After Shizuka’s father suffered a terrible accident, she took on the challenge of apprenticing to the nobility of Ambermarle in the hopes of learning a new career that could cover for his medical care. Breding Manor surprised her with more than just career opportunities.
Two potential romances with the Lord’s oldest son Ammad and his willful daughter Nabeela promised a new path that Shizuka could never have imagined.
A New Path is a sweet romance where second chances lead to something wonderful for everyone involved.
A New Path
By Meyari McFarland
2. Settling In
Nabeela led the way down the back hallway to the apprentice quarters, intensely aware of the swish of the girl’s gorgeous hair and the thwap of her cheap white slippers. They barely stayed on the girl’s feet, slipping off her heels with every step and forcing her to shuffle as she walked. She didn’t appear to mind it, though, as she hadn’t said a word about them.
Their new apprentice was short, with a sweet round faced, and the sort of gloriously smooth black hair that Nabeela had thought only existed in old fairy stories. Her entire childhood Nabeela had prayed to wake up to sleek hair as back as night and a round face like the moon. If only her hair was half that smooth and straight, Nabeela was sure that she’d get far less scolding looks when she went about her daily work, even though Nabeela would never be as demure and ladylike as their new apprentice.
She had the sort of gravity that went with a serious, thoughtful mind and a level of dignity, despite her blank white clothes and too-loose shoes, that made Nabeela certain that her noble relative had to be someone truly powerful, a Duke or Princess of the royal line. Add that to her stunning looks and Nabeela was certain that her name had to be some variant of ‘beauty’. Piyari certainly seemed to fit.
It was strange leading the way to the apprentices’ quarters. Of course Nabeela knew where it was, dead in the center of the house where the apprentices would be safe from intruders, free to relax when they weren’t actively working on their duties. The only place safer in the whole house was her family’s private quarters and that was just up another hallway. Father had never allowed Nabeela much access to their apprentices… before.
Her mind skipped away from the accident, Mother’s funeral, Father’s injuries that still might take his life. So much had changed in the last month. Grief caught in Nabeela’s throat. She swallowed hard, raised her chin and squared her shoulders. Father hadn’t given up. Even after losing the love of his life, he hadn’t given up. Nabeela had mourned. She’d cried for Mother but it was more for herself. Mother was in a better place, by Allah’s side. Better to focus on the living, Father, Ammad, Shahzad, and now Piyari, than to get lost in her grief over Mother’s loss.
It really was too much to deal with. Easier by far to focus on making Piyari feel comfortable than to focus on all the loss and fear and change in her life right now. A comfortable place for Piyari to stay, plenty of work to do, and new skills to learn of course, would help her. And by extension it would help Nabeela. Hopefully that would help Father too, though what he really needed was to stay in bed and heal, stubborn man.
“Here we go,” Nabeela said in Urdu only to sigh at herself. “I am sorry, I’m not used to people who don’t speak Urdu. We switch back and forth all the time.”
“Well,” Piyari said with a long approving look around the painfully plain apprentice quarters, “I suppose that I shall have to learn, Mistress. This is… all for me?”
“Mm-hmm. It isn’t much. Hopefully it won’t feel cramped for you,” Nabeela said with an inward sigh at how small they were and how little there was for Piyari.
The bathing area was hidden off behind a bamboo and cedar screen, perfectly discrete if embarrassingly open as far as Nabeela was concerned. At least the tub was large, a nice square one made of cedar that held enough water to come up to your chin when you sat in it.
It looked out over a courtyard garden that had been created entirely by the apprentices about a decade ago. Nabeela had helped carry rocks for the apprentices at the time, watching with fascination as they created a mountain scene in miniature, complete with carefully sculpted shrubbery.
That was the nice part of the quarters as far as Nabeela was concerned. The central area where the apprentices spent their time was one big open space with appropriately wide benches around the walls. Unfortunately the cushions on those benches were covered in desperately old patched cushions held together with rough white stitching and the floor cushions around the sunken hearth at the center of the room were so flat that they made Nabeela’s bottom hurt just looking at them.
All in all, Nabeela thought the apprentice quarters could use with a major redecoration. They had to sleep on the bench cushions, for heaven’s sake, rather than having their own individual beds, though at least there were ample quantities of blankets tucked into the storage benches.
