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
Shizuka did her very best to ignore Ammad’s awkward attention as she took the last two blankets over to two apprentices that belonged with Duke Laughing Seal. She was intensely grateful for something to do. In her entire life she’d never even seen someone as powerful as the Duke and Duchess. Her little village was far too out of the way for that sort of visit. Even their Lord only visited once every year or two.
The other apprentices were both male, a couple of years older than Shizuka and clearly native. They sat with their arms wrapped around one another in such a way that Shizuka was certain that they were lovers. The taller boy had curled up so that his back pressed against the shorter one’s chest. They both looked perfectly comfortable with the awkward position, fingers laced together on top of the taller one’s belly.
Neither had tattoos or any identification that would tell her what tribe they came from. Given that Duke Laughing Seal was Suquamish she would have thought that they were as well but she knew that their Majesties never settled apprentices with their own tribes. It worked better to move them around, send them places where they weren’t known, where there was no history that could trip them up.
That’s why Shizuka had ended up in Breding Manor. The boys must have had the same thing happen to them. She didn’t recognize either of them as she passed them the warm blankets but they smiled and nodded to her. All three of them started as the door opened and Nabeela carefully entered with a heavy tray loaded down with glasses and a steaming porcelain pot of spiced cider.
“We can help,” the taller boy murmured.
“Oh, no,” Shizuka murmured back, waving for them to stay seated. “It’s fine. I can take care of it. You get warm.”
Something to do was very welcome. Her knees kept shaking, as did her hands. Shizuka hurried over and took the tray from Nabeela who smiled so brightly in thanks that it made Shizuka’s knees knock together for a moment. Another new thing that she wasn’t prepared for; no one had ever flirted with her before. Her sisters had always been the ones to get attention from suitors, not Shizuka.
Shizuka made a point of treating the cider as ceremoniously as possible simply because ceremony helped calm her nerves. It was apparently a good choice. Nabeela hummed approvingly behind Shizuka’s back as she carefully filled glasses for the Duke and Duchess. Duke Laughing Seal’s lips twitched again as if another round of laughter was fighting to escape. Duchess Chin-Sun smiled and nodded so approvingly that Shizuka bowed as she extended the cup of cider.
“Spiced cider, Your Grace,” Shizuka said as she held the cup out, one hand supporting it, the other gripping it properly.
“Thank you!” Duchess Chin-Sun exclaimed. She cooed as she cradled the cup to her chest, carefully sipping the hot cider. “That’s wonderful, dear.”
“An interesting choice,” Duke Laughing Seal commented to Ammad.
“Piyari thought that something warm would be well received,” Ammad said. “Nabeela and I agreed with her.”
Shizuka froze in the middle of offering the second cup of cider to Duke Laughing Seal. Her face went hot as she blushed violently. Bad enough to have Ammad and Nabeela focusing so much on her. Did he have to make her the focus of attention? She’d only just arrived and she hadn’t even had a single day’s worth of training yet. Even as an apprentice in training Shizuka simply didn’t have the rank to be the focus of attention at a meeting of this sort, especially with people as important as the Duke and Duchess.
Ammad grinned at her and made a little shooing gesture for her to continue serving. When Shizuka looked appealingly to Nabeela, she laughed quietly and shrugged.
It’s lovely,” Duchess Chin-Sun declared. “I was very cold and this helps more than almost anything.”
“Agreed,” Duke Laughing Seal said.
He took a glass from Shizuka, freeing her to make the rounds of the room. This time she made a point of going next to Lord Bilal and then to Ammad and Nabeela, before going to the apprentices curled up on the far side of the room. Rank did have to be observed even if this looked like a supremely casual gathering, far more casual than she would have expected with such important guests.
It was a relief to offer the cider to the other apprentices. At least Shizuka knew that they wouldn’t judge her. They were all in the same position, all from similar backgrounds. Just like Shizuka, something horrible had gone wrong in their lives and they’d taken the drastic step of starting a new life in the hopes of bringing prosperity back to their branches of their families.
Behind her, Duke Laughing Seal sipped so noisily that he must have decided that using Japanese manners were appropriate. It made Duchess Chin-Sun giggle so maybe it was more a matter of amusing his wife than anything else. Shizuka didn’t know. What she did know was that both Nabeela and Ammad had their eyes firmly on her no matter where she went in the room. Every time Shizuka looked in their direction, both siblings stared at her.
Nabeela’s expression suggested delight, joy, approval. Ammad’s tended more towards covert grief and more obvious lust. Shizuka shivered. She could be assigned to Ammad. Lord Bilal might decide that it was appropriate. She rather doubted that it would happen given Lord Bilal’s strict religious beliefs but it could.
Shizuka wasn’t at all sure what she’d do if Ammad did decide to seduce her. He seemed intelligent, kind, hard-working, exactly the sort of man she would want to marry. But in the deepest part of her heart Shizuka found his lack of laughter and joy off-putting. Nabeela had the personality to draw Shizuka in like a moth to the flame, for all that she didn’t seem serious about her flirting.
Not that it mattered. Shizuka was here to learn new skills, not to seduce Lord Bilal’s children.
“You’re popular,” the taller of the two apprentices murmured under the renewed conversation between Lord Bilal and Duke Laughing Seal.
“I wish I knew why,” Shizuka sighed.
“You’re beautiful,” the taller apprentice said with a big grin that he partially hid behind the mug of cider. “What other reason do they need?”
Shizuka jerked and stared at him in shock. She couldn’t remember anyone ever calling her beautiful before. Her sisters were described as beautiful, often, but the best Shizuka had ever gotten was ‘quite pretty’ and ‘sweet natured despite her personality’. If anything, Shizuka was the plain one in the family. Everyone exclaimed over Keiko’s looks. Boys came from three villages away to court Haruka despite her age.
“No,” Shizuka hissed at him.
“Yes,” he whispered back, motioning for her to get back to work. “Just watch them. I think they’re both interested in you.”
Shizuka nodded as she passed over the second mug of cider but she didn’t look at Ammad and Nabeela. Her cheeks were entirely too red for that. Fortunately for her, the lovely little pot was virtually empty so Shizuka could go collect empty mugs from everyone. Proper manners dictated lots of bowing and not meeting their eyes so Shizuka did that, gladly.
The conversation flowed over her head. Nabeela had settled next to Duchess Chin-Sun. They were discussing the weather and how the trip had been so far. Shizuka couldn’t help but feel bad for Duchess Chin-Sun. Apparently the waves around the islands had been so large that she’d spent most of the early part of the trip throwing up only to sail straight into frigid fog today.
Lord Bilal, Ammad and Duke Laughing Seal were talking about a treaty with Chartea that they all felt was a bad idea. She wasn’t sure why but it apparently had something to do with Chartea’s endless wars with the nations further inland and horse breeds that were highly prized. By the time she’d gathered all the mugs, including the ones she’d given to the two apprentices, their discussion had moved on to a potential marriage between Countess Dancing Otter and her life-long friend Sunlight on Water.
The entire nation gossiped about the countess’ infatuation with Sunlight on Water. Every time a visitor came to her home village one of the first things people asked about was news of the Countess’ love affair. The sheer scandal of it all had been one of the biggest topics of discussion at Court while Shizuka received her preliminary training.
Her Majesty had explained the situation to all of the trainees one evening over specially imported English tea that Shizuka had found quite nasty and truly delicious pastries for which the cook wouldn’t share the recipe. The trainee quarters at the palace were far larger than the apprentice quarters here at Breding Manor but much less individual, less welcoming. Shizuka had felt small and unimportant as she nibbled her pastry and tried not to throw the tea away out of hand.
“The problem,” her Majesty had said slowly, thoughtfully, as she curled into the hammock she’d claimed, “is the sheer difference between their classes. Countess Dancing Otter is from a very old line, very rich and powerful. Sunlight on Water, while a very personable and intelligent young woman, has absolutely no noble blood. It’s been checked many times.”
“Could it be… worked around?” Shizuka had asked as everyone else had only nodded and looked serious.
“Perhaps,” her Majesty had replied with an approving smile for Shizuka’s boldness that made her cheeks warm and her heart flutter. “If Sunlight on Water were to serve in the Countess’ household, work in some capacity, it would help. Several years of that would be of assistance. It would be better if several of her family members went into service but none of them will do so. Even Sunlight on Water refuses to do so, preferring to continue her work as an artisan rather than easing things for her lover.”
