his actions alone.

How had things gone so wrong?

“You dared—,” the gruff man above him growled out, not finishing his sentence.

The anger rolling off him made Jihan hope that their deaths would be swift, and not slow torture. He couldn’t bear the thought of Andiya and her child suffering.

Jihan felt Andiya’s grip on his arm tighten, and he looked up, his heart dropping when he saw the tall, forbidding man entering his inner courtyard. His silver armor shone in the moonlight, a heavy blood red cape flowing behind him.

The stories Jihan had heard were true.

In his armor, Duke Silver was enough to stop a weak man’s heart with fright.

Jihan found he couldn’t take his gaze away from the long sword Duke Silver held. That blood thirsty blade that had cut down thousands of lives during the West Nation Rebellion.

Jihan gulped, thinking his life sure had fallen to the depths now.

He could never have imagined facing death at the tip of Duke Silver’s blade.

Maybe this was their fate after all.

Duke Silver came to a stop before him, dripping with murderous intent, his face dark with anger.

“Duke Silver, we caught the woman and her husband on the road heading into Iron Land. Master Jihan was waiting here. We haven’t found his Shadow Guard,” the gruff one next to Jihan said.

“He sent him away,” Duke Silver said, his hard gaze speculative, as he studied Jihan.

Andiya moved closer to Jihan, her eyes filled with fear, seeing it helped Jihan with his decision.

Jihan pushed his sister into Ishan’s arms, and crawled forward, making sure they were both behind him. Still on his knees, he straightened his back and faced Duke Silver.

He would be no cowering fool. He was the master of Kamran Estate after all: he had made all decisions in this place since he turned ten. Protected his sister, grown the family business, played just as hard, and even dared to love, twice, he had missed out on nothing.

So now, he would take responsibility for his decisions.

The rain started again, and Jihan was glad for it, as it would hide the tears he couldn’t hold back anymore.

“Punish me alone,” Jihan said, his fingers clenched to keep from shaking with the fear sinking in his heart.

Duke Silver’s dark gaze left him with no doubt that the Duke was angry enough to kill him and everyone in the Kamran Estate. They had dared to ignore a royal edict and fooled a prince.

“No matter how I look at it, Kamran Estate has indeed done you wrong,” Jihan said, keeping his tone light. “Please know that my sister and her husband did not know about the royal edict.”

Jihan ignored his sister’s cry of protest, and was grateful when Ishan held her tighter, muffling her words.

“I hid the truth from them. I planned their wedding even knowing that she was promised to marry into the imperial family. I paid for their trip to the Iron Lands. All these decisions were made by me,” Jihan continued. “They are not at fault. Please spare their lives and let it end with me. I’ll take responsibility for daring to disregard a royal edict.”

Duke Silver pointed his sword at Jihan’s face, the tip an inch away from his left eye.

Jihan clenched his fists, fear racing through him, he felt close to falling from it, but he needed to do this, for the sake of his sister, her unborn child and her husband.

He couldn’t bear the thought of the alternative, which would be watching his sister forced into an unwanted marriage, her child murdered…he shuddered.

Worse yet, they might decide to send both Andiya and her husband Ishan to their deaths. Jihan couldn’t imagine bearing the burden of burying his sister and her child. It would be too much to ask of him.

No, this was better. He was alone after all, unmarried with no ties to anything. His life mattered less here.

Kamran Estate would go on without him, taken care of by his sister. Andiya might even get a son in the future and name that boy after him. She would smile looking at that child and think of him. It was enough. The thought gave him some strength.

Jihan locked his muscles in place, and stared at the tip of Duke Silver’s blade. He couldn’t help admiring how it shone in the moonlight. The stories were true.

How fierce he looked, so handsome and fierce.

“Agreed, we’ll do it the way you want. You take responsibility,” Duke Silver gritted out, after a short period of silence, keeping his sword steady as he spoke. “Jihan, how dare you look down on the Imperial Family? You shall indeed pay the price for their lives with yours.”

