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
Hazy darkness met Nabeela’s eyes when she rolled over and peered towards the window in the far wall of her bedroom. It was dark enough that she couldn’t see the rich velvet drapes. They were blood-black shadows alongside the grayness that was her window. She sighed, relieved. A few more hours to sleep was so welcome.
She rolled over and pulled the blankets up until they completely covered her head, soft cotton sheet and thick silk-edged comforter like a cocoon other than the breathing hole she left. A couple more hours and then she’d get up. It was too early now. Nabeela relaxed back into the warmth of her bed, rubbing her face against the silk-covered pillow as darkness caught her in velvet paws, dragging her back to sleep.
Nabeela swatted a hand towards the voice, only dimly recognizing that it was Shahzad. He poked her in the shoulder hard enough to make her grunt but not hard enough to make her poke her head out of the covers. Whatever nightmare he’d had, she still had time to sleep. She didn’t need to get up yet and she wasn’t going to until it was morning.
Shahzad switched to gripping her shoulder so that he could firmly shake her, tugging her out of her comfy slumber. Nabeela whined at him as she tried to burrow completely under the covers in a vain attempt to escape from reality. A few more hours, that was all she wanted. After the last month she deserved to get to sleep until the sun had properly risen and the world was fully lit.
It wouldn’t work. She knew that. Sleeping in never did work once someone came and shook her until her mind started working again. Nabeela could feel her night shirt twisted around her waist like a too-tight waistband digging into her flesh. Her sleep pants were rucked up, one to the knee, the other caught around her calf. And hair tickled her nose reminding Nabeela that she hadn’t bothered to properly brush and braid her hair last night.
“Nabeela,” Shahzad huffed as he shook her hip firmly enough that there was no pretending to be asleep until he went away. “You need to get up. Piyari needs you.”
“What?” Nabeela squawked as she struggled to push the blankets back, her heart leaping straight to her throat in fear for Piyari.
The sheet caught under her side, trapping her left arm by her side, while the blankets tumbled further over her head. Somehow, she’d kicked them loose from the foot of the bed while she slept. Nabeela struggled free of them, throwing off the blankets which slithered off the bed and onto the floor at the same time she tugged the sheet free so that she could sit up.
Shahzad snorted at her when she finally managed to get her head and torso free of the blankets. Her hair tumbled over her face much like the blankets had but less tractable when Nabeela pushed it back. She blew a wayward strand out of her face to stare up at him.
“What happened?” Nabeela demanded.
“Did you sleep at all?” Shahzad asked. “You’ve got dark bags under your eyes.”
“Shahzad,” Nabeela scolded him as she kicked her way completely free of the tangled sheets. “What’s wrong with Piyari?”
The sheets had pulled completely free at the foot of the bed, revealing the thick old mattress that Nabeela intended to have restuffed sometime this summer. Somehow she’d managed to pull one of the bed curtains free from its hooks, too. She tugged her sleep shirt back into place so that it wasn’t wrapped too tight around her waist, grateful that at least her sleep pants hadn’t bunched up too badly.
Her discarded clothes peeked out from under the lump of blankets that she’d thrown off the bed. The sheer chaos of her bedroom made Nabeela’s cheeks heat, especially as Shahzad shook his head in just the same way that Mother always did when she was disappointed in something that Nabeela had done.
“Nothing at the moment,” Shahzad said. He folded his arms so that he could tuck his fist under his chin while smiling at her. “Duke Laughing Seal said that his apprentices reported that she had a long cry last night but she seemed to be okay this morning when Ammad and I went to check on them. But that’s not the issue. Father decided that she’s to be assigned with you for the next week. Piyari’s waiting for you to show up. She’s been waiting for several hours now. You overslept.”
Nabeela pulled the bed curtains out of the way so that she could see the window on the other side of the room. Instead of predawn darkness made even dimmer by clouds, fog and rain, bright sunshine poured through her window. Dust motes danced in the beams of light as if they were delighted that they finally had some brightness and warmth.
