Novel Monday: Following the Trail – Chapter 8

POD Following the Trail Ebook Cover 04
Description:

As her older sister’s wedding begins, Keiko struggles to cope with a level of society she has never prepared for. Raised a peasant, Keiko is now a member of nobility. Despite that, she longs for the simplicity of her rural peasant life but her family’s choices mean that Keiko will never go home again.

Worse, everyone at the wedding assumes that Keiko will marry her future brother-in-law, Ammad, despite Keiko’s fascination with the visiting Lady Tamami.

Following the Trail is a sweet romance where cruel gossip and sheer determination create a trail to a new life that promises everything Keiko could ever want.

Following the Trail

By Meyari McFarland

POD Following the Trail Ebook Cover 04
Description:

As her older sister’s wedding begins, Keiko struggles to cope with a level of society she has never prepared for. Raised a peasant, Keiko is now a member of nobility. Despite that, she longs for the simplicity of her rural peasant life but her family’s choices mean that Keiko will never go home again.

Worse, everyone at the wedding assumes that Keiko will marry her future brother-in-law, Ammad, despite Keiko’s fascination with the visiting Lady Tamami.

Following the Trail is a sweet romance where cruel gossip and sheer determination create a trail to a new life that promises everything Keiko could ever want.

Following the Trail

By Meyari McFarland

8. Private Dinner

The private sitting room was cool, thank goodness. Set on the east side of the manor, well away from the ballroom and its hive of activity, it hadn’t had a fire made. Possibly for several days. The weather had been so unseasonably warm and dry that most of the guests had spent their time outside rather than in here or the other sitting rooms.

Better still, as far as Ammad was concerned, it was a Japanese style sitting room with a low table surrounded by thin cushions. The floor had been covered by tatami mats, giving the room a pleasant grassy smell that was all the better this evening. He set their pilfered tray on the table and gestured for Rina to set her kotatsu on the floor close to them.

“Thank you,” Rina said. “If you would pass me the teapot, Keiko?”

“Of course.”

Keiko and Rina settled down, both kneeling with their kimono and hakama, respectively, tucked close to their legs. Lady Tamami smiled at the two of them as she helped Ammad spread their pilfered food on the table. Not that it was actually stolen but Kosuke had been quite annoyed by the request for a separate pot of nihari, another of soup and then naan to soak it all up. He’d glowered at both Lady Tamami and Ammad while behind his back Rina and Keiko had calmly gathered sweet mochi, a simple cabbage salad and tea for them to drink.

It was worth it, though. Ammad smiled as he sat, legs crossed, and passed chopsticks to Lady Tamami. She bowed as she took them, glanced towards Rina and Keiko and then snagged a bit of elk out of the nihari. He grinned but didn’t follow suit.

“We’re almost ready,” Keiko huffed. “Just a moment and we’ll have tea to go with dinner.”

“Pity there wasn’t some other wine,” Lady Tamami said around her bit of elk. “Blackberry’s too sweet for this.”

“It truly is,” Ammad agreed. “But most people expect it at parties so we always serve it. We’re saving the sake for the wedding, of course. I think we have at least twenty barrels, not including the ones going to the shrine to thank the priest for his work in marrying Nabeela and Shizuka.”

Keiko settled next to Ammad, leaving Rina with the spot directly opposite him. It was probably the most appropriate way for them to sit. Rina was Lady Tamami’s relative so sitting next to her was right. Still, Ammad wouldn’t have objected even if it were massively inappropriate. Getting to watch Rina’s face as they ate was an opportunity that Ammad wouldn’t pass up. Lady Tamami seemed to feel the same way about Keiko because she smiled, ducked her head and then grinned as she tried to sneak another bite of the elk.

“Oh, just serve some out!” Keiko huffed as she batted Lady Tamami’s chopsticks away.

“Tastes better when you steal it from the pot,” Lady Tamami said.
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Free Fiction Friday: Stardust In Your Veins

POD Stardust In Your Veins Ebook Cover 07

Description:

Newlywed Falak and her wife Steise hoped that moving to one of the newly opened space stations orbiting beyond Mars would give them a chance at a whole new life. At the very least, it got them away from their abusive families.

Unfortunately, familiar problems with new faces appeared as soon as they started their new lives. Falak wasn’t sure that she could cope with her supervisor’s controlling tendencies but for Steise, she’d do anything, including confronting the man stalking Steise. Stardust In Your Veins is a sweet story of new love, new horizons and confronting the challenges facing you with everything you’ve got.

Stardust In Your Veins

1. Station

Air hissed overhead, constantly streaming past Falak in the great silver air vents that stretched the length and breadth of the station. The constant flow chafed against her skin. Air should gust and drift, stagnate and bake, hoard moisture until your skin felt as though you had been dipped into water. It was strange for it to be so steady and bland against her cheeks.

None of which appeared to bother Steise. She grinned as she stared at everything around them, head swiveling to take in every sight available. Her breath was anything but steady. Steise gasped and cooed at the docking bay doors closing behind them. The blond woven grass wall coverings drew little murmurs of fascination as she ran her fingers along them. When they stepped from the long hallway out into the baggage claim area Steise clapped both hands in front of her mouth, not quite managing to stifle the squeal of delight.

“It’s huge!” Steise exclaimed. “Falak, look at it! I didn’t expect there to be so much open space. It’s beautiful. Oh, look at the murals on the walls!”

Her honey-blond hair, deceptively fine and delicate for a person so forceful, ended up in her mouth. Steise didn’t notice other than to make an absent-minded attempt to brush it out. Falak chuckled, tugging the strands away from Steise’s face. The relative stability of their trip here with it’s never-changing room and utterly boring meals had clearly shattered Steise’s always fragile control.

“They’re not as beautiful as you,” Falak chuckled, hands on either side of Steise’s cheeks to get her to focus for a moment. Falak’s silver wedding ring glimmered amid Steise’s hair. “Where were we supposed to pick up our crates? And where are our new rooms?”

“Flattery will get you toppled right back into bed,” Steise said as she tugged Falak into a quick kiss. “After we have a bed, of course. That comes first. Or maybe getting food. We should have something to eat. They said that we’d have plenty of variety once we got here. Oh, and we should really think about getting some decorations for our rooms, too. There’s so much we need to get done before we start work!”

Steise looked around and then pointed across the vast and echoing room, smiling so brightly that Falak felt as though she was losing something critical, her heart, her soul, perhaps her reason, to her fierce love for Steise. The woman was life incarnate, always moving, never still. Sometimes it exhausted Falak trying to keep up with Steise’s swift shifts of mood and plan but it was worth it. Everything was worth it to be free.

They carefully crossed the room. Steise dodged other families come with them to live on the newly completed station, barely aware of the heavy lifting bots rumbling as they carried over-packed crates to their intended destinations. Falak kept a grip on Steise’s wrist, very aware of the dangers.

That wasn’t what bothered her though. It was the children, so many children who ran and shouted far too loudly for Falak’s taste. Most were dark skinned, dark haired. The station welcomed people of color with open arms unlike some of the older, more established stations closer to the sun. Falak frowned as six children under the age of nine ran by, laughing and shrieking at being liberated from their cramped ship quarters. A glare at their parents produced nothing besides a wry smile and shrug in return.

Children should be seen and not heard.

Except that wasn’t right. Children were not to be seen either. They should stay out of sight, safe inside. Girls should be safe. It was not right to walk outside where anyone could see them. Men were animals who might grab them and attack, ruining them to sate their monster lusts.

Falak’s breath caught as sense memories of being wrapped in her mother’s restraining arms as she hissed stories of rape and abuse. She lost the smell of new plastic and steel, instead smelling Mother’s lavender-scented lotion. The too-powerful memory sucked Falak down like being dragged under water, being held, being restrained with too long nails dragging through her hair. Good girls do not shout. They do not run. They play quietly, sew and read and cook and clean and do as they are told.

Dimly, painfully, Falak squeezed her fingers around Steise’s wrist. It was so hard to push past the flashback. Help, she needed help. Steise always helped her escape the memories when Falak couldn’t. Falak’s fingers spasmed around Steise’s wrist, finally notifying her wife of the danger.
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Novel Monday: Following the Trail – Chapter 7

POD Following the Trail Ebook Cover 04
Description:

As her older sister’s wedding begins, Keiko struggles to cope with a level of society she has never prepared for. Raised a peasant, Keiko is now a member of nobility. Despite that, she longs for the simplicity of her rural peasant life but her family’s choices mean that Keiko will never go home again.

