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’s empty stomach threatened to send her running for the toilet as Ammad’s jaw dropped open. His cheeks went pale as milk first and then bright red as he shuffled his feet and tried to say something. She shouldn’t have asked. She shouldn’t. Even though he’d said that she could ask anything, Shizuka shouldn’t have asked that particular question.
After all these years she should have learned that her instinct to directly question people was not a good one. Every time Shizuka gave into her more blunt instincts she ended up embarrassing herself and the person she was talking to. At least this time there weren’t that many about to witness it. Shizuka didn’t think she’d ever forget the scalding shame of commenting loudly on the town matriarch’s rather unfortunate choice of clothing at her granddaughter’s wedding.
It was madness to ask the question. Even if people thought she was pretty, that didn’t mean that they thought she was an appropriate choice for Lady of Breding. Shizuka didn’t think she was an appropriate choice. No matter what she’d learned while in training, she simply wasn’t a proper candidate to court Ammad. And he’d not shown any signs of being honestly interested in courting. Sex, maybe, but not courtship.
“I…” Ammad said, abruptly laughing and rubbing his face with both hands. “I didn’t expect that question. I thought you would ask about Nabeela.”
“Oh, it was quite obvious that she was interested before dinner,” Shizuka said before she could think first. She winced at the amusement in Ammad’s eyes. “I am sorry, Master Ammad, but it was. At dinner as well. I think that is why Duchess Chin-Sun teased her.”
“Well,” Ammad replied so slowly that Shizuka could tell that he was marshalling his thoughts. His cheeks were quite red but his expression was ruefully amused rather than delighted or dismayed. “I do find you quite attractive. You are beautiful, no matter how you compare to the other women in the Village of Beautiful Girls.”
Shizuka put her hands over her mouth to muffle her startled giggles. She could hear the title, almost see it written in proper kanji. When she wrote her first letter home, to be properly routed through their Majesties to preserve everyone’s safety, she would definitely use the title. It might even make Father laugh despite his injuries. Hopefully it wouldn’t become yet another story her family told everyone about Shizuka’s endless struggles to be properly demure.
“But I don’t… I’m the heir,” Ammad continued. He awkwardly rubbed the back of his neck without meeting Shizuka’s eyes. “There are expectations. I can’t just… choose the first pretty girl I see, you know. And with Mother’s death being so recent, well, it’s not quite the time for that sort of thing.”
“I agree,” Shizuka said with a sigh of relief. “That was why I asked. I prefer to know what I am dealing with immediately rather than waiting and wondering. I tend to worry unless I am very, very busy. While I suspect I will be quite busy here I do not think it will be busy enough to keep me from fretting over unanswered questions in my spare moments.”
Ammad laughed as if he’d been startled into it too and nodded. “Then we’ll work to keep you very busy indeed. Something could develop in time, Piyari. I will not deny that. But I do not think that it’s something that you should worry about now. I’m not ready for romance. I probably won’t be for at least six months to a year.”
“I think I am relieved,” Shizuka said, bowing slightly to him, hands properly folded over her thighs. “There is too much for me to learn and cope with for me to be comfortable with two such important people considering courtship with me. Especially when I am most definitely not that beautiful.”
Ammad burst out laughing. He waved a hand at Shizuka as if he was trying to erase that last sentence. She covered her mouth with her hands, giggles bubbling in her stomach and shaking her shoulders despite her efforts not to let them out. After a moment he shook his head and nodded towards Shizuka’s waiting dinner.
“Go on,” Ammad said. “Your dinner is waiting. Go eat before it gets cold. Tomorrow is another day and I’m sure you’ll have a thousand things to learn.”
“Yes, Master Ammad,” Shizuka said while bowing deeply to him. “Thank you, Master Ammad.”
He bowed back, almost perfectly, and then left with a casual wave to the other apprentices. Shizuka sighed with relief once the door closed behind him. She rubbed her arms under the warm shawl she’d been given as she went over to the other apprentices. The cushion was firm, supportive, when Shizuka sank to it with a little moan. Her fingers brushed over the kotatsu quilt as she settled under it with relief.
This day had lasted at least ten years so far. To think that she’d thought the trip here was long. Somehow the day since arrival seemed to be ten times longer. After all her nerves before arriving and the long, wet, muddy trip from the capital to Breding Manor, Shizuka had thought that she could cope with anything.
The sheer amount of change, though, had surprised her. Shizuka needed to learn Urdu. She had to memorize the manor’s confusing maze of hallways. There were new duties, new names, new customs to get used to. All of that on top of helping Lord Bilal, Nabeela and Ammad. And the servants. And learning some new job that she didn’t even know about yet.