Jihan closed his eyes, unwilling to watch Duke Silver swing a sword at him. Things between them had already reached this point. His heart was already shattered. Why make it worse? He took in a deep breath, steadying himself, ready for death…

*~*~*~*~*

Jihan’s bravery hurt.

Kastan wished he could throw away his sword and pull Jihan up, hold him tight until all was well. If only Jihan would try to show some form of weakness, then he would find a way to protect him. Yet, Jihan was not backing down. Instead, he was staring down Kastan’s sword, waiting for Kastan to smite him.

Kastan scoffed.

Was this what he thought of me this whole time? Kastan wondered.

Jihan kept his eyes closed, so he did not see Kastan move his sword away. Nor did Jihan see Kastan’s wince when he saw the cut on Jihan’s neck. The blood seeping into Jihan’s collar made him angry. He glared at the ghost warrior who had put the mark on Jihan.

“Jihan, are you really willing to die for the sake of your family?” Kastan asked, returning his gaze to his lover.

“I am willing,” Jihan said, keeping his gaze lowered.

“You’re willing,” Kastan repeated, wondering how Jihan’s sister could kneel behind him and listen to her younger brother agree to die.

The anger boiling deep inside him grew.

Jihan’s family disappointed him. Shaking his head, he turned his back on Jihan. His gaze swept over the estate Jihan had built into an empire. It was dark now: the lights in the courtyard did nothing to pay it justice.

Kastan wished he had seen it in daylight, busy with people working.

Jihan seemed to have gutted it down. His lover’s noble heart hard at work to save all the people he cared for. He wished Jihan had trusted him. Now, all he said would sound like an imperial order, or consequences to this infraction.

A gutted Kamran Estate meant that Jihan had taken steps to interfere with the Emperor’s intentions. The ghost warriors with Temu were part of Kastan’s official duties as Commander of Armies. They would detail every part of this moment for the Emperor to read. Kastan knew he had no room for mistakes or mercy. He would have to force Jihan into an agreement that served the Emperor and make it look like it hurt.

“Jihan, you have confessed to ignoring an imperial order,” Kastan said, keeping his sword steady.

Jihan took a moment to answer.

“Yes. It was me who ignored an imperial order,” Jihan said. “I am to blame for any mistakes they might have made. I insulted the Imperial House. I’ll pay for my sins.”

“If we are to follow palace law, Lady Andiya and her Lord would face death for this treachery,” Kastan pointed out.

Andiya gasped, making Kastan turn to find her pressing her hands on her stomach. Her pregnancy presented a serious problem. Kastan could understand why Jihan had tried his best to send her away from the estate.

“I b-beg you to save their lives,” Jihan chocked out, swallowing hard as he said the words.

Kastan scoffed and moved closer to Jihan. The movement had Jihan opening his eyes to look up at him. The fear he read there added another sting to the hurt. He missed the affection he once had in Jihan’s eyes. It was gone now, replaced by fear and anger.

“Thanks to your blatant insult of the Imperial House, Jihan Kamran, you shall now take on the role your sister discarded. You shall take on the Emperor’s order and live as my consort—”

“No!” Jihan’s protest came too fast, his hands going out, as though that would stop the order. “I—"

“What?” Kastan asked, dropping to his right knee so that he could look into Jihan’s panicked gaze. “Aren’t you concerned for the man who was going to take care of your sister for you? He was so valiant when he tried to protect Andiya. I heard he declared himself the only one who cares for you.”

“What have you done with him?” Jihan demanded, the panic in his eyes making him shake.

“Does it worry you?” Kastan asked. “Do you think I killed him? Would you hate me for it?”

Jihan reached for Kastan’s right arm, gripping it tight.

“He’s innocent,” Jihan insisted, the worry in his eyes enough to make Kastan mad with jealousy. “He only helped me because of our past. Please—”

“If you want to save him, don’t plead for his life in front of me,” Kastan said, gritting his teeth.