Piyari looked at Nabeela, rich brown eyes wide and perfect bow mouth dropped open in an ‘o’. She started giggling only to bury her face in the stack of clothes she’d just been given as if that would stop her giggles from being obvious. Nabeela tugged her shawl a bit tighter around her shoulders while sternly scolding herself for both the blush heating her cheeks and the way her heart skipped a beat.
Despite being the only daughter of the Lord of Breding, Nabeela hadn’t spent much time interacting one on one with such a lovely girl before. She felt as though everything Piyari did set of storm surges of delight. At the very least, Nabeela suspected that the more time she spent around Piyari the closer the tides of her heart were going to tie to Piyari’s smiles and frowns.
“Mistress,” Piyari said once her giggles subsided to a delighted grin, “this one room is bigger than my parents’ entire house. Plus the little storehouse we have for my father’s tools. It’s quite grand. A bit drafty but the clothes will make a difference on that.”
Nabeela’s mouth worked for a moment before laughter won out over astonishment. Nabeela looked around the apprentice quarters, trying to imagine a family actually living together in the space. She couldn’t do it. The room was so small, only about ten paces by eight paces square. More than three people in it would make the room crowded. Four and people would be in each other’s way endlessly.
Honestly, Nabeela wasn’t sure how the peasants in the area survived in their longhouses with six or seven families all living together in one long, low building dug deep into the earth. It seemed to work for them but the lack of privacy would have bothered Nabeela to the point she couldn’t relax. She shook her head, focusing on Piyari’s beautiful face again.
“Really?” Nabeela asked. “How many people? Just your parents and you?”
“Goodness, no,” Piyari laughed as she headed for the corner of the room where shelves for personal belongings stood. “I’m the oldest of three daughters. There were five of us, more if relatives came to visit. This is more than ample room for just me.”
She looked over her shoulder at the door before quickly stripping out of their Majesty’s apprentice garb. Nabeela blushed harder. Piyari’s hair was just enough of a curtain to tease at her beauty without fully hiding it.
Unlike Nabeela with her heavy bust and thick waist, Piyari’s bust was small and high. Her waist was slender but her hips swelled wide and full. Her entire body was golden like the sun seen through high clouds, warm and perfect as her lovely round face. Nabeela licked her lips, old childhood stories of otters magically turning into human women flitting through her mind.
There was little time to take in Piyari’s body. She slipped into the mompe so fast that it felt as though she’d never been undressed at all. Nabeela finally forced herself to turn away as Piyari pulled on the kameez. Really, she shouldn’t have watched at all but no matter what Nabeela told herself about ignoring Piyari’s beauty and wiping the glimpse from her mind, she knew that she wasn’t going to forget what she’d seen.
“That’s so much warmer,” Piyari sighed happily.
When Nabeela turned around Piyari was happily pulling her socks and new better-fitting slippers on. “I’m glad. You looked quite cold.”
“I was, Mistress,” Piyari said. Her smile was wry but amused. “Ah, should I braid my hair? I don’t know what you want me to do yet so I wasn’t sure if it would get in the way.”
“You can if you like,” Nabeela said as she moved closer to Piyari. She felt rather like the moth drawn to the candle’s flame. “But you look lovely with it down.”
Piyari stared, her mouth dropped open in that perfect ‘o’ again. Then she blushed and smiled shyly, turning away to fuss with folding her previous outfit so precisely that it might as well have been ironed. Nabeela covered her mouth with both hands. Really, Piyari was so demure, so very sweet and shy when Nabeela would have expected her to be haughty because of her looks.
“Ah, what will I be doing, Mistress?” Piyari asked once her clothes were firmly, undeniably folded to within an inch of their lives and put away securely on one of the empty shelves.
“I’m not sure yet,” Nabeela admitted. She wandered over to the couch, sitting by one of the windows that showed the little courtyard garden despite the chill from outside. “Father usually has the apprentices shadow him. They work as messengers, clerks, assistants with whatever he needs. It really depends on their skills.”
“I’m not sure what skills I have that will be helpful,” Piyari said as she settled, kneeling, next to Nabeela. She smoothed her new blue kameez over her thighs nervously before carefully wrapping her shawl securely around her shoulders, the ends draped down her back with her hair.
“What can you do?” Nabeela asked.