Worse, everyone at the wedding assumes that Keiko will marry her future brother-in-law, Ammad, despite Keiko’s fascination with the visiting Lady Tamami.

Following the Trail is a sweet romance where cruel gossip and sheer determination create a trail to a new life that promises everything Keiko could ever want.

Following the Trail

By Meyari McFarland

7. Dark Garden

The garden was silent, cool, and mysterious. Keiko carefully picked her way along the trail, following the lantern that Lady Tamami carried. She hadn’t expected to actually walk deep into the garden but now that they were out of the heat and noise, Keiko didn’t want to go back.

She could smell moss and dusty ferns. Tiny brooks babbled through the garden, tumbling over carefully placed rocks and scampering under tiny bridges. Earlier in the day, Keiko had assumed that the garden was tiny, especially in comparison to Breding Manor but now, following Lady Tamami, it unfurled like a spring fern, revealing tiny glade after little lawn after winding trail.

“It’s huge,” Keiko whispered and then ducked her head at the amused look Lady Tamami threw over her shoulder. “I feel like we could encounter a kitsune at any moment.”

“I certainly hope not,” Lady Tamami said with a shudder for that thought. “I have enough trouble with that old man Waseem.”

“Really?” Keiko asked. “He seemed quite reasonable.”

“He’s a matchmaker,” Lady Tamami said as though that was comparable to being a murderer. “Every time I see the man he’s pushing me at some eligible young thing. Threatened to stab him if he keeps it up.”

Keiko laughed despite herself. “I think Mother would approve of you. When she was young she chased one suitor off by firing arrows at him. Hit him in the thigh. He still walks with a limp.”

Lady Tamami’s laughter echoed through the little glade they’d entered. It was high enough that when Keiko looked back at Breding Manor, she could see right over the top of it to the town below and the sound beyond. The moon shown down over them all, transforming the dark shadows into silvery outlines of trees and shrubs. In the village she could see the peaks of rooftops and beyond, the gentle waves of the sound sparkled like the stars overhead.

“It’s beautiful,” Keiko whispered, one hand over her beating heart.

“It is,” Lady Tamami agreed, her voice low and throaty. “Didn’t expect that. Rina’s always on me to build gardens behind Metchosin Manor but there’s just no room. Might work if we did it this way.”

“Terraces do make a difference,” Keiko agreed.

They stood together, looking out over the night. It was quiet, still. Comfortable. Keiko blinked and then frowned. She hadn’t been comfortable in so long. When was the last time she truly felt at peace with the world and herself?
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Novel Monday: Following the Trail – Chapter 6

POD Following the Trail Ebook Cover 04
Description:

As her older sister’s wedding begins, Keiko struggles to cope with a level of society she has never prepared for. Raised a peasant, Keiko is now a member of nobility. Despite that, she longs for the simplicity of her rural peasant life but her family’s choices mean that Keiko will never go home again.

Worse, everyone at the wedding assumes that Keiko will marry her future brother-in-law, Ammad, despite Keiko’s fascination with the visiting Lady Tamami.

Following the Trail is a sweet romance where cruel gossip and sheer determination create a trail to a new life that promises everything Keiko could ever want.

Following the Trail

By Meyari McFarland

6. Gossip

Few things would have convinced Tamami to willingly spend time talking to Waseem Javid. The old man was too powerful to ignore but Tamami had spent entirely too much time over the last year dealing with the man’s not at all discrete attempts to find her a spouse. Even after she’d threatened to have the man decapitated for insolence against the nobility, the man continued to ‘suggest’ young people who might be ‘interesting’.

She breathed slowly, hoped her smile wasn’t as forced as it felt, and stayed by the old man’s side. Behind her, Tamami could smell the too-sweet blackberry wine that Lady Cantara favored. Tamami could almost feel the woman’s breath on the nape of her neck. Worse, Firas’ grumbles about the disrespect to him and his new wife were anything but quiet.

“It is a lovely party, though,” Waseem said. His smile was as forced as Tamami’s. “I do worry a touch about Yasuda Keiko. When I talked to her parents earlier they were somewhat concerned that Keiko wouldn’t adjust to her new life.”

“New life?” Tamami asked.

“They plan to move here,” Waseem explained. The smile disappeared into a concerned frown. “Mori admitted, privately, that he is still in a considerable amount of pain. He hasn’t been able to return to his glass blowing and at the moment can only support the family through teaching. His wife, Gentle Rain, is an incredible administrator, quite gifted. She had some truly enlightened suggestions that Lord Bilal is considering implementing.”

“He could get better medical care here,” Tamami said slowly. “She can help support the family. It would mean a better education for the youngest, Haruka. And they would all be much closer to Shizuka, as well.”

“Exactly,” Waseem said.

The both stiffened as Firas edged around to Waseem’s left, trying to join the conversation. Waseem turned to face Tamami squarely, one hand sweeping almost grandly towards the buffet table that Tamami had avoided so far tonight.

“Perhaps a drink?” Waseem suggested while soundly ignoring both Firas and Lady Cantara.

“That sounds good,” Tamami said even though she didn’t want anything at all from the buffet, not even a glass of plain water. “Though not the blackberry wine. Never have been able to stand it.”

“Too sweet,” Waseem agreed. He looked hopeful and then relieved as they made their slow way through the crowds away from Lady Cantara and Firas. “They may have tea. Or soup. Soup would be good.”

Tamami looked behind them, just a quick glance. Their mutual annoyances had stayed where they were, thank every deity everywhere. She looked sidelong at Waseem and nodded. He sighed happily.

“Is that hot things to drink?” Tamami asked. “Or hot things to throw in people’s faces?”
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Novel Monday: Following the Trail – Chapter 5

POD Following the Trail Ebook Cover 04
Description:

As her older sister’s wedding begins, Keiko struggles to cope with a level of society she has never prepared for. Raised a peasant, Keiko is now a member of nobility. Despite that, she longs for the simplicity of her rural peasant life but her family’s choices mean that Keiko will never go home again.

Worse, everyone at the wedding assumes that Keiko will marry her future brother-in-law, Ammad, despite Keiko’s fascination with the visiting Lady Tamami.

Following the Trail is a sweet romance where cruel gossip and sheer determination create a trail to a new life that promises everything Keiko could ever want.

Following the Trail

By Meyari McFarland

5. Rivals

“But which one do you like the most?” Duchess Chin-Sun asked so insistently that Ammad could only sigh and shake his head at her.

“My dear, he did just meet both of them today,” Duke Laughing Seal said. He could have been scolding. Maybe. If you ignored the way his lips twitched with amusement and the mischievous expression. “You should give him time to get to know them before making them kiss.”

“I am not going to kiss either of them,” Ammad complained. “Keiko is a lovely young woman, yes, but she doesn’t show any signs of being interested in a relationship. And Rina already told you outright not to attempt to match her up with anyone.”

Duchess Chin-Sun sighed sadly over that, leaning on Duke Laughing Seal’s arm as if she’d just been struck through the heart. He, of course, laughed and supported her, pressing a kiss on her cheek. They were horrible, both of them. All of them, actually, because it felt as though the entire party had decided that Keiko and Rina were rivals for his hand in marriage.

The two young women, so different in appearance, slowly walked their way. Ammad didn’t know what they were discussing but Keiko looked horrified and Rina had a wry, amused expression on her face. As they neared the buffet table where Ammad, Duke Laughing Seal and Duchess Chin-Sun stood, both young women put on determined expressions that suggested going into battle more than getting a bite to eat.

“I am not,” Keiko said as soon as they were within earshot.

“Yes, you are,” Rina said, laughing quietly. Her smile exposed crooked front teeth but she didn’t appear to mind that at all.

“Aren’t what?” Ammad asked.

“I am not the most beautiful woman in the room,” Keiko declared. “I don’t care what anyone says. I’m not. It’s simply not possible. There are other women here who are far more attractive than I am and I won’t listen to anyone who says anything different.”

Duke Laughing Seal shouted a laugh that was so much like his namesake that Ammad jumped. He shook his head at Keiko who glared back at him so ferociously that Ammad eased off a step only to run into the edge of the buffet table. Keiko didn’t seem to notice it. She just glowered up at Duke Laughing Seal, graceful hands clenched into fists by her sides, though those fists were nearly hidden by the folds of her kimono sleeves.

“Yes, you are,” Duke Laughing Seal said. “I completely agreed with that, Rina. She is gorgeous. No offense, my dear.”

“Oh, none taken,” Duchess Chin-Sun said with a wrinkled nose and a fond kiss to his cheek. “I’m afraid you’ll just have to deal with being beautiful, dear. Because you are. And I think you’d make a lovely lady for someone. Who do you like the most?”