She blinked several times, her mind churning against the bone deep certainty that it was still predawn, that she still had hours to sleep. A few seconds later Nabeela gasped. Today was the day she was supposed to visit the village. And there were projects in the kitchen plus tax preparations and she needed to make sure that the full staff was properly introduced to Piyari.
Piyari, who didn’t know her way around. Who didn’t speak Urdu. Who was waiting for Nabeela to come and get her because Father trusted Nabeela to take care of her until her proper path was determined.
“Oh no!” Nabeela groaned while scrambling out of bed and tugging at the disordered sheets. “Why didn’t anyone come get me?”
“The servants tried to wake you up,” Shahzad said as Nabeela gave up on the bed. She ran for her closet and pulled out a red and green outfit at random. “They said you sounded like you’d woken but you never got up.”
“Father’s going to be so disappointed,” Nabeela whined. She really couldn’t call it anything but a whine. “There’s so much to do and it’s a beautiful day, too. I can’t believe I overslept this badly!”
“Neither can I,” Shahzad said.
He grinned, honestly grinned for the first time since Mother’s death, when Nabeela glared at him. She swatted in his direction with the outfit, skirt and sleeves flailing through the air. Shahzad ducked his head to hide the grin and then half-ran for the door when she did it again. Nabeela made sure the door was securely latched before hurrying back to her dressing table.
This late in the morning Nabeela knew that there wouldn’t be anyone available to help her get ready. That meant that her hair would have to be brushed and braided if it was to look even halfway appropriate. The more formal styles Nabeela had been trying to pick up over the last month were beyond her hair styling skills, especially when she had no one there to tell her how the back looked. A simple braid with ornate pins would have to suffice for now.
The outfit she’d grabbed turned out to be one of her simpler sets. Nabeela nodded. The rich red skirt was sturdy, good for work and walking, while still appropriately decorated with embroidery. The matching red kameez ended at exactly the right spot over her hips. It fit perfectly which always made her feel more confident. She pulled the outfit on, nodding approvingly at her reflection in the mirror as she added a gauzy green shawl wrapped around her neck to cover the lower neckline of the kameez.
“I look good,” Nabeela muttered while putting on her bracelets, earrings and two favorite necklaces. “Which is good. I need it, today.”
She really did.
The instant Nabeela had escorted Duke Laughing Seal and Duchess Chin-Sun to the suite they’d been assigned to, Duchess Chin-sun had latched onto Nabeela’s arm, dragging her right in while chattering about the trip and checking the room and how nice it was to be warm after the long, cold, foggy sea voyage.
Duke Laughing Seal had, to Nabeela’s embarrassment, waved both their servants and the household servants away with a little smirk that made Nabeela blush. That was the sort of smirk that implied threesomes, not frank conversations about how everyone in the household was handling Mother’s death and Father’s illness.
“All gone,” Duke Laughing Seal had said once the door shut.
“Oh, good,” Duchess Chin-Sun said. She finally released Nabeela’s arm, patting her elbow fondly. “Now, I know I was teasing earlier, dear, but you really should consider what I said.”
“A-about Piyari,” Nabeela said, her voice breaking on the first word as dramatically as Shahzad’s voice tended to. “I am taking it quite seriously but she only just arrived today, you know, Your Grace.”
“I know, I know,” Duchess Chin-Sun said. “But certain sorts of people make decisions very quickly and quite frankly? You remind me of my husband in that. You’ve always been quite decisive. It’s apparent that your attraction is a great deal more than mere fondness. Ammad’s the sort to need time to get to know someone before he falls in love.”
“Love?” Nabeela squeaked. “Duchess!”
“Looks like it to me,” Duke Laughing Seal said with such a serious expression that he might be discussing Ambermarle’s defenses rather than a silly little crush.
Her cheeks had flared so red, redder than the outfit Nabeela now wore. That would have been bad enough but both Duke Laughing Seal and Duchess Chin-Sun seemed determined to give her lectures about being aware of her own heart and always living true to her emotions. By the time they’d stopped giving Nabeela advice mixed in with stories of their courtship, it had been well past midnight and the halls had been nearly empty.
The smell of dinner was long gone, replaced by the damp scent of fog and misty rain. Nabeela had leaned against the wall, her head tipped back against the smooth-planed wood as she tried to forget all of the Duke and Duchess’ cute stories of their early courtship and marriage.
That wasn’t going to be her. It wasn’t. Nabeela knew it. Piyari was too bright, too beautiful, to settle for the very first person who expressed any level of interest in her. Yes, Nabeela would love to spend huge amounts of time with Piyari. Who wouldn’t? She was beautiful, sweet, demure and forceful enough to deal with Nabeela’s family without being rude. That was rare.
Just as Nabeela had managed to get her flustered heart back into something like order again, one of the servants had cleared her throat, startling Nabeela into a gasp and whirl, fist in the air to hit the next person who bothered her. Noriko had stepped back, eyes wide.
“Oh, Noriko,” Nabeela said. She thrust her fist behind her back, blushing for the millionth time that night. “What’s wrong?”
“I think that’s my question to you, Mistress,” Noriko said. “Are you all right? You haven’t reacted like that since you were a little girl.”
“It’s… been a very long day,” Nabeela sighed. “Is there a problem?”
“No, it’s good news for once,” Noriko replied, patting Nabeela reassuringly on the shoulder while pushing her towards the hallway that led to the private quarters. “Your father finally admitted that he needs to rest properly. He wanted me to tell you that he’s going to stay in bed tomorrow, no protests or disagreements out of him in the morning.”
“That’s good,” Nabeela said.
Even she had heard the nervousness in those two simple words. Father had refused to rest without protest the entire time he’d been recovering. She’d spent a portion of each day taking her turn cajoling him into taking breaks, staying bed, passing duties off to someone else, just as Ammad and Shahzad had.
As good as it was for Father to finally, finally, finally show some common sense regarding his injury and illness, Nabeela couldn’t help but worry that it was a sign of a turn towards the worse. She hadn’t said anything. Instead, Nabeela had allowed Noriko to push her towards the kitchen for one last check with the staff without protest, not that Nabeela’s mind had been on her last duty of the day.
Yes, Father actually taking care of his health was important. Worrisome given how stubborn he’d been about getting out of bed, but important. And yes, Duchess Chin-Sun had a point that Nabeela was obviously smitten. But a crush wasn’t the proper basis for a marriage and Nabeela had no idea what Piyari thought about the idea.
The girl had only just arrived in the household! She had a thousand, thousand things to learn before she could know how she fit into here. Throwing her into an immediate romance was a tremendously stupid idea and Nabeela had no intention of doing so. Piyari deserved better than a casual fling and frankly, Nabeela wasn’t interested in starting a relationship that might not go anywhere. There was simply too much going on in her life at the moment for romance.
Nabeela sighed, staring at her shaking hands as she tried to put her rings on and failed.
“I’m lying to myself,” she whispered. “I should just… talk to her.”
Her reflection in the dressing mirror showed a woman with a grimly determined expression and hair that desperately needed an expert’s touch. Bits and strands of hair stuck out as though she’d allowed a two-year-old to do the braid. Nabeela’s shawl was askew. Her kameez had shifted so that it didn’t sit right.
“I’m a mess,” Nabeela groaned.
“Mistress?” Piyari said from the doorway.
Nabeela shrieked, nearly falling over in her startlement. She hadn’t heard Piyari come in. For that matter, she hadn’t heard Piyari knock even though one of her hands was still clenched into a fist for tapping against the door. Piyari’s eyes were wide, her mouth in that perfect ‘o’ that was so very tempting, as she stared first at Nabeela’s face and then upwards towards Nabeela’s hair.
“Piyari!” Nabeela asked, desperately smoothing her kameez and then her hair. “Did Shahzad send you to make sure I actually got up?”
Piyari started giggling as she nodded. Her eyes swept the room, taking in the mess of blankets on the bed and Nabeela’s scattered clothing before settling on Nabeela’s hair. She shook her head disapprovingly even though her lips twitched with suppressed laughter.
“May I brush your hair, Mistress?” Piyari asked. “Master Ammad said that you should look your best before visiting the village.”
“Please,” Nabeela sighed. “I really didn’t intend to oversleep this way. Normally I have one of the servants help me with it. I can never get it to behave. I always wore it down or in a ponytail before… Never did learn how to do it properly.”
“Come sit down then, Mistress,” Piyari said. “Is it too thick for the styles you want?”
“Too wavy and unpredictable,” Nabeela said. “The front tries to curl while the back goes as straight as yours. The sides have odd waves that just… go everywhere when I let my hair loose. I keep threatening to cut my hair short but Father looks like I stabbed him each time so I don’t do it.”
Piyari hummed. She unbraided Nabeela’s hair, carefully spreading it to study the unruly strands as if she was attempting to determine exactly what needed to be done. Perhaps she was. When she started brushing Nabeela’s hair it was in the back. She worked her way around Nabeela’s head, smoothing the brush through any knots and gradually taming Nabeela’s hair until it lay in shining waves. It was soothing enough that Nabeela almost dozed off, eyes half shut as she watched dust motes dancing in the sunlight by the window.
Only then did she carefully start braiding Nabeela’s hair. It felt far more complicated than Nabeela’s usual styles, with braids that came from her temples to the back of her head. The way Piyari braided the back made Nabeela felt looser but the braid only extended halfway down Nabeela’s back.
“There,” Piyari said. “I think this looks good, Mistress.”
Nabeela looked in the mirror, starting when she saw the style that Piyari had created. Complicated braids swept from her temples back around her head. The hair was draw in with graceful swoops that only wobbled a little bit from the wave in Nabeela’s hair. It almost looked like the wobbles were deliberate instead of a nod to her unruly hair.
The back felt just as gorgeous. One of Nabeela’s favorite hair clips secured the two braids together. Underneath Piyari had created a soft plait with more strands than Nabeela’s fingers could decipher. It ended about halfway down Nabeela’s back in another hair clip, below which Nabeela’s hair hung free.
“This is… beautiful,” Nabeela said. She turned to stare at Piyari who only smiled and shrugged as if it was nothing. “No, really. This looks very good.”
“Thank you, Mistress,” Piyari said. “I did try to hurry. You are very late this morning. Everyone said so.”
Nabeela groaned, nodding. As Nabeela pulled her socks and shoes on Piyari straightened up Nabeela’s bed. It looked as though it was automatic for Piyari. Before Piyari could set to work at picking up Nabeela’s discarded clothes, Nabeela stopped her.
“You really don’t need to do that,” Nabeela said. “The servants will take care of it once I’m gone.”
“Oh,” Piyari said, blinking as she smoothed the last blanket on Nabeela’s bed. “Ah. Sorry, Mistress?”
“It’s okay, Piyari,” Nabeela said and then winced as Piyari squeaked and hid her face in her hands. “Oh, no. Someone told you? Oh no!”
Piyari’s nod was so embarrassed that Nabeela wanted to hide her face, too. She’d been hoping that no one would explain it before Nabeela got a chance to apologize for the nickname. Somehow, overnight, the entire household was already calling her ‘Piyari’. Nabeela had found that out last night after Duchess Chin-Sun let her leave.
Kosuke had used ‘Piyari’ when he told Nabeela that ‘the sweet girl shows a lot of promise’ and requested that she be considered for training as a chef. So had Zuneera, the head of staff, when she suggested that Piyari be trained in household administration. Even the night shift servants that Nabeela had passed on her way back to her bedroom had asked where ‘Piyari’ was.
“I am sorry about the nickname,” Nabeela said sincerely. “I didn’t mean anything by it. You’re just very attractive and sweet and well, it seemed appropriate. I think everyone’s attached to it now.”
“I am not ‘very attractive’,” Piyari said so firmly that Nabeela grinned at her. “I am not, Mistress! My younger sisters are much more attractive than me. Many girls in my home town are prettier than I am.”
“Um, I have a hard time imagining that,” Nabeela said, blinking rapidly as she tried to imagine a village full of beautiful women.
