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 let out a slow, careful breath as Master Ammad’s guest and he left the room. Her hands trembled on her thighs despite her efforts to still them. Why had he paid such respect to her? Mistress Nabeela was the one who was the host, not Shizuka. But she knew the answer to that even as she thought it.
Mistress Nabeela had allowed Shizuka to take care of all the customary hostess duties, from picking the tea and arranging for the food, very little of which had been eaten. Perhaps she should have gone for cheese instead of fruit with the naan bread? It would still be eaten of course, just by other people. Either way, it had been Shizuka who had boiled the water, chosen the tea pot and cups, arranged the food, given the orders to the staff and directed the servants, not Nabeela.
And when little Peni had spilled the udon, it had been Shizuka snapping orders at everyone, soothing Peni’s poor burnt arm, calling for a doctor and shouting to a servant already on her way to inform Lord Bilal that it wasn’t bad enough for him to get up. It had even been Shizuka choosing how to arrange Mistress Nabeela’s hair and Shizuka was fairly certain everyone in the hallways and in the kitchen had exclaimed over how lovely the style was once Shizuka returned to check on Peni.
Even Peni had giggled over it while the doctor soothed aloe over her burnt arm and wrapped it with a clean bandage. And then it had fallen to Shizuka to decide that Peni was to help in the offices until she could use her hand properly again, rather than waiting for Mistress Nabeela or Master Ammad to give a ruling. Or, even more appropriately, for Lord Bilal to rule.
“Well, that went better than expected,” Mistress Nabeela sighed once the door shut behind Master Ammad and their guest Waseem. “He’s usually as stiff as a log. He seemed quite charmed today, though.”
Shizuka nodded thoughtfully. “He seems very proper, Mistress. I was reminded of my grandfather on my father’s side. He was always very stiff and proper but he had a wicked sense of humor.”
“He played mean tricks on people?” Mistress Nabeela asked, concerned.
“Oh no, Mistress,” Shizuka said with as close as she could manage to her grandfather’s still, faintly surprised face. “He never played tricks. He just assumed something sexual was going on at all times.”
Mistress Nabeela squawked and turned half away as she started laughing. Shizuka grinned despite her efforts to mirror her grandfather’s calm exterior. It was impossible to maintain when Mistress Nabeela laughed so heartily.
Unlike Shizuka or her mother, Mistress Nabeela laughed with her mouth open, teeth showing and eyes wrinkled up. It was like watching a man laugh or perhaps a woman who had never been taught that she must always be smaller and meeker than the men around her. Shizuka couldn’t imagine Mistress Nabeela raising a hand to hide her laugh as if her teeth were shameful things that no one should ever see.
Shizuka’s grin faded when Mistress Nabeela turned back with a faintly panicked expression. Her eyes were too wide, her smile twisted into something painful and wrong, and her hands shook far too hard. The bags under her eyes that had faded as she watched Shizuka work came back, as did the faintly gray tone to Mistress Nabeela’s face that had worried Shizuka so much while she did Mistress Nabeela’s hair.
“Sit down, Mistress,” Shizuka ordered. “You are entirely too tired for so much excitement.”
“I’m fine,” Mistress Nabeela protested. She held up her hands as if to ward off Shizuka’s glare but her fingers shook obviously.
“You are not ‘fine’, Mistress,” Shizuka said.
She obviously wasn’t fine, no matter what Mistress Nabeela believed. While Shizuka had been in the kitchen she’d been asked six separate times whether or not Mistress Nabeela was finally taking a day off from her duties. Shizuka pushed Mistress Nabeela gently but implacably backwards until she her knees contacted the couch cushions. She collapsed onto it, eyes wide with shock as she stared up at Shizuka. Nabeela looked so entirely startled by that that Shizuka shook her head at her.
Mistress Nabeela’s pulse pounded at her throat. She licked her lips, eyes darkening as she looked up at Shizuka with an expression that edged towards lust before sliding straight into guilt. As Shizuka sighed, Mistress Nabeela looked away, one hand on her chest, the other clenched around the edge of the cushion. Really, despite Mistress Nabeela’s insistence that her favor towards Shizuka was nothing more than a crush, Shizuka could see that it was more.
It was startling, very startling. Not unpleasant after years of being third after her younger sisters but still a surprise. Shizuka put her hands on her hips as Mistress Nabeela started to stand up again, her eyes darting everywhere but Shizuka’s face. Mistress Nabeela froze. Her pulse raced at her temple as Mistress Nabeela licked her lips furtively.
“Mistress,” Shizuka scolded. “You do not have to do everything.”
“No, I do,” Mistress Nabeela complained. She waved one hand at the door as if it held off hordes of people that needed her aid right this instant. “I really do, Piyari. With Father ill and Mother gone there’s too much to do.”
