As her older sister’s wedding begins, Keiko struggles to cope with a level of society she has never prepared for. Raised a peasant, Keiko is now a member of nobility. Despite that, she longs for the simplicity of her rural peasant life but her family’s choices mean that Keiko will never go home again.
Worse, everyone at the wedding assumes that Keiko will marry her future brother-in-law, Ammad, despite Keiko’s fascination with the visiting Lady Tamami.
Following the Trail is a sweet romance where cruel gossip and sheer determination create a trail to a new life that promises everything Keiko could ever want.
Following the Trail
By Meyari McFarland
1. Dusty Road
Keiko licked her dusty lips as she carefully eased out of the carriage that had brought them from their home village in the mountains to Breding Manor, awkwardly feeling with her geta for the step that the servants had put down. The air was heavy with dust, full of the scent of moss and roses. It should be raining but this year had been unusually dry. The road had been dusty enough that Keiko’s indigo kimono looked grey rather than blue.
She still couldn’t believe that Shizuka had gotten engaged to Lord Bilal Mansoor’s daughter Nabeela. In just a few days Shizuka would be the Lady of Breding Manor, or at least the Lady’s wife. It seemed like a dream, a fantasy, but no, nearly a year to the day after Shizuka arrived at Breding Manor, here they were, getting ready for a wedding.
Once securely on solid ground, Keiko turned to help Father down. His burns were healed, though the scars would always remain, twisting his face, the skin on his left arm and leg, into something as fearsome as an oni. Keiko knew that he still felt the pain from the exploding molten glass that had set them all on this path. He hissed at her grip on his left elbow, hand curled into an awkward claw, but he nodded his thanks once he was down. His left leg hadn’t been too badly burnt but the doctors had said that the knee would always be a problem for him.
Little Haruka followed, scampering down with a flash of calf that made Keiko frown at her. Mother followed more carefully, patting her kimono into place and then taking Father’s arm. All of them were sweaty from the ride. If it wouldn’t have taken too long, Keiko would have preferred to walk. The carriage had been horrible, jolting side to side and so hot that she felt faint standing there.
“It’s huge!” Haruka whispered, tugging on Keiko’s sleeve. “O-nii-chan, this is really Shizuka’s new home?”
“It must be,” Keiko whispered back without tugging her sleeve free from Haruka’s grip.
It truly was enormous. Keiko couldn’t see how big the building actually was. Built on a rare bluff, flat enough for a large building, Breding Manor seemed to fill every inch of that space. The building itself was one story tall in most areas. She could just glimpse a two-story section towards the back but it seemed to be miles away. Their little two-room home could have fit into Breding Manor twenty, maybe thirty, times.
She’d never been somewhere so grand before. The roof had striking tile that looked as though it was generations old, covered with thick moss that gave it a living feel. Underneath, cedar planks covered the walls. Wide windows of many panes spread across the entire expanse of the wall facing them. The amount of fuel necessary to heat the place with that many windows was unimaginable.
The front door, huge and carved with beautiful deer, salmon and bear designs by local artisans, swung open as a grand lady in the most beautiful blue resist-dyed kimono that Keiko had ever seen hurried out. She smiled so brightly at them that Keiko automatically bobbed her head in a bow, only to stop and lift her head to stare.
“Shizuka,” Keiko breathed.
“Father, Mother,” Shizuka said, hurrying over to hug Mother tightly, Father gently. “I’m so glad you’re here! Come inside, we have cool drinks and the servants are drawing baths for everyone so that you can get clean.”
Keiko gasped when Shizuka pulled her into a hug, protesting wordlessly at the thought of all the dust coating that beautiful kimono. Shizuka laughed at Keiko’s dismay when she finally let Keiko go. The entire front of her kimono, even her beautifully embroidered obi, were coated with dust.
“Oh no!” Keiko protested. “Shizuka! Your kimono!”
“It will come off,” Shizuka said, flapping a hand and then laughing again as Haruka all but knocked her over with another hug. “It’s just dust. At least it’s not mud or blood or vomit. You know I’ve been training to be a doctor. A little dust is nothing.”
And that was another thing that Keiko found hard to believe. Her big sister, a doctor. Not just one that went village to village treating minor injuries and birthing babies, but one who would research new cures for diseases and better ways to treat people’s injuries. It seemed impossible, incredible, but Father had assured Keiko that it was true.
She followed along behind Shizuka and the rest of the family, feeling somewhat like a wandering ghost in their wake because none of this felt real. Breding Manor was enormous. The entrance was nearly as wide as their house, three times as wide as Keiko could stretch her arms. Inside it was much cooler, a pleasant breeze flowing through the wide-open windows. Everything was blue inside, the carpet a gorgeous blue and white rug. The tiles underneath were blue and white, too. Even the benches for people to sit on as they removed their shoes had lovely blue cushions with elaborate embroidery on them that Keiko hated to stain with her travel dust.
Shizuka waved for them to remove their shoes by the door, already arranging indoor slippers for all of them, two by two by two. Those were blue, too. Keiko looked at Shizuka as she slipped her geta off. The slippers were lovely, Pakistani style with closed toes and heels. Someone, possibly Shizuka, had covered them with embroidered lotus blossoms and cranes.
