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
2. Hill Garden
Ammad brushed off his chest as he strode up the hallway behind Nabeela. He couldn’t help but be surprised that Shizuka, their Piyari, had actually told the truth about her sisters. Haruka was absolutely gorgeous. In a couple of years she’d turn heads from one end of Ambermarle to the other. She was a bit too young yet for anything romantic but with her cheerful nature and beautiful moon-like face, Haruka was certain to find dozens of suitors.
And Keiko, the middle daughter, was just as lovely, if a good bit more serious. He’d been surprised to literally run into the young woman but other than her concern about the travel dust that had afflicted every single guest to arrive over the roads, Keiko had been completely charming. And truly stunning despite her somewhat strict demeanor.
Her face wasn’t as round as either Shizuka or Haruka. Instead she had an oval face with large dark eyes. A broad nose perched over small full lips. Beautiful wide eyebrows balanced out her face, giving it a lively look that Ammad smiled over even now, after leaving her side.
Sadly, her hair had been pinned up in a smooth bun that swept from her forehead up to the top of her head. He’d glimpsed little flowers tucked into the coil of the bun when Keiko bowed, as tempting as the brief flashes of ankle he’d seen as she walked.
“You’re quiet,” Nabeela commented. She laughed at Ammad’s start of surprise. “What has you so distracted?”
“Ah, just thinking about Piyari’s family,” Ammad said.
Nabeela grinned, poking one stiff finger into his shoulder. “I saw you talking with her younger sister Keiko. She’s a lovely one, isn’t she?”
“Yes, she is,” Ammad agreed.
He didn’t add anything else but then he didn’t have to. Ever since Shizuka had accepted Nabeela’s offer of marriage, Nabeela had been determined to find Ammad a spouse. She’d arranged meetings and dates with every single eligible man and woman for dozens of miles around. Whenever someone from other provinces came to visit, Nabeela asked them about eligible people there. It had become something of a game for her to try to match-make for Ammad while Ammad gave her as little feedback as possible.
Not terribly helpful for him to find a Lady but Ammad still wasn’t sure that he was ready for marriage. It had only been a bit over a year since Mother’s death. He didn’t wake with heart-breaking loss anymore but Ammad didn’t think anyone could fill Mother’s place better than Shizuka already had.
A wife or husband would have to be someone utterly different than Mother and right now Ammad couldn’t imagine sharing his life with another person, let alone someone so different from Mother, or even Shizuka. There was time yet, no matter what Nabeela thought about it.
Predictably, Nabeela’s smile turned speculative. Ammad sighed and shook his head at her.
“I think one marriage to girls from the Village of Beautiful Women in the family is enough,” Ammad said.
“I don’t know,” Nabeela replied, chuckling at his glare. “I’m sure Shizuka would be delighted to have her little sister closer. They were quite close.”
“Please stop,” Ammad groaned.
They entered the ballroom where Father was supervising setup for tonight’s mehndi, his two new apprentices working closely with him on the setup. Shizuka’s family was the last to arrive so the celebrations could begin in earnest now. Grand banners of green and blue silk swept in dramatic swags from the windows. Someone had found time to embroider the buffet tablecloth in broad white thread. The design looked like waves with plovers flying above it.
There was no food yet, of course. Kosuke, their head chef, had been busy cooking for the last three days to get everything ready in time. He’d probably keep right on cooking all the way through the wedding celebrations and beyond. Ammad had to make sure that he took some time off after things calmed down. Kosuke had already earned that much.
“Ammad, Nabeela,” Father called, gesturing for them to come over. “I take it that Piyari’s family has arrived?”
“Yes,” Nabeela said. She blinked and then stared openly as Father started assisting hanging a narrow banner around the upper edge of the buffet table, carefully pleating the fabric so that it would drape from the center. “Father, what are you doing? The staff can handle this.”
“Avoiding the garden, of course,” Father said with smile that was more twitching lips and wrinkles at the corners of his eyes than anything open. “The guests are rather… interested that you’ve been missing all day, Ammad.”
Ammad groaned. “Father, there is still work to be done.”
“Oh, I know, I know,” Father said. “And many, if not all of the guests, feel that finding you a spouse is part of the work that you should be doing.”
Ammad groaned more loudly despite the amused looks he got. This nonsense couldn’t have infected everyone. Nabeela’s efforts to find him a spouse were bad enough. He most certainly didn’t need the entire wedding party working at it, too.
When Ammad looked through the windows towards the southern garden, he could see small groups of their guests chatting together. The garden had been carved out of the hillside behind the manor. Before the manor was built, this entire area had been nothing but up and down, the steep slopes of the hills covered with moss-covered trees and ferns. Mother had convinced Father that a garden would be helpful, at least for growing vegetables, as well as for entertaining guests.
The hillside had been carved, shaped and reworked until there were small valleys connected by stairs and wandering paths. Tiny flowing streams punctuated the garden like long lines of Japanese script. Around the created valleys, stately cedar and rose bushes grew. It was a beautiful place that languished during the winter due to the endless rain that swept in off the sound.
But now it was lovely, green and cool compared to the heat of the day. He wasn’t surprised that the guests had wandered out to stroll the garden while gossiping. The closest knots of people included several of their most important guests. Prominent among them was Waseem Javid, the head of the Shipping Guild.
And that, by itself, meant that Ammad needed to abandon his regular work and go play host. Waseem was too important to ignore, completely outside of the man’s delight in matchmaking. He took it to levels that Nabeela could never imagine though he tended to be far more subtle about his efforts.
“I’m going,” Ammad sighed. “I’m going.”
“Oh dear,” Nabeela said, her hand hiding a grin that didn’t go with the dismayed tone of voice. “Duchess Chin-Sun and Duke Laughing Seal are talking to Waseem Javid.”
“I’m going quickly!” Ammad said, horrified. “I thought one of the servants had been assigned to keep them apart.”
The laughter, from his family, the apprentices, and the servants in the dining room, brought a blush to Ammad’s cheeks. But those three together could only spell endless headaches for Ammad over the course of the wedding celebration.
Duchess Chin-Sun felt partially responsible for Nabeela and Shizuka’s engagement. They’d visited on the day that Shizuka arrived and Duchess Chin-Sun had advised Nabeela to pursue her very obvious interest in Shizuka. Her letters over the last year made it very clear that she wanted to see Ammad and his little brother Shahzad married as well, no matter what Ammad could say about it.
Duke Laughing Seal would join in Duchess Chin-Sun and Waseem’s matchmaking efforts just for the fun of it. His name was perfectly suited to his joking nature. Ammad frequently thought that he should have been named after a sea otter, not a seal, but he was a fierce hunter so it made more than a little sense.
Outside, the day was still unseasonably warm. The last several weeks had been unusually warm and dry. Instead of the near-constant rain they expected at this time of year, they had gotten occasional drizzles, heat that no one expected until mid-summer, and worries about a drought over the summer.
Justified worries, truthfully. Their fields were far too dry for the tender shoots growing in them. They’d had to divert streams just to make sure that the rice crops didn’t fail and that had impacted the maize in ways that would hurt everyone over the winter. He could only hope that the rains returned soon, though not, as Keiko had said, before the wedding.
“Ammad!” Duke Laughing Seal exclaimed as he strode over. “We were speculating where you went. There are so many lovely young people about for you to meet.”
“Not as lovely as Shizuka’s younger sisters,” Ammad declared even though he probably wouldn’t hear the end of that anytime soon. “She didn’t lie. Her sisters are even more attractive than she is.”
“Truly?” Duchess Chin-Sun asked, eyes wide enough that she looked Keiko’s age instead of in her mid-forties.
“Truly,” Ammad said. “You’ll see later. They’re getting cleaned up at the moment. The road was rather dusty. I’m honestly not sure what color their kimono were. They looked grey until they moved and then great clouds of dust billowed off them.”
Duke Laughing Seal threw back his head as he laughed. His laughter echoed through the garden, drowning out Duchess Chin-Sun’s quieter giggles and the low chuckles of Waseem. A breeze blew past them, stirring Ammad’s shirt and cooling his too-hot back. Not his cheeks, but then Ammad didn’t expect his blushes to fade until everyone stopped attempting to match him up with people.
Waseem leaned on his cane, nodding towards the manor. “Nabeela’s Shizuka did emphasize that she wasn’t the family’s beauty. My question is how they behave. They will be representing their family and the hill district while they’re here, as well as their noble relatives.”
And that was more a request for information on the girl’s personalities than it was political worries. Ammad made a show of looking back at the manor even though the family’s suite had an inner courtyard that didn’t look out on the gardens. All three of the others stared at him, Duchess Chin-Sun with a hand through her husband’s elbow and Waseem with as eager an expression as the dour old man ever allowed. Duke Laughing Seal, of course, grinned when Ammad turned back to them.
“They’ll do quite well, I think,” Ammad said. “The youngest, Yasuda Haruka Sweet Fern, is sweet, cheerful. I think you’ll like her Duke Laughing Seal. She laughed more than anything else while I was there. Quite young, a year or so younger than Shahzad. The middle sister, Yasuda Keiko Summer Wind, is the serