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 listened with half an ear as his father and Lord Laughing Seal companionably complained about taxes and tariffs on incoming shipments from the East. The majority of his attention was on Nabeela. Her attention was very firmly focused on Piyari who looked as though she was so completely flustered that she might break into tears at any moment.
He honestly wasn’t sure what he’d eaten other than it had been rich and warm. The entire dinner, Ammad had done his very best not to watch Piyari’s every move. Nabeela’s attraction to Piyari couldn’t be more obvious and he was reasonably certain that she’d ended up cuddled with Nabeela for a reason.
If he was telling the truth, Ammad found himself rather glad that she hadn’t been determined to cuddle with him. It was hard enough avoiding an erection with Piyari across the room. Having her in his lap would have been horrifically embarrassing both for him and for Piyari.
“Well,” Lord Laughing Seal said, clapping his hands and bowing his head in thanks, “I believe we’ll head off to bed. The boys will be welcome in the apprentice quarters, won’t they?”
“Of course,” Father said, nodding to Ammad to take care of that. “We have plenty of room right now as there’s only our Piyari.”
Duchess Chin-Sun giggled at the nickname, lightly poking Nabeela in the side with one finger. Of course Nabeela swatted at her hand with her napkin, prompting Duchess Chin-Sun to laugh out loud. Both Father and Duke Laughing Sun smiled at the two of them, Father so warmly that it was almost like having Father back to his old self before the accident and Mother’s death.
“My dear, would you be so kind as to show Duke Laughing Seal and Duchess Chin-Sun to their rooms?” Father asked. “I do apologize for not escorting you myself but I’m afraid that my exhaustion is catching up with me.”
“I’m surprised you didn’t fall asleep in the miso,” Duke Laughing Seal said. He snorted at Father’s sour look. “Don’t. You’re sick. You’re injured. You’re mourning. You’re allowed to bow out of social engagements. We’ll be fine. Go sleep.”
That, amazingly enough, appeared to work. Father nodded instead of protesting. He did smile a bit ruefully but given the sheer frustration he’d shown when Ammad had tried to get him to stay in bed this morning that was next to nothing. To Ammad’s surprise he even let Ammad help him stand but only for a moment.
“Good night,” Father said, nodding to Ammad and Nabeela who huffed at him. “Now, don’t be difficult, Nabeela. Show our guests to their rooms, please.”
“Yes, Father,” Nabeela said. “Sleep well.”
The way she said it was as clear of a threat as Ammad had ever heard from his sister. He pursed his lips to keep from laughing. If she didn’t hurry the Duke and Duchess to their rooms and then go tuck Father into bed he would be shocked. The other two apprentices bowed politely as Nabeela led Duke Laughing Seal and Duchess Chin-Sun away, Father slowly making his way from the room behind them.
“Ah…” Piyari said so softly and hesitantly that Ammad stared at her. She wasn’t actually looking at him. Instead she was focused on the other two apprentices who blinked at her. “I apologize. The apprentice quarters are a bit of a mess. Mistress Nabeela and I were interrupted before they could be restored to order.”
“Not a problem,” the shorter apprentice said. He waved one hand at Piyari casually enough that she seemed to calm down. “Need help getting this cleaned up?”
Piyari, of course, turned to Ammad. She had no idea of their normal procedures. Ammad shook his head no while gesturing for the three of them to follow him out of the dining room through the servants’ entrance. Unlike the entrance Father, the Duke and Duchess had taken, this was a narrow hallway along the kitchen with a long line of tables for holding their dishes. It was mostly full of servants waiting to clean up after the meal.
“Go ahead,” Ammad told Noriko who had changed out of her lovely kimono and into a much simpler indigo blue one covered with tiny reserved crosses. “Father’s off to bed. Have someone check on him through the night. I suspect that Duchess Chin-Sun will keep Nabeela for a while.”
“Yes, sir,” Noriko said. “We’ll take care of everything.”
Ammad smiled. He led the way up the hallway towards the turn that led to the apprentice quarters, trusting that Piyari and the other apprentices would follow him. The hallway was full of the smells of dinner so he wasn’t sure whether the smell of elk nihari and spiced rice were from their completed dinner or the food set aside for the apprentices to eat.
“I’m sure that you’ll have a good dinner waiting for you,” Ammad said. “If things were more settled I’m sure that Nabeela would have ensured that you were fed first. Mo-Mother always insisted that those serving food eat before they began working. She ah, thought it was cruel otherwise. Nabeela’s always agreed with her on that point.”