“Did your mother and father handle it all themselves?” Shizuka asked. She raised her chin challengingly when Mistress Nabeela nodded urgently. “Truly? They did everything themselves. No staff at all?”
“Ah,” Mistress Nabeela hesitated as a blush crept over her cheeks. “Well. No. They have, had, no, have staff. Very competent staff.”
Shizuka nodded. She’d already found that out with little Peni’s burn. Despite their frozen shock immediately after Peni overturned the udon, they reacted very competently once Shizuka took over tending to Peni herself. They called for doctors, cleaned up the mess, reported the accident quickly and efficiently. When Shizuka had left the kitchen to return to Mistress Nabeela’s side they’d even begun the paperwork to record the injury.
All while telling Shizuka to tell Mistress Nabeela that they had it under control. Even old Ouchi, lips twitching with amusement as he refilled his tea kettle from the kitchen sink, had told Shizuka that Mistress Nabeela should rest assured that her ‘day off’ would go smoothly. Even if it lasted several days.
His grin during that commented had been more for the way Shizuka had blushed than anything else as he scanned Shizuka’s body and nodded approvingly, as if Shizuka should do her best to seduce Mistress Nabeela into staying in bed for a while. Inappropriate suggestion or not, Noriko and Kosuke had nodded quite seriously, Kosuke offering that Mistress Nabeela was overdue for a day off. Noriko had sighed that Mistress Nabeela had refused the very suggestion when she’d suggested it a couple of days before Shizuka’s arrival.
Obviously, Mistress Nabeela could very easily allow the staff to handle things for a day or so. The entire family could. Frankly, Shizuka thought that the staff would be relieved if they were allowed to handle things for a little bit. It would be a show of faith and of trust. With everything that had happened, Shizuka thought that it would go far to relieving the grief and worries that everyone at Breding Manor felt.
“The staff that I have spoken to felt bad, Mistress,” Shizuka said as gently as she could. “They don’t wish to complain. They understand that the family is avoiding their grief by working too hard. But it still feels as though you don’t trust them to handle the household.”
“What?” Mistress Nabeela gasped. “No! Oh no, not…!”
She groaned, rubbing her face with both hands. Shizuka knelt on the cushion by Mistress Nabeela’s feet. Once again, it looked as though Mistress Nabeela wanted to bolt from the room so that she could deal with the problems facing the household rather than face that doing so was yet another form of running away. Shizuka put one hand on Mistress Nabeela’s knee, wondering if perhaps Ouchi didn’t have the proper idea even as she wondered at how daring she was to even think that thought.
It was as though the contact froze Mistress Nabeela’s joints, locking them in place. She stared down at Shizuka with an expression that was equal parts desperate and curious. Shizuka smiled gently up at her as her stomach did flips that brought strawberry acid and strangely spicy morning tea to her throat. Her heart beat entirely too fast.
Focusing on Mistress Nabeela’s emotions without considering her own was just as bad. Shizuka… well. Someone liked her. Mistress Nabeela liked Shizuka. She, perhaps, was profoundly attracted to Shizuka. The thought of it was new and startling still, though not as overwhelming as it had been last night with Scamp and Ayumu. A good night’s sleep, a bout of tears, and then the many, many comments from the servants and staff before Mistress Nabeela woke had given Shizuka time to consider the situation more calmly.
Shizuka didn’t have to do anything about it. She could, with no guilt at all, allow Mistress Nabeela to attempt to ignore her attraction to Shizuka. Most everyone Shizuka had spoken to had emphasized that before going on to say how nice it was to see Mistress Nabeela smiling again. The entire family had been hard hit by the loss of Lord Bilal’s wife. More importantly as far as Shizuka was concerned, no one had ever seen Mistress Nabeela this smitten before.
Unlike some of the boys back home, it didn’t look as though Mistress Nabeela was the sort to give her heart and then take it back again. Her few flirtations had been just that: flirting. Even the boys and one girl that Mistress Nabeela had been (briefly) involved with had known that it was flirting. Noriko’s giggles as she compared notes with Peni before Peni was burned had been quite revealing, as had Mistress Nabeela’s fierce blush and concerned looks at Shizuka.
Whatever Mistress Nabeela felt, it was not flirtation. It was not casual. Shizuka’s heart rose up into her throat with the realization that Mistress Nabeela’s eyes held the same sort of devotion and love that Father’s had always held when he gazed at mother.
“They are very worried about you, Mistress,” Shizuka said slowly. “Before your mother’s loss you trusted them more and worked less. There was time to relax, to laugh. Everyone has said to me that they are relieved to see you smile again.”