“He likes you,” the shorter apprentice said as he wiggled around to sit up properly.
“He thinks I’m… pretty,” Shizuka said reluctantly as her cheeks went red for the millionth time today. “I asked. He doesn’t think we’re a match.”
“Doesn’t matter,” the shorter apprentice said. He grinned widely and waved off her mild glare. “He still likes you.”
“You are pretty,” the taller apprentice said. He started serving them all dinner, rice and a thick curry that smelled wonderful. “Very pretty. I could easily see you attracting Ammad or Nabeela’s eyes.”
Shizuka hid her face in her hands with a tired groan. She wasn’t here to find a spouse. As lovely as Nabeela had been and as kind as Ammad had been, she was here to help her father and learn a new skill that would support the family better. That was all. That her heart fluttered over the cuddles she’d shared with Nabeela was irrelevant. Her nervous excitement at Ammad’s interest was unimportant, too. Training, she was here for training, nothing else.
“Eat your food,” the taller apprentice said kindly. He tapped a spoon against Shizuka’s forehead, laughing when she huffed at him. “Eat. Everything is easier to bear when you’re full and warm. I’m Ayumu. This is Thunder over Mountains.”
“Just call me Scamp,” Thunder over Mountains said, laughing as Shizuka stared at them. “I like that better and it suits me.”
“The rules…” Shizuka hissed, fingers clenching on her spoon.
“We’re allowed to tell each other what our names are,” Ayumu said very gently. “The rules exist to keep us safe from outsiders, not from each other. We can talk to each other and tell each other our names. Just not where we’re from because that could bring reprisals or preferential treatment.”
“Shi… Shizuka,” she replied shyly. “My name is Shizuka.”
The skin on the back of Shizuka’s neck crawled at actually saying her own name. From the moment that Shizuka had hugged her mother, carefully and gently kissed her father and then waved goodbye to her sisters, she hadn’t said her name once. It wasn’t allowed.
Well, it was allowed. Ayumu was quite correct about that. In training they had been encouraged to pick nicknames that they wanted to be called. Shizuka’s chosen nicknames were Black Fall and Baby Duck, for her hair and the teasing she’d gotten early on in training for insisting on walking behind the other candidates.
Not having her name, not being Mori Shizuka Running Deer, had given Shizuka a sort of security, safety, that she hadn’t expected. No one knew who she was. They didn’t know where she was from. Everything in her past was just that: past. Instead of having the invisible weight of years of shared experiences that had bound Shizuka into a particular role in her family and village, she’d been completely free to be whoever and whatever she wanted.
Shizuka could be anything, talk to anyone. If she was too forceful it wasn’t with that sure knowledge that people would shake their heads and exclaim at how improper she was and how boyish she tended to be. The first time she’d spoken up forcefully in training Shizuka had automatically ducked into a bow of apology only to have their instructor praise her for speaking up.
“Pretty name,” Scamp said around a too-large mouthful of stew.
“Chew first, please,” Ayumu groaned. “I’m sorry. He has dreadful manners when we eat late.”
“‘m hungry,” Scamp said, shrugging completely unrepentant at Ayumu’s glare. “You know I couldn’t eat on the ship. I get terribly sea sick if I’m anything bigger than a canoe. It’s embarrassing, especially with all the sailing the Duke and Duchess do.”
Shizuka nodded and took a bite only to stare at the plate in awe. The stew was very good, thick and rich with bits of elk mixed with potatoes and carrots that had just the right amount of crunch left. She’d never had stew with that sauce, cinnamon and cumin with cloves mixed with coriander, ginger and just enough chili to give it an edge.
She sighed happily and then ate nearly as quickly as Scamp did though she made an effort to chew with her mouth properly closed. Ayumu’s eyebrows went up at her first quick, eager bites but then he started smiling as he ate more slowly. He served them both second plates full of rice and stew without comment. Only after Shizuka had finished eating and waved off a third helping of rice that Scamp took did Ayumu chuckle.
“Too nervous to eat earlier?” Ayumu asked.
“Very much so,” Shizuka sighed as she wiped her mouth. “I couldn’t eat breakfast because I was so nervous and the trip took longer than expected so I missed lunch as well. I was quite hungry, I suppose. I didn’t realize it until I began to eat.”
