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
Ammad ran his hands over his face as he strode down the back hallway to the apprentice’s quarters, the faintest hints of stubble rasping against his palms as they slid over his chin and jawline. Not the image he wanted to present yet Ammad didn’t take the hallway that would take him back to his quarters to shave. Why bother? In a few hours it would be back, no matter how annoying he found the stubble.
He should have dressed better this morning. Honestly, he’d forgotten that their Majesties’ representative would be arriving today with their new apprentice in tow. Too many other things to think about, too many problems to be solved. The biggest of which was keeping Father from overexerting himself until his ribs and pneumonia had healed fully.
The hallway to the apprentice quarters was silent, empty. Bare walls and a plain blue rug added to the sense of cold emptiness. The suggestions Ammad had made as a preteen to add some personality to the hallway and the apprentice quarters came back as he frowned. No one should live in such barrenness. It was an insult to the apprentices to make them walk down such a bare hallway only to arrive in the blank, desolate room.
Nabeela had yet to emerge from the apprentice quarters with their beautiful new apprentice. That was a bit of a surprise. He’d thought that Nabeela hated the place as much as he did. She’d certainly been a lot more forceful about expressing her opinion of the place, even when Mother and Father had told them both that they were to stop discussing it. Ammad still didn’t believe that living in such a bleak place was ‘comforting’ for the apprentices. That was ridiculous. No one could find such a place home-like.
He shook the thought away as he approached the door to the apprentice quarters. Ammad couldn’t help but be happy that Shahzad wouldn’t be allowed to spend large amounts of time with their new apprentice. The girl was entirely too attractive for her own good, much less everyone else’s.
Her skin was luscious, as dark and rich as the wood floor’s polished gleam. That hair was stunning as well. He almost wondered whether she’d left it loose specifically to attempt seduction immediately but her response to Father’s illness made him suspect that it was something far more practical. Even the shapeless white apprentice garb given to an apprentice being delivered to their new household couldn’t hide how lovely her body was.
Ammad stumbled a little at the memory of her walking away, waterfall of black hair brushing over the full roundness of her rear end.
“Very good Shahzad won’t spend any time with her,” Ammad muttered as he approached the door to the apprentice’s quarters, cheeks heating as he thought of her. “He’s halfway smitten already and they barely spoke.”
He paused outside the door, startled to hear Nabeela laughing. There had been precious few laughs in the household since Mother’s death. Honestly, he couldn’t remember the last time he’d heard Nabeela laugh that way, open, free and delighted by whatever their new beauty had said. It made Ammad smile, his spirits lifting just from the sound of it.
Beneath Nabeela’s laugher was the quieter, deeper sound of their beauty’s laugh. Ammad licked his lips, one hand on the door knob. Maybe he should insist that she stay with Nabeela. He wasn’t sure that he could handle being around someone who laughed so sweetly after all the grief their house had gone through. The silence after Mother’s death had grown until it seemed to nest under his rib cage like a chickadee nesting under cedar branches, hidden and safe from detection.
“Here?” Nabeela asked while laughing so loud that it echoed around Ammad.
“No, no, not there,” their apprentice said so breathlessly that she had to have laughed until there were tears in her eyes. “Goodness, you’re not good at this at all, are you?”
Ammad slowly opened the door only to stare at the chaos on the other side. For some reason almost all of the cushions were off the benches. They’d been stacked neatly in the middle of the room, other than the one that Nabeela and their apprentice sat on. The bins were open, blankets and bowls spilled out onto the floor as if Nabeela had taken their apprentice treasure hunting while showing her where she would be living for the next few years.
More surprisingly, they were hunched over some sort of sewing together. Ammad stared, trying to remember the last time he’d seen Nabeela willingly touch a needle and thread. She’d fought against lessons ever since she was tiny, protesting at the top of her lungs that helping Father and learning diplomacy was more important that making pretty stitches in pointless samplers.
Nonetheless, there sat Nabeela stitching something awkwardly while the apprentice giggled helplessly at her unskilled work. Both of them had color high on their cheeks. Their shoulders touched. More tellingly, Nabeela had one of her ankles casually draped over their apprentice’s feet.
“I told you I wasn’t good at this, Piyari,” Nabeela laughed.
“Piyari?” Ammad asked before he could control himself. “You nicknamed her ‘Piyari’?”
“Ammad!” Nabeela exclaimed as she thrust the bits of fabric into their apprentice’s hands.