Shizuka shook her head at that, just as she had at the time. Truly, any talk of a marriage was improper without Countess Dancing Otter or Sunlight on Water making allowances for their respective classes. It sounded as though Duke Laughing Seal thought that Sunlight on Water would be summarily granted a position of very minor nobility without having earned it.
Lord Bilal’s disapproving headshake mirrored Shizuka’s disapproval. Everything about that was improper, from start to finish. The other two apprentices looked offended when she collected their cups. It felt like a slap in the face for Shizuka’s efforts as an apprentice, to every apprentice’s efforts to improve themselves. Honestly, Shizuka thought the sheer idea stank of nepotism of the worst sort.
She slipped out of the room and hurried to the kitchen. It wasn’t her place to comment on the idea, just as it wasn’t her place to enter into the discussion at all. Tending to everyone’s needs came first. Everything else would have to wait. Shizuka found it hard to let her upset at the gossip go, though, as she deposited the cups in the sink for one of the kitchen girls to wash.
“Frowning,” Kosuke commented in Japanese as Shizuka turned to him. “Problems up there?”
“Gossip, just… gossip,” Shizuka sighed as she corrected her expression to a more neutral one. “I apologize. Fruit and bread ready to serve, yes?”
“Yes, indeed,” Kosuke said, switching to common tongue with a grin of pride. “Individual plates, too. Off you go.”
“Hai!” Shizuka said, singing the word just to make Kosuke grin.
He laughed and waved for her to hurry with his cooking tongs. The plates were indeed quite beautiful. Each of them was the size of Shizuka’s palm. Kosuke had put a small bit of flat bread on each plate and then covered the bread with a nice layer of smoked salmon paste. Sliced fruit had been arranged on top of that, strawberries and sprigs of mint mixed with paper thin slices of rhubarb.
The rhubarb had to honor Duchess Chin-Sun. Her family was well known for growing and selling large quantities of rhubarb in all forms. Personally, Shizuka had never learned to like the bitter stalks but some people did adore it. Besides, it went well with the sweetness of strawberries and the saltiness of the smoked salmon paste.
By the time she got back to the drawing room, Ammad had settled down next to his father on a cushion set on the floor. Nabeela’s head came up so sharply when Shizuka came in that it was impossible to miss the interest and attraction in her eyes. Ammad studiously didn’t look at her but his hand moved not quite casually to cover his groin as if afraid that he might get an erection.
“If it please you,” Shizuka said, inwardly cursing at the way her voice wobbled, “there are snacks before dinner.”
“Thank you,” Lord Bilal said with just stern enough of tone of voice that Shizuka bowed her head towards him. “Duke Laughing Seal?”
“What is it?” asked the Duke without moving from his spot next to Duchess Chin-Sun. He’d wrapped an arm around her frail shoulders while Shizuka was gone, holding her close against his side.
“The chef prepared small fruit plates for everyone, Your Grace,” Shizuka explained as she knelt in front of the Duke and Duchess. She steadfastly ignored Nabeela’s approving expression. Paying attention to Nabeela’s interest would only make her even more nervous. “Bread, salmon paste, strawberries and rhubarb.”
“They’re lovely,” Duchess Chin-Sun exclaimed. “We need a chef like that.”
“I thought you liked our chef,” Duke Laughing Seal said with a huge grin at his wife.
“She’s very talented but not artistic,” Duchess Chin-Sun said as she took her plate from Shizuka.
Neither of them paid Shizuka any attention. That was a blessing. Passing Nabeela her plate made Shizuka blush brilliantly. Properly speaking she should have gone to Lord Bilal next but the back and forth movement would have been more distracting so Shizuka adjusted the order slightly.
Lord Bilal didn’t seem upset by Nabeela being served before him, thankfully. He did frown at Shizuka as if he wasn’t entirely pleased. As he leaned back he wheezed, though, making Shizuka wonder if perhaps the visit was more than he could handle physically. Ammad had a similarly concerned expression as he took his plate from Shizuka.
“Father, do you need to rest?” Ammad asked exactly as Shizuka wanted to but didn’t dare.
“I’m fine,” Lord Bilal grumbled at him. “You should try this. It’s quite good even with the rhubarb.”
