Novel Monday: Crafting Home – Chapter 5

POD Crafting Home Ebook Cover 06
Description:
Everyone has plans for Haruka’s life. They assume she’ll marry her best friend Shahzad, youngest son of Lord Bilal of Breding Manor. They assume she’s a pretty face with no mind or will of her own.

Fatima’s plans for her life had fallen apart around her ears. Her father and twin sister Zainab were at each other’s throats, no matter how Fatima tried to keep the peace.

Then Fatima’s father, Count Rafi, offered her hand in marriage to Haruka with the assumption that Haruka would be delighted to accept. After a swift, firm denial, it was up to Haruka and Fatima to craft a future together that held not just their happiness but their families’ as well.

Crafting Home is a sweet romance where patience and determination bring the rewards both girls seek.

Crafting Home
By Meyari McFarland

5. Winter

Haruka strode through the back halls of Breding Manor, a huge stack of blankets in her arms. The weather was cold enough that Shizuka had decided that all of their guests, not that they had many at the moment, needed extra blankets to make it through the night. Especially Count Rafi.

Which, yes, the man obviously had health issues that would require greater warmth. Haruka could see that. Count Rafi limped as badly as Father did. Worse. Shizuka had confided, while stacking blankets in Haruka’s arms, that Count Rafi intended to have his leg amputated once he got home. The years-old damage had been aggravated by a recent trip, causing pain and bruising that now refused to heal.

At all.

“Doesn’t matter to me,” Haruka muttered as she turned right and headed for the back wall of the manor where there were a few windows on the gardens.

Except for all the ways that it did and, truthfully? That was what annoyed her so much in the blue sitting room. Well, that and the fact that Count Rafi apparently wanted Haruka to act like Shizuka. Because Shizuka had always been the peacemaker of their family, not Haruka. Her role had, before Father’s glass blowing accident changed all their lives irrevocably, been the ray of sunshine through the clouds that cheered everyone up.

She’d been much the same at Breding Manor even as visitors to the manor tried to cast her in their private mental plays as the temptress, the daughter of the Gods or the innocent child who could do no wrong.

And then she’d been confronted with another person who had an image of Haruka that had nothing whatsoever to do with her true personality. Or her desires, her dreams, her plans for her life. Haruka still had no idea what she wanted to do outside of marrying and making a home as happy as her parents and sisters were. The options seemed endless up until the moment she ran into other people’s expectations of her.

It was something that Count Rafi probably understood very well. Having been thrust into the position as Count so unexpectedly, he had to have given up his dreams. And now he’d given up his marriage. Soon he’d give up his leg though hopefully once the stump healed a new prosthetic leg would give him greater mobility than he’d known so far.

As Haruka rounded the next corner into the hallway that only the servants used, thus hopefully avoiding Count Rafi and his entire family, she stumbled to a stop. Fatima stood in the middle of the long hallway, staring out the window at the garden. Occasionally, so slowly that Fatima couldn’t realize that anyone was there, Fatima would raise a hand and wipe away tears.

Haruka sighed, heading towards Fatima. “What happened?”

Fatima gasped and turned, cheeks flushing a dark red when she saw Haruka approaching. “I’m sorry. I just had to get away from them for a while.”

“Fighting?” Haruka asked much more gently because oh dear, Fatima looked truly miserable.

Her eyes were red, the lids swollen from crying. Her nose was red, too. She didn’t look like a pretty crier as there were brighter red patches on her cheek and throat and paler spots as if that bit of skin belonged to someone else.

“Yes,” Fatima whispered. “I am sorry about the offer. And the mess.”

“Nonsense,” Haruka said, wiggling her fingers as much as she could at Fatima. “I’ve had much worse offers, trust me. Today, even. The patient that Shahzad went to visit seemed to think that I should marry him just because he’d looked at my face.”

“Oh no,” Fatima breathed, her red eyes going wide. “Really?”

“Mm-hmm,” Haruka sighed. “Shahzad stopped it, cut the man off politely but quite effectively. I never know how to let peasants down. Nobles, it’s easy. I can and am quite rude about it if I have to be. You saw.”

Fatima swallowed a startled laugh, nodding. When Haruka started walking slowly back towards the suite Fatima shared with her sister and father, Fatima grabbed two of the blankets, lightening Haruka’s load.

“Thank you,” Haruka said, beaming at her.

“It’s quite a lot of blankets,” Fatima said. “I’ve… never had a single offer.”

“None?” Haruka asked, stunned. “But you’ll be a countess someday. Why in the world haven’t you?”

“I don’t know,” Fatima admitted though she buried her face in the blankets for a second rather than meeting Haruka’s eyes. “Zainab has gotten several offers, all from warriors that she turned down but no one has offered for me.”

Haruka shook her head, amazed that Fatima hadn’t gotten even the obligatory ‘let’s make a treaty and seal it with a marriage’ offers that Shahzad still got. She was fairly sure that Ammad had turned down three in the last month without telling Shahzad about them. And that, Haruka paused, looking at Fatima with her lips pursed, might actually explain why she’d never heard of them.

“Is your father very protective?” Haruka asked.

“Oh, no, that was Mother,” Fatima said. She smiled, shy and sweet but with such sad eyes that Haruka wanted to stop and give the poor girl hugs. “Mother was always very fierce about people treating us well. She got in so many fights. It used to scare me quite badly because shouting echoes through Skagit Manor. You see, it’s based on long house design so the central part is open.”

“It must be so lovely!” Haruka exclaimed. “Goodness, whenever I visit Mother’s home town I love the long houses there. They’re so warm and inviting. Japanese and Pakistani style houses are quite grand but they can be cold.”

For the first time, Fatima lost her look of fear. She smiled, revealing canine teeth that were a good bit sharper and more pronounced than the average. Her teeth were amazingly straight and even, only the fang-like canines giving her mouth any individuality. At the same time, her eyes lit up, shifting from a washed out blue into something more intense, more vibrant. Against her dark skin both her teeth and eyes popped dramatically.

“I love Skagit Manor,” Fatima confided, her smile so bright that Haruka’s heart skipped a beat. That sort of joy was so infectious. “It’s not a true long house. The central portion of the roof is supported by three big cedar logs that were cut locally. There are columns all along the length of the house and my great aunt put in rooms along the walls rather than leaving the whole thing open. It’s so beautiful. There is native art everywhere, on the doors, the columns, in every room and on every piece of furniture.”

“That sounds lovely,” Haruka breathed. “Really, there’s never enough art around here. Lord Bilal and his wife always favored paintings over anything else. Though now they have quite a bit of blown glass. My father was a glass blower until he had his accident.”

Fatima’s joy snapped into worry. She stopped and stared up at Haruka as if she wanted to find some way to make it better without even having met Father or know that anything could be wrong until that second. Haruka laughed and shook her head even though doing so flung hair into her mouth.

“It’s okay,” Haruka said, rubbing her cheek against her shoulder to try to deal with the wayward hair. “He’s fine. That was years ago now. He was badly burned but Shizuka went into the apprenticeship program and then married Nabeela. She’s a research doctor looking for new ways to treat burns and other skin diseases.”

“As well as being Lady?” Fatima asked. “Goodness, how does she have the time?”

She reached out and tugged the strands of hair out of Haruka’s mouth. Her fingers brushed against Haruka’s cheek, leaving behind a warm spot that only highlighted how cold the hallway actually was. Haruka nodded firmly, more because she needed to distract herself from her suddenly pounding heart and dry mouth than agreement.

“Rina is actually the Lady,” Haruka explained. “Formally. Yes, Shizuka does much of the visiting and socializing but Rina holds the formal title of Lady Breding.”

“That must be so confusing,” Fatima murmured.

Her face dropped into the quilts she carried again as if just that little touch was too much for her to handle. The blush crept back over Fatima’s cheeks, still blotchy but rather cute when combined with Fatima’s shy manners.

“Your mother must have summarily rejected so many offers,” Haruka said, laughing ruefully. “I can’t believe there haven’t been any at all. I just can’t.”

“No,” Fatima moaned, hiding even more of her face in the blankets. Her words came out muffled and indistinct. “There haven’t. Truly!”

Haruka laughed and then shrugged. “Don’t believe you. I’m going to have to ask, just to lay my mind to rest.”

That earned her a horrified squawk out of Fatima. And Fatima looked up from the blankets, blotchy blush replaced by one that looked as though her whole face had been painted red. Haruka grinned, wrinkled her nose and then set off towards the suite where Count Rafi and Zainab waited.

Fatima followed, spluttering quietly dismayed sounds that were probably supposed to be protests but which didn’t form any sort of language that Haruka knew. The suite wasn’t actually that far off. They reached it before Fatima found her words and before Haruka had stopped chuckling in delight.

“Why wouldn’t you tell me?”

The horrified shout echoed up the hallway, stopping Fatima in her tracks and Haruka, too. Haruka couldn’t hear the reply. Apparently Count Rafi had decided not to disturb anyone else in the suites surrounding them, but that single shout was enough to make every bit of life and animation disappear from Fatima’s face.

Haruka frowned.

This was a real problem. That level of discord within a visiting noble family would normally be something for Ammad or Nabeela to deal with. They had the training for it as well as the personalities. But Haruka knew that it would be all but impossible to get them to intervene right now.

The auditors were keeping both Nabeela and Ammad quite busy. Lord Bilal had returned from his retirement down the coast just to help his children deal with everything. It had been needed, especially once the apprentices’ mistakes were discovered, unfortunately right in the middle of the audit.