“Piyari?” Ammad repeated just to watch Nabeela’s face go violently, vividly red.
‘Piyari’ blinked at him with such obvious confusion that she couldn’t know what the nickname meant. “What? Is there something wrong with that nickname?”
“No, not at all,” Ammad laughed while Nabeela groaned. “It’s quite appropriate to you. Just says a lot about my sister that she chose it for you.”
He came over, picking up one of the cushions as he went, so that he could sit on Nabeela’s other side and peer at the twisted mass of fabric scraps in Piyari’s lap. Nabeela groaned and pushed against his shoulder as if trying to make him go away. Piyari, on the other hand, smiled shyly as if she welcomed his presence.
“What are you doing?” Ammad asked while ostentatiously peering around Nabeela to look at the sewing project.
“Ammad, stop that!” Nabeela started to say only to stop and glare when Ammad grinned at her. “Piyari has been trying to teach me how to make omiyage. They’re apparently little gifts people make.”
“I am afraid that she isn’t very good at needlework,” Piyari said so demurely that Ammad laughed.
“I said outright that I’m bad at it,” Nabeela said. Her glare turned positively forbidding as Ammad laughed. “Why are you here? Did something happen?”
Ammad sighed. His good mood dissolved back into exhaustion and frustration. Nabeela straightened up. Both of them looked as though they would be glad to help. That was a relief. Certainly Nabeela had done her best ever since the accident but having another person with the authority to help with their duties, Mother’s abandoned duties, would be so very nice.
It wasn’t as though Nabeela was truly trained in it. Mother had begun to teach Shahzad how to handle her responsibilities but Shahzad had been more or less useless since Mother’s death. He couldn’t blame his little brother. Mother had doted on Shahzad, her miracle baby boy that she’d been told she would never be able to have. Shahzad had been equally devoted to her, nearly as much as Father. That was unfortunate now that she was gone from their lives so abruptly but Ammad was doing his best to give Shahzad time to grieve.
“Father finally went back to bed,” Ammad said. “Shahzad’s watching over him for now. I was hoping that you could come help. We have a group of visitors that need to be handled.”
“Should I bring tea?” Piyari asked before Nabeela could do more than sigh tiredly. “I’m not sure where the kitchen is yet but I’m sure one of the servants could direct me.”
“That would help,” Nabeela said, nodding. “We should bring them some sweets, maybe some fruit, too. It’s too soon for blackberries but I think we should still have some strawberries from the latest harvest.”
“Have the servants bring wine, too,” Ammad said. He shrugged at Nabeela’s raised eyebrow. “Duke Laughing Seal and his family are the visitors. They had to stop because of the fog. Apparently someone told them about Mother’s death, too, so…”
“Right,” Nabeela said as she immediately rose. “Let’s get going then. Piyari, I’m sorry but we’ll have to leave the mess for now.”
“That’s all right,” Piyari said so readily that Ammad was relieved. “This is much more important. Besides, it will give me a chance to arrange everything to my liking when I get back tonight.”
Ammad smiled at her as he stood, too. He led the way out of the apprentice quarters, heading straight for the kitchen so that Piyari would know where it was in relation to her quarters. It wasn’t far, up the hallway and then off to the left towards the kitchen garden that Ouchi and Kosuke spent so much time on. Of course, the kitchen was a hive of activity, full of servants scurrying about as they prepared for the surprise formal dinner that would have to be put on for Duke Laughing Seal and his wife. At least the Duke’s retinue could be given less elaborate meals. None of them were ready for a full formal dinner at this point.
Every single person there stared as Piyari slipped into the room behind Ammad and Nabeela. Ammad could see them speculating as to what sort of person she was, how she would treat them. Her visibly demure carriage calmed everyone.
It was oddly like seeing Mother return from the grave. She’d always had that effect on people despite being prone to giving orders and bossing people around, demurely of course. He let Nabeela introduce Piyari, as ‘Piyari’, much to everyone else’s amusement and Piyari’s confusion, while he chose a rich blackberry wine from their stock that hopefully would please Lord Diving Seal.
“Oh, not that one,” Piyari said as she helped gather glasses and plates to serve the wine. “Blackberry?”
“Ah, yes?” Ammad said, staring at her.