Mistress Nabeela’s mouth opened but all that came out was a startled squeak. Shizuka laughed quietly, her hand still resting on Mistress Nabeela’s knee. There was something here. Even as hesitant about romance as Shizuka tended to be, she could see the potential for more with Mistress Nabeela.
“You… find me attractive,” Shizuka observed. She shook her head ‘no’ when Mistress Nabeela tried to say something. “This is a very new thing for me, Mistress. I am not used to being noticed in such a way.”
“Your sisters are really that beautiful?” Mistress Nabeela asked. “Truly?”
“Yes,” Shizuka replied. “They are. I think I like this. Being attractive. Having someone take such joy in me. I do not know that I want to be a Lady. It seems to be a great deal of work. I had hoped for an actual job to do. But… I do like the attention you give me, Mistress.”
“Actually,” Mistress Nabeela said hesitantly enough that Shizuka frowned at her, “Ammad and I were discussing the possibility of having you trained as a doctor of some sort. You did so well with Peni that it seems logical. That would mean you working with one of the doctors locally at first and then going off to the college but it should be possible. Their Majesties always approve of more doctors, especially ones who tend to the populace or who research better cures for illnesses.”
This time Shizuka found herself staring, words stuck in her throat. It was more than she could have dreamed of. Her imagination had centered, somewhat reluctantly, around accountant and clerk positions despite the fact that Shizuka took no joy in that work. It was solid and reliable. She hadn’t allowed herself to dream of anything loftier than that. Learning to help people, to heal them, was so far beyond what she had thought she’d be allowed that Shizuka’s eyes filled with tears.
“Oh no, I’m sorry!” Mistress Nabeela exclaimed. “You don’t have to if you don’t want to, Piyari. Really!”
“No,” Shizuka managed to say despite the tears and emotion choking her.
She flapped one hand in front of her face as she fought with her emotions. A doctor. She could be a doctor. Shizuka could heal people. She could research cures to heal people! If she excelled locally, Shizuka could be the first person in her family to actually attend college.
“I never,” Shizuka said shakily, “imagined that. Not that. Clerk. Accountant. Perhaps administration. Not doctor!”
“It’s… a good idea?” Mistress Nabeela asked hesitantly.
“Hai!” Shizuka exclaimed, half laughing and half sobbing. “Very good!”
Mistress Nabeela looked so relieved that Shizuka’s sobs turned fully into laughs. The joy beating against her breastbone burst free from Shizuka’s control. She flung herself into Mistress Nabeela’s lap, hugging her tightly enough that Mistress Nabeela squawked and toppled backwards on the cushions.
That left Shizuka lying between Mistress Nabeela’s legs, draped half on top of her. Shizuka shivered at the surge of hope and lust in Mistress Nabeela’s eyes. Neither of them moved for a long moment. It seemed that Mistress Nabeela was afraid to make the first move, strange in a woman so strong and forceful.
“I want to,” Shizuka whispered.
“Want to what?” Mistress Nabeela asked in nearly as quiet of a voice despite the way she shivered and licked her lips.
“Kiss you,” Shizuka admitted. Her cheeks felt so hot that Shizuka was sure that it was the cause of her sudden lightheadedness.
Mistress Nabeela’s hips jerked as her breath caught. She licked her lips and nodded. “You can. I’d like you to. Like to kiss you, too.”
“Do,” Shizuka said, low and deep and strange with the rushing emotions that she was so unused to.
Shizuka shifted a little forwards, bringing her lips closer to Mistress Nabeela’s. It made her hair side over Shizuka’s shoulders. Mistress Nabeela shivered as Shizuka’s hair fell around her face like a black silk veil, blocking off the rest of the world so that it was just the two of them.
Mistress Nabeela’s hands curled over Shizuka’s hips. Her fingertips, strong and narrow, slowly dug in as Mistress Nabeela silently urged Shizuka to move closer still. She was taller, just enough taller that Shizuka had to shift one thigh until her knee settled against Mistress Nabeela’s crotch.
“Piyari,” Mistress Nabeela whispered, gasping at the contact.
No answer seemed necessary. Shizuka blinked away the last of the tears and bent so that her lips brushed against Mistress Nabeela’s. That seemed to be all the permission that Mistress Nabeela needed. Her hands moved up Piyari’s back to cup her shoulder blades as Mistress Nabeela deepened the butterfly kiss into something that made Shizuka wish that Mistress Nabeela’s thigh was between her legs.
The kiss made Shizuka moan. She’d never truly kissed anyone before. Little kisses with her sisters, one shy kiss that had barely bushed lips with one boy back home, but that was all. Mistress Nabeela clearly knew exactly what she was doing. Her lips moved against Shizuka’s in ways that left Shizuka moaning quietly into her mouth. Shizuka’s skin seemed too tight when their lips parted and a strange new heat had her cheeks flushed and her throat tight.