The stumble on ‘Mother’ was entirely due to the pain of realizing that no, Mother wasn’t there. She would never be there again. No more lectures on the proper manners when greeting visiting nobility. No quiet conversations as Ammad tried to figure out how to handle this legal issue or that judgment. The ache of that loss still surprised him. He wasn’t sure that it would ever go away.
“Thank you, Master,” Piyari murmured, her voice high and sweet, gentle with the sort of understanding that still brought tears to Ammad’s eyes.
The other apprentices echoed her thanks, voices deeper but still sincere enough to stab Ammad through the heart. He brushed the hovering tears away, sighing. Someday. He’d be able to cope with Mother’s loss someday. Hopefully by the time Father was back to normal, and he would get back to normal, Ammad wouldn’t allow anything else to happen. Hopefully by then he’d have the pain under control so that he could help Father move on.
When they walked into the apprentice quarters it was to Kosuke and one of his assistants grumbling, as they arranged the apprentices’ dinner on their little table, about the mess of cushions and pottery spread about. Piyari squeaked and immediately ran past Ammad to clear off the table and push the cushions back into place. Ammad nodded for the other two to sit down. It took a little bit to catch Piyari’s attention as she seemed to be intent on making sure everyone else was comfortable rather than relaxing and enjoying her dinner.
“Piyari,” Ammad finally said just loudly enough to ensure that she heard him. She started and turned to stare at him with dark eyes wide. “A moment?”
“Hai!” Piyari said, bowing quickly and then following him over to the entrance to the elegant little bathroom where they could pretend that they had some measure of privacy.
She gazed up at him solemnly enough that his heart skipped a beat. It amazed him that such a beautiful young woman would have found herself in this situation. Piyari seemed like the sort to have had a dozen suitors kneeling at her feet at first glance but the more time he spent around her the more Ammad realized that she was the exact opposite.
Piyari was kind. Gentle. Amazingly formal while still being very forthright. She clearly cared deeply about the people around her. Better for her future prospects, she looked completely serious about learning a skill that would support her family. Other than the cuddling with Nabeela, he hadn’t seen the slightest sign that she intended to use seduction as her method to a obtaining a better life. There was nothing about her that Ammad didn’t find attractive.
“I hate to scold,” Ammad said very quietly and then waved both hands at her as soothingly as he could when Piyari had clutched her hands to her chest. “No, it’s not that bad! Truly. I just wanted to make it clear that you don’t need to play hostess to the other apprentices. When we get more apprentices, yes, you will be expected to mentor them, always provided you are still here. But now, with this as your first day, they are expected to mentor you. Both of them have been apprentices for several years. You don’t need to do anything other than show them were the blankets are and where the toilet is.”
“Oh,” Piyari breathed. Her cheeks went bright red while her knuckles went white. She ducked her head so that her face disappeared behind that curtain of beautiful black hair. “I… apologize. I didn’t mean to act above my station.”
Ammad laughed ruefully. He caught Piyari’s chin with one fingertip, gently tugging so that she would meet his eyes again. Tears hung in Piyari’s eyes. The poor thing had to be exhausted from all the changes, not to mention that she had all her worries about her father’s health.
“You didn’t,” Ammad told her. “I just wanted to be sure that you understood that this is your place to relax. This is where the demands of your station are set aside. I wouldn’t want you to feel that you had to be on guard here, Piyari. The point of the apprentice quarters is that you have a place to retreat to relax.”
“Oh,” Piyari said again, this time with a shy little smile. She blinked the tears away and nodded. Her hands relaxed as she lowered them to waist height. “Master Ammad, may I ask a question?”
“Always,” Ammad said. “Questions are encouraged. Even the Duke would have been more than happy to answer any questions you had.”
Piyari shook her head no so urgently that Ammad grinned. She seemed to think that asking Duke Laughing Seal questions was the most impossible thing ever. The other apprentices had set to work putting the room to rights, taking out pillows and blankets for the night’s sleep. Kosuke waved to Ammad and nodded to Piyari as he left with his assistant. He wasn’t sure that Piyari even noticed as he waved them on their way. She was very focused on Ammad’s face.
“What does ‘Piyari’ mean?” Piyari asked so earnestly that Ammad burst out laughing.