“Their Majesties told me that I’d probably meet him eventually,” Piyari said quietly, her cheeks going redder and redder as he stared. “Her Majesty made a point of telling me that the Duchess can’t stand blackberry wine. She thinks it’s too sweet. Cider would be better. Maybe mulled with spices? It would be very warm after the chill of sailing through fog all day.”
“That’s an excellent idea,” Ammad said, nodding to the chef to go ahead and do that. “Takes a little bit longer but it’s worth it.”
“Not much longer,” called Kosuke, the chef. “I already have some on for dinner. I can brew more for later if we use this now.”
“Use it,” Ammad ordered. “Any other good ideas, Piyari?”
She blushed and ducked her head so that her face was hidden behind her lovely hair for a moment. “Ah, maybe some bread to go with the fruit? It would be more filling but they might enjoy it. I… imagine that a little more time to prepare dinner for the Duke might be welcome.”
“Another good idea because you’re quite right, more time is very good,” Nabeela said as Ammad nodded his agreement. “Doing that now. Ammad, go tell them that we’ll be there shortly with refreshments. Piyari, go with him for the moment. Someone should have warmed some blankets for them so that they don’t have to hover by the fire.”
“Yes, Mistress,” Piyari said.
She turned to smile trusting up at Ammad. His heart lurched at having anyone, especially someone so attractive, look at him that way. Ammad wasn’t used to such trust. Most everyone compared him to Father and generally seemed to find him lacking by comparison. There was no such lack showing in Piyari’s eyes, only trust, belief and a warm dedication that soothed the aching spot in his heart where Mother had been.
He put a hand on the counter next to him to steady himself as his breath caught on a rush of emotion that tasted of tears and loss. Maybe he really should ask Father to assign Piyari to Nabeela. Ammad wasn’t entirely certain that he was strong enough to interact with her without resorting to blatant, completely inappropriate, seduction. She certainly didn’t deserve being used as a method to deal with his grief.
“This way,” Ammad said.
Piyari looked over her shoulder at Nabeela before following Ammad towards Ouchi’s little bastion of orderly supplies. Nabeela smiled and waved for her to go. That appeared to be all that Piyari needed because she hurried after Ammad without commenting or asking questions.
“Was there anything you needed to know?” Ammad asked. “I’m used to the apprentices having a thousand questions when they arrive.”
“I’d like to know what ‘Piyari’ means,” Piyari said, her eyes sparking with amusement, “but other than that I’m all right. I do think I need to learn Urdu but that will happen as I settle in.”
Ammad laughed and shook his head no. “I think I’ll let Nabeela answer that question. She should have the joy of explaining it.” He grinned as Piyari frowned at him. The nickname truly did suit her moon-shaped face, gorgeous hair and beautiful dark eyes. That hair alone was enough to seduce a man. “It’s a compliment. Make sure to ask her to explain when I’m around so that I can watch her face.”
Piyari broke into giggles that she hid behind upraised hands but she nodded. When they got to the storeroom Ouchi already had a big stack of blankets that had been warmed by his little cook stove. He smiled at Piyari who bowed before smiling back. Together they wrapped the blankets in a huge carrying cloth embroidered with fan designs. Piyari took special care on how it was tied rather to Ammad’s confusion.
“It should look good,” Piyari said primly when she noticed Ammad staring. “The Duke and his wife are very important, yes?”
“Ah, yes,” Ammad said, laughing. “Duke Laughing Seal is the fourth most important person in Ambermarle. He controls a huge territory further south and protects the shipping lanes through the sound.”
“Then it should look good,” Piyari said with a firm nod that made Ouchi beam so wide that gap in his teeth on one side from his decades-ago brawling showed. “Perhaps a hot brick or two? If Lord Bilal will be there he should be kept warm.”
“Yes,” Ammad said, wagging a finger at Ouchi as he nodded too. “Very good idea! He might even let you if you make a point of doing the same for Duchess Chin-Sun. She’s tiny, very thin, and gets chilled easily.”
Piyari and Ouchi tucked two hot bricks elaborately wrapped in old blue carrying clothes into the bundle of blankets. To Ammad’s surprise, Piyari picked it up as if the bundle was hand-sized rather than twice the size of her entire torso. She blinked patiently up at him, ignoring Ouchi’s quiet laughter, until Ammad turned and headed through the halls to the room where the Duke’s party had been settled.