“No, it’s not ‘the Village of Beautiful Women’!” Piyari huffed. “Master Ammad already has taken to calling it that.”
Nabeela burst out laughing. It was just like Ammad to give a village a name like that. The laughter seemed to calm Piyari a little bit. She stopped hiding her face in her hands. A tiny smile curled her lips. Piyari pushed a strand of her lovely long hair behind one ear. The movement was so graceful, so simple and unconscious and just… beautiful, that Nabeela found herself staring.
“You like me,” Piyari observed. She blinked, slowly, seriously, and then nodded once as if she’d just discovered the secrets of the universe. “You think you love me.”
Nabeela stood as if she’d been frozen and stared at Piyari. Her heart pounded so hard that it made her chest hurt. Blood roared in Nabeela’s ears. For a moment the room spun so sharply that Nabeela had to sit right back down on the stool.
Piyari’s mouth dropped open in another of her perfect ‘o’s as she dove to catch Nabeela’s elbows. It was only her grip that kept Nabeela from falling over entirely. The blood still pounded in her ears. It rushed as loudly as the river had when Nabeela donned pants and men’s clothes so that she could aid in the search for mother’s body. This felt as strong, as inevitable, as the river and the rain had that long, long day.
“You smell of roses,” Nabeela whispered.
“Ah, there was a bottle of rose oil in the bath,” Piyari said almost that quietly, almost but not quite. She sounded confused by the nonsequitor. “I used some. That was… wrong?”
“No,” Nabeela laughed under her breath. “It smells good. I’m sorry. It’s probably just… reaction. So much has happened. Mother’s death. Father’s injuries. All the duties that I’ve had to take on.”
She looked up and met Piyari’s eyes. Dark, intent, lovely; Piyari looked at her with a tiny frown from little more than a finger’s breath away. Nabeela could feel her breath against her lips. It would take so little to kiss Piyari, just a slight lean forward and they’d be there.
Nervousness burned like bile at the back of Nabeela’s throat.
“You should ignore it,” Nabeela said. “The crush. My crush. You should ignore it. You’re here to learn, not to be seduced. It’s nothing serious, Piyari. It’s only a silly little crush on the first person I’ve seen who isn’t involved with the whole mess. I’ll get over it.”
“You will?” Piyari asked but her tone made it more of a statement than a question.
She studied Nabeela’s face for a very long time that was probably only a couple of seconds. This close Nabeela could feel the heat radiating off Piyari’s body. Breding Manor’s blue livery looked very good on her. It brought out the warmth of her cheeks and blue-black sheen of her long hair.
For a moment Nabeela allowed herself to imagine what it would be like to have Piyari dressed in a beautiful blue kimono, wide obi decorated with gold embroidery. They could meet guests together, Nabeela being the outgoing one, Piyari serving them tea and answering questions as the Lady of the house was supposed to.
It was a beautiful little dream.
Nabeela smiled wryly and nodded to Piyari’s question. “I will. Just ignore the crush. We’ll get you trained and if you fall in love with someone, then that’s fine. We can arrange a marriage for you when you’re ready.”
Piyari nodded and stood, offering her hands to Nabeela with a stern enough expression that Nabeela suddenly understood how Father had felt the last few weeks. She didn’t really need the help even though she’d nearly passed out from shock. It was just exhaustion and surprise getting the better of her, nothing more.
“You need food, Mistress,” Piyari announced. “Food and more rest but that will have to wait until the guests have been dealt with.”
“Yes,” Nabeela said as she mentally shouted at herself to let Piyari’s hands go and completely failed to do so. “Some food would be good. I was a little too rattled to eat well last night.”
“And you missed breakfast, Mistress,” Piyari said. “Shall we not go? The sooner you eat the better.”
“Yes, let’s,” Nabeela replied.
She let Piyari tug her out of the bedroom and down the hallway, entirely too aware of the warmth of Piyari’s hand. It was strong despite Piyari’s delicateness. To Nabeela, it almost felt as though Piyari could hold the whole world in her hands without striving.
‘I really need to let this crush go,’ Nabeela thought. ‘Nothing good can come from this.’
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