“You would have to talk to my parents about that,” Keiko declared so sternly that even Duke Laughing Seal winced. Duchess Chin-Sun stared. Ammad did too, though it was more for the effect she had on the two notorious jokesters. “I am not considering marriage at this time. Taking care of Father takes quite too much of my time. Thank you for your concern for me but I would appreciate it if you stopped. Entirely.”
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Free Fiction Friday: Another Path to Infinity

Whoops–Sorry, guys. I put the wrong story up this week. Have the correct one instead. #^^#

POD Another Path to Infinity ebook cover 08

Description:

When death stole one life, she searched for another.

Exie used her magic to travel from world to world in search of another place, and another woman, to call home. Grief kept her at Benella’s side for entirely too long, long enough that she left with anger and recriminations at her back. Benella had seemed like the answer to Exie’s prayers but she’d been wrong.

Years spent wandering the paths to infinity hadn’t led Exie to another woman who could replace her lost love. After five years of running, Exie wondered whether she’d ever find someone who could make her settle down.

Then a mistake while walking the paths dropped Exie into a life or death situation with the Goddess of All. Exie’s faith had died along with her lost love Tivian, or so she’d thought. She might have forsaken the Goddess when she ran away from home but it appeared that the Goddess hadn’t abandoned Exie.

Collapsed in a strange world unlike any she’d ever found before, Exie was at the mercy of a woman who could be Tivian’s twin. She might take pity on Exie but it appeared that her husband, world-twin to Exie’s own brother, had no such intentions.

Was this world the last she would ever see or would it prove to be the starting point for a path that led to Exie’s true home?

Another Path to Infinity

1. Loss

“I’m sorry,” Benella said as she dropped Exie’s hands, the smell of distilling rose petals heavy in the air. “I can’t accept.”

Benella’s kitchen was filled with roses from her garden, the heads coolly and methodically cut off at the peak of blossom so that Benella could distill rose water from their petals. Steam drifted around them, dripping down Exie’s drooping curls and forming tiny pearls of water on Benella’s cheeks. The steam only made Benella’s dark hair shine as she looked at the worn floor. Her dark eyes picked out the boards that Exie had replaced for her before raising her eyes to Exie’s again.

Her expression was anything but apologetic. Her eyes were cold despite the regretful smile twisting her lips into an approximation of emotion. Exie swallowed down a surge of acid rage. Months. She had spent months with Benella, helping her fix her house, weeding the garden, laughing at all Benella’s weak jokes about needing a real man in the house but oh well, Exie was close enough.

Close enough to do the hard labor. Close enough to fix what had gone wrong through neglect and lack of money. Close enough to fill Benella’s bed most nights. Not close enough to love, to cherish, or to keep. She’d failed again.

“I know you were expecting something more,” Benella said as she rubbed her hands distastefully over her stained and spotted apron. Once it had been beautifully embroidered, apparently a gift of Benella’s grandmother. Now it showed its years. “You have helped me enormously. I might not have been able to survive the winter without you staying here. The leaks in the roof alone would have destroyed half the food in the pantry.”

“It would have,” Exie agreed, not bothering to hide the harshness of her tone. “Not to mention last week.”

Benella winced at the reminder of Exie’s battle with the local bully boys in her defense. She looked away, the set of her jaw and shoulders defiant. Bruises still dotted Exie’s chest, back and stomach. Her knuckles were scraped and split. Exie had only just gotten sight back in her right eye. It had been ugly with broken blood vessels and bruising when Exie glanced into the water bucket this morning.

“They would have raped you,” Exie said. The words came out casual, as if it was a comment on the weather.

“They wouldn’t have,” Benella replied. Her shudder made the words into a lie.

“I’m just to leave?” Exie asked, said, demanded. “Take my things and walk away. Near a full year I’ve been here for you and I’m just to walk out the door and not look back.”
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Novel Monday: Following the Trail – Chapter 4

POD Following the Trail Ebook Cover 04
Description:

As her older sister’s wedding begins, Keiko struggles to cope with a level of society she has never prepared for. Raised a peasant, Keiko is now a member of nobility. Despite that, she longs for the simplicity of her rural peasant life but her family’s choices mean that Keiko will never go home again.

Worse, everyone at the wedding assumes that Keiko will marry her future brother-in-law, Ammad, despite Keiko’s fascination with the visiting Lady Tamami.

Following the Trail is a sweet romance where cruel gossip and sheer determination create a trail to a new life that promises everything Keiko could ever want.

Following the Trail

By Meyari McFarland

4. Mehndi

The ballroom loomed around Keiko, roof two stories over her head and so long that three of her family’s house would have fit inside. It was filled. Entirely filled with people, all of whom were far more important than Keiko was.

Her new kimono helped, as did the lovely obi that Shizuka had found for her, but Keiko still felt completely out of place. Their little village had never prepared her for so many people crammed so close together.

Every color of the rainbow appeared on their clothes which were in so many styles that Keiko’s eyes felt dazzled. Simple kimono vied with billowing hanbok made of stiff translucent silk layered over bright underskirts. Pakistani anarkali dresses and lehenga skirts flared and danced around their wearers, all of them sparkling with gorgeous embroidery, bright colors and the sort of movement that kimono could never achieve.

Fortunately, they had completed Shizuka and Nabeela’s mehndi designs without any major problems. Keiko still wasn’t sure about the skin staining designs. They felt far too much like tattoos. But she had to admit that it had been quite nice to sit with Shizuka and carefully trace plovers and cherry blossom outlines onto Shizuka’s palms and forearms, though Keiko’s hands had shaken badly as she made the outlines. Someone else should have gone first, no matter what Shizuka and Haruka had decided.

The dancing that had followed had started out as a laughing competition between Shizuka’s family and Nabeela’s. Lord Ammad’s attempts at dancing had sent both Nabeela and Lord Bilal laughing so hard that tears ran down their cheeks. Haruka and Shahzad had competed against each other with Haruka giving Shahzad the win perhaps more for his blushes than his skill.

Embarrassingly, Keiko’s dance had prompted both sides to throw up their hands and declare that she had won the entire night despite her many small technical errors of style and positioning. But Mother had assured Keiko that they hadn’t harmed the beauty of her spring harvest dance, nor had anyone but the two of them noticed that her right foot had been two degrees out of position or that her sleeves had swung far too wildly when Keiko spun at the end of the dance. From the praise Keiko had received since then Mother had to be right. No one seemed to have noticed or didn’t care about the mistakes at all.

The smell of so many people and so much food overwhelmed the lovely elk nihari that Shizuka had pressed into Keiko’s hands before she was called away to talk to a visiting Duke and Duchess. Keiko nibbled on her nihari, stomach in knots despite how delicious the thick stew was. It truly was wonderful, thick with spices Keiko couldn’t identify, but so skillfully combined that her tongue delighted in it instead of protesting.

The heat of the day had subsided into dusky warmth that promised to lull Keiko to sleep on her feet despite her nervousness. So many bodies gathered together, there were easily two hundred people gathered in the ballroom, only added to the effect.

No one else in the family seemed nervous at all. Father and Mother sat off in a corner, chatting quietly with an older man that Shizuka had introduced briefly as Waseem Javid. He was apparently important. Father treated him as such. But Keiko hadn’t quite caught what Waseem did or why it was important to be polite to him.

In the middle of the ballroom, Haruka laughed with Shahzad, the youngest child of Lord Bilal. They seemed to have become friends instantly, Haruka’s open nature contrasting perfectly with Shahzad’s shyer, more indrawn tendencies. Keiko would have scolded Haruka for flirting but the flapping of her sleeves was from her wild gestures as she told some tale, not from efforts to make Shahzad notice her slim figure or graceful arms.

“I wonder what I do with the plate,” Keiko murmured once she’d finished the nihari, mopping up the last traces of sauce with a bit of naan bread.

Most of the people around her were focused on talk, not on eating. Few of them had finished their plates yet. Keiko craned her neck, trying to see through the crowd to where Shizuka and Nabeela had gone. That was a failure. She was just too short to do it. Instead, Keiko sighed and turned to the buffet table with its many servants dressed in beautiful blue suits cut in the Pakistani styles Lord Bilal preferred.

“Ano ne,” Keiko said, shaking her head and then continuing in common, not Japanese. “Excuse me, where do I take the plate?”

“Ah, please, allow us,” the servant, a tall man with the dark skin of a Pakistani but the eyes and hair of a Japanese person said. “Would you like anything else, miss?”