“I’m sorry,” Fatima whispered. She stared at the floor, the blankets, the walls, anywhere but Haruka’s eyes.

Haruka shifted the blankets onto one hip so that she could hook a fingertip under Fatima’s chin. “It’s not your fault. They’re the ones fighting, not you. I’ve certainly dealt with worse. Remind me sometime to tell you about the patient who decided that I was a moose about to attack his prize cabbages.”

“No,” Fatima breathed, the misery disappearing into shocked amusement. “Really?”

“Mm-hmm,” Haruka murmured. “And all he had to fling was mud that he’d been working with for a new storehouse. Such a mess. Poor man was in the middle of a stroke, actually. Either way, this is not your fault. It’s theirs. And it’s not something that you can fix, Fatima. They have to work it out for themselves.”

Something crashed to the floor in the suite. Fatima flinched. Haruka glared. It had better not have been the glass vase that Father created with his apprentices’ help. That was lovely and special and Haruka would have to yell at both Count Rafi and Zainab if it were.

“I ran,” Fatima blurted, her cheeks blotchy and eyes ashamed. “I yelled at them and ran away because I couldn’t stand to stay in there and listen to them fight. So much has gone wrong. I can’t fix it. I’ve tried, tried so hard, but I keep failing. Back home I would have gone to my favorite hiding place but I couldn’t do that here.”

“Exactly why I refused the offer,” Haruka said.

She set the blankets by the door and then took the ones Fatima had in her arms to set them down as well. This close she could hear Count Rafi saying something angry, bitter, but the words weren’t clear. Haruka shook her head, grateful for that small grace at least. The last thing she wanted was to get wrapped up in their troubles.

“Come on,” Haruka said much more kindly. “I know a great hiding place.”

She offered her hand to Fatima because it looked as if Fatima intended to wade back into the battle even though she knew it would do no good, even though she was on the verge of tears. Fatima swallowed, rubbed her eyes and then took Haruka’s hand as if afraid that Haruka would attack her somehow. Haruka smiled. Poor thing definitely didn’t deserve to be stuck in the middle of her family’s battle.

“It’s this way,” Haruka said. “I think you’ll like it. It’s warm and quiet and I love just sitting there. Even with the cold weather it should be a wonderful place for you to hide away for a while.”

Find This Book:

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On Smashwords $5.99 ebook
On CreateSpace $14.99 5″ x 8″ TPB
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On Barnes & Noble $5.99 ebook

If you can’t afford to buy the story, please consider leaving a donation. All money received goes toward keeping me writing and posting these stories. Thank you very much!

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Free Fiction Friday: Midwife to Divinity

POD Midwife to Destiny Ebook Cover 03

Description:

Dahlia had a problem: a stalker with powers that threatened not just her life but also her carefully crafted identity. Jacks had a problem, too: a magical doom that had destroyed his entire family. Only by trusting each other can they solve the problems destroying their lives.

Midwife to Divinity is an urban fantasy focused on strength, challenges and claiming what you thought you’d left behind.

Midwife to Divinity

By Meyari McFarland

1. Cold Comfort

The answering machine light blinked at Dahlia. She stared at it, heart hammering in her ears, an angry lump up in her throat. Dru had been right. Everything she said was right. Dahlia bit her lip, watching that light flicking on and off like a strobe sweeping ever closer to her.

Her apartment was cold, dark, in contrast with the beautiful colors that had tempted her into staying here originally. Dahlia had taken to leaving blankets and sweaters everywhere so that she could curl up under them. Even after she finally figured out how to deal with this problem she’d probably keep them out. The comfort and color was so enticing that Dahlia knew she’d keep doing it.

Comfortable blankets or not, it wasn’t safe to turn on the lights. Turning up the heat was a problem, too, given what she’d been able to figure out about Jacks. As nice as it would be to have warmth in here, she didn’t dare do more than keep the pipes from freezing. Better to be cold and live in the dark than risk Jacks realizing that she was still here. She’d spent too many years building this life to abandon it so suddenly.

The entire mess was Dahlia’s fault. Despite Dru’s warnings, she’d had to go out, had to take a night off and go to the bar with her oblivious coworkers. That last night of warmth and laughter had been so wonderful until it all went wrong. Dahlia’s fingers tightened around the keys clutched in her hand, squeezing until her knuckles ached and the edges threatened to break her skin, spilling out power and blood in equal measure.

At least the cold kept the garbage from smelling. Dahlia hadn’t taken the trash out for three weeks now. Pretty soon she would have to but for now the bags, stuffed to the point that the drawstrings barely held them shut, sat patiently by the front door.

More air freshener would take care of the residual stink of rotting orange peels and apple cores that Dahlia couldn’t avoid. It didn’t help the empty fridge, though. That was something that Dahlia had to take care of soon or risk going to the mall next to work. Which she wouldn’t do.

Jacks would be there, his eyes too bright and his fingers curling as if they could feel the muscles of her biceps struggling to escape already. How he got away with his stalking was the mystery. Dahlia didn’t see how anyone could miss the man’s predatory expressions, the way he cornered young women, pulling them aside and forcing them to smile, to look up at him, to slip away with him. She didn’t know how people missed that the women came back bruised, frightened, sometimes bleeding and all, all, of them with gaps in their memory that covered the hours of the time with Jacks.

Dahlia already knew that some never came back at all.

That she’d seen on her own at the bar. A trip to the bathroom had become a descent into a cheesy horror movie as she watched a beautiful blond girl slide slowly towards the sticky floor of the hallway, Jacks looming over her with blood on his face and a twisted grimace that made Dahlia turn tail and run.

The memory of the bruises covering the girl’s neck as the shadows curled around both Jacks and her made Dahlia shudder. Even now she could smell the blood, the stink of bowels and bladder cutting loose as death overcame the girl. How had anyone missed that? Blurring the mind, forcing people to look the other way usually didn’t make them miss the smell of death.

So much of her family’s business would be easier if it were.

That was the true mystery that Dahlia was unwilling to figure out. Even though the smell of death had followed her out into the bar where booze and sex filled the air, no one else even looked towards the bathroom hallway. They acted as though there was nothing wrong, as though no grunts or whines echoed. Dahlia had even thought about intervening only to dismiss the sheer idea. She had too much invested in this life, this façade, to give up for a predator in human form and his already doomed prey.

That reluctance to confront Jacks had intensified as Jacks had appeared at her side in the bar, looming and smiling so gregariously that her coworkers immediately assumed that they knew each other. His hand had wrapped around Dahlia’s bicep, discretely digging in until bruises bloomed under her long sleeved purple sweater.

“I didn’t expect to find you here,” Jacks had said, his voice purring like a lion getting ready to attack.

“Let go,” Dahlia had replied, raising her chin. “Now!”

“Don’t be like that,” Jacks had said, leaning closer, close enough that she could smell the blood. Shadows had loomed above the bar, shifting towards the both of them like cold syrup flowing across a refrigerated plate. His teeth had seemed too long as he licked his lips suggestively.
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Novel Monday: Crafting Home – Chapter 4

POD Crafting Home Ebook Cover 06
Description:
Everyone has plans for Haruka’s life. They assume she’ll marry her best friend Shahzad, youngest son of Lord Bilal of Breding Manor. They assume she’s a pretty face with no mind or will of her own.

Fatima’s plans for her life had fallen apart around her ears. Her father and twin sister Zainab were at each other’s throats, no matter how Fatima tried to keep the peace.

Then Fatima’s father, Count Rafi, offered her hand in marriage to Haruka with the assumption that Haruka would be delighted to accept. After a swift, firm denial, it was up to Haruka and Fatima to craft a future together that held not just their happiness but their families’ as well.

Crafting Home is a sweet romance where patience and determination bring the rewards both girls seek.

Crafting Home
By Meyari McFarland

4. Arguments

Fatima slowly laid out the blankets for her and Zainab’s bed, taking her time at it. The suite was lovely. Very beautiful and warm, if decidedly Japanese in style. Rather than raised pallets with furs and heavy straw mattresses, the beds were futon stuffed firm with wool laid over rice-straw tatami mats. The blankets were nearly as thick as the futon, heavy and warm even without the wonderfully dyed indigo cotton covers on them.

The room didn’t have a fireplace but Lady Shizuka had arranged for small charcoal burners to be brought in. They’d heated the room to a much more bearable temperature, one that was almost warm enough for Father’s muscles to relax again. Certainly, they also added a small amount of smoke to the room but it wasn’t enough to cloud the air or interfere with breathing.

“I wonder if these are why Haruka and Lady Shizuka looked on the verge of a fight about mass heaters,” Fatima murmured.

Mass heaters would be more efficient. Father had begun investing in them for all their people back home. It would take a bit longer to install them at Skagit Manor but not too long. It was a grand example of a long house, long and low to the earth with low ceilings that kept the warmth in, but the kitchens were in much greater need of upgrades than the little rooms arranged on either side of the long open hallway that ran down the center of the manor.

Fatima’s heart ached for that long, dim hallway with its skylights sending beams of wan sunlight down. The floor was beaten earth, polished until it shown. Every door along the hallway was carved in native Skagit style. Guest rooms had sea creatures, otters, seals, great orca with their curved dorsal fins. The business rooms, Fatima’s favorites, had sky animals like swift hawks, soaring eagles and dignified turkey. Of course, Zainab’s favorites were always on the far end of the manor where the military and commercial rooms were, all decorated with fierce bears, majestic elk and dangerous moose.