“They did bring quite a few people with them,” Ammad said as they passed servants hurrying to and fro to deal with the Duke’s needs. “I believe most of them are staff working to take care of the Duke and Duchess. You probably won’t have much to do other than pass things out and take trays back to the kitchen.”
“That’s fine,” Piyari said so happily that he raised an eyebrow at her. “It is fine. I like taking care of people. This is another way to do so.”
The blue sitting room was towards the outer part of the manor near the front entrance, meaning that it got a great deal more wind that the rest of the building. It was cool despite the fire burning in the fireplace. Ammad noted that the Duke and Duchess had clustered near the fireplace, Duke Laughing Seal standing while Duchess Chin-Sun sat on the closest couch with her delicate hands held out to the fire. Father was still securely sitting on the couch closest to the door while the Duke’s apprentices had curled up on the far side of the room, arms wrapped around each other as if they were lovers.
Ammad held the door open for Piyari only to get a polite bow followed by a fierce glare that he’d dared to imply that she should enter the room first. He nodded a quick apology to her and stepped into the room to bow properly to the Duke and Duchess.
Apparently the little interaction had been noticed because Duke Laughing Seal’s eyes wrinkled at the corners as he tried not to grin at Ammad for the minor mistake. He nodded approvingly to Piyari who bowed deeply despite the bundle of blankets and bricks in her arms. Duchess Chin-Sun barely even looked up, rubbing her hands together in front of the fire as if she was freezing.
She probably was. Chin-Sun was even shorter than Piyari and far more slender. Despite being Father’s age, she looked as thin as a pre-teen girl. Her voluminous hanbok, while richly embroidered, couldn’t do much to warm her. Piyari took one look at her before shaking her head in dismay.
“If it please you,” Piyari announced formally with a long slow bow, “there are warmed blankets and hot bricks.”
“Oh yes, please!” Duchess Chin-Sun exclaimed, finally turning away from the fire to smile at Ammad and Piyari. “That would be perfect.”
Her smile made her look as young as Piyari, younger even, despite the wrinkles at the corners of her eyes and mouth. Piyari smiled back before giving them another deep bow. She knelt in front of the Duke and Duchess to ceremoniously untie the huge furoshiki holding the blankets and bricks together. It was done with enough ceremony that Father raised an eyebrow at Ammad. All he could do was shrug. He certainly hadn’t told Piyari to do it. It was too much like what Mother would have done for Ammad’s aching heart.
Nonetheless, it seemed to meet with both the Duke and Duchess’ approval. Duke Laughing Seal’s lips twitched as if he was about to break into laughter like his namesake. Duchess Chin-Sun happily settled back onto the cushions closest to the fire and allowed Piyari to put the furoshiki-wrapped brick under her feet. They carefully arranged the blanket so that Chin-Sun was all but cocooned in it.
Duke Laughing Seal did start laughing as Piyari stood, her jaw firm and eyes steely, the second brick and another blanket in her arms as she advanced on Father. Ammad hid a grin behind an upraised hand as Father groaned and rubbed his ribs. Even so, Father’s eyes looked amused instead of hollow for the first time in a month.
“You need to stay warm too, Master,” Piyari announced as she knelt with the brick in her hands. “May I please?”
“All right, all right, little one,” Father said. He glared at Lord Laughing Seal as the quiet laughter turned into hoots of amusement. “It’s not that funny, Your Grace.”
“No, it is,” Duke Laughing Seal snickered. “It is. Good one you have there.”
Piyari blushed brilliantly at the praise, ducking her head to hide behind that beautiful hair. She didn’t stop carefully arranging the blanket over Father so that he would stay warm and comfortable. She also didn’t reply, as was appropriate for an apprentice. Ammad nodded slightly as he licked his lips and stayed out of the way.
The long fall of hair across her back brushed over that full rear end, tempting Ammad as little had since Mother’s death. He allowed himself a moment of idle speculation of what it would be like to have Piyari by his side in the same way Mother had worked with Father. It was fruitless, pointless.
Ammad had barely interacted with Piyari and truthfully the attraction was purely physical at this point. Without a great deal more time and interaction there was nothing to say whether they could be together. That didn’t make the thought any less tempting. Perhaps he would ask Father to assign Piyari to Nabeela. It would be… safer that way. Safer for her and certainly safer for his aching heart.
Find this Story:
On Amazon $5.99 ebook
On Smashwords $5.99 ebook
On CreateSpace $14.99 5″ x 8″ TPB
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!