“Oh no,” Keiko said. “I wouldn’t want to impose.”

“It is not imposition,” the man said in perfect Japanese that relaxed Keiko just because it was Japanese. “You are the sister of the bride. It is our pleasure to make sure that you enjoy yourself.”

“Then I can leave now?” Keiko said quietly enough that hopefully the chatting nobles around her wouldn’t hear.
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Free Fiction Friday: Sensory Alterations

Sensory Alterations Ebook Cover 02

Description:

When Tinesha left her Seattle suburban home to join the space station building program it was with a sense of excitement. She hoped for adventure and something greater to dedicate herself to. Helping humanity expand into outer space seemed like a worthy path for her life, one that she’d be able to follow for years, maybe decades.

But once she was on the station and had begun to help constructing it, Tinesha found that she was having a harder time adjusting to life in space than she expected. It wasn’t the work that gave her trouble or her fellow construction workers in space.

No, the problem was that she couldn’t adjust to the sensory differences in her environment. Just as Tinesha was about to give up and go back home, her new friend Kalila suggested a way that Tinesha could cope with the station. Taking her up on the suggestion opened up a whole new world for Tinesha. More importantly, it opened up a possibility between them that Tinesha would never have dared to hope for.

Sensory Alterations

It was the smells that made it impossible to adjust to her new life on the space station. Tinesha had had high hopes when she joined the station building program. A new life in a new place with adventure and excitement were just what she’d been hoping for. She took all the tests and passed with flying colors, even the physical tests that made her sweat worse than weeding the garden behind her family’s home in the middle of August.

The trip from her home outside of Seattle to the training center had been a medley of stale air, bland food and the smell of too many bodies crammed into too small a space. Once at the training center, Tinesha had gladly thrown herself into the many things she needed to learn. She’d noticed that the center smelled of antiseptic and new plastics instead of rain or moss or even other people.

It was scrubbed so clean so often that there were no smells of anything else left. That made sense given that they wanted all the recruits to be as healthy as possible before shipping out to the stations under construction in orbit between Mars and Earth. It had been a minor irritant, that lack of the moist smell of rain clouds moving in, the absence of musty earth and moss. Tinesha would deal with it for the chance to do something totally new.

By the time they arrived at their assigned station, Tinesha had grown aware of a deep hunger for smells that she couldn’t find in her environment. There were no green growing things smelling of pollen and damp earth. All the plants were grown hydroponically and she wasn’t assigned to tending them. The food came wrapped in plastic, perfectly balanced and nutritious but the smells of it were off, bland, wan compared to what she was used to. Even the air made the back of her nose itch for the lack of dust.

“I don’t think I can do this,” Tinesha murmured as she sniffed the air in hope of something more than metal, the plastic wrap over her lunch tray and the scent of her deodorant.

“Can’t do what?” Riyad asked as he settled into the seat opposite Tinesha. “The food? Granted, this is worse than normal. I think they bleached it while they cooked it or something.”

His sister Kalila sat next to Tinesha, nose wrinkled as she pulled the plastic off her tray of food. They had both been on the station for several years, since construction began.

From the beginning, Riyad had worked in Engineering and Kalila in the hydroponic gardens that supplied the majority of their food and air. While Tinesha had joined the construction effort halfway through the build, both Riyad and Kalila had been here since the first sparsely furnished module was filled with stale canned air from the previous station in the growing ring between Mars and Earth.

They had watched the station grow from a tiny set of living quarters attached to a construction dock into the rapidly filling framework that it was today. Tinesha wasn’t sure that she would have been able to handle such an alien environment, especially when she was having trouble with the station as it was now.

At least now there were halls she could wander through after work, two entertainment centers where she could socialize, and enough room that she didn’t feel cramped. The earliest phases of station construction had to be hell. Everything would be plastic and metal, the scent of welding so heavy in the air that it stained the back of your throat.

Tinesha found herself leaning closer to Kalila simply to catch a whiff of the light fragrance that Kalila wore. It was such a nice change after the lack of pleasant smells that she didn’t realize at first that she was doing it. Kalila glanced sidelong at Tinesha, her cheeks going pink, but she didn’t comment. Aware of herself now, Tinesha settled back into her seat only to find herself edging slightly closer to Kalila again. Maybe it wasn’t a fragrance; it could simply be the smell of the plants that Kalila had been working with during the morning.
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Novel Monday: Following the Trail – Chapter 3

POD Following the Trail Ebook Cover 04
Description:

As her older sister’s wedding begins, Keiko struggles to cope with a level of society she has never prepared for. Raised a peasant, Keiko is now a member of nobility. Despite that, she longs for the simplicity of her rural peasant life but her family’s choices mean that Keiko will never go home again.

Worse, everyone at the wedding assumes that Keiko will marry her future brother-in-law, Ammad, despite Keiko’s fascination with the visiting Lady Tamami.

Following the Trail is a sweet romance where cruel gossip and sheer determination create a trail to a new life that promises everything Keiko could ever want.

Following the Trail

By Meyari McFarland

3. Sudden Vision

Tamami stared up at Lord Ammad. She’d heard that Lady Nabeela’s bride was incredibly bright and beautiful but she hadn’t thought that the intelligence went that deep. Usually when people praised apprentices in that fashion they were being kind, not literal.

“Is that possible?” Captain Nafiso asked, a skeptical frown twisting her lean, dark face.

“So far, it looks as though it is,” Lord Ammad said. He smiled and waved one hand aimlessly. “One of our kitchen girls was burned quite badly on Shizuka’s first day. She helped keep the burn from getting worse and had this odd treatment of putting the lining of a pig’s stomach over the burn. Amazingly enough, it helped. The girl recovered with barely any scarring at all.”

“A pig’s stomach?” Tamami asked. “That’s horrifying!”

“But effective,” Lord Ammad said. He shrugged. “I don’t understand it myself but Shizuka has been working to grow new sheets of skin for burn victims. It’s limited, so far, but it seems to work. I think she has the aim of helping her father return to glass blowing. His accident was what sent her into the apprentice program in the first place.”

Tamami looked towards the manor, stomach roiling at the sheer idea of growing skin as though you were growing maize or rice. She had no idea how it could be done or how it would be attached. Did you just flay the person’s skin off and put new skin on top?

The broad door that led from the garden to the ballroom opened, allowing Lady Nabeela and her bride Shizuka emerge. They smiled at each other so sweetly that Tamami did her best to shake off the nightmare images of people’s skin being flayed off only to be replaced with pale new sheets of skin, wrapping around them like a shroud.

“There she is,” Lord Ammad said. “You can ask her to explain it if you like. The last time I did, Shizuka said that it would be years, perhaps decades, before the treatment would be available widely.”

“No, thank you,” Tamami said a bit too hastily given the surprise in Lord Ammad’s eyes and the raised eyebrow from Captain Nafiso. “My apologies. I think I’m going to have nightmares about it as it is.”

“Understandable,” Lord Ammad said so wryly that Tamami immediately felt better. “I was much the same but, well, I just met her father and I can see why Shizuka is so focused on it.”

He looked towards the ballroom, nodding as several more people slipped out behind Lady Nabeela and Shizuka. One was a girl of about fourteen or so, bright, cheerful and the sort of beauty that promised battles in a few years. After her were two older people who must be Shizuka’s father and mother. The mother was native, Tamami assumed Snohomish given what she’d heard about Shizuka’s origins, but the father might have been full Japanese.

It was hard to tell. Terrible burn scars disfigured the left side of his body, all down his left cheek, his neck. Tamami had to assume that the burns covered his arm, as well, because his left hand curled in a disfigured claw. Even his leg appeared affected. He limped badly. His kimono hid most of the damage but something horrific obviously had happened to the man.

“What happened?” Captain Nafiso asked much more quietly.

“He was a glass blower,” Lord Ammad explained in a low tone that wouldn’t carry beyond the three of them. “There was an accident at the forge and a fishing globe he was blowing exploded. Two of his assistants were killed outright. They thought that he would die as well but he didn’t. As I said, Shizuka became an apprentice to get proper medical treatment for him. Their village is small, up in the mountains, very distant.”

“Ah,” Tamami sighed, shaking her head in dismay while watching the poor man’s slow progress towards one of the seats close to the ballroom entrance. “Too remote for proper care.”

Whatever Lord Ammad said went in one ear and out the other as another young woman emerged from the ballroom. Even with her head bowed so that she could watch her step, the girl was gorgeous. A face like a fat grain of rice, round and brown, hair as black as ink swept up into a simple bun on the back of her head. She moved with the sort of grace that brought to mind dancers in the spring singing for a good harvest.
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Free Fiction Friday: Mountainous Stretch of Wind

POD Mountainous Stretch of Wind Ebook Cover 06

Description:

Etsuko delighted in the challenge of meeting a new species on a new world. Meeting new aliens, learning of their cultures, was her greatest joy. Not as joyful was dealing with new coworkers who seemed to view her as an odd little threat to their much more important experiments. It would have been fine if their Commander hadn’t ordered Etsuko to smooth the way in their tiny habitat.

Mountainous Stretch of Wind is a humorous SF story of learning to deal with unexpected circumstances and finding joy no matter what’s thrown your way that you’re sure to love.

Mountainous Stretch of Wind

By Meyari McFarland

1. Ascent

Wind battered at Etsuko. She leaned into it, hands thrust deep into her coat pockets. Not that the pockets helped. The wind stabbed through the coat, through her gloves, through all of the clothes she wore, even her heavy insulated underwear. Cold enough to bite and hard enough to steal her breath, the wind was like an enemy intent on killing Etsuko before she could take another step.

It was glorious.

She’d missed wind since she left Japan to explore other planets and other cultures. Certainly, while on world she got to experience actual weather but most of her time was spent on space ships and those could be so dreadfully dull. Even if the Commander shared Etsuko’s sense of humor and indulged in little prank wars with her the vast majority of her time shipboard was dull. Uninteresting. Boring.

Every time she tried to look at the path ahead the wind whipped tears into her eyes. She grinned, wiped the tears away with one cuff, and kept looking despite the wind that slipped under her safety glasses and into her eyes. So nice to have that struggle!

Even through the tear-blur Etsuko could see that they had far to go yet. The path stretched upwards, a bare rocky foot trail leading through boulders and scrubby grass that whipped in the wind like tentacles reaching for Etsuko’s feet. There were other plants, tiny purple creeping plants that slowly moved over the soil with tentacle-like branches functioning as limbs. Their white flowers were more like dots against the purple stems than the flowers that Etsuko was familiar with.

She wondered what they smelled like, if the pollen they released to the driving wind would cause her eyes to swell and her nose to run as the flowers on their ship did. Best not to check. She had promised not to do silly things just to see what happened and who knew what her teammates would think of Etsuko kneeling down to stick her face in the little purple plants. Besides, her face mask was fuzzy and warm, likely to collect any pollen that the flowers might have, if any remained after the beating of the wind.

Ahead, Chikafuji Kimiko and Yamashita Rika trudged upwards. Both carried packs on their backs equal in size to Etsuko’s. Two weeks’ worth of clothing and dehydrated food, one tablet for entertainment and to work with, a brush, a toothbrush, nothing else. The natives were quite strict about what could be brought in. At least they provided water, though from the briefing the water would always need to be filtered and purified. Even then the taste was something to regret. Pity she couldn’t bring tea. That would help.

Etsuko shook her head at herself, carefully pulled her boot out from under the seeking fronds of one of the purple creepers that had crawled closer to shelter behind her feet, and then trudged after her teammates. It would be strange to be surrounded only by women. In her life, Etsuko had spent far more time among men than women. For all the progress that the authorities claimed, women still tended towards soft sciences rather than hard.

She was no exception. Xeno-sociology was mostly a matter of learning to talk to other species whose morphology differed dramatically from human. It was delightfully fun trying to explain stereo-vision to creatures with one eye or three or none. And the joys of demonstrating running to a race that always moved at a snail’s pace had been beyond anything that Etsuko had imagined. This trip would likely be more of the same, though Etsuko did wish that she was even shorter and smaller so that she could see the natives’ homes.

Chikafuji Kimiko was an exception to the general rule of women in science, as was Yamashita Rika. Both had studied extensively in physics and xeno-biology before joining the Exploration Corp. Their reports were so thick with math and chemistry that Etsuko had set them aside, largely unread. It made Etsuko doubt her place on this team, her right to be here on this alien planet with its demanding, complicated, confusing masters.

But then, the problems the previous teams had experienced had more to do with social dynamics among the team members and between the humans and the natives than any hard science issues. Etsuko was fairly certain that her job was to be a wall between Kimiko, Rika and anything that would distract them from their work, though her orders had included a line about ‘smoothing interpersonal issues in the habitat’ that her commander had refused to explain further.

Annoying, amusing man. Mission briefings was not a place for teasing. Even Etsuko avoided making jokes during briefings. Still, dealing with any personal issues their team had shouldn’t be too hard. Etsuko usually did a good job of adapting to her environment, whether that environment included humans, aliens or mixes of the types.

It should help that both Kimiko and Rika were of Japanese descent. They might not follow Japanese social customs but they were familiar with them by default. One couldn’t grow up with a Japanese grandmother and not learn that bowing was important and politeness was mandatory.

Etsuko would certainly have to adjust to their needs, though. Neither of them were native to Japan or even Issei, first generation children born after emigrating from Japan. They wouldn’t follow the customs as fully so Etsuko would need to be conscious of herself and try not to offend them with her idiosyncratic version of Japanese politeness.

“I can do that,” Etsuko said to herself even though the words whipped her sounds away. “I will do that. I will do it well.”

She nodded and marched up the path after her teammates, wind tearing at her skin despite the protective gear. No matter what her always present worries told her, Etsuko would complete her mission. Two weeks wasn’t that long. It would take hard work but she could smooth relations with the natives and, hopefully, keep Rika and Kimiko happy during their stay on world.

She would do it.

And when she wasn’t dealing with her teammates, Etsuko looked forward to spending time talking with the natives about their so-interesting world with its wind and mountains and moving plants that acted like animals while being vegetable.

This should be an absolutely delightful mission.

2. Arrival

Etsuko staggered once the door sealed behind them. She’d gotten so used to the wind that its lack nearly shoved her off her feet. The backpack felt heavier, somehow much more noticeable now that the wind was gone. When she looked at the others, they stood so straight that they might never have been subject to the wind’s pounding, waiting for the inner door to cycle open.

An airlock. This was an airlock, of course. Etsuko should have expected that. Even though the planet’s air, bright blue sky with shredded white clouds overhead, was a near-perfect match for Earth air, the wind was so much stronger that it would be needed.

“The windows won’t open, will they?” Etsuko commented, thinking about midnight farts with no place to escape and the inevitable smells that accumulated when three people lived together in a very small place. Hopefully the air filtration system would be adequate to the challenge.

Rika turned to frown at Etsuko, one perfectly manicured eyebrow sliding upwards. “No, they won’t. Logically.”

Etsuko ducked her head in an awkward attempt at a proper bow. Rika nodded back with her lips pursed as if she’d just bitten a lemon. Next to her, Kimiko shook her head. Unlike Rika with her perfect eyebrows, perfect smooth hair coiled into an unruffled bun on the back of her head, Kimiko looked as though the wind was still blowing over her. They were both a good head and a half taller than Etsuko. Kimiko’s hair was short, only a few centimeters long. At some point it had been dyed brilliantly neon blue. Very little of the blue remained, only a bare three millimeters or so at the tips. Everything else was steel gray, the same as the walls of their airlock.

“The entire habitat is sealed,” Kimiko said in a tone that strongly implied that she was used to teaching much younger and much more flighty people. She didn’t look back at Etsuko. “We will stay inside the entire time.”

“You will,” Etsuko agreed. She winced when they turned to frown at her. Kimiko’s frown was particularly fierce, eyebrows drawn down over a flat, flat nose that Etsuko suspected had been broken long ago. “I am to work with the natives. I will need to leave the habitat frequently.”

“Better you than me,” Rika muttered.

“Agreed,” Kimiko said. “I have no interest in going outside until it’s time to leave.”

They all turned as the inner door beeped and then spiraled open rather like a sunflower’s petals pulling open to reveal its heart. Rika strode straight in, pulling off her backpack as she scanned the room. Kimiko gestured for Etsuko to go first and then snorted when Etsuko bowed to her before proceeding.

The habitat was quite small, even for a sealed unit, a bare eight paces in diameter. It had, of course, been designed as a circular dome, with small projections for the windows that resembled dormers and a lump on the right side that led to the bathroom unit. One sealed light had been set into the very top of the dome where it could light everything evenly. Thankfully, the only scent inside was a faint impression of dustiness and a lingering trace of ammonia from when the previous team cleaned and sterilized everything.