She wiggled her toes under the kotatsu quilt finally relaxing now that her stomach wasn’t empty. The comfort of the little charcoal heater under the table reminded her of home as well as warming her up. Her new clothes had helped, yes, but nothing beat a hot bath or a proper kotatsu.
“You do realize that no one will mind if you have sex with either Master Ammad or Mistress Nabeela, don’t you?” Ayumu asked. “We’re allowed to do it if we want to.”
Shizuka gasped at the sudden question and jerked backwards so abruptly that she kicked her foot into the heart of the tiny charcoal burner under the kotatsu. She squawked in earnest at that, scooting backwards. That made Scamp fall backwards laughing while Ayumu scrambled around the kotatsu to make sure she was okay.
“I’m fine,” Shizuka said. “Daijoubu, honto ni. It was hot. Truly. I’m fine.”
Scamp snickered at her, grinning when she huffed in his direction. “Not that fine! Or maybe more fine than you’re willing to admit. Which one do you like better? Master Ammad’s got the position but Mistress Nabeela looked like she really liked you. I got the feeling that Master Ammad wasn’t quite sure what to do with me.”
“I’m not sure what to do with you and we’ve been lovers for three years now,” Ayumu sighed as he checked Shizuka’s foot. “It looks like you didn’t get burnt.”
“Sorry,” Shizuka said. “That… startled me.”
“I noticed,” Ayumu chuckled.
He patted her shoulder, moving back to his side of the kotatsu. This time when Shizuka curled under the kotatsu quilt she kept her feet well away from the heater. It took a bit before Scamp sat back up again. When he did it was with a sudden yawn that Shizuka understood at her very core.
“Sorry,” Scamp said. “Long day.”
“Very long,” Shizuka agreed. She stared at her dirty plate rather than meet their eyes. “I did not expect to be so… uncertain… once I arrived. The trainers spoke as if everything would be established and ready for me once I got here.”
Both Ayumu and Scamp studied her for a long moment. Ayumu nodded as if he understood entirely what she felt. Scamp simply leaned over and put his head on Shizuka’s shoulder. She laughed and pushed him away, laughing harder as he pouted exaggeratedly and flopped backwards as though his entire life had ended now that she’d rejected his attempt at comfort. That lasted only a couple of seconds before he burrowed under the kotatsu quilt with a contented sigh. From the angle of his body his legs had to be draped over Ayumu’s lap.
“Ignore him,” Ayumu counseled as he patted Scamp’s hidden legs. “You’ll feel better as you settle in.”
“I hope so,” Shizuka said. “Ah, do you know what we do with the dishes? No one told me yet if we were to return them or wash them or let them sit.”
“In our house we put them outside,” Scamp mumbled. “Servants come get ’em. We’re not servants. That’s their job.”
“Having visited before,” Ayumu said, doing something under the kotatsu that made Scamp jerk and grumble tiredly, “I agree. There should be a small cart outside the door for the empty dishes. They will be placed there and collected by the servants on night duty.”
Since Scamp appeared to be falling asleep under the kotatsu and Ayumu was done eating, too, Shizuka stood and started gathering their dishes. Ayumu helped, rather to Shizuka’s surprise. She wasn’t used to men helping with domestic chores such as that. Her father had always been very traditional on that front as well as prone to dropping bowls for the excuse to make new ones.
“Why are you giggling?” Ayumu asked.
“My father,” Shizuka said. “He never helped with dishes. Mother forbade him from doing so. He always ‘accidentally’ dropped them in hopes that they would break.”
“He’s a potter?” Ayumu asked, a smile curling his lips.
“No, a glass blower,” Shizuka replied. “All our bowls were glass, you see. Many plates, too.”
Ayumu laughed so loudly that Scamp snorted and woke up. He stared at the two of them laughing with a sour enough expression that Shizuka found it all but impossible to stop laughing.
She really wasn’t terribly surprised when the tears started. They’d been hovering for ages. Days. Weeks, honestly. Ever since Father’s accident and his terrible injuries.
Shizuka had been so busy tending to her father and the two assistants who died of their burns that she hadn’t been able to cry. Then there had been the preparation for the trip south for training. And then the trip back north and here to Lord Bilal’s house. She simply hadn’t had time to cry.
“Oh dear,” Ayumu murmured as he guided Shizuka back to the wide storage benches with their so-comfortable couches. “Overtired, I think.”
“Overdue,” Shizuka managed to say between hiccupping sobs and Scamp scrambling out from under the kotatsu to run towards the door. “No! Overdue. No time before. Sorry.”