It would be better to be home. Fatima knew every place to hide there. When Zainab and Father’s battles rose until the entire manor huddled silent and afraid, Fatima could run outside and walk through the trees. She had a favorite ancient cedar tree whose heartwood had once been burned out that she could hide inside. As hiding places went it wasn’t terribly private. Everyone knew of the still living tree with its hollow core, the arching vault of fire-scorched wood, but they left it to Fatima.

She’d hidden a blanket there, and a small lantern, both kept safe in a small cedar chest when she wasn’t there. When the fighting or pressures of dealing with people became too much, Fatima retreated to her tree and read or, lately, just breathed. When she was younger, Father had called it her squirrel’s cave, teasing her about burying her cache in the earth inside the tree. He hadn’t said anything like that in quite a while, several years.

“How long have we been falling apart?” Fatima whispered. She sat on the bed, wrapping her arms around her knees. “Years? All my life? Were we ever happy?”

“Yes, we were,” Zainab murmured from the doorway. Rather than meet Fatima’s eyes or come join her on their shared bed, Zainab hesitated by the sliding shoji door, cautiously running a finger over the delicate paper screens. “We were very happy when we were little, Fati.”

“Father?” Fatima asked because really, Zainab might be certain of that but Fatima wasn’t.

“In the bath,” Zainab replied. “It’s huge. Enormous really. We could all bathe at once if we wanted. Maybe invite a couple of people in, too. And hot enough that I think it’ll scald Father’s skin off as he soaks.”

“Good,” Fatima said. “He always does better in warmer weather.”

“Not going to get much of that,” Zainab sighed.

She finally entered the room, came to lie on the bed next to Fatima. Her arms tucked against her chest and her knees pulled close. Fatima smiled sadly as she ran a gentle hand over Zainab’s hair. Zainab might not show it while people were around but she was scared and hurt, too. It just showed in different ways for Zainab than Fatima.

Zainab sighed, waving her left foot towards the door. “The weather’s gone icy. There’s horrible wind, dropping temperatures. Haruka’s right. We might have to stay longer than just the week.”

“Oh.”

The single dispirited word made Zainab frown. She grabbed Fatima around the waist, hugging her tightly enough that Fatima couldn’t help but laugh a little. Since Haruka had rejected the proposal, maybe Fatima would be able to hide in their rooms.

But no, that wouldn’t work. Father would have to go out to talk to Lord Ammad and his wife Rina. Fatima would have to go as well. And Zainab would never keep Fatima company in their suite. The cold weather would drive her absolutely wild. She hated being confined any more than she had to be. Which might very well be part of her objection to taking over Father’s duties, even the ones involved with battling sea raiders or visiting the villages.

It was too much like being tied down, restrained, contained, for Zainab.

“You can hide,” Zainab muttered against Fatima’s belly.

“No, I have to go with Father,” Fatima said. “He can’t walk well, not in this weather. Besides, Their Majesties have an auditor here. I should at least observe. The new procedures are so confusing. I didn’t understand the explanation they sent. I want to ask questions if I can.”

Zainab craned her neck to frown up into Fatima’s face. “I have no idea how you deal with it all.”

“I like being inside and dealing with the paperwork, Zai,” Fatima said. She laughed, poking Zainab’s nose perhaps less gently than she should. “It’s dealing with people that I don’t like.”

“You like Haruka well enough,” Zainab observed with her normal blunt honesty. “I could tell. You blushed every time she looked your way. And I think she was worried about you, too. Just mad about Father’s offer.”

Haruka shook her head. That couldn’t be true. Even if Haruka had said that the rejection was because of Zainab and Father, Fatima knew that she was a part of it, too. She hadn’t resolved the issues Father had with Mother. She hadn’t managed to calm either Father or Zainab down. And the battles were only escalating with time. That was absolutely Fatima’s fault. She was the family peace-keeper. It was her duty to help everyone find the calmest, best way to a solution.

And yet Fatima couldn’t help but think of Haruka’s declaration that it wasn’t her place to fix the issues between Zainab and Father. Maybe she was right and Fatima was wrong. Fatima certainly hadn’t been successful smoothing things over, no matter what she tried.

“Zai,” Fatima said and then paused as Zainab frowned and sat up to stare into her eyes. She looked away, unable to bear seeing Zainab get angry right now. “Why are you so mad at Father?”

“He’s being unreasonable!” Zainab exclaimed. “I’ve said and I’ve said that I won’t take over any of his duties but he still keeps on insisting that I have to.”

“No, I’m not!” Father called from the other room.

Fatima blushed as she realized that the walls were thin enough for Father to hear every single word she’d said, possibly even her murmurs as she set the bedding out. Zainab glowered, standing to glare towards the bathroom separated from them by a paper wall.

“Yes, you are!” Zainab shouted. “I won’t do it. I’ve told you that!”

“And I’ve told you that I need help,” Father shouted back at her. There was a splashing sound as if he’d tried to get out of the bath and failed. “Damn it, I can’t keep doing this, Zainab. I just can’t.”

“Stop it, stop it, stop it!” Fatima screamed at them both.

Silence fell so abruptly that Fatima heard the wind overhead for the first time, wailing as sadly as her heart. She panted, hands clutched to her chest, and stared at Zainab whose mouth had dropped open and eyes gone wide with shock. Zainab moved towards Fatima, hands extended to hug her, but Fatima batted her hands away.

“The two of you need to stop this,” Fatima said more quietly but hopefully still loud enough that Father could hear it. “It’s tearing everyone apart, not just me. The staff is afraid to bring anything to you, Father, and even the warriors don’t want you around, Zainab. This has to stop, it has to, has to!”

Her words echoed in their so-foreign rooms. Fatima swallowed down the tears that she knew were going to well up at any moment. They wouldn’t help. Zainab would just yell harder at Father as she always did when Fatima’s control broke. And Father would scold them both for losing control of their emotions.

If Mother was there, grumpy but still loving, she would probably have scolded Father and Zainab, too. And Fatima knew that Mother would be right. Their private battle had spread until the entire province was involved. No one was exempt, especially Fatima.

“I’m tired,” Fatima said, biting her lip when ‘tired’ broke on a sob halfway through. “So tired. The fighting never stops. Neither of you listen to each other. Neither of you listen to me. I don’t blame Haruka for refusing us, for refusing me. Who would want to marry into this? We’re falling apart and I don’t know what to do to fix it. I don’t know how!”

“Fati…” Zainab whispered.

Her eyes were so wide, so shocked. Fatima shook her head and waved towards Father and the bath. Words fought with the sobs trying to bubble up in her throat but after a few seconds, a half dozen dry swallows, Fatima finally managed to get words out.

“Father can’t get out of the bath by himself, Zai,” Fatima said. “Help him.”

“Yes, he can,” Zainab complained. She stepped back as Fatima clenched her fists and glared.

“No, he can’t!” Fatima screamed. “Are you blind? Or just deaf? The doctors want to amputate his leg because it’s never healed and he can’t support himself with it!”

She ran past Zainab, out of the bedroom, out of the suite. Instead of straight, logical hallways that led exactly where you’d want, three hallways branching in each direction confronted her. Fatima picked the left one at random even though it looked somewhat worn, tired if a hallway could look tired.

Fatima hurried, not quite running but close, away from their suite. She couldn’t deal with them right now. She just couldn’t. Not with tears falling down her cheeks and sobs making it hard to breathe. Haruka had been so very right. They were broken and horrible, something that no reasonable person would ever want to be a part of.

The hallway twisted and turned, dark and windowless. That was familiar, comforting, not that Fatima could really see anything with tears blurring her vision. She sucked in a shuddering breath, wiped her cheeks, but kept going. There wasn’t a safe place to hide in Breding Manor but if she kept walking, exploring, maybe she’d outrun the sorrow and anger that was destroying her family.

“I wish I knew what to do,” Fatima whispered, biting her lip as a fresh wave of tears spilled over, dripping down her cheeks in tiny hot rivers. “I wish I could fix it somehow.”

She passed a window, tall as she was but narrow enough that Fatima got only the briefest glimpse of the world outside. Then a door, plain wood, no carvings at all, and then another wider window that radiated enough cold that Fatima slowed, stopped, in front of it.

Outside was a hillside garden, stripped of any leaves by winter. The trees tossed and thrashed in the wind. Most of the trees were leafy, cottonwood, aspen, maple but a few pine lurked higher up, their thick needle-covered branches tossing in the wind, too. It looked so cold, so lonely, that Fatima stood and stared. Even the Gods thought that something was wrong. And no matter how hard she tried, Fatima simply didn’t know how to fix her broken family so that they had a happy home once more.

Find This Book:

On Amazon $5.99 ebook or $14.99 TPB
On Smashwords $5.99 ebook
On CreateSpace $14.99 5″ x 8″ TPB
On Kobo $5.99 ebook
On Barnes & Noble $5.99 ebook

If you can’t afford to buy the story, please consider leaving a donation. All money received goes toward keeping me writing and posting these stories. Thank you very much!

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Free Fiction Friday: Transformations

POD Transformations Ebook Cover 02

Description:

Ewould had spent his life in an uneasy compromise between his true self and the pressures of his parents and society. No matter what body he’d been born with, he was male. That changed the day he buried his husband. Come what may, Ewould decided to seize his destiny and set for to transform himself into the person he should always have been.

Transformations is a powerful fantasy story of truth, identity and forcing the world to accept you as you truly are.

Transformations

By Meyari McFarland

Ewould sighed as he reached the top of the ridge, thighs burning from the climb. His lungs burned too, unused to the cold, clear air after too long cramped in town, hunched over a kitchen stove. The lack of a corset didn’t help. His breasts, damned fat bags, weighed heavy on his ribs despite all the weight he’d lost since the priests arrived to change their lives.