“Eto…” Piyari said, staring out the window unseeingly for a moment before shaking her head. “I helped my father with his glass blowing business. Not actually blowing glass, you see, but organizing supplies and making sure that his paperwork was in order. My mother was a clerk for the town hall. I occasionally helped her with that. In school I was very good at learning languages though we never learned Urdu. And I’m a very good seamstress. I quite enjoy that.”
Nabeela nodded thoughtfully. She wasn’t sure exactly how that would all translate into their needs. They had a great many servants who handled the day to day organization of life in the mansion. Plus Father had a very competent staff that took care of running their province. They were doing a fine job during his illness.
The skill with languages would definitely be helpful. Their little town got visitors from all over Ambermarle and from their neighboring countries because of its placement on the sound. At any time, Nabeela could expect to hear a dozen different languages spoken down in the market by the port. They generally had six or seven languages in the mansion itself.
“Can you translate?” Nabeela asked.
“It depends on what languages,” Piyari said with a wry smile. “I’m fully fluent in Snohomish and Japanese. Those are my parents’ native tongues. I’m also very good with the common tongue, of course. And I was lucky enough to have the chance to learn Chinese as a young girl. I’ve forgotten most of the characters, but I still speak it fairly well.”
“That will help,” Nabeela said. She nodded firmly and smiled. “We always need people who can translate. Writing too?”
“Other than Chinese, yes,” Piyari replied. Her blush brightened as she half bowed to Nabeela, as demure as she could be. “If I can help translate things I’d be delighted to. Or whatever tasks you choose for me. I’m willing to learn whatever you and Lord Bilal think are appropriate.”
She looked up through her lashes, smiling that little smile that made Nabeela’s heart skip a beat. When Nabeela drew in a shaky breath Piyari blushed and looked away, fussing with the hem of her kameez so that she didn’t have to meet Nabeela’s eyes. Nabeela cocked her head, bending so that she could peer at Piyari’s face.
Piyari made a tiny squeaking noise, turning further and further away until they both nearly toppled off the bench. Nabeela had to throw one hand out to keep from falling on her face. That made Piyari start giggling again and turn back to Nabeela, a tiny grin flitting about her lips. Nabeela grinned openly at her. They were most definitely going to have fun spending time together.
“I apologize, Mistress,” Piyari said, bowing and then brushing that lovely hair over her shoulders again. “I did not intend to ah, distract you.”
“Distract away,” Nabeela said, waving one hand at Piyari in as grand a gesture as she could manage. It came off far more forceful and determined than graceful. Nabeela had never learned the trick of holding her fingers and hand in a properly feminine arch. “It’s nice, actually. None of us are very formal, frankly. Mother discouraged that sort of thing and Father has never liked being treated differently because of his rank. As a minor lord he’s actually not that important. You can be as informal as you’re comfortable with around all of us, I promise.”
“I don’t know that I will, Mistress,” Piyari murmured. This time her adjustment of the hem of kameez was more thoughtful than shy. “I tend to be too shy at first for that. I’m not bold like you. Sometimes I wish I could be.”
To Nabeela’s surprise there was admiration in Piyari’s eyes when she looked up, not disapproval or mock-concern. Over the years, Nabeela had lost count of how many people had made supposedly concerned comments about her personality being too dominant.
Some seemed honestly concerned that she’d been raised to be a boy when she was actually a girl. Others were more annoyed that a girl would be as forceful and demanding as her brothers. Even the most supportive people in the household tended to remind Nabeela that she wasn’t supposed to stride about like a man, wasn’t supposed to shout orders or volunteer to do physical work around the house.
It was tiring.
Nabeela did what she had to because she was in the line of descent. Unlike the other women in the household and town, Nabeela knew that she might end up as the Lady of Breding. If Ammad chose to step down or married someone inappropriate, it would fall to Nabeela to take up Father’s duties. She had to be strong, forceful, decisive. Even if she never became the lady Nabeela knew that she’d spend the rest of her life helping to rule their little province. Being sweet and demure was never going to happen.
“That’s just who I am,” Nabeela said with a wave as if to push the praise off. Her blush probably gave away just how pleased she was by it. “It’s nothing special.”
“It feels that way to me,” Piyari replied with a blush of her own. “I’ve been told all my life that I need to be more demure. To see a woman be so… free… is inspiring.”