“I don’t think they’ll fit,” Keiko said in a pretend whisper that made Haruka start giggling.
“Why?” Shizuka asked.
She looked down at Keiko’s sturdy tabi, heavily embroidered with indigo blue Sashiko, and burst out laughing. There really was no way for Keiko’s feet to fit in the closed slippers, not with her very warm and very sturdy tabi on.
Shizuka hugged Keiko, giggling in Keiko’s ear only to laugh even harder as Keiko tried to brush the dust off her kimono. “It’s fine, Keiko-chan. It’s only dust. It will come off easily, truly.”
“It’s silk,” Keiko huffed at her. “For the Buddha’s sake, do take it seriously, Shizuka.”
“I do,” Shizuka said, grinning. “But dust is just dust. Here, there are zori you could wear, too.”
“The tabi work well enough,” Keiko protested. “You don’t need to fuss, Shizuka.”
The whole family looked at Keiko’s feet, at the sturdy tabi that Keiko had decided would keep her toes warm, dry and safe no matter what happened today. They’d been too warm in the carriage but Keiko still thought it was a good choice. Father nodded, his smile twisting strangely because of the scars on his cheek, while Mother sighed and shook her head disapprovingly. Haruka went right to a chest in the corner of the entryway, pulling out a pair of zori that she passed to Shizuka, who far too ceremoniously for her smile and quiet laughter, offered them to Keiko.
“All right,” Keiko sighed. “If it makes you happy.”
“Having you all here makes me happy,” Shizuka declared so earnestly that Keiko blushed.
The hallway Shizuka led them down had an old wood floor that was as comforting as home but there were expensive rugs on the walls and narrow tables with the most gorgeous pottery that Keiko had ever seen, too. The other side of the hallway had those many wide windows with their dozens and dozens of panes of glass flung open to get every scrap of breeze.
The sheer amount of carefully blown flat glass said how rich Breding Manor was. Father had always charged three and four times the price for flat glass as for regular glass items like bowls or glasses. It was amazingly clear of bubbles, too, which meant even greater expense.
Keiko slowed as she tried to add up how much money had gone into those incredible windows, staring out over the broad expanse of lawn north towards the town by the port and the ocean beyond. She’d never seen the ocean before. It was as blue as Breding Manor, dancing and glinting in the afternoon sun like Father’s broken-glass sun catchers.
The port looked very much like home, the houses a mixture of native long houses and Japanese-style houses with peaked roofs overhanging broad porches. Flags waved in the wind everywhere in the port, festooned from rooftops and buildings, stabbed into the sides of the road, and waving from the back of workers along the path from the port to the Manor.
“The wedding,” Keiko whispered. “Shizuka’s wedding. That’s why.”
She looked towards Shizuka and then gasped because she barely saw Haruka’s heel disappearing around a corner. Keiko ran, one hand holding her kimono skirt up so that it wouldn’t drag and trip her. The zori were a bit too big, flapping under her feet and slapping against her heels as she ran.
The rest of her family disappeared around another corner as Keiko followed them. She hurried onwards, tempted to kick the zori off so that she could run properly but no, there were nobles around somewhere. There had to be. Shizuka was marrying a lady and that meant that many other nobles had to have been invited to the wedding.
Keiko rounded the next corner only to run straight into someone’s broad chest. She gasped, stumbled backwards and then blushed as she realized that she’d left a dusty face print on the scarlet fabric of the man’s shit.
“I beg your pardon!” Keiko gasped, hand fluttering between hiding her burning cheeks and not quite brushing the dust off the man’s chest. “I am so very sorry!”
“Huh,” the man said, grinning at Shizuka. “I guess Piyari is from the Village of Beautiful Women.”
“Who?” Keiko asked, staring up at him. “What?”
“Ah, my apologies,” the man said, laughing quietly. “Shizuka’s apprentice name was ‘Piyari’. It means ‘pretty girl’. My sister Nabeela gave it to her.”
Keiko put her hand over her mouth to smother the giggles welling up despite her horror at having run into him. “Oh dear. Really? Does she still call Shizuka ‘pretty’?”
“Every day,” the man said, nodding solemnly though his eyes sparkled with amusement. “And we tease her about it every day, too.”
He laughed, low and confident. Keiko bit her lip to keep from laughing out loud. To her embarrassment, he offered an elbow to Keiko. Rather than take it, Keiko waved her hands and patted her sleeves, wincing at the sheer amount of dust that came off.
“I shouldn’t,” Keiko said. “I’m terribly sorry but the road was very dusty and I wouldn’t want to get you any filthier than I already have. I fell behind, looking out at the ocean, you see, and well, now I’m not sure where they’ve gone.”
“I can show you,” he said. “Your family’s suite isn’t far, just a bit down the hallway. And you needn’t worry. All of our guests arrived dusty. Better than muddy though we could use more rain.”
“Just not on the day of the wedding,” Keiko agreed.