There were hammocks slung high under the dome in carefully carved out alcoves with little ladders that lead up to them. Sleeping bags already lay on them, each with a wrap of paper around them indicating that they had been fully sterilized before the last team left. Etsuko grimaced. She would still sterilize hers again, just to be sure. It was an uncomfortable thought that someone else had used that sleeping bag before her, many someones, even if they were all scientists. Etsuko had seen too many truly messy scientists with terrible personal hygiene to want to risk an improperly sterilized sleeping bag.

Under the white arch of the dome, the walls went steel gray just above the point that Etsuko could reach while standing on her toes. There were windows, thankfully, but they were more like portholes than the windows she was used to on a planetary surface. An inner window led to a narrow sealed tunnel that was protected on the other side by the outer window. At least they let in light, if not fresh air.

They had a tiny kitchen with a rack for pots hung high enough that Etsuko knew she’d be asking for assistance reaching them every mealtime. There was a very large-seeming table in the center of the room with four chairs, all scarred white plastic that showed how many teams had cycled in and out. It wasn’t that large, really. Etsuko could have spanned it with her arms but in this tiny habitat it seemed enormous. Even steps away she could see initials and words carved into the table’s surface in a dozen different languages.

Under their feet, the floor was dark plastic, a gray so dark that it resembled black in the shadows. Easy to clean, easy to sterilize between teams and certainly one of the most impersonal places Etsuko had ever had to spend time. She almost regretted the lack of human smells and that the walls were so well insulated that she couldn’t hear the shriek of the wind. Visiting the natives would be a relief.

“I will take that desk,” Rika announced as she set her backpack on one of the molded shelves along the outer wall that Etsuko had assumed to be nothing but décor. “The bed above is mine.”

“Very good,” Kimiko replied with an approving nod. She looked at Etsuko impatiently.

“Ah, well, perhaps the one closest to the door?” Etsuko suggested. She bowed again and nearly toppled over as her tired legs protested the movement. “If you do not want it?”

Kimiko frowned, shook her head and then took the desk farthest from the door. “This will be fine for me. Unpack. We should be begin work immediately. We don’t have much time on planet.”

Rika nodded and set to work with her backpack. Both of them turned their backs on Etsuko, leaving her to awkwardly pull off her pack and then quietly, shyly, pull things out. Within moments her little stack of freeze-dried rice toppled off her desk and onto the floor. Etsuko sighed and sat on the floor with it. The desk was barely wide enough for a book or a very small tablet. It certainly wasn’t what she thought of as useful even if there was a little stool that folded out of the wall for her to perch on. That made a more useful surface to place things on than the desk.

Rice went in one stack. Her various curries went in another. Etsuko smiled at her mochi, carefully packaged and sealed so that it met the requirements the natives had enforced. She hadn’t bothered with anything like the more elaborate desserts she preferred. Simple meals would suffice until it was time to leave. Doing without chocolate pecan pie was a minor discomfort, not a trial.

Her clothes would apparently have to remain in the backpack as Etsuko didn’t see a place to store them. No drawers or cubbies or even a shelf existed in her corner. A quick glance showed that Rika and Kimiko’s clothes were stacked on the floor. Odd. Wouldn’t they get dirty? But no, they weren’t stepping outside until they all left so the only dirt would be what they’d tracked in just now. Rika had stuffed her coat into her backpack which she slung from a hook close to the head of her hammock. Kimiko nodded thoughtfully and did the same.

Etsuko bit her lip as she slowly removed her coat and hung that on her just barely too high hook, leaving her pack on the floor under the little shelf-desk. Her boots went underneath the coat and her food into the kitchen pantry. Rather than take one of the higher shelves, given that she was so much shorter than the others, Etsuko took the lowest one, kneeling on the bare floor to carefully stack her sealed bags of food in little meal-sets.

“Separate shelves?” Rika asked.

“I thought it might be good,” Etsuko said. “I did bring mochi if you would like to share, Rika-san.”

“Just Rika,” Rika replied with such a glare that Etsuko bowed an automatic apology. “I left all that nonsense when I left Earth.”

“We’ll be around each other constantly,” Kimiko agreed. “There’s no need for formalities.”

She brought her food over and took the middle shelf, stacking it high with freeze dried fruit crumbles, steak and potatoes, and a big, big, big bag of granola that looked as though it had taken half her backpack.

Rika’s food was all the highly processed and automated pre-packed bricks that tasted like straw and looked like erasers. The little labels said ‘strawberry’, ‘beef’ and ‘gooseberry’ but having eaten them before on one very long, very bad mission Etsuko knew that they had nothing in common with the actual foods. She couldn’t imagine choosing to eat nothing but pre-packs for two weeks but maybe Rika had a digestive issue and this food was safest for her. Etsuko tried not to stare or show her dismay as she looked for a broom to sweep up the inevitable dirt from their, her, boots.

For her part, Rika wrinkled her nose as if Etsuko’s curry and rice was repulsive. “I’d best get my system set up. There’s work to be done.”

She strode across their little habitat as though it was as big as a spaceport, eating up the distance in two quick steps. Etsuko didn’t allow herself a sigh though she did smile when she found the broom and dustpan. There was also a lovely little auto-vac that someone had turned off.

“Oh, one of those,” Kimiko said, glaring at the auto-vac. “Never have been able to stand them wandering about.”

“Ah, well, I suppose we don’t have to use it,” Etsuko said. “I just wanted to be sure that we had cleaning supplies.”

“What for?” Rika huffed. “There won’t be any more mess other than what we generate.”

Etsuko stood, the auto-vac in her arms. Kimiko drifted away from the kitchen and back to her desk, syncing her personal systems to the habitat’s so that she could use all the observational equipment around the site and in the hull. Neither of them paid much attention to Etsuko so she cleared her throat. It took a second rather louder ‘ahem’ to get them to look up and focus on Etsuko.

“I will be leaving the habitat every day,” Etsuko said. “I can remove my boots in the air lock if you prefer but there will be some level of dirt and mess from outside. That is inevitable. Would you prefer me to sweep daily or have the auto-vac run?”

Given their attitudes, Etsuko certainly wasn’t going to give them the option of taking turns with the cleaning. She’d been in this situation entirely too many times since she left home. Taking turns at cleaning and cooking inevitably devolved into Etsuko doing it herself because the others ‘forgot’ or ‘needed to finish this project’.

“Sweeping and we will each take turns,” Kimiko declared.

“I would prefer to do it myself,” Etsuko replied somewhat hesitantly despite her determination. “It will, after all, be my mess.”

Kimiko glared as if she was offended by that. Perhaps she was. Etsuko would have been in her place. But Etsuko was the one who would bring in the dirt. She should be the one to clean. Rika looked from Kimiko’s face to Etsuko’s and shook her head.

“Decide it between yourselves,” Rika said with a dismissive wave of her hand. “I’d prefer to the auto-vac but I really don’t care one way or the other as long as my work gets done.”

Kimiko opened her mouth but Etsuko bowed so deeply that there was no way for her to see Kimiko’s glare and have her resolve crumble.

“I will sweep,” Etsuko said. “I will be the one making the mess. It is appropriate.”

She didn’t straighten up until Kimiko growled, thumped one hand into the surface of her desk-shelf and then sighed.

“Fine,” Kimiko grumbled. “If you insist.”

“I do. Thank you for indulging me.”

And that, finally, appeared to be that. Both of the others turned back to their work of connecting to the habitat’s systems, leaving Etsuko to tuck the little auto-vac back into its corner. One quick sweep of the habitat cleaned up what dirt they’d tracked in. After that, Etsuko nodded approvingly.

Time to contact the natives and let them know that Etsuko was available to hear any of their grievances against the previous occupants of the habitat. Hopefully she would be able to ensure that there were no complaints about the current occupants. Though as she linked her system into the habitat, Etsuko knew that she needed to note that social relations between the three of them were already somewhat strained. She would work harder over the next two weeks to ease them.

3. Agenda

Etsuko gasped for air as the habitat door shut behind her. Her nostrils felt as though they’d just gasped in steam hot from the tea kettle after the chill outside. So strange to have the wind sweep every smell away before she could even process it. Now she could swear that she smelled sweat, grease and oddly, sunflowers. The door was likely the cause of that fancy of her imagination. The sweat was certainly true, and possibly the grease. She doubted that the previous team had cleaned the airlock as seriously as the habitat.

Her first visit with the natives, unpronounceable name translated privately to ‘xam’sherb’tan’ in Etsuko’s notes, had gone quite well. The natives had been so very polite. It had been quite a joy to converse with them though Etsuko of course had to sit outside of their low burrows while they poked a head and sometimes a hand out into the wind. There was no way that she could have fit into their low tunnels, even as small as she was.