It was quiet, so blessedly quiet, up here. Ewould could hear birds peeping in the low shrubs along the trail. Wind ruffled strands of grey-streaked hair that had pulled free of the thick brown braid down his back. Should have cut that off before he left but it took so damned long to saw through a braid that he hadn’t bothered. Better to leave when he had the chance, before the priests could force him into another marriage he hadn’t wanted and to a man he couldn’t stand.

So much had changed since he was small.

It had been years since he’d gone this way. More than two decades. Hell, nearly three now. The last time had been when his brother was driven out of the town for using forbidden magic, face bleeding and back torn to shreds by Father’s whip.

No one spoke his brother’s name after that, not even Ewould.

He’d been too afraid. Ewould licked his lips, tasting the remnants of paint that the priests had insisted he wear to the funeral. They didn’t care that Ewould was mourning, didn’t care that Ewould had loved Maas with his whole soul. They sure as hell didn’t care that Maas had loved Ewould despite everything that was wrong with his soft, rounded body, not because of it.

The valley lurked below like a blight on grain. It really was that distinct. Ewould studied the forests that had crept close in the last twenty years. When he was young they’d gone and cut the trees to plant apples, harvested the forest and hunted rabbit and deer. They’d made it lighter, more open, more welcoming. Now it crept closer every year, thick and dark with prickly spruce and looming pine. The apple orchards had long since been smothered under their weight.

Strange how much it had changed since the new priests had come from the south. Their fields had heavy stone walls topped by mage lights purchased from a traveling mage who was driven out of town as soon as he’d cast the spells. Day or night, the light supposedly kept the town ‘safe from evil’. Too bad they’d invited the evil into their hearts and homes. No light, however magical, would chase it away now.

The spelled walls marked the boundary between the supposedly safe town and the ‘wild’ folks. As if the neighboring villages were a danger to them. Ewould shook his head, snorted as he pushed the braid back over his shoulder. So much stupidity, so many lives lost, because the priests decided that they would change everyone to match their image of what people should be.

Inside the fields a huge wall, made of logs thrust into the earth and lashed together with rawhide, circled the town proper. That was new, still incomplete. Ewould had known he needed to run when he realized that there would be just one gate, guarded all the time. They would keep him there, force him to obey, just as, years ago, Father’s new wife had forced Ewould to live as a woman when he was really a man.

When he’d first married Maas they’d had a house at the edge of the fields, right about where the mage lights faded out now. It was gone, gone like Maas’s smile, like his sons’ laughter, his freedom. All of their joy.

Ewould sniffed, snuffled really. He’d cried so much at Maas’s funeral that his nose felt as though it was stuffed with soggy wool. And then he’d waited until night fell, until everyone fell asleep. Schuyler and Teunis, his beautiful twin sons, born of his body despite how wrong that was, had slept quietly in their beds. Schuyler’s arms had been wrapped around Liesje whose face was still blotchy from her tears. Andries had been wrapped around Teunis so tightly that Ewould couldn’t see their faces one last time.

It was all right. They were all fighters, even delicate little Liesje. This was a battle for the younger generation. Ewould had fought, had tried, had failed, had given up. Now it was time to think of himself and take what he’d wanted all those years ago when he’d convinced his brother to spell the tits off his chest for a day.

After thirty-seven years, Ewould had had enough of following everyone else’s rules. Even if it exiled him from all human contact Ewould would be right in himself at last.

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Novel Monday: Crafting Home – Chapter 3

POD Crafting Home Ebook Cover 06
Description:
Everyone has plans for Haruka’s life. They assume she’ll marry her best friend Shahzad, youngest son of Lord Bilal of Breding Manor. They assume she’s a pretty face with no mind or will of her own.

Fatima’s plans for her life had fallen apart around her ears. Her father and twin sister Zainab were at each other’s throats, no matter how Fatima tried to keep the peace.

Then Fatima’s father, Count Rafi, offered her hand in marriage to Haruka with the assumption that Haruka would be delighted to accept. After a swift, firm denial, it was up to Haruka and Fatima to craft a future together that held not just their happiness but their families’ as well.

Crafting Home is a sweet romance where patience and determination bring the rewards both girls seek.

Crafting Home
By Meyari McFarland

3. Enlightenment

Haruka waited, restraining the urge to snap at all three of them. Her tea was already cooling, the heat of the cup fading as the winter’s chill stole into the blue sitting room. Or maybe that was the sheer anger from Zainab and the corresponding stern disapproval from Count Rafi. Neither of them appeared to realize that Fatima had curled into the couch as if she wished that she could disappear entirely.

“I expect an answer,” Haruka said finally. She waved one hand as Shizuka started and stared at her. “Whatever emotions this entire situation has brought up within your family, it is irrelevant to me. If I don’t receive an answer I will simply summarily reject the offer, Count Rafi.”

His head snapped around to glare at her. “It is a serious offer.”

“Really?” Haruka asked, tapping one finger slowly and deliberately against the rim of her cup. She cocked her head to the left, knowing perfectly well that it would make her hair sweep out to frame her face even more becomingly. “Because right now all I see is a Count who has decided to add a pretty face to his court.”

Fatima gasped. Zainab gasped, staring at Haruka as if she’d just said the most incredible thing. And Shizuka, of course, sighed and raised one hand to rub at her forehead right between her eyebrows. None of which mattered as Haruka watched Count Rafi’s cheeks go blazingly red while his hands clenched on the cup of tea, then white as he nearly dropped it.

He looked away, back at the fire, as shame twisted his mouth and shut his eyes. Count Rafi swallowed hard, bowed his head, and then turned back to face Haruka squarely.

“I apologize,” Count Rafi said with exactly the sort of dignity, honor and grace that Haruka had come to expect from an Ambermarle noble. “I suppose you have had many offers of that sort but it was not my intention at all. We are… well. My wife and I just divorced. Given your sisters’ highly successful matches and their performance as the Ladies of Breding and Metchosin Manors, I believed that you would be an excellent choice for one of my daughters.”

“Not me,” Zainab declared. She tossed her head when her father glared at her. “No insult intended, Haruka, but I have no intention or desire to take over any of Father’s duties. So it wouldn’t be me.”

Haruka blinked at Zainab, squarely ignoring Fatima’s rising blush and utterly obvious embarrassment. The poor girl looked as though she was about to shrink straight through the floor which really didn’t do much for Haruka’s confidence. Rather nice, that. Every other time someone had been told in no uncertain terms that their ‘competitor’ had been ruled out they’d looked absolutely delighted.

“What do you want to do with your life then?” Haruka asked.

“Shahzad declined to participate in running the manor as well,” Shizuka explained, gently, quietly, with the sort of sly amusement that usually came from their middle sister Keiko.

“I need your help, Zainab,” Count Rafi grumbled.

“Better to have people who want the job than ones who are forced into it,” Haruka declared. “Heaven’s, the amount of disasters that happen when you make someone do a job they hate!”

Shizuka sighed and rolled her eyes, nodding sadly. Finally, thank Amida Buddha, Fatima started to uncurl, apparently from sheer curiosity. Count Rafi looked equally curious, though he still didn’t drink his tea. He just switched the cup so that it pressed against the outer edge of his knee as if the warmth was more important that drinking what he’d been given.

“Our latest apprentice has, ah, not done well with the assignments she’s been given,” Shizuka explained entirely too diplomatically.

“She’s deliberately messed up three of them,” Haruka huffed, sipping her tea and then setting it down because it had cooled to the point of being cloying. “Refused outright to do one and then so utterly misunderstood the other that we’ll be weeks, if not months, sorting out the files. Though she has done marvelously now that she’s working in the kitchen. She should have just said that she liked cooking in the beginning.”

“Oh no,” Fatima breathed, eyes wide. “Not the files!”

“And right before an audit by Their Majesties,” Shizuka said, sighing and drinking the last of her tea in one big gulp. “It’s a bit of a mess right now. That’s why Nabeela isn’t here.”

Zainab looked into the fire in a direct mirror of her father. Neither of them would look at anyone else in the room. Neither of them drank their tea or even moved for long enough that Fatima shook her head and carefully, so carefully that the cup made not a sound, put her teacup on the table.

“Zainab prefers combat,” Fatima said, her voice a whisper of wind in the middle of a gale of silence. “She doesn’t do well when confined to court. And I… do not enjoy the social aspects of being a Countess, I am afraid. I do well when dealing with the records and legal decisions but this,” she gestured towards Shizuka and the tea, “is beyond me. I do try but…”

She shrugged. Her eyes were locked on the teacup she’d set aside as if meeting anyone’s eyes was likely to set off a fierce round of shouting and recrimination. Haruka looked at Zainab’s red cheeks, Count Rafi’s white knuckles around his teacup. Perhaps it would, at that. The family didn’t seem to be working well at all. It made Shizuka wonder how well their province could be functioning when the family in charge couldn’t meet each other’s eyes.

Shizuka grunted as if she’d seen the same things that Haruka had, nodding as she turned to look at Haruka. The offer did make quite a bit of sense when considered in that light. Haruka was well known as being the most social of her three sisters and the one best able to smooth over awkward situations. She considered saying something soothing, complimenting Fatima on her attempts, praising Zainab for her warrior skills, but no.

That was what this was all about. Count Rafi wanted to draw Haruka into solving their problems, to make her responsible for knitting their broken family back together. He might not realize that was what he wanted but it was quite apparent to Haruka that he looked to her to fix whatever had gone wrong between them.