She wrinkled her nose and tried not to grin as he laughed and nodded while gesturing for Keiko to walk beside him as if she was an important lady in her own right rather than a former glassblower’s daughter. Ahead, Keiko could hear Shizuka and Haruka giggling over something so he must be right that she wasn’t too far behind. Still, Keiko tried to discreetly tug at her kimono skirt so that it wouldn’t flap too much.
“Ammad,” Shizuka said, smiling as they turned into a huge suite easily twice the size of their home. “Come meet my family.”
“I’ve already met one of your sisters,” said Ammad as he gestured towards Keiko. “You truly do come from the Village of Beautiful Women.”
“Ammad!” Shizuka groaned. “It is not! Are you ever going to let that joke go?”
She shook her head as Haruka laughed with delight, clapping her hands, and Father nodded as if Ammad was completely correct. Keiko’s heart skipped a beat, looking from Ammad to the beautiful tall woman standing with her arm around Shizuka’s shoulders. They were siblings, they had to be with those noses and the same gracefully wavy hair three shades darker than their lovely brown skin, which mean that she’d run straight into the heir of the manor, Ammad Bilal.
The dusty imprint of Keiko’s face hung on his chest like a dim mirror reminding her of just how little she had in common with Shizuka’s new life. Nothing here felt familiar, especially Shizuka in her beautiful silk kimono and her bride Nabeela, so tall and gorgeous with all the embroidery covering her lovely skirt. Keiko slowly crept into the suite, following Ammad at a more proper two paces behind now. He didn’t seem upset. She hoped he wasn’t upset. At least, he didn’t act angry. Maybe.
Around them, several servants worked to straighten cushions and lay out juice and bits of flat bread covered with salmon paste. They nodded politely when the noticed Keiko looking, occasionally smiling towards Shizuka and her bride Nabeela. For all that they were servants, they seemed far more grand and important than Keiko but that was probably the dust and travel speaking. A good bath, a chance to put on clean clothes, would help enormously. Going back home to their little village would help even more, if she even got to do that after the wedding.
Keiko certainly wasn’t going to sit down on anything, not when she was this filthy. Frankly, she didn’t even want to move her arms for fear of dislodging more dust to fall on the thick blue and green carpet. Or on the indigo dyed cushions, each resist dyed with different sorts of flowers. Much less the food. That would a horrible waste.
“Did you want to bathe first or eat first?” Shizuka asked, startling Keiko out of her thoughts.
“Bath,” Keiko declared before anyone else could say anything. “I’m sorry, Father, Mother, but it was terribly hot and dusty.”
“I agree,” Father said, nodding and smiling quietly at her. “The carriage was very convenient but we are somewhat ah, well.”
He slapped his right thigh. A great cloud of dust billowed up and then drifted down towards the gorgeous carpet. Haruka laughed out loud, nodding her agreement while Mother sighed towards the food and then nodded that baths would be a good place to start.
“Baths it is,” Shizuka said with a quieter version of Haruka’s giggles. “You have your own private bath in this suite, with a view of a private garden, too. Right through here.”
Nabeela pressed a quick kiss against Shizuka’s cheek. Of course Shizuka blushed but not as much as Keiko did. Her sister was actually getting married. To a Lady. A very beautiful, powerful and important Lady.
It was enough to make Keiko’s head swim as Shizuka showed them the bath and then laid out fresh, new kimono for all of them. Father’s was a deep, deep blue, decorated with tiny stripes of pale blue every finger’s width down the length of the body. Mother’s was semi-formal indigo blue with a beautiful yuzen reserve-dyed pattern with lily blossoms and pads around the hem and on the sleeves.
But the kimono for Haruka and Keiko were unbelievably beautiful. Both were blue, as seemed to be the norm for Breding Manor. Haruka’s was pale blue with waves across the left shoulder that blended down into pale yellow iris across the right sleeve and around the hem. It was so perfect for Haruka’s sweet, uncomplicated nature.
Keiko’s was so beyond what she needed, with a background pattern of bamboo bending from left hem to right sleeve covered by tall fronds of pampas grass in pale, pale green. The hem that wrapped around to the front was pale creamy blue, decorated with stylized dragonflies. It all but shouted summer and elegance.
“It’s too much,” Keiko protested.
“Nonsense,” Shizuka huffed, setting a lovely deep blue obi with geometric tortoise shell brocade on top. “It’s a present. You’d need new kimono for the parties leading to the wedding, anyway.”
Keiko blushed harder at Mother’s stern look, bowing formally with her sleeves caught in her hands so that they wouldn’t flap and spray dust over the beautiful new kimono. It felt like too much but Shizuka was probably right. This level of society wasn’t something that Keiko was used to. At least with a new kimono she wouldn’t feel quite so out of place, like a mushroom growing in the middle of a formal garden. She would have to argue even more strongly for going home. There was no way that Keiko could live here, amongst this sort of luxury.
“Thank you very much, Shizuka,” Keiko said.
“You’re welcome, Keiko-chan,” Shizuka said. “Now get cleaned up. I’m sure you’ll all feel better once you’re clean.”
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