Their homes were underground, out of the constant wind. Much like the purple creeping plants that had taken shelter behind Etsuko during her visit to the village, the natives were very low to the ground. Their bodies were sleek, pale yellow on the underside and deep pumpkin-orange on top. Each of their four heads had one eye which rotated a full three hundred and sixty degrees, a set of six nostrils evenly spaced around the flattened perimeter and a single mouth underneath their body. It had muffled their words somewhat but the natives had kindly employed small transmitters to communicate more clearly to Etsuko’s systems. With the powerful wind and the driving rain storm that had blown over it was the only way that Etsuko could have communicated with them long-term.

Much of the discussion had centered around how well Etsuko and her fellow humans would adapt during their time on the planet. Apparently, the previous groups of scientists had gotten cabin fever fairly quickly. Understandable, really. The habitat was quite small but the work was fascinating for all three of them. Etsuko was relatively certain they would be fine during their short stay, though she would check with Rika and Kimiko at least once a day to make sure that they were not bothered by being inside all the time.

When the inner door slid open both Rika and Kimiko bolted to their feet to stare at Etsuko. She gulped, bowed and carefully took off her boots so that she wouldn’t spread dirt around the habitat.

“Where have you been?” Rika demanded.

“Ah, talking with the natives?” Etsuko said and stared at her, puzzled. “They’re actually quite pleasant, very polite and deferential.”

“It poured!” Rika said. “The rain was so loud we thought it was hail.”

“We were afraid you’d been hurt,” Kimiko agreed, coming over to take Etsuko’s coat off and then huff when she spotted tiny baby creepers gripping the hem. “Oh damn, get those out of here!”

“Ah, I am so sorry,” Etsuko said. “Let me handle that. The creepers do like finding spots out of the wind and I made a lovely windbreak for them.”

She took the coat, checked her rear end to make sure none had crawled up under her coat and into her other clothes, and then returned to the outer world, minus her boots. It took a good bit of effort to get the baby creepers let go but eventually set got them off. By the time she cycled back into the air lock Etsuko’s teeth chattered. Her shivers were bad enough that her whole body shook. Fortunately the air in the lock was considerably warmer this time around so by the time the inner door bloomed open Etsuko wasn’t quite so frozen.

Kimiko huffed as she took Etsuko’s coat and pushed her towards their meager little bathroom with its precious water-shower. “Go get warm. You could have just killed them.”

“The natives do not want that,” Etsuko said, rubbing her hands together. “The creepers are vital to their ecology.”

That perked Rika up, thankfully, though Kimiko only snorted as if that was a poor reason for Etsuko to risk her health. A quick shower with blessedly scalding hot water restored Etsuko to her normal self. She let her damp hair hang about her shoulders rather than pinning it back. It would dry soon enough. Having stayed out through lunch, Etsuko was ready for dinner now rather than after she dried her hair.

“I have no idea why you would stay out that long,” Rika complained as soon as Etsuko emerged from the bathroom. “You have to have gotten battered by the wind and the rain.”

“The wind was rather strong,” Etsuko agreed as she crossed to the kitchen and pulled out her favorite sweet and sour curry, a package of rice and the little bundle of strawberry mochi. “Where I was the rain was not quite so bad, really. I just hunched down and most of it blew over my head. One of the benefits of being so short. There aren’t many.”

She stared up at the pots on the rack, hands on her hips. Rika laughed, a truly startling sound out of the stern woman, and took one down for Etsuko. The amusement disappeared when Etsuko bowed her thanks. Kimiko murmured something quite incomprehensible that Rika made a little grumbling noise at. It sounded affirmative, whatever it was.

“I hope that your day’s work went well,” Etsuko said as she added water to her curry and began heating it on the little stove. “Mine was quite lovely. Truly the natives are very nice to deal with.”

“They’re weird looking,” Rika complained. She sat at the table and watched Etsuko cook as if Etsuko was working miracles rather than simply making a meal. “I wouldn’t have come at all if the observations of the ecology weren’t so important. Creepy people.”

“Very,” Etsuko agreed, beaming at her. “Such interesting bodies but very well adapted to their world. I am not sure, of course, having only just begun talking to them, but I think the extreme rule-making and rigorous requirements for politeness have much to do with the fact that they live underground in contained environments. Rather like us, here. There are rules and etiquette to ensure that everyone survives without undue conflict.”

Kimiko reared back, glaring at Etsuko. Rika looked away, staring out one of the windows rather than meeting Etsuko’s eyes. Well. Obviously she’d said something wrong. Etsuko ran over her words as she stirred her curry and then activated the rice packaging’s internal heating unit.

Oh dear. Perhaps they thought that Etsuko wanted to impose a huge number of rules on them? She bit her lip, wondering exactly how to smooth that over. She certainly had no intention of imposing any rules on them, just ensuring that they did the best they could in such cramped quarters. The lovely scent of the curry filled the air. Etsuko’s stomach rumbled. She stirred the curry and sighed that it wasn’t quite ready yet. Soon though.

“Have you eaten yet?” Etsuko asked.

“Some time ago,” Kimiko replied. “You didn’t take any food with you?”

“Oh no,” Etsuko said. “The natives were quite clear that we should keep our food in the habitat. They don’t wish to risk contamination of their environment with foreign species.”

She checked the temperature in the pot, nodding that her rice was done and her curry well heated. She looked at the plates overhead and then shrugged, dumping the hot rice on top of the curry instead of reaching up onto the kitchen shelves for one of the plates. A quick stir and her dinner was ready. Both Kimiko and Rika looked surprised when Etsuko brought the pot back to the scarred table.

“I don’t believe a hot pot will damage the table,” Etsuko said, running her fingers over the many layers of carved names. “Though it might smooth it a bit.”

Kimiko laughed as if her amusement was a kitten who had leaped out from under a bed to attack her ankle. She shook her head at Etsuko.

“I wouldn’t have expected that you’d eat from the pot,” Kimiko said.

“Faster,” Etsuko said around her first bite of food. She swallowed and shrugged. “Also only one thing to clean instead of two. It’s more efficient and I am rather hungry.”

Kimiko nodded, her eyes going distant as she accessed her systems. “We… received a message from the ship.”

“Oh,” Etsuko breathed, a bite of curry halfway to her mouth. “Is something wrong? We don’t have to pull out early do we?”

“No,” Rika said. Her glower was so intense that Etsuko could barely make herself chew and swallow. “You’re in charge of how we work together.”

“Eh?” Etsuko gasped. “Me? But why?”

Her shock seemed to surprise both Rika and Kimiko. Rika shrugged and turned away to go to her little desk, calling up her work programs and putting in ear buds so that she wouldn’t have to talk or interact with either of them. Kimiko sighed and stared at the kitchen rather than meet Etsuko’s eyes.

“The message is still in the habitat’s systems,” Kimiko said, standing abruptly. “I suggest you review it.”

“I will, of course,” Etsuko said. “Thank you for informing me. I wouldn’t have checked for at least another hour or two. I have a great deal to report on my conversations with the natives.”

Kimiko nodded once and turned away. She started working as well, ear buds in and back so stiff that it was as though a wall had been thrown between Etsuko and the others. Her curry tasted like ash in her mouth but Etsuko continued eating. She washed the pot and spoon, disposed of the wrappers and then took her mochi back to her little shelf of a desk.

Hopefully the message would explain what, exactly, she was to do because Etsuko truly didn’t know how to improve things now when the others had reacted so negatively to her change in authority.

4. Adjustments

The message revealed little of why Rika and Kimiko were so stiff with Etsuko. It was a simple reiteration that it was Etsuko’s responsibility to make sure that things went smoothly during their stay on the planet. She rather wished that she could curse without blushing so brightly that her face burned. A little more direction would have been very welcome. Some definition of respective responsibilities and expectations would have been delightful.

But no, their commander had not chosen to do that. She sighed, shook her head and tried not to knock her tablet off the shelf when she stood and tucked her stool back into its slot under the so-called desk.

“Ah!” Etsuko gasped and barely managed to catch her tablet before it crashed to the floor. “That’s it. I am sweeping and then working on the floor. The stool is a better desk than this thing.”

Kimiko made a strangled noise. When Etsuko turned to look, Kimiko’s shoulders shook with laughter. Rika had her face in her hands. Her shoulders shook as well though less obviously. So now she was a source of humor. Better than annoyance, Etsuko supposed as she retrieved the broom and carefully swept her way around the entire habitat.

“Feet please,” Etsuko said as she reached Kimiko’s desk.