The deflection attempt was less than successful as Lord Bilal coughed. It was a wet, deep cough, the sort that sounded like it came from deep inside the chest. Shizuka paused as she passed the last fruit plate to the apprentices. Lord Bilal shook his head as the coughs continued. Shizuka stood and ran out of the room, down the hallway to where Ouchi sat in his lair like a spider at the center of his web. Ouchi started when she ran in, panting.
“Do you have something to stop Lord Bilal’s coughing fits?” Shizuka asked, breathless more from worry than from the run through the hallways.
“Ah, hai,” Ouchi said as he turned and rapidly rummaged through the shelves. “Take these. They’re hard candies, medicine, really. Go!”
“Hai!” Shizuka replied even though she was already running out of the room with the little bag of hard candies clutched in her hand.
She made it back to the drawing room very quickly but already Lord Bilal looked gray, his skin pale and sweaty as he fought against the coughing attack. Duke Laughing Seal had come over to support him on one side while Ammad supported his other side. Nabeela was carefully patting his back.
“Cough drops,” Shizuka said as she skidded to a stop in front of him.
Lord Bilal nodded and gestured with one hand for her to pass them over as he sucked in a ragged breath and then held it. He shook from the effort of stilling the coughs. When Shizuka opened the bag, she saw that they were green tea candies or perhaps peppermint, thyme and green tea candies. Either way, Lord Bilal took them gratefully. His fingers shook badly enough that Shizuka fished out one candy for him, cinching the bag shut again.
It only took a few moments of sucking on the first one for Lord Bilal’s breathing to ease and his coughs to subside to an occasional wet hack that sounded like things being ripped loose inside his chest. Duke Laughing Seal patted Shizuka’s shoulder, firm and approving as he passed her, going back to his wife who stared at Lord Bilal with a troubled frown and her lip caught between her teeth.
Ammad shuddered as he settled back down by his father’s feet, swallowing hard several times. All signs of arousal were gone, replaced by the sort of shakiness that came with the fear that you were about to lose your father, the center of your world. Nabeela smiled weakly at Shizuka, tears hovering in her eyes but not falling.
“Master, you really need to stop talking,” Shizuka said in hopefully a not too scolding tone of voice though she thought he deserved a bit of a scolding given his condition. “Guests or not, taking is bad for you right now.”
“I know,” Lord Bilal said in a raw, husky voice that made Shizuka glare even harder at him. He smiled, flapping the hand that wasn’t holding the precious little bag of candies. “Shoo. Take care of someone else, child.”
Shizuka grumbled over that, fussing with his blanket to make sure that he was warm and comfortable before going to check on Duchess Chin-Sun. She patted Shizuka’s hand reassuringly. Her fussing was at least received well by Duke Laughing Seal. He smiled approvingly at Shizuka before nodding for her to go sit with their two apprentices who smiled and moved so that there would be room for Shizuka to tuck her feet under their shared blanket.
It felt a little strange to just sit and watch but there didn’t seem to be much to do at the moment. Lord Bilal’s breathing slowly evened out as he sucked on his hard candy. Nabeela stood beside him for a long while before going to sit next to Duchess Chin-Sun once more. That seemed to be some sort of signal for conversation to resume.
“She’s quite the credit to your house,” Lord Laughing Seal commented as Shizuka settled next to the two apprentices and tucked her feet up. “You’ve done well training her.”
Lord Bilal swallowed a laugh, holding his breath against a renewed wave of coughing as he gestured for Ammad to explain. As Ammad grinned over his shoulder at Shizuka, her cheeks went blazingly red. It was bad enough that the other apprentices nudged her while chuckling very quietly.
“This is actually her first day,” Ammad explained. “She’s only been here a couple of hours. The roads were bad enough that she arrived late.”
“Really?” Duke Laughing Seal asked. He stared at Shizuka who bowed and nodded while fighting the urge to hide her face in her hands. “Well, then, you’re a credit to your family, child. I suspect that you’ll do quite well no matter what trade you end up studying.”
“Thank you, Your Grace,” Shizuka said in a squeaky voice that made everyone laugh at her.
“The roads are doing that poorly this year?” Duchess Chin-Sun asked. “I’d heard that the rain was very bad in your area but I didn’t think it was that destructive.”