“Why did your wife leave, Count Rafi?” Haruka asked. She smacked Shizuka’s knee as Shizuka gasped and glared at her. “It’s a valid question. I’m certainly not going to replace her even though most everyone will expect me to fill her shoes. You know that, Shizuka. People sometimes make the mistake of calling you Lady Sehr, Nabeela’s mother’s name.”

“I did step almost exactly into her shoes,” Shizuka admitted with a tired sigh. She still frowned at Haruka. “Though I’m perfectly comfortable with that.”

“I know,” Haruka agreed. “But I’m not. So I feel it’s important to know what happened to your marriage and what you would expect out of me if I did consent to marrying Fatima. Which I certainly do not at this point in time.”

Count Rafi sighed. The shoulder closest to Haruka curled inward as if he wanted to hide from the question. And yes, he had cause for that. Answering such a blunt question in front of his daughters was probably a bit much but then so were his demands of his daughters and of Haruka.

“We… were very much in love,” Count Rafi said very, very slowly. Each word might as well have been torn out of his chest, bloody and dripping. “I was not supposed to be the Count. I had cousins who were to inherit. I was not even in the direct line. Then there was a mudslide and my uncle, cousins and a large portion of his staff were caught in it. None survived. It fell to me and my wife to take their place.”

He stopped, staring into the fire. This time it seemed far more that he was seeing his younger self, not avoiding Haruka’s eyes. Count Rafi looked sad enough that Haruka frowned. Could their family have been broken since before Zainab and Fatima were born?

“My wife was much like Zainab,” Count Rafi finally continued. “She hated court, hated the duties of being Countess, hated even being at Skagit Manor. Despite that, she stayed until this year so that the girls would have their mother while growing up. But.”

“She had enough finally,” Haruka completed for him when he didn’t continue.

Count Rafi nodded. “Yes.”

“What is Their Majesties’ assessment of Skagit Manor?” Haruka asked.

“Haruka!” Shizuka gasped, one hand flying to her mouth and the other waving at Count Rafi not to answer. “You don’t have the right to ask that!”

It was desperately personal and utterly rude. Their Majesties hadn’t released an assessment after they removed Lady Cantara and her husband Firas shortly before Keiko’s wedding. They still refused to release any comment on the eternal scandal of Countess Dancing Otter and her lover Sunlight on Water, even after Dancing Otter gave up the title of Countess and retired so that she could marry Sunlight on Water.

Which, sadly, hadn’t stopped the vast majority of Ambermarle from gossiping about the two of them. Haruka was relatively certain she could walk outside, grab anyone and ask them what sort of house, furniture and clothes Dancing Otter and Sunlight on Water had with a certainty of getting an accurate reply. It annoyed her that people would gossip that way, not that she had any control over what other people said and did.

By all rights, she should feel guilty about asking equally rude and invasive questions of Count Rafi but she didn’t. If Count Rafi wanted Haruka to marry Fatima then she had the right to know. Haruka would be required to clean the mess up, always presuming there was a mess to clean up.

Count Rafi smiled wryly. “Not as bad as we deserve, frankly. Fatima is very efficient and effective on her duties. And I’ve done well on the rest. I’m not getting any younger, though. I have… past injuries… that make travel difficult and it’s gotten harder over the years to make my rounds and tend to my people. Skagit district is small but steep. There is a great deal of climbing that I simply cannot do anymore.”

He glanced at Zainab for just a second but that was too long. Zainab growled, bolting to her feet to point an imperious finger at her father. Once again, Fatima cringed into herself, eyes screwed shut as if she was trying not to cry.

“There are other people who can do it!” Zainab shouted. “You don’t need me!”

“They aren’t my daughters,” Count Rafi complained.

“Why not use them?” Haruka asked, raising her voice to be heard over Zainab’s indrawn breath for the next shout. “Are they incompetent? Do they need training? Unwilling? Poor relations aren’t automatically refused places, after all.”

“They’re afraid to join us at Skagit Manor,” Fatima said in a rush that made her sister and father stare at her. She blushed, blotchy and miserable, under their stunned gazes. “They are! I’ve talked to them. And the staff. And the apprentices. Even the locals are afraid to come up to the manor lately. It’s the fighting. You’re always fighting. No one likes it.”

Her words got quieter and quieter as she went along. By the last sentence she was all but whispering, shoulders hunched inwards and eyes locked on her clenched hands half-hidden between her knees. Zainab sighed as she sat and pulled Fatima into a hug. Count Rafi pursed his lips, once again not meeting any of their eyes. He blushed just as blotchily as Fatima had, in patches on his cheeks and throat that made him look as though at one time he’d been burned as badly as Father had.

Haruka watched and waited but none of them said a word. And that said a lot, didn’t it? As sweet as Fatima seemed to be, Haruka would be walking into a home where she could expect shouting matches, cold silences and an apparent refusal to apologize or reconsider decisions. Well, that wasn’t something that she was going to deal with. Count Rafi would have to look elsewhere.

“I’m very sorry, Count Rafi,” Haruka said in a tone that hopefully conveyed that she wasn’t sorry at all. “But I’m afraid I must decline your offer. I don’t believe that I would be able to make a happy, loving home in your home. Good luck finding someone else to marry your daughters.”

She stood, prompting Fatima, Zainab and Shizuka to stand as well. Count Rafi, on the other hand, stayed in place, glaring up at Haruka as if she’d just slapped him. His breath whistled through his nose for a moment before he cleared his throat and then gripped his cane, struggling back to his feet so that he could stare at Haruka forbiddingly.

“That’s your final answer?” Count Rafi asked through gritted teeth.

“Yes, it is,” Haruka said. No apology because she wasn’t at all sorry about the decision.

“I’m sorry,” Fatima whispered.

“Oh, it’s not you, dear,” Haruka said, smiling wryly when Fatima stared at her in shock. “It’s them. I will not live in a house full of fighting. And I will not be forced into the position of ‘fixing’ everyone. They have problems that they have to sort out. Until then I suspect that anyone your father offers you to will respond in the same fashion.”

She turned to stare into Count Rafi’s very wide, very shocked eyes.

“You need to treat your family’s issues with the same seriousness as you would any issues in your province, Count Rafi,” Haruka said even though Shizuka made a choked noise as if she wanted to slap her hands over Haruka’s mouth. “They are your problems to solve. You cannot fix it by giving orders, just as you cannot simply order your staff and peasantry around.”

“Working together is the only truly effective solution,” Count Rafi sighed. He sagged, his bad leg bending so abruptly that Fatima darted to his side to support him. “Very well. We had planned on staying for a week or so.”

“Given the weather it might be longer,” Haruka replied. “No one wants to sail when a deep cold snap hits.”

“Come with me,” Shizuka said, one hand resting warningly on Haruka’s shoulder. “We have rooms that you can stay in. Would a hot bath help with your knee, Count Rafi? We have suites with private baths.”

She led Count Rafi, Zainab and a slow, embarrassed Fatima out of the sitting room. Fatima glanced back over her shoulder to nod her head apologetically. Haruka smiled and flapped her hands at her, shooing Fatima on her way. That, thankfully, prompted a smile though the smile only lasted a second.

Haruka sighed, gathering up the cups of tea. “What a mess. Definitely not a situation that I want to marry into.”

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Free Fiction Friday: From the Night

POD From The Night Ebook Cover 04

Description:

Eashana knew, to the core of her being, that something was wrong. Her sisters were never this silent. But as she drifted towards the airlock, silence echoing in her ears, she also knew that they might not survive this disaster even if they worked together.

From the Night is a SF story of family, history and facing danger when your home becomes the greatest threat to your survival.

From the Night

By Meyari McFarland

Eashana licked her lips. Maalai’s green curry tingled on her tongue, mixing with the sweat and stink of fear that filled Eashana’s helmet. Static echoed in her ears. The faint rasp of the universe’s birth curdled its way down to her stomach, sending acid burning up Eashana’s throat.

Too quiet. Her sisters were far too quiet. The glory of the nebula around them, baby stars burning bright here and there, planetesimals forming as they slowly swept like giant mining ships through their orbits, gathering debris to their bosoms, lurked in the back of her mind. They were hidden here from rivals, yes, but they were also trapped if anything went wrong. Or she was. Would be. Could be. Why weren’t her sisters answering?

She tapped the jet, carefully reorienting herself to match the airlock, slowly drifting closer, closer. No quip about wasting her jet fuel came over the hissing comms. Eashana clenched her teeth while holding her limbs loose, easy. No flailing. No shouting. It would only spiral her out of control, away from her destination.

“Come on,” Eashana whispered. “Say something, Saashi.”

Silence. How many times had she prayed to their grandmother’s Hindu gods for silence while she worked? Eashana couldn’t count. She regretted every single instance now. Where was Maalai, complaining about work interrupting her precious cooking? There should be grumbles from the engine room as Saashi worked to fix the minor quirks of their old ship’s engine, the scratch of her nails against her perpetually buzzed hair echoing through the comms.
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Novel Monday: Crafting Home – Chapter 2

POD Crafting Home Ebook Cover 06
Description:
Everyone has plans for Haruka’s life. They assume she’ll marry her best friend Shahzad, youngest son of Lord Bilal of Breding Manor. They assume she’s a pretty face with no mind or will of her own.

Fatima’s plans for her life had fallen apart around her ears. Her father and twin sister Zainab were at each other’s throats, no matter how Fatima tried to keep the peace.