“Are you flirting?” Nabeela asked, unfamiliar laughter welling up. It had been so long since she actually wanted to laugh at anything, that anything made her feel this way. “I’ll never say no to a bit of flirting, but I doubt that there will be much romantic going on. We’re all…”
Nabeela waved her hands in the air as if everything was in chaos and the manor was teetering on the edge of sliding into the ocean. It felt that way even if they weren’t even close to that level of disorder. Mother’s death was so recent, and Father’s illness so severe, that it was hard to think about, much less talk about.
Something about her expression must have given away Nabeela’s feelings because Piyari frowned and put her hand hesitantly on Nabeela’s knee. Her hand was smaller than Nabeela’s, firm with nails trimmed to the quick but scrupulously clean as Nabeela would expect from an apprentice newly arrived from their Majesties.
It was rather forward, though, so Nabeela stared at Piyari until her cheeks turned bright red and she turned away again, snatching her hand back. Even with her head turned away Nabeela could see the shy smile on her lips and the way Piyari peeked through her ebony fall of hair. After a few moments Piyari turned back with concern in her dark eyes.
“What can I do to help?” Piyari asked.
“There isn’t much to do, honestly,” Nabeela said ruefully. “Mother died over a month ago. I don’t know if you heard…?” Piyari shook her head no. “Well, it was during that really bad storm, the one that lasted for days and caused so much flooding. Mother and Father had been out checking on our villages, making sure that everyone was safe despite the rain. They crossed a bridge just as a fallen tree struck the supports. It collapsed under them.”
Nabeela took a deep breath, well aware that she was shaking. Every time she tried to talk about Mother’s death she ended up shaking and in tears despite her best efforts to be strong. It had been such a horrible day, week. The entire month had been horrific, actually. Sometimes, Nabeela wondered if life would ever improve, whether they’d all trudge along in a deep gray fog with loss weighing down their hearts and dragging at their feet like mud in the early spring before any green leaves had returned.
Piyari’s fingers slid down to squeeze Nabeela’s hand comfortingly. Her expression was completely sympathetic. It almost looked like she wanted to hug Nabeela to reassure her, even though they’d only just met. The thought that a new person cared so much helped enough that Nabeela brushed her few tears way.
“Mother was swept out of the carriage,” Nabeela continued. Her voice shook despite her efforts to keep it steady. “Her body was found four days later downstream with the driver’s body. Father was pinned. He broke several ribs and nearly drowned. The near drowning gave him a nasty cold that developed into pneumonia. He’s only just getting his strength back now.”
“I’m so sorry,” Piyari whispered. “We had bad mudslides during the storm. The hills are still too unstable for the potter in town to dig for fresh clay. Can I help with the mourning rites?”
“Ah, they’re already over,” Nabeela said, blinking several times in surprise. “By Islamic law we’re not allowed to mourn excessively.”
“Oh!” Piyari gasped, so surprised that Nabeela kept a good grip on her hand so that she didn’t pull back and away. “I’m sorry. I didn’t know that. Buddhist traditions are more involved. Father’s still saying prayers for his father’s soul.”
“The local Japanese enclave is still mourning Mother,” Nabeela said with a little nod. “I’m supposed to go down and visit sometime in the next day or two. That’s a lot of what my brothers and I are doing right now, helping our people mourn Mother’s loss. She was… very popular with the people. She was half Chehalis so people identified strongly with her.”
Piyari lit up at that, smiling so brightly that it let Nabeela push the pain and loss away once again. It was hard to tell sometimes but Nabeela thought that perhaps Piyari had some native blood as well as the obvious Japanese.
“Mother is native,” Piyari said very softly, very happily. “I’m not supposed to say which tribe. Their Majesties were quite firm about that. But she is. We were raised in both traditions though I’m more comfortable with Shinto. My youngest sister is far more comfortable with our native traditions.”
“I shouldn’t ask,” Nabeela said, one thumb rubbing over the back of Piyari’s hand, “but why are you a slave? What happened?”
“My father is… was? We don’t know,” Piyari said with a sad little sigh. “He was a glass blower. He did globes for fishermen’s nets, drinking glasses, anything people wanted. But there was an accident and a globe exploded. It hurt him very badly, took one eye, and killed two of his assistants outright. The medical bills were very bad and we don’t know if Father will ever be able to return to work so…”
She shrugged and gestured with her free hand to the apprentices’ quarters as if it was self-evident what had to be done. Nabeela took a deep breath and swallowed hard. The thought of leaving her family and home, everything she’d ever known, was terrifying. At least here Nabeela knew everyone and knew what needed to be done to get along. Going somewhere else there would be no guarantees of that. She would have to learn all new customs, perhaps new languages, certainly new etiquette and proper behavior based on the people where she ended up.