“What?” Kimiko stared at her, one hand on her earbud controls to either turn them up or down. Etsuko wasn’t sure which.

“Lift your feet please,” Etsuko said, nodding towards the spot directly under Kimiko.

Once Kimiko tucked her feet up, eyes wide, Etsuko swept underneath her and then nodded approval. She patted Kimiko’s shoulder in passing and then roundly ignored Kimiko’s startled jerk away from her hand. Rika stood when Etsuko approached, leaning against the wall under her backpack with her arms crossed over her chest.

“This is a thing for you, isn’t it?” Rika asked.

“Mmm, somewhat,” Etsuko said slowly as she swept up all the crumbs that had somehow ended up under Rika’s desk. “I like a clean environment but I would prefer to use the auto-vac. Though I’d have to give it rabbit ears first.”

Both Rika and Kimiko choked at that. Etsuko grinned, schooled her face as close to seriousness as she could when she wanted to giggle, and then went back to sweeping. Ten minutes, she was done. As she carefully emptied the dustbin into the trash compactor Rika and Kimiko turned to stare at her. She blinked back at them, looking behind herself when they kept staring.

“You were humming,” Kimiko said.

“Oh,” Etsuko replied. She waved one hand to dismiss their startlement even though her cheeks went red. “I had a very good day. I am in quite the good mood. I do apologize if I disturbed you, Kimiko-san.”

“Must you be so formal?” Kimiko complained. She whirled on her stool to glare at Etsuko as if it was a terrible offense. “We’ll be here two weeks. You don’t need to be so stuffy.”

Etsuko’s jaw dropped open. “I… don’t believe I’ve ever been described as stuffy before. Quirky. Odd. Short. Always short. Certainly sly. But not stuffy. How odd.”

She went back to her corner, wadding her jacket up so that it made an adequate pillow and then opened her mochi while staring at first Rika, who frowned, and then Kimiko, who glared. Very strange indeed.

“Is it that I’m Japanese?” Etsuko asked.

“What do you mean?” Rika asked.

“The formality I use is very Japanese,” Etsuko explained while slowly nibbling her mochi. Strawberry had definitely been the right choice. It was just sweet enough to satisfy her sweet tooth but not so sweet that she ached to have more. “You are Nisei. Kimiko is Sansei while I am just Japanese. I was born and raised there and, honestly, was considered very much a rebel. Far too informal and silly, really. My mother and grandmother told me many times that I would never find a man who would marry a girl who wanted bunny ears on her auto-vac and who liked chocolate pecan pie over mochi.”

Kimiko stared. Her shock was so extreme that she looked considerably younger than Rika, much less Etsuko. Perhaps she was Yonsei or Gosei. She had nothing of the manners, only the look of her Japanese ancestry and the name. On the other side of the habitat, Rika waved one hand at Etsuko as if she was being far more ridiculous than she was in reality.

“If you like pecan pie why didn’t you bring that instead of… mochi?” Rika asked. The way she said the word it became a curse instead of a treat.

“It’s strawberry mochi,” Etsuko said. She emphasized ‘strawberry’ just to watch their reactions and Kimiko didn’t disappoint her at all as she clapped a hand over her mouth to muffle her snickers. “Much sweeter than normal mochi but not so sweet I would spend the night dreaming of eating pastries and pie and licking frosting from the spoon. Once I went on a three month assignment and brought a pie with me. I woke with my pillow stuffed in my mouth having dreamed of eating an endless pie.”

Kimiko’s startled splutters turned into helpless laughter. She shook her head and leaned back against the desk without, somehow, knocking her tablet from its narrow surface. Rika glowered at Kimiko as if she’d betrayed some pact. Who knew? They might have formed one when the message arrived, desperately planning to ward off the terrible rule-maker who lurked around their ankles. Or at least their busts. Rika was quite tall. Etsuko knew that if she stood perfectly straight she would stare Rika directly in the nipple.

“Besides,” Etsuko continued, licking her fingers clean, “a proper chocolate pecan pie would be terribly sticky and fragile. I’m not coordinated enough to keep from smashing it. And I do try not to embarrass myself by licking the package in public.”

She grinned as Rika laughed too, rather like a barking dog that had suddenly spotted its owner coming home after a long absence. Rika threw up her hands and sat at the table to stare at Etsuko for a long moment. Of course, the scrutiny heated Etsuko’s cheeks until she felt as though her face was broiling. There should be sizzling sounds and perhaps the smell of bacon.

“Hmm,” Etsuko said thoughtfully while looking at the kitchen. “I don’t suppose bacon would be a good idea, would it? I’m still not sure how good the air filtration system is.”

“You’d find yourself eating your hammock?” Kimiko asked, eyes wrinkled so much with her grin that she looked a good decade older.

“Possibly,” Etsuko said. “I do love food. And people. And learning new things. And not breaking my tablet. How do you work on those desks? They’re not even wide enough to be a proper shelf, much less a desk.”

“Quit distracting us,” Rika exclaimed. “You’re supposed to be setting the rules for what we do.”

“No,” Etsuko said slowly, her head cocking to the side as she considered the order. “The commander said that I was to ensure things moved smoothly while we were here. That I was to ah, I believe it was ‘smooth the way’. That is not giving orders. Giving orders is giving orders. The commander is quite precise about such things. All he specified, and he wasn’t half specific enough or we wouldn’t be having this conversation, was that I ‘smooth’ things. I am the xeno-sociologist. I suppose it makes sense to him that I would manage everyone’s personal interactions.”

Kimiko frowned and turned to call up her work screen. She read over the message, or at least Etsuko assumed it was the message. Her screens were set to be unreadable for anyone without the encryption key. After a moment Kimiko nodded once.

“That’s… accurate,” Kimiko said.

“I do strive for accuracy,” Etsuko said. “I fully intend to have a long talk with the commander once we’re back on board about his lack of communication skills. Water balloons may be involved. I think they might be necessary.”

She started giggling at the way Rika and Kimiko stared at her, flapping one hand because really, faces like that? It wasn’t as though a simple water balloon would short out anything on board the ship, not in places that Etsuko had access, and the man definitely had it coming.

“You can’t throw water balloons at him,” Rika hissed.

“Why not?” Etsuko said. “He threw them at me.”

She laughed out loud, hands over her mouth at the way Rika’s eyes went wide and her hands flattened on the scarred table. After a second Rika threw up her hands and went back to her stool but she didn’t quite pull it out all the way so it slid out from under her, sending her to the floor. Rika groaned and lay there with her hands over her eyes.

“He threw water balloons at you,” Kimiko asked though the question was all in her eyes, not in her tone of voice.

“Oh yes,” Etsuko said. “After my last mission on his ship, when we all came back covered in mud. He is a bit of a prankster but only with those he knows share his sense of humor. Several years ago, oh, almost a decade ago now, he dated my cousin. And he visited my family during a reunion. We had a great deal of fun pulling pranks on each other. My cousin decided that she did not wish to date him after that.”

Kimiko shook her head and slowly turned back to her desk and screens. She shut the screens down one by one and then slowly, carefully, almost as though she was afraid the switch was the trigger for a glitter bomb, turned off the light over her desk.

Across the room, Rika sighed and turned to stare under the desk at Etsuko. They could see each other quite easily through the desk and chair legs. Etsuko waved and then giggled as Rika groaned.

“It’s late,” Kimiko announced. “I’m tired. I’m going to sleep.”

“A very good idea,” Etsuko said. “I will work very quietly on my report, I promise. And I will try not take more than an hour or so at it.”

“It’ll take you that long?” Rika asked, sitting up enough that she could support herself with her elbows.

“Mmm, longer if I am thorough,” Etsuko said. “I did spend hours with them. But I recorded everything so I can go back over it later, after we go home. I just prefer to get my initial report done the same day. First impressions often change after a night’s sleep.”

Both Rika and Kimiko nodded at that so apparently they had experienced the same thing in their respective fields. Kimiko climbed straight up to her hammock, zipping up the sleeping bag so authoritatively that Rika snorted and Etsuko hid a grin behind her hand.

Rika showered and then followed suit, settling into her bed with a sigh and a grumble at the light overhead. Rather than torment them with the bright dome light, Etsuko shut it off and used her desk light instead.

With just the one dim light the sterile little habitat felt much more home-like. Etsuko smiled and found herself humming an old song from Earth as she worked, the simple counting song she’d learned while gardening with her grandmother. Neither Kimiko nor Rika objected. They didn’t shift or move around as if Etsuko’s voice was annoying.

Perhaps this would work out after all.

She was still going to throw water balloons at the commander, though. He’d earned them.

The End

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