Shizuka thought that the change of topic was intended to help her relax but if she’d been able to Shizuka would have waved Duchess Chin-Sun off that topic. Mentioning the roads and the flooding could only lead to the Lady’s death. That would inevitably kill the mood faster than anything else.
“That’s… how we lost Mother,” Nabeela said very softly and sadly. “The roads were so bad that they rode out to check on everyone. A bridge collapsed under them as they crossed.”
“Many villages are suffering from the rain and flooding,” Ammad agreed with a heavy sigh. “We’re… coping. All of us. It’s hard but we’re coping.”
Duchess Chin-Sun looked thoroughly horrified that her relatively innocent question about the weather had gone so awry. Shizuka pursed her lips before nodding at the plates in the two apprentices’ laps. Something had to change the mood in here or it would only get worse.
“Done?” Shizuka whispered as Duchess Chin-Sun hummed and waved one hand as if trying to find something to say.
“Yes,” the taller apprentice said. “Help this time?”
“At least cuddles for them,” Shizuka said, nodding.
“You get Lady Nabeela, little one,” the shorter apprentice murmured to Shizuka. “I’ll get Lord Bilal and Ammad. You get our Master and Mistress.”
The last sentence was directed to his tall lover who nodded and then stood as Lord Laughing Seal coughed awkwardly. Shizuka gathered up the apprentices’ plates, going to swiftly take the other’s plates as well. To her relief there was a servant waiting outside to gather them up. He looked a bit nervous about Lord Bilal, glancing inside and then sighing with relief that Lord Bilal wasn’t coughing.
“How long until dinner?” Shizuka whispered.
“About half an hour,” the servant whispered back. “Problems?”
“Awkwardness,” Shizuka said, grimacing because what else could she say with such little time?
Shizuka turned back and smiled to find Ammad bemusedly holding the shorter apprentice in his lap. The taller apprentice had knelt in front of Duke Laughing Seal so that he could lean into his lap and allow the Duchess to pet his hair. That, at least, gave Shizuka an idea of what she should do.
Her training at court had prepared Shizuka for the concept of giving comfort and affection to her assigned noble family. It had seemed very strange to Shizuka that she would attempt to be that close with her Master or Mistress. They, Lord Bilal, was so important and Shizuka, despite her ancestry, was just a poor girl from a small, out of the way village. It seemed horrifically forward of her to do such things.
Yet, a great many apprentices did form intimate relationships during their training, usually with the Lord himself. As such, Shizuka had been warned that she might end up being her Lord or Lady’s lover for a time, though only if Shizuka herself wished it. Having seen Lord Bilal’s family, Shizuka understood why their Majesties had assigned her here, though.
Lord Bilal’s loss was so very recent that a romance with him was entirely unlikely. His injuries and illness threatened his survival. He needed someone who could support both him and his heirs. Ammad and Nabeela both looked to Shizuka as if they were managing during this crisis but they were all bereft after the loss of Lord Bilal’s wife. Firm affection and attentive care to their needs while Shizuka was there was logical and necessary. It was something that Shizuka knew she could do even in the midst of learning a new career and settling into a new home.
Still, it felt very strange to slip onto the cushions next to Nabeela. At the same time it was very familiar. Shizuka had always hugged and held her sisters. It was nothing for her to cuddle with her father or mother in the mornings or evenings. She had grown up sleeping on the same futon with her little sisters, guests to the household, and any relatives that stopped by who spent the night. Cuddles came naturally.
Nabeela’s arm slowly wrapped around Shizuka’s shoulders, warm and strong as any man’s. It was much like holding her sisters and yet not at all. Her sisters’ breath didn’t catch when Shizuka put her head on their shoulders. They didn’t shiver at the feeling of Shizuka’s arms wrapping around their back. They certainly didn’t moan so very quietly that only Shizuka could hear it.
Nabeela did and it made Shizuka blush. It also made her smile shyly. She wasn’t sure what to make of Nabeela and Ammad’s attraction to her. Truthfully, she didn’t want to think about it right now. Shizuka was there to learn new skills and earn money that would help her family get back on their feet. A little flirtation along the way was nice but she couldn’t allow it to distract her from her duties to Lord Bilal and her family. Perhaps once she’d gotten her footing in the household she would consider allowing Nabeela or Ammad to seduce her, or seducing them herself, but for now it was too much to think about on top of everything else.
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