Jihan swallowed hard and let go of his arm. He bowed his head and gripped his robes tight, trembling.

“W-will you protect him if I agree to be your consort?” Jihan asked. Kastan hated the fear he heard in Jihan's voice. “I’ll do it, but you have to promise not to touch Swallow, or my family.”

Kastan thought about Temu’s note, about Jihan having a lover. To see Jihan beg so hard was enough to tell him that Temu was right.

Anger flared and he gripped Jihan’s chin with his right thumb and forefinger.

“What you must think of me,” Kastan said, his gaze hard.

He could end this stupid play by showing Jihan the Emperor's right edict. Yet, seeing Jihan throw away his pride to the point of begging for the sake of another man annoyed him. That petty emotion jealousy filled him. He tightened his hold on Jihan's chin making him wince.

Kastan let go of Jihan hating his own temper.

“Fine, let’s make a formal deal, Jihan of Kamran. If you want to keep your sister and her husband alive, you will do as I say, Prince Consort of mine. You had better get used to that title. Temu, Naveed, help Jihan into the house and get him ready for his role. We have a lot of work to do before Lord Duyi and the Emperor’s escort arrives tomorrow.”

“What about Swallow?” Jihan asked, grabbing Kastan’s red cloak when he got up.

Kastan met Andiya’s gaze, ignoring Jihan’s pleading one.

“As far as I know, your lover lives,” Kastan growled out, seeing Andiya’s eyes widen with the knowledge of his lies.

He shook his head at her and she sighed, as Jihan let go of his cloak, his shoulders slumped with relief.

That relief felt like a betrayal.

Kastan turned away from Jihan.

“Prince Consort must remember his role now,” Temu said, moving to Jihan’s side. “Don’t make me grab your arm to get you up.”

“On t-top of all t-this insanity, I g-guess I should c-care not to offend Lord General’s sensibilities and force him to touch me. How a-absurd,” Jihan slurred out, following his words with a weak chuckle.

Kastan started to walk away, only to stop when he heard Andiya scream Jihan’s name.

Kastan turned then to find Jihan flat on his back, unconscious.

*~*~*~*

Finally catches up with the Prologue,
Character List will help you track everyone,
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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It is quite a complex dance. We are now back to where the prologue ended. We have many misunderstandings going on. How will Kastan pull this feat off successfully?

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Kastan is an idiot, and deserve to be treated that way. He could have ended the pain, but chose to continue with it. I hope Jian that until he apologizes, Jihan keeps facing him. Maybe tell him that he will marry him like the edict says, but will never bed him or use Kamran connections for him. 

I know it's probably not their society, but after the wedding when they are already protected, that Jihan publicly denounces the Miran family as ditators that force people for power, maybe in from of the Empire Elders. What would the old Emperor Kaveh think of his sons now? That would embarrass the Emperor, and he totally deserves it. Plus we should publicly reject is father as well, Lord Duyi would see himself without the merchant power, since Jian controls it, lower in aristocrat rank to his son.

Edited by Sweetlion
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The story is definitely at a tipping point. I hope Jihan survives. The nick he received on his neck. Was the blade poisoned? Wonderful chapter, it brought everything together at a fulcrum. Looking forward to the next installment.

Theo

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Outstanding chapter! We’ve come full circle to where we started this complicated and amazing tale. Now that we know that Kastan won’t kill Jihan, and has forced him to be his Prince consort in defiance of the empress Rushi. The emperor has already changed his imperial wedding edict to include Jihan. Kastan’s jealously over Temu’s report about a lover has made him hard and uncaring. Jihan has to find a way to convince his new fiancé that he hasn’t betrayed him. Once Lord Duyi arrives he’s in for quite the shock. Prince Jihan has a very nice ring to it. I’m definitely looking forward to the next chapter! 😢❤️

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Nice to know the author is skilled at writing a cliffhanger.  The only problem I had with the chapter was with the nick on Jihan's neck by the shadow warrior.  

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