Then Fatima’s father, Count Rafi, offered her hand in marriage to Haruka with the assumption that Haruka would be delighted to accept. After a swift, firm denial, it was up to Haruka and Fatima to craft a future together that held not just their happiness but their families’ as well.

Crafting Home is a sweet romance where patience and determination bring the rewards both girls seek.

Crafting Home
By Meyari McFarland

2. Offensive Offer

Wind blasted Fatima’s skirt around her legs, gusting under the hem to throw it up towards her knees. Fatima shrieked, slapping her hands over her thighs to keep it from going any higher. At the same time, the wind blasted her hair around her face so that she couldn’t see who had come in the front door of Breding Manor.

The wind stopped with a great bang of Breding Manor’s double doors, dropping Fatima’s hair and skirt back into something close to what they should have been. She brushed her hair out of her eyes and then stopped, staring, as the most beautiful girl she’d ever seen laughed and tossed luxurious long black hair over her shoulder.

Unlike Fatima, short and stout with skin the color of mud, the other girl was tall and slender. Her clothes were completely Japanese, pale green padded coat over blue kimono and hakama, though her eyes were wide and brown and her nose was the beautiful arch of a native Snohomish woman.

She grinned, nose wrinkling adorably, and flapped a hand in Fatima’s direction. “So sorry for the blast of wind. The weather’s changed.”

“Already?”

Fatima gasped, turning to stare at her twin sister Zainab. Her hair was scattered over her shoulders though she’d worn pants today so she hadn’t had to worry about a skirt going flying. Zainab, of course, looked annoyed. She always did even when Zainab was thoughtful or quietly happy. It didn’t appear to bother the woman or the doctor that Fatima only noticed when he sighed and sat on the step like a commoner to remove his boots.

“I’m afraid so,” the woman said. “Are you visiting? Or waiting for someone?”

“Ah, Father is coming with Lady Shizuka,” Fatima said, sketching an awkward bow in the woman’s direction. Her cheeks burned. “We weren’t sure which sitting room we were to go to.”

“Shouldn’t have to go anywhere at all,” Zainab growled, arms crossed over her chest. “Father should have never made the offer.”

“Oh, you’re the ones that Count Rafi offered,” the woman said.

“This is Yasuda Haruka Sweet Fern,” the doctor explained, his smile wry while the woman’s smile was positively gentle. “I’m Doctor Shahzad Bilal, the youngest son of Lord Bilal.”

“You shouldn’t fuss over the offer,” Haruka said, waving both hands as Fatima cringed and Zainab fumed. “It happens all the time, really. I hardly take such things seriously anymore. Most of the time it’s just someone who saw my face and decided they wanted the pretty.”

Fatima stared, mouth dropping open as she realized that Haruka was quite serious about that. As difficult as their lack of marriage offers had been, especially for Fatima’s sense of attractiveness, she thought having people offer for nothing more than the looks of your face might be worse.

“I’m sorry,” Fatima said.

“Oh, I’m used to it,” Haruka said, reassuring her with a little shrug, a smile that looked forced and a tired sigh. “I won’t marry until I find someone that I can create a true home with. I will of course listen to your father but you shouldn’t worry that you’ll be forced into anything. I won’t allow that.”

“And you have the authority to do that?” Zainab asked. When Fatima looked her way, Zainab looked hopeful for the first time since Father announced his plan to marry them off to Yasuda Haruka.

“Well, not so much the authority,” Shahzad laughed, “as the determination.”

“My mother was a warrior,” Haruka announced with the sort of grin that Fatima was used to seeing from the warriors just before a battle against raiders from the sea. “She taught me to defend myself. My sisters both married Ladies. And no matter what comes, I’ve no intention of settling for a marriage that’s less happy than theirs or our parent’s. I’m looking for love, not power or money. And I won’t settle for less.”

Fatima’s heart did a weird little leap inside her chest. There was so much confidence in Haruka’s eyes that Fatima straightened up a little bit. It felt strange to see someone that strong, that determined, when Fatima felt as though she’d spent her whole life battling just to be allowed to breathe.

Silly, that. Father had always done what he could to protect Fatima and Zainab from people’s expectations. He’d trained them to rule after him wisely and well, educated them in everything they might need to know. But Fatima had always been shy and retiring, preferring handling the books and dealing with legal cases to dealing with the social aspects of being a future countess.

She’d always felt that people watched everything she did, that her actions carried more weight than they should simply because of her parentage. Zainab used to complain about it too though in the last few years she’d stopped, only glaring angrily when anyone commented on her pants, the plain colors she preferred or her refusal to take over any portion of Father’s duties.

“It’s… important to Father,” Fatima murmured as Zainab looked away, glaring up the hallway that led towards the kitchens where Father and Lady Shizuka had disappeared. “He won’t explain why but it’s important.”

“Hmm,” Haruka murmured. She nodded once. “Well, he’ll explain it to me or I’ll simply say no.”

“Please do,” Zainab grumbled. “I can’t believe he’d do this at all.”

“Let me take your coat,” Shahzad said. “Then you can take them to the blue sitting room.”

“That is the most likely spot,” Haruka agreed as she took off her lovely padded coat. “Thank you, Shahzad. Don’t forget to fill out your patient report. Ammad will want to have it as soon as possible.”

“Audit,” Shahzad sighed, nodding as he took the coat, bowed to Fatima and Zainab and then headed up the hallway with his doctor’s bad securely in one hand.

The blue sitting room wasn’t that far up the hallway from the main entrance but it seemed like a completely different world from what Fatima had seen so far. The broad hallways with their expensive rugs hung on the walls, delicate imported pottery and enormous, intimidating windows were gone.

In the place of the wide expanses, so foreign after Skagit Manor’s heavy forest and longhouse construction, was a small, warm room with a bright cheerful fire and long couches around each wall that were more comfortable than Fatima’s bed back home. It was, as suited the name, very blue. The walls and ceiling had been painted pale blue. The cushions were covered in indigo blue cotton and the many, many pillows for propping your back or resting your feet were in every shade of blue that existed. Even the carpet on the floor, thick and soft as a cloud, was woven in blues accented by red and gold.

Fatima sat, hands clenched between her knees, while Zainab paced between the fireplace and the far corner of the room. She really should say something to calm Zainab down but it would just make Zainab yell. The last few months had been nothing but yelling, it seemed, from Zainab, from Father, from the rest of Father’s court. Skagit Manor used to be a warm, comfortable place but it hadn’t been since Father divorced Mother.

And that still hurt. Mother had been the one to want the divorce. She’d always admitted to being uncomfortable with being the Countess despite adoring both Fatima and Zainab. Fatima liked to think that at one time she’d even loved Father but the pressures of court, of the duties of Countess, had dimmed the love until it guttered out like the coals of a fire going grey and dim.

“You really don’t want this,” Haruka commented.

“He shouldn’t be attempting to force us to marry in the first place!” Zainab yelled. She sighed and waved one hand to apologize for Fatima’s flinch and Haruka’s wide eyes. “He shouldn’t. We’re both full adults. Mother always says that we should choose our own path in life and now he’s trying to make us do this and it just makes me so mad!”

“I wonder why,” Haruka mused, eyes on the fireplace, not either of their faces. The beautiful curve of her neck distracted Fatima for a moment from the pensive expression in her eyes.

“Mother divorced him,” Fatima whispered. She winced as Zainab huffed. “I think that’s why, Zai. He needs more help. I’m not good with the social things. You know that.”

“I don’t want to do all that,” Zainab complained. “I’m no better at it than you are! The Great Spirit knows that we’re neither of us good candidates for Countess.”

“No other children?” Haruka asked.

“Oh no,” Fatima said. “Father was an only child and Mother couldn’t have any more children after us. There are cousins, distant ones, poor relations, really, but that’s it.”

“Hmm.”

Fatima didn’t get to ask what Haruka meant by that. The door to the sitting room opened, allowing Lady Shizuka and Father to enter. Lady Shizuka carried a large tray with a tea pot, cups and what looked like treats of some sort. Father walked behind her, leaning on his cane so heavily that Fatima immediately stood and helped him to the seat closest to the fireplace.

He patted Fatima’s hand fondly, rubbing his knee. With the weather changing it had to be hurting. Father always said that weather shifts made his old breaks hurt and the one above his knee was the worst of all. Fatima couldn’t remember how many times Father and Mother had told the story of his fall from Desperation Ridge. It was Father’s favorite story and Mother’s favorite to scoff at, especially since he’d only fallen because he’d been showing off while trying to gather eggs from the sea birds nesting of the cliff.

Fatima fussed with his pillows as Lady Shizuka very properly introduced them all. She did pause as she realized that Haruka truly had no rank at all. Given her sisters’ marriages, Fatima had believed that Haruka’s family had to have some rank other than being related or married to important people. But no, Haruka was just Haruka. Frankly, she was beautiful enough that Fatima was sure that it didn’t make a bit of difference to anyone at all.

“I’m surprised you’re back already,” Lady Shizuka said as she poured tea for them all. “I thought the visit would take longer.”

“No, it was a wood chopping accident, not illness,” Haruka said. “Though the man did have an absolutely lovely mass heater.”

Lady Shizuka groaned as if that was the opening volley of a very well established war. Haruka grinned at her, nose wrinkling adorably again, so maybe it actually was. Either way, Lady Shizuka just shook her head as she started pouring the tea for them all, the first cup, of course, going to Father. Fatima blushed at getting the second while Zainab grumbled before taking hers.

“You help Doctor Shahzad often?” Fatima asked as Zainab glowered at Father who scowled back at her.

