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.
By Meyari McFarland
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.
“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.
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.”
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