Ayumu sat next to Shizuka, wrapping an arm around her shoulders. She leaned into his side. It felt strange to just cry. Mother had always said that tears were like rain. They fell when the ground of the soul needed watering. But after Father’s accident Shizuka had worked so hard not to collapse into tears that she hadn’t allowed herself to cry at all.
Scamp paused at the door, looking at Shizuka carefully. He seemed to want to leave, to bring someone in authority, but when Shizuka waved ‘come here’ at him he followed the instruction. To her relief, he had the presence of mind to grab one of their discarded napkins to offer Shizuka to dry her face.
“S-sorry,” Shizuka hiccupped as Scamp sat at her feet and leaned into her lap much like Ayumu had with Duke Laughing Seal. “Overdue.”
“You didn’t cry,” Scamp murmured. “The whole time before you came here? You never cried at all?”
Shizuka shook her head no, tears still falling. It felt good to let them out at last. She’d put so much effort into being strong for everyone around her that she hadn’t allowed herself any grief, any fear, anything but this task, then this task, then the next. The tasks had never seemed to end. Today, this evening, was the first time that she had settled for long enough that her emotions could settle down like rain falling from the clouds as they slowed to climb over the mountains behind her village.
“Definitely overdue then,” Ayumu sighed. “Pull out blankets for us all, Scamp. I think Shizuka could use some cuddles tonight.”
“I will be fine,” Shizuka protested. “I will. I would not want to intrude. You are together.”
“And we’re both exhausted,” Ayumu said as he hugged Shizuka and set off another wave of tears. “Just like you. It’s not a problem. We’re used to finding our play time in odd moments. We rarely play in bed and never when there’s someone else around.”
Rather like her parents’ explanation when Shizuka had asked where her sisters came from as a young woman, Shizuka thought. She sighed and wiped her face again. It would be nice to be held. In training they had all had separate beds, one each, so Shizuka had not been held in her sleep since she left home. After her sisters’ kicking and snoring, Shizuka hadn’t expected to miss it but she honestly did.
“If you do not mind?” Shizuka asked, more to Scamp than to Ayumu who had suggested it. “I would… I miss my sisters. We always shared a futon.”
“Okay, we can cuddle the pretty girl,” Scamp said. He patted Shizuka’s knee fondly enough that she blushed. “You really are very pretty, Shizuka. Especially when you blush.”
“A-and I see why you’re named ‘Scamp’!” Shizuka replied.
She pushed him away with a laugh that was more than half sob. He didn’t seem to mind it. In fact, he laughed and grinned at her unrepentantly. It didn’t take long at all for Scamp to create a comfy nest of blankets and pillows for the three of them. He curled up in it with a contented sigh that helped calm Shizuka’s lingering tears.
Ayumu’s gentle embrace before they climbed into bed helped as well. It almost felt like home with her sisters, though of course men could never be mistaken for Keiko or little Haruka. Still, it was nice to have someone hold her. She’d missed that since she left home. Her shawl made a comforting cover over Shizuka’s pillow while their respective clothes kept it proper enough that Shizuka relaxed quickly.
“Better?” Ayumu murmured. He chuckled as Scamp started snoring quietly. “He quiets down quickly. Don’t worry.”
“I don’t. I apologize in advance for the snoring,” Shizuka said with a wry smile. She wiped her face one last time and then giggled at the comical dismay on Ayumu’s face. “Sorry?”
“We’ll survive,” Ayumu said, gently tapping her nose with one finger. “Come on. I think sleep will do us all a world of good.”
“Yes,” Shizuka agreed.
She blushed at being pushed into the center of the bed with Ayumu on one side and Scamp on the other. Ayumu hushed her, eyes sparkling with amusement, so that she didn’t wake Scamp up again. Shizuka had to wonder about just how deeply asleep Scamp was when he immediately curled around her body.
It didn’t really matter. The bed was soft and warm. Scamp’s damp breath against the nape of her neck felt good even though she knew that her hair would be a rat’s nest by the time she woke. Ayumu took her hand as he settled in to sleep, squeezing it gently.
Perhaps this is what it would have been like if she’d had brothers, Shizuka thought. It was nice being smaller, being sheltered. She felt protected with Scamp on one side and Ayumu on the other. After all the upheaval and tears, it was a very pleasant feeling.
Shizuka smiled. Tomorrow would be another day. She would do better. Perhaps she would ask Mistress Nabeela what her feelings were, too, so that she could plan around that. Either way, she was here now and her learning could begin. Every day would bring her closer to a new career and being reunited with her family. That made all of it worth the effort, fears and tears.
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!