“Oh yes,” Haruka said with such a delightful laugh that it filled the room with warmth and joy. “Shahzad is a lovely doctor and a very nice man but he has the worst sense of direction. We’ve been friends ever since Shizuka married Nabeela and I honestly cannot count how many times I’ve had to rescue him from getting lost.”

Zainab snorted but her lips were curled in a little smile that reassured Fatima. Even Father’s scowl had lessened though most of that might be due to his aching knee given that he’d rested the cup on his thigh directly over the old break. The heat might help a bit. Sometimes it did.

“Count Rafi offered his daughters’ hands to you, Haruka,” Lady Shizuka said so exceedingly mildly that Fatima had to wonder if there were issues with the thought of marriage on their side, too.

“Mmm,” Haruka murmured while sipping her tea and nodding slightly. “Shahzad told me. As did Fatima and Zainab. And I will tell you the same thing that I told them, Count Rafi: I intend to marry for love. If you truly want me to marry one or both of your daughters, you would have to have a very powerful reason to compel me to do so. I will not settle for a political match, you see, and as my family are still functionally poor relations, well. I’m not a brilliant match politically, no matter what connections my sisters have made.”

“And our parents have strongly supported Haruka’s choice,” Lady Shizuka said with a little sigh that seemed to imply she’d expected exactly that reply out of her sister. “I did explain to you previously that you will have to make a good case for this offer to be considered.”

Father sighed and stared into the fire rather than answering. He did finally start drinking his tea, one eyebrow going up at the rich flavor of the thick green tea. The longer that he sat there, the angrier Zainab became. She set her tea down on the low table between them all so that she could cross her arms over her chest while glowering at Father.

Fatima shuddered in spite of herself. Not a fight. Not now. Not in front of Lady Shizuka and the far too lovely Haruka. She curled inward, still sipping her tea though the flavor cloyed on her tongue, coating her teeth and throat like the heavy dust of midsummer when the rains stopped and the sun beat down on them like a mallet.

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Free Fiction Friday: Center

POD Center Ebook Cover 03

Description:

When friendship is betrayed, there are always consequences. Riley knows this just as well as her former friend Torey did. Yet he wrote a book betraying everything Riley had shared, betraying magic and life itself. In a world where the magic that flows through your soul determines your gender, Riley uneasily exists between the witches and warlocks. Will vengeance open a path to a better life for Riley or destroy every future?

Center is a thought-provoking story of gender, magic and destiny that is sure to entice.

Center

By Meyari McFarland

1. Betrayal

Riley stared. Her eyes had slid out of focus a long while ago but she didn’t bother focusing again. The world seemed better when she couldn’t see it clearly, when the shimmer and fairy dust that filled life shifted until it was a blurry smear instead of distinct bits clashing and sparking against each other.

No one else in the café noticed the way their magic clashed and fought like roosters battling for dominance.

It helped that rain fell outside, washing the dust of August’s heat away for the moment, not that it would last. Rain always washed the distinctions away, muted the edges and made the world feel pleasantly in-definite, less set in stone. The little café tucked into the corner of the bookstore echoed with people’s voices, the sound of forks against plates, and wet shoes slipping on puddled tile. Here the magic was quiet, restrained, as suited a public place where witches and wizards mingled relatively freely.

Gray and brick red wall, hints of brown sifted past her eyes, seen and unseen at the same time. Her fingers shifted on the cover of the book she’d bought, writing callus on her middle finger catching on the embossed print spelling out ‘Dare!’

As if a mere dare could justify this betrayal.

Tea surged up Riley’s throat, acid hot as it burned its way back to her mouth. She flipped the book over, blinking her eyes repeatedly because tears weren’t going to happen. Not now. Not in public. Her raw, incoherent magic surged inside her chest, struggling against the constraints of ‘female’ and ‘male’. Lifelong training warned ‘consequences’ with answering ‘vengeance’, and ‘retribution’.

None of which Riley could let out right now.

Later, after she got home, then she’d cry. She’d fling the stupid book at the wall and stomp on it. Better still she should burn the thing to ash and dedicate her fury to rebounding consequences onto Torey. It wasn’t as though her magic was ever stable enough to send those consequences, that vengeance and retribution against him directly.

Still, what had she expected? Torey had never been a real friend, one who could listen and accept whatever Riley said or did. He’d smiled, sure, patted her back and reassured her but the judgment was always there. The judgment was always there. No one accepted Riley as she was, no matter how she presented herself.

All of Riley’s life since her magic began to develop in small childhood had been a long series of questions, doubts and judgment, starting with her parents and continuing onwards from there. There had never been a time where she’d found someone who actually understood how the world looked to Riley’s eyes. No one had ever accepted that ‘male’ and ‘female’ were concepts that made no sense at all, whether Riley was talking about the magic that underpinned everyone’s souls or simple practical genitalia.

No one ever understood.

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Novel Monday: Crafting Home – Chapter 1

POD Crafting Home Ebook Cover 06
Description:
Everyone has plans for Haruka’s life. They assume she’ll marry her best friend Shahzad, youngest son of Lord Bilal of Breding Manor. They assume she’s a pretty face with no mind or will of her own.

Fatima’s plans for her life had fallen apart around her ears. Her father and twin sister Zainab were at each other’s throats, no matter how Fatima tried to keep the peace.

Then Fatima’s father, Count Rafi, offered her hand in marriage to Haruka with the assumption that Haruka would be delighted to accept. After a swift, firm denial, it was up to Haruka and Fatima to craft a future together that held not just their happiness but their families’ as well.

Crafting Home is a sweet romance where patience and determination bring the rewards both girls seek.

Crafting Home
By Meyari McFarland

1. Patient

Haruka hummed an old clay-pounding song that Father had taught her as a child, letting the rhythm of the song give her a strong stride up the steep hill. She carefully shifted the heavy willow basket of soap, preserves and second-hand clothes she carried as Shahzad, eyes locked on his directions, turned first left, then right, then went left again.

Which was just like Shahzad, really. This section of Breding Village was older, with narrow cobbled streets overhung by heavy Japanese-style roofs. No one bothered with street numbers or putting out house names here. They all knew each other. This part of town had been in existence nearly as long as there had been Japanese sailors crossing the ocean to trade with the native Snohomish and Salish tribes and the houses here showed their hundreds of years.

The street was rutted from generations of feet pounding the cobbles down into the mud. Every roof had moss growing on the tiles and ferns growing in the gutters. The lime-washed earthen walls were grey rather than white, darker at the base from driving rain splashing off the street, dark and as comfortable as an old quilt wrapped around you during a surprise winter snow storm.

“This way,” Shahzad finally said, pointing up the street, Bell Street for the tiny Buddhist temple and it’s heavy bronze bell at the top of the hill. “I think.”

“Mm-hmm,” Haruka confirmed. “Watch your feet on the stairs, Shahzad. It’s slippery this time of year.”

He nodded, picking his way carefully with his eyes mostly on the directions instead of his footing. Fallen pine needles mixed with large wet brown maple leaves made that a bad idea but Haruka didn’t scold Shahzad. He’d slip or not. She rather expected that he’d slip. He usually did on these trips to tend his patients, especially on rainy days.

It was raining, of course, but she didn’t mind. Instead of a harsh, hard rain that one would expect at this time of the winter, driven by wind and storms from the far north, it was a mild, warm rain that felt more like spring than days before midwinter solstice.

The warmth wouldn’t last long. Already the wind had shifted from the south to the north. Around them, the air had a chill to it that made Haruka’s breath occasionally puff out in clouds of steam. The clouds overhead moved quickly across the sky, skittering like mice sensing the cat approaching.

Behind the fleeing clouds, the sky was brilliantly blue, that cold, hard blue that seemed to glitter like frost in the early morning. The cold hadn’t hit yet but it would soon and Haruka could only grin at that. Winter at last after a fall that seemed determined to be milder than any on record.

Haruka was ready. She had heavy wool tabi that Shizuka had sewn for her, a lovely thick hapi-coat with cotton batting quilted between the layers from Keiko and her kimono was the warmest, thickest cotton one she had, the one that she’d stitched extensively with Sashiko patterns of waves, wattle fencing and cranes for last year’s severe cold. Better still, she’d topped the kimono with a lovely pair of hakama with embroidered plum blossoms that she’d made herself this year. Her nose tingled a bit from the rising chill but Haruka truly didn’t care. Nice deerskin gloves and boots kept her extremities warm enough that the cold could come if it wanted.

Besides, both she and Shahzad had hats, broad woven reed hats gifted to them by Duke Laughing Seal the last time he came through, that kept enough of the rain off that she wouldn’t have minded a downpour. Though it would have made the cobblestones extremely slippery to walk on and that was never a good thing with Shahzad’s tendency to walk into things while concentrating on other thoughts.

Like directions.

“You’re happy,” Shahzad said as he checked his orders and then nodded towards the alleyway that led up to unlabeled Orca Way, so named for its winding path like the curved spine of an orca breaching, dorsal fin thrust high into the air, as the street wound around the temple. “This way. I think.”

“This way,” Haruka agreed. “Then up the stairs and the client’s house should be on the right.”

“How do you know the city better than I do when I’m the one who’s the doctor going out every day?” Shahzad asked with a little grin.

Haruka wrinkled her nose at him. She didn’t bother answering the old, old joke. Shahzad’s sense of direction remained the worst of anyone Haruka knew. He could, and did, reliably get lost rambling around Bilal Manor despite having been born and raised there. Haruka, on the other hand, never got lost no matter how much Shahzad tried to turn her around. All she had to do was look at the sun and the sky, feel the breeze on her cheeks, and she knew which way was home.