“I don’t know that I would have been brave enough to do that,” Nabeela said.
“But you’re so bold,” Piyari protested. Her brown eyes went wide with surprise. “You wouldn’t have any problems with it.”
“No, I’m really not,” Nabeela said. “I know I seem that way but I have my father and brothers close to keep me safe. I would be terrified to go off somewhere new, where no one even knows my name. You’re very strong to do this.”
Piyari pulled her hand out of Nabeela’s grip so that she could hide her face in both hands again with a little cry that sounded equal parts pleased and embarrassed. It was so cute that Nabeela laughed and patted Piyari’s knee. Hopefully they would be allowed to work together. Her demure version of self-confidence would make a very nice contrast to Nabeela’s more blatantly forceful nature.
After a moment Piyari dropped her hands. She was still blushing brightly and smiling as if the compliment had pleased her to no end. Before Nabeela could flirt some more Piyari took a deep breath and looked around the apprentice quarters.
“Where will I be sleeping?” Piyari asked.
Nabeela resisted the urge to say ‘in my bed’ and stood so that she could move one of the cushions aside. “There are storage bins under the seats. We keep the blankets and pillows inside. I think that the last occupants left a few little projects that they were working on in their spare time.”
“Oh, that’s lovely,” Piyari said so happily that Nabeela couldn’t help but laugh. “No, but it is! I was wondering where everything was stored. The shelves don’t seem large enough for everything that would be needed.”
Piyari got up and stacked all the cushions in the middle of the room so that she could go through the storage bins to see what was there. After a second, Nabeela helped her. This was certainly much more fun than going out and dealing with the various mourners who would be in the mansion or the politicians who seemed to believe that Father should keep working even as he healed.
“Oh!” Piyari gasped as they pulled out a wonderfully thick quilt covered with bold white embroidery. It was easily three inches thick and heavy enough that it was a strain to hold it up. “Sashiko!”
“Is that what this is called?” Nabeela asked. “I see the women working on it in the village but I’ve never dared ask about it.”
“Mm-hmm,” Piyari said, hugging the quilt. “My grandmother, my father’s mother, taught me how to do it. Was this provided?”
“Oh no,” Nabeela said. “One of the apprentices has to have sewn it. We didn’t provide them anything but simpler blankets.”
She rummaged through one of the other bins and came up with several blankets that were almost normal. Someone had sewn protective covers over the ends as if they had gotten worn there. The stitches there were sloppier than the ones in the center of one of the blankets. Someone had stitched on an applique of a trillium that was beautifully done.
While Nabeela had been doing that, Piyari had moved onto other bins, finding broken bowls and plates that the apprentices had repaired with bits of gold and silver as well as a little stack fabric that she exclaimed over. Nabeela put the blankets back before joining Piyari as she cooed at the bits of fabric.
“What are they?” Nabeela asked.
“Someone was making omiyage,” Piyari explained. “See? This folded this way and stitched will make a flower petal. And this little bag is almost done. They must have forgotten them.”
“I would be willing to bet that they left them behind for whoever came after them,” Nabeela said. She laughed as Piyari blushed and huffed at her. “No, really! I know that the batch before the last one left things behind. They said so as they left. And I think it’s a tradition. Sort of… a way to welcome whoever is new, even if you never meet them.”
Piyari ducked her head so that her beautiful hair hid her face for a moment. When she lifted her face again a moment later she had tears shining in her eyes. She bobbed her head while briefly biting her lip. Nabeela’s traitor heart skipped another beat.
Hopefully Piyari would stay with them for a long time, learning many things. This was the first time in a very long time that Nabeela had felt so comfortable with another person, much less another woman. It was… nice.
“Why don’t you show me how that will go together?” Nabeela asked. “My embroidery is pretty bad but this looks like fun.”
“If you’d like, Mistress,” Piyari said so happily as she brushed the tears away that Nabeela felt a bit guilty about the selfish request.
“I would,” Nabeela said. “But you can’t laugh at how bad my sewing is.”
“It can’t be that bad,” Piyari said. She squeaked and then giggled as Nabeela rolled her eyes dramatically. “Oh dear. Well, let’s see what you can do, shall we, Mistress?”
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