“You’re beautiful,” Mistress Nabeela murmured.
Shizuka laughed, shaking her head no. “I still do not agree, Mistress. But I like hearing you say it.”
Mistress Nabeela laughed. She ran her fingers through Shizuka’s hair, smiling at the way Shizuka’s eyelids fluttered with pleasure. It felt so good to have someone play with her hair that way. Perhaps that was why Mistress Nabeela had looked so content as Shizuka had done her hair this morning.
“I’ll keep saying it then,” Mistress Nabeela said. “Over and over. No matter where you go and what you do.”
“I do like the idea of being a doctor, Mistress,” Shizuka said. “No one in my family has ever gone to college before.”
They both jerked and scrambled as voices echoed down the hallway. Shizuka had no idea how she got from Mistress Nabeela’s lap back to the floor cushion but she did. Mistress Nabeela blushed so brightly that her cheeks nearly matched the scarlet of her scarf. They stared at each other for a moment, heat blooming in Shizuka’s belly as she saw the way Mistress Nabeela breathed harder. She ducked her head, hiding behind her hair only to lift her head and peek through her hair a moment later.
Mistress Nabeela laughed. One hand reached out to push Shizuka’s hair over her shoulder. Her fingers drifted over Shizuka’s cheek, cool and strong despite the faint tremble that made her arm shake. Shizuka caught Mistress Nabeela’s hand in both of hers, holding it to her cheek and breathing in the scent of rose and cedar that wafted from Mistress Nabeela’s sleeve.
“We should go talk to the doctor about Peni and an apprenticeship for you, Piyari,” Mistress Nabeela murmured even though she didn’t make any effort to stand.
Instead she fanned her cheeks with one hand, looking anywhere but Shizuka’s eyes and the hand pressed against Shizuka’s cheek. Shizuka rubbed her cheek against Mistress Nabeela’s palm even though she was resigned to blushing for quite some time. She didn’t think that she’d forget the feeling of Mistress Nabeela’s lips or her body underneath Shizuka for a very long time.
“Shizuka,” Shizuka said quietly.
Mistress Nabeela frowned at her. “What?”
“My name,” Shizuka said. “I know that you cannot tell anyone because of the rules but my name is Shizuka. I… would like it if you would use it when we’re alone, Mistress.”
It was terribly forward of Shizuka. She was allowed to tell if she truly wanted to but their Majesties had warned her not to do so unless she was completely certain that the person wouldn’t use her identity against her. Shizuka was sure of Mistress Nabeela. Even though they’d only just met, Shizuka was confident that Mistress Nabeela would do her best to protect Shizuka from anyone who might cause her trouble.
Mistress Nabeela’s eyes went wide and her mouth dropped open as she snatched her hand back. The bright color on her cheeks faded for a moment only to increase until it spread up to her hairline and down under the neckline of her salwar. Shizuka hid her smile behind one upraised hand but that only made Mistress Nabeela quack at her like a duck for a second.
“You!” Mistress Nabeela gasped as she flapped her hands at Shizuka. “You’re not supposed to tell me that!”
Shizuka giggled. “Perhaps not, Mistress, but… I would be happy if you’d use my name. When we’re alone.”
“I am never, ever getting anything done ever again,” Mistress Nabeela groaned. “Ever.”
Shizuka laughed harder. After a moment, Mistress Nabeela laughed too. She shook her head and stood, offering one hand to Shizuka. When Shizuka took it, Mistress Nabeela squeezed her fingers and then helped her stand. Standing so close, Shizuka could feel the heat of Mistress Nabeela’s blush.
“I will,” Mistress Nabeela whispered. She licked her lips and then smiled wryly. “Shizuka.”
The way she said it made Shizuka’s cheeks flare hot again. “Now I will never get anything done, Mistress.”
“We’re a perfect pair, then,” Mistress Nabeela laughed. “Come on, let’s go check on Peni. Talk to the doctor. Oh, and I was planning on visiting the village today. You could help me with that while the apprenticeship is set up.”
She tugged Shizuka out of the drawing room, chattering about the many things that needed to be done and how Shizuka could help accomplish them. Shizuka followed along behind Mistress Nabeela, her cheeks aching from the force of her grin. So much had changed over the course of a day. Shizuka had a place that she belonged, possibly a romance all her own. She had a potential career that would be so much more fulfilling than anything Shizuka could have dreamed. Where yesterday Shizuka had only worries and fears, today she had hope and opportunities beyond anything her imagination could have supplied. It was glorious.
“Do think that’ll work?” Mistress Nabeela asked as they hurried into the kitchen were little Peni was still soaking her hand.
“Hai!” Shizuka said and laughed. “I think it will all work out wonderfully, Mistress. Let’s get to work!”
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