Shahzad went first, muttering thoughtfully as he stumbled over slightly heaved cobblestones or slippery spots. Or once his own feet. His bag of medical supplies nearly tripped him as he started up the worn stone stairs, each one a slab of slate as long as her arm, set to give treads that were just a hair too short for Shahzad’s boots. Haruka shook her head and followed him, nodding approval when he finally tucked the directions away and took the railing.

“I can hear you thinking at me,” Shahzad complained.

“I didn’t say a single word,” Haruka said. She laughed when he grunted. “Well, I didn’t. But I am glad that you decided to use the railing.”

Shahzad groaned. “Why do people think we’re perfect for each other?”

“Because they think that two people can’t be the next best thing to siblings without some level of romantic attraction,” Haruka said so promptly that Shahzad laughed. “Goodness, we’ve talked about that a million times.”

“Very true,” Shahzad sighed. “You’re practically my twin.”

She nodded and then willed Shahzad to turn right on Orca Way. He looked both ways, pulled out the directions and then headed right. Haruka stayed at the top of the stairs, humming quietly until Shahzad turned around and came back, cheeks burning. As he passed, Shahzad stuck his tongue out at Haruka. She grinned and returned the favor, giggling as she followed him up Orca Way towards the client’s house, just a few yards away.

It was a small house, too, just ten feet by twenty with a heavy Japanese-inspired roof overhanging a broad porch that probably doubled as sleeping quarters during the summer. The little garden, protected by a waist-high wattle fence, held scrubby cabbages, overgrown herbs and a wan little plum tree that looked as though it had never flowered once in its entire life. But there was a lovely coat of moss over the rest of the ground so it looked green and lush despite the fairly obvious black thumb of the owner. Someone, possibly a family member, had put out a shingle with the family’s name, Yasuda, scrawled in Kanji and Pakistani, side by side.

“This is it,” Shahzad murmured. “I do hope it’s not another case of influenza. We’ve had too many this year.”

“I know,” Haruka agreed. “I wish it was easier to get everyone inoculated.”

Shahzad nodded as he tied on a many-layered cotton face mask and then tied one onto Haruka’s face as well. She wiggled her nose once it was in place, nodding that it was secure enough. If there was one thing Haruka had learned while helping Shahzad in his medical practice it was that taking precautions was always a good idea. The masks weren’t perfect protection against infectious diseases but it did help reduce the chances that they would get sick.

Which, as it turned out, was a pointless worry. Shahzad knocked on the door, jumped as the occupant immediately opened it and then sighed as he saw the very large, very bloody bandage wrapped around the poor man’s hand.

“Accident?” Shahzad asked.

“Yes,” the man grunted. “Come on in. Not much here.”

“That’s why I brought supplies,” Haruka said cheerfully enough that the man sort of smiled at her.

The next hour was uncomfortable in all the ways that Haruka had gotten accustomed to in the last two years since turning sixteen. Kosuke, the owner of the unfortunately black thumb and a lovely wood-chopping injury, spent most of his time being stitched up staring at Haruka. Given his expression, Haruka would have thought that the man was starving and she was the first food he’d seen in years.

She soundly ignored Kosuke’s pointed attention. Really, it wasn’t as though she could do anything else and still be polite. Instead, Haruka looked around and decided to make his life a little bit better. Haruka started by cleaning the man’s incredibly filthy kitchen, sweeping out the ash-filled stove and washing his single bowl, plate and one set of cooking tongs. Since she had wash water set up, Haruka set to work washing the clothes Kosuke had bloodied even though they’d be a long time drying with the rain outside. Finally, as Shahzad slowly, meticulously, stitched Kosuke’s wound shut, Haruka started up a small fire in the man’s heater.

“Such a lovely heater,” Haruka murmured once the fire snapped and roared inside the cob funnel. “Mass heaters are so efficient.”

“Oh, is it?” Shahzad asked, only glancing Haruka’s way. “Nice. I still wish that Ammad and Nabeela would agree to add those to the manor. It gets far too cold up there.”

“A good large one,” Haruka said. “I think that the flue goes under the floor for most of the building.”

“Does,” Kosuke grunted. He looked rather sour when Haruka glanced his way. “Better than an open fire smoking the house up. Friend helped me make it this summer.”

“Good friend,” Shahzad said. He tied a bandage around Kosuke’s hand, nodding that he was done. “Now, you need to keep that clean and dry. Send a message up if you have any signs of infection. I think it’s clean enough that the antibiotics should be enough but you can never be too careful, especially with the cold weather starting up.”

“You’ve got plenty of preserves, too,” Haruka said, holding the basket in front of her chest to block Kosuke’s pointed stare. “If you need more, do ask. We’ll send some down from the manor.”

“You deliver them?” Kosuke asked just a hair too hopefully.

“Oh no,” Haruka laughed, shaking her head and smiling despite the desire to run right out of the little house. “I just go with Shahzad to make sure he doesn’t get lost. No sense of direction at all.”

Kosuke grumbled for a second only to go quiet and still as he turned to stare at Shahzad who immediately set to work repacking his medical bag. Haruka laughed quietly, head turned away, as Shahzad’s cheeks went redder and redder. After a moment Kosuke turned to Haruka, eyes wide.

“Lord Shahzad?” Kosuke asked. “Lord Ammad’s younger brother? I had a lord stitch up my hand?”

“The same,” Haruka said, laughing in earnest at Shahzad’s groan. “Though he much prefers to be called Doctor Shahzad. He doesn’t participate in ruling Breding Manor anymore.”

“Then you’re the girl,” Kosuke sighed, his mouth twisting into a rueful smile. “That Haruka Sweet Fern that’s engaged to him.”

This time Haruka groaned. “We’re not engaged. That would be like marrying my twin brother. Heavens, I wish people would get over that.”

Kosuke immediately perked up only to glower as Shahzad shook his head no. And that, honestly, was one of Haruka’s favorite things about Shahzad. He was absolutely terrible at romance, to the point that Haruka expected him to live his entire life without getting married, but whenever someone make Haruka uncomfortable he was right there, protecting her.

“What do you mean no?” Kosuke growled.

“She’s destined for a duke or a count,” Shahzad replied. He grinned at Haruka’s choked noise. “You’ve had Duke Laughing Seal’s sons after you for two years and Count Rafi Bright Sun offered to marry you to his twin daughters yesterday. I don’t care what you think, Haruka, you’re going to marry high.”

That, at least, got Kosuke to stop staring at Haruka. He was even marginally polite as they left, bowing and thanking them both for the care. Haruka held her sighs in until it was time to tug Shahzad away from the stairs down to Bell Street so that they could take the shortcut behind the temple over to the main road from the port up to Breding Manor. With the clouds scudding south and the wind picking up, getting inside before the temperature dropped too dramatically would be wise.

“He didn’t mean to offend,” Shahzad murmured as Haruka took the lead.

“I know,” Haruka sighed. “No one does, really. They all just see my face and assume that they have a chance without getting to know me first. It’s annoying, that’s all.”

“Sometimes I wish I was interested,” Shahzad said. He smiled wryly when Haruka stared at him, shocked. “Just because then people might leave you alone.”

“If they get too bad I’ll hit them,” Haruka declared. She grinned at Shahzad’s snickers. “Keiko and Mother have done a lovely job teaching me to defend myself. It’s all right. I have more problems with peasants than nobility. I hate turning the peasants down harshly.”

“It’s easier with nobility,” Shahzad agreed. “They expect it, I think. The peasants, not so much.”

The wind abruptly wailed around them, tearing up the street to rip at Haruka’s hapi-coat, hakama and gloves. Shahzad stumbled, falling to one knee. He staggered back to his feet, staring out over the sound for a long moment. Then he looked at Haruka, looked up at Breding Manor on the hill and started to run.

Haruka grabbed her hat and then ran after him. “Wait for me! No, not that way, Shahzad! Go left! Left!”

Find This Book:

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If you can’t afford to buy the story, please consider leaving a donation. All money received goes toward keeping me writing and posting these stories. Thank you very much!

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Novel Monday: Following the Trail – Chapter 18 (Conclusion!)

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

18. Temporary Parting
Tamami licked her lips, temporarily clearing them of the raindrops that had fallen on her face as her crew loaded up the canoes for the trip home. The rain tasted salty, legacy of the sweat beading Tamami’s face. Even with the crew murmuring to each other as they worked to properly balance the canoes, Tamami could hear the rain falling on the sound around them. It shimmered like a Guji’s bells.

“There she is,” Rina murmured.

“We’re loaded?” Tamami asked.

“Almost, but that wasn’t what I was talking about,” Rina said. She nodded back towards Breding Manor. “Look.”

That was when Tamami picked out the sound of geta marching slow and deliberate down the cobbled street that led up to the dock. Tamami turned, her heart catching as she saw Keiko, clad all in indigo blue with a brilliant red umbrella, stalking towards them.

She looked powerful. Unstoppable. Intimidating in all the best ways. Tamami grinned, patted Rina’s shoulder when she laughed, and then hurried through her amused crew to the end of the dock. Even there, Tamami had people grinning at her. The locals who helped transport things onto boats and canoes looked at Tamami as if she was every bit as obvious as she felt.

“I didn’t expect you to come in the rain,” Tamami said.

Keiko snorted. “If people stayed inside when it was raining nothing would ever be done in Ambermarle. You will visit.”
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