His laughter made Piyari bite her lip and quiver so Ammad got himself under control as quickly as he could. The other apprentices smiled at the two of them, expressions amused and approving, so Ammad wasn’t worried that they’d fill Piyari’s head with nonsense. It was a rare thing to encounter a bitter or mean-spirited apprentice. Their majesties worked hard to ensure that everyone in the system was well adjusted and happy about their status and future.
“I do apologize, Piyari,” Ammad said once he got his laughter under control. “I had wanted to let Nabeela tell you since she gave you the nickname.”
“Please no,” Piyari begged. “Everyone reacts so strongly to the term. I am… worried, I must admit.”
“It means ‘pretty girl’,” Ammad said, his heart unable to resist the earnest expression on Piyari’s beautiful face. “Beautiful girl, lovely girl. She thought you were beautiful and gave you ‘Piyari’ as a nickname because of it. I think it’s quite appropriate, frankly.”
Piyari’s eyes went wider and wider as he explained. By the time he babbled the last bit, waving his hands to try to reassure her, Piyari had clutched her cheeks with both hands. She was as red as a beet before shaking her head no so violently that her hair flew in a hurricane around her cheeks.
“Iee!” Piyari exclaimed, almost shouted. Ammad stepped back and then forward again as Piyari’s eyes filled with tears. “Machigae!”
Ammad caught Piyari’s shoulder with one hand, hooking his finger under her chin with the other. It forced her to meet his eyes even though he felt bad now about telling her. Tears spilled over as Piyari’s bottom lip wobbled with emotion.
“Hush now,” Ammad said, hopefully firmly enough to calm her down but not harshly. She certainly didn’t need a scolding. “You are beautiful, Piyari. And the nickname appears to have been given in fondness.”
“Machigae,” Piyari repeated. “Mistake, this is a mistake. I am not beautiful, Master Ammad. I am not!”
“You’re very lovely and quite sweet,” Ammad disagreed as firmly as he dared given how upset she was. “Very competent, too, which we all need right now. Let Nabeela have her nickname. She would not have given it to you if she didn’t feel it was appropriate.”
Piyari brushed her tears away. She was still very red-faced but she did appear to be calming somewhat. He smiled at her, his heart thumping against his chest as Piyari nodded once and drew in a deep breath. She looked over at the other apprentices who were watching them with concern.
“Everyone has heard it,” Piyari groaned as she dropped her face back into her hands. “They will all use it!”
“I’m afraid so,” Ammad laughed. “Truly, it does suit you.”
“I am not the beautiful one in my family!” Piyari exclaimed. She flung both arms out wide as if it should be obvious to everyone that a terrible mistake had been made. “I’m not! My younger sisters are both more attractive than me and none of us compare to our neighbor’s daughters. They are gorgeous. We are not.”
Ammad blinked at her as he tried to imagine a village where so many beautiful girls lived. “Where are you from? I think I need to visit to compare.”
Piyari squeaked and laughed helplessly, waving one finger at him to scold him for asking one of the forbidden questions even though tears still hung in Piyari’s eyes and her cheeks were bright red. This time it was Ammad’s cheeks that burned. He’d never made that mistake before but then he’d never been confronted by someone like Piyari. The thought of a whole village full of even more beautiful women was beyond him. He really couldn’t imagine it.
“I apologize,” Ammad said, bowing deeply and formally to Piyari if only to hear her laugh harder. “But I do think I need to visit there once we are allowed to know where you are from. I cannot imagine a secret hidden village of beautiful women.”
“Apology accepted.” Piyari giggled. She brushed her tears away. “Though it’s not a secret. We’re just off the main roads, is all.”
Her cheeks started going red again. The other apprentices stared at them frankly now, the taller sitting at their kotatsu with his elbows on the table. The shorter had almost crawled under the kotatsu quilt. He set his head on his arms and smiled as if this was the most fun he’d had in a great while.
“Do… no, I cannot ask that,” Piyari said. Her cheeks flared bright red and she patted them gently.
“Yes, you can,” Ammad reassured her. “Whatever questions you have, you can always ask.”
She stared up at him as if trying to see straight through to his soul. Ammad stood tall, nodding confidently. No matter what the question was, he would do his best to answer it. Besides, he was fairly certain that she’d intended to ask whether Nabeela was interested romantically and that was an easy one. Of course she was. The cuddling at shown that.
Piyari nodded slowly, just once, and bit her lip. “Are you interested in me?”
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