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
Nabeela swallowed down the taste of rhubarb and strawberries, her mouth so dry that it felt like eating sand. Piyari squirmed until she was comfortably pressed against Nabeela’s side, arms wrapped snugly around Nabeela’s back. All the arousal that Nabeela had managed to push down while creating the fruit plates in the kitchen surged back up. She could feel Piyari’s small, firm breasts pressing against her side, the warm swell of her hip and thigh. The scent of hinoki oil gently wafted up from Piyari’s hair.
She wasn’t at all sure if the apprentices’ decision that it was time for cuddles was a good or a bad thing. Certainly, Father was amused, watching Ammad struggle to figure out where to put his hands on the shorter male apprentice. That was a huge improvement from the heart-struck look he’d had after Duchess Chin-Sun’s awkward question.
Her heart felt as though it was going to burst through her chest with every too-forceful beat. Piyari was soft and gentle, settling into Nabeela’s embrace with a contented sigh that nearly prompted coos out of Nabeela. It was as if Piyari had ached to be held. Nabeela knew better than to ask about Piyari’s life prior to becoming an apprentice; that wasn’t allowed, wasn’t safe for the apprentices. So, for all she knew Piyari might be touch deprived.
It was an excuse and Nabeela knew it. Holding Piyari felt good. She wanted to keep doing it. Possibly forever, though that wasn’t likely to happen.
“When will dinner be served?” Duchess Chin-Sun asked with an expression that suggested she desperately hoped that this conversational gambit didn’t blow up in her face as the previous ones had.
“Soon,” Nabeela said. “Shahzad has sent his apologies already. He has other duties which will prevent him from attending tonight.”
“The servants said in about half an hour, Your Grace,” Piyari agreed.
“Oh good,” Duchess Chin-Sun sighed. She tugged the taller apprentice up so that he could cuddle on her husband’s lap.
They both laughed at that but Duke Laughing Seal didn’t look at all upset to have the young man there. To Nabeela’s amusement, the apprentice draped his feet across Duchess Chin-Sun’s lap. She grinned and tickled the arch of his foot, laughing when he jerked his feet back.
“Cheeky boy,” Duchess Chin-Sun said fondly.
“That’s what you like, Mistress,” the apprentice said so proudly that Nabeela nearly laughed out loud. “We all know it’s the best way to get your attention.”
“Too true,” Duke Laughing Seal agreed. He grinned and pretended to duck behind the apprentice when Duchess Chin-Sun glared at him. “That was how I proposed to you, after all.”
“No,” Nabeela breathed, staring at the two of them while hugging Piyari who had started quietly giggling. “You didn’t put your feet in her lap.”
“Not exactly.” Duchess Chin-Sun rolled her eyes at Duke Laughing Seal’s bray of laughter.
The smile she leveled on Duke Laughing Seal was equal parts amused and stern. Father straightened up a little bit as if he was as curious as Nabeela. Ammad, on the other hand, leaned back into Father’s legs as if he was waiting for the story to be told. His apprentice grinned and squirmed until he was comfortable in Ammad’s embrace.
Piyari snuggled closer still, resting her head ever so carefully against Nabeela’s shoulder. Nabeela shivered. Her fingers clutched Piyari’s waist for a moment, just until Nabeela got herself under control again. The convulsive hug made Piyari laugh, just the barest breath of sound, against Nabeela’s neck. Cold shivers raced down Nabeela’s spine as Duchess Chin-Sun continued.
“He’d made it clear to my family that he was interested,” Duchess Chin-Sun explained. “We all thought that it was a political match. My family is quite powerful, shipping up and down the coast. I have two other sisters, as well, very lovely twins. I was quite convinced that he wanted one of them.”
“Completely missed all the flirting I did,” Duke Laughing Seal sighed even though his lips were twitching as he fought a huge grin. “Really, it was appalling. I’d bring her these huge salmon, kings longer than I was tall, and she’d just smile, bow and have them taken to the kitchen to be cooked.”
“Then he brought me a sturgeon,” Duchess Chin-Sun said, shaking her head with dismay. “It was bigger than his canoe. They had to tie it to the side of the canoe and sail that way. Six of his best warriors in full regalia, all of them standing there impassive but proud with the sturgeon.”
“She said that her sisters would be delighted by it,” Duke Laughing Seal groaned. “They invited us in, had a huge party. Her parents knew who I was interested in so they kept pushing us together only to have her slip away at the last second with comments about her sisters being interested in whatever I was saying. Eventually I gave up being subtle. I waited until she sat down with some of the sturgeon and some elk kahari and then I sat down and put my head in her lap.”
“Almost spilled the food on his head,” Duchess Chin-Sun confided to Nabeela and Piyari. “He did end up with a drop of kahari staining his braids right by the temple.”
Nabeela’s efforts not to laugh collapsed as Piyari’s nearly silent giggles turned into high-pitched laughter that she attempted, and failed, to muffle against Nabeela’s shoulder. Ammad spluttered and broke into belly laughs. Father grinned, sucking air in and holding it as he fought not to laugh or cough. Nabeela’s laughter was nearly as loud as Ammad’s but she thought that could be excused. Every time Piyari peeked at the Duke and Duchess she started giggling again and that set them off all over again.
Fortunately for Nabeela’s nerves, it also seemed to finally have broken the ice. Father relaxed. Ammad no longer looked as though he was going to come out of his skin at any moment. And both the Duke and Duchess smiled much more openly.
They chatted about the Duke’s efforts to convince Duchess Chin-Sun that yes, he actually had been courting her all along until the servants arrived to inform them that dinner was ready. Nabeela had been ready for the interruption long before the servants appeared. The feeling of Piyari, warm and soft, in her arms was so distracting that Nabeela could barely focus on the conversation in fits and starts.
It didn’t help that she could smell dinner nearing completion. Nabeela’s mostly empty stomach, legacy of too many worries about Father’s heath and too many duties to stop for lunch, insistently reminded her with rumbles and aches that she’d been neglecting to eat regularly for most of the last month.
The smell of elk nihari had seeped through the house, rich and warm, which is just what they needed. She could just smell pai as well, which was a perfect treat for people who had been traveling by sea. It was lucky that they had a fresh batch of pai given how long it took to cook.
“Dinner is ready, Your Graces, My Lord,” Noriko, Kosuke’s younger sister said while bowing deeply to them all. “If you will follow me?”
Noriko had on her formal kimono, long sleeves brushing against her ankles as she led the way from the sitting room to the dining room. Nabeela went first as the hostess with Piyari and the other apprentices on her heels. Father came more slowly, leaning on Ammad’s arm. Duke Laughing Seal and Duchess Chin-Sun went at Father’s speed, giving Nabeela a chance to make sure that the dining room was properly ready before they arrived.
Someone, probably Ouchi, had arranged folding screens along the left side of the room, shrinking it from its normal cavernous size into something much more intimate for this little dinner party. That left the room significantly warmer than normal, much to Nabeela’s relief. Four blue and white porcelain hibachi with tiny coal fires burned in the corners of the room, supplying welcome warmth that inevitably bled out through the large serving window that led to the kitchen.
Nabeela waved the servants to put the thickest floor cushions on the opposite side of the room from the serving window. That should ensure that Duchess Chin-Sun stayed warm. Piyari immediately put one of the hibachi next to the Duchess’ seat, blushing at the smile of approval she got from Nabeela and the other apprentices.
The room could be grander, with the best rugs hung on the wall and one of the fine silk comforters draped over the table instead of there being no comforter at all but the servants had done very well in the limited time they’d had available. The middle-sized table was already loaded with huge plates of food. Nabeela didn’t ask if they’d packed away the small and large table tops properly. She’d do that once everyone had gone to bed.
“Please, do come in,” Nabeela said as the others arrived at a slow stroll that seemed to have spared Father’s ribs and breathing.
“Oh, it’s so warm,” Duchess Chin-Sun exclaimed, patting her hands together with delight.
Nabeela grinned, directing Duchess Chin-Sun and Duke Laughing Seal to their seats at the head of the table. Duchess Chin-Sun crooned as Nabeela tucked a new hot brick, carefully wrapped in a lovely furoshiki embroidered with bamboo, under her feet. A small lap-sized quilt made of silk scraps pieced into a lovely mountain landscape covered her lap, ensuring that she stayed warm.
As Nabeela took care of the Duke and Duchess, Piyari saw that Father was seated next to the Duke with extra cushions to support his back. He patted Piyari’s hand and shooed her off, but it was kind and Piyari stared at him for long enough that Ammad hid a smile behind an upraised hand. Only after Piyari decided that Father was comfortably seated did she move to the serving window with the other apprentices.
Piyari and the other apprentices began ferrying in plates and bowls for everyone to use with the platters of food that the servants brought in. Nabeela directed the servants to place the platters, took over serving rice and bread to everyone, all while making sure that the apprentices were careful while serving up blackberry wine or spiced cider to drink.
Only once everyone had full plates and glasses did Nabeela nod to the servants that they could leave. They all filed out, Noriko last, bowing as she slid the door and serving window shut, leaving Piyari and the apprentices to tend to the dinner guests. Once they were alone, Nabeela finally took her place at the table so that the meal could begin properly.
Her stomach’s grumbles were gone into a faintly queasy mass of nerves that Nabeela wouldn’t have credited if Mother hadn’t told her that she was always a wreck by the time she got to sit down to eat. When she’d helped Mother serve before Nabeela had enjoyed it. There was an art to making sure everyone had the right food, the correct amounts, the best arrangement on the plate. This was the first time she’d been solely responsible, though, and the difference was stark.
Nabeela murmured a quick prayer of thanksgiving that she seemed to have handled it well as Ammad bowed his head and Father simply closed his eyes. Duke Laughing Seal nodded his approval and grunted as he started eating. If he said a prayer it was completely silent, not that it was Nabeela’s place to chide him for lack of thanksgiving.
Duchess Chin-Sun grinned at Piyari before saying bright and loud “Itadakimasu!”
“Dozo,” Piyari said, grinning back and bowing as she went to get extra napkins that had been pushed through the serving window just before it was closed.
It was fairly obvious that Piyari had been trained in how to serve everyone but she didn’t recognize any of the food. Nabeela did her best to ignore Piyari’s confused expression when Father asked for a bit more nihari and Piyari didn’t know what to give him. The other apprentices pointed it out to her with little gestures and significant looks so Nabeela wasn’t required to scold or educate Piyari.
Which didn’t mean that she wouldn’t need to take some time after dinner to tell Piyari what everything was. Maybe she should have Piyari work with Kosuke for a bit so that she’d learn exactly what everything was. The dinner conversation was innocuous discussions of when Father or Duke Laughing Seal had eaten similar meals. Nabeela let their words flow over her head as she monitored everyone’s plates, Piyari’s performance and Duchess Chin-Sun’s amused approval for Piyari’s work.
“She’s quite good,” Duchess Chin-Sun murmured as her husband launched into a dramatic retelling of how he’d caught the sturgeon for Father and Ammad, using one of his spoons as the canoe and a shish kebab of mingled early tomato and grilled halibut as the sturgeon.
“Their Majesties did a good job training her, yes,” Nabeela agreed equally quietly.
“And quite cute,” Duchess Chin-Sun said, dimpling at Nabeela as she blushed.
Nabeela’s stomach clenched at the teasing. She’d never been very good at this sort of thing. The sometimes catty, sometimes gentle, teasing that mother had exchanged with their female guests had always confused Nabeela. One liked a person or not. If one liked them then one made it clear. If not, then one considered the relative ranks of the person and kept quiet unless one was higher ranked. The teasing that went along with the social niceties of her position was more about establishing how the power behind the scenes was going to flow rather than direct determination of who was more powerful and how well liked they were.
It didn’t make sense.
It never had and Nabeela suspected that it never would. She glanced over at Ammad but he was fully involved with Duke Laughing Seal’s story. Father noticed the glance but didn’t look away from Duke Laughing Seal’s face. Neither of the other apprentices seemed to see anything going on between Nabeela and Duchess Chin-Sun though they were almost certainly completely aware of it.
And Piyari’s cheeks were so red that she looked like she’d had strawberries smashed against her face.
“Very lovely,” Nabeela agreed because really, she had to say something. It came out strangled and strange. Her fingers ached where she gripped her spoon.
“I like the nickname,” Duchess Chin-Sun said so slyly and with such an obviously approving expression that Nabeela felt justified in huffing at her and lightly swatting her elbow with her napkin. “It suits her. She is quite lovely, after all. I don’t blame you for choosing that as her nickname.”
Piyari ducked her face so that lovely long hair hid her expression entirely. Nabeela bit back a groan and ate a big bite of pai specifically so that she would be too busy chewing to say anything she might regret.
The nickname had seemed quite innocent before other people learned it. Now it seemed like another thing entirely. As much as Nabeela liked Piyari, she was here to learn, not for courtship. Tempting though that prospect was after cuddling with Piyari before dinner. Duchess Chin-Sun’s giggles didn’t help Nabeela’s blush or Piyari’s embarrassment.
“You stop that,” Nabeela huffed at her. “You’re embarrassing Piyari.”
“Embarrassment was not the goal,” Duchess Chin-Sun replied loftily. “Proper communication might eliminate some or all of the embarrassment.”
She sipped her cider and arched one eyebrow challengingly enough that Nabeela nearly dropped her food into her lap. Piyari had apparently been watching through her veil of hair because she dove forward, catching the plate before Nabeela’s favorite outfit got ruined.
That left Nabeela with Piyari half draped over her. Her face was pressed against Nabeela’s cheek. Worse, her breasts, small and firm, pressed against Nabeela’s back. Nabeela took a deep breath and put her hands on the plate despite the way Father, Ammad and Duke Laughing Seal stared at them, and then pushed the plate firmly back onto the table.
“My dear,” Duke Laughing Seal said so mildly that Nabeela felt Piyari whimper against her cheek, “are you teasing again?”
“Tease?” Duchess Chin-Sun replied with such an exaggeratedly innocent expression that their apprentices started snickering loudly. “My darling, why ever would you say such a thing?”
Ammad coughed to try to hide his wide grin. Father bent his head and pressed his hands against his ribs as he fought with laughter. No surprise, Piyari whimpered rather more loudly as she pulled back. The loss of her warmth against Nabeela’s back made her realize that maybe Duchess Chin-Sun’s teasing had more importance than Nabeela would normally want to admit.
“She was giving me advice,” Nabeela said firmly enough that all eyes in the room landed on her. She straightened her shoulders and raised her chin slightly, trying for a confident smile. “Good advice, I think. I may follow up on it after dinner.”
“Good,” Duchess Chin-Sun said as their dessert of halwa flavored with strawberries and rhubarb was pushed through the serving window that immediately shut again. “I’m always happy when my advice is taken seriously.”
“Now you are teasing,” Nabeela said.
“Oh, maybe a little bit,” Duchess Chin-Sun said and laughed.
The conversation at the table resumed, Duchess Chin-Sun turning her attention to her husband’s story now. Nabeela sighed. She couldn’t help but be acutely aware of Piyari’s still red cheeks and the way her fingers shook as she helped served the halwa. The Duchess was right. Something did need to be said. Honestly, Nabeela probably should have told Piyari what the nickname meant before she told anyone else about it.
After dinner, as their guests went to their rooms, Nabeela would explain. Adding the explanation into descriptions of what dinner had been would be good. Then she could downplay it a bit and make it seem less important than it really was.
Because Nabeela already knew, after just a few hours around Piyari, that the last thing she wanted was to upset their new apprentice so much that she chose to work with Ammad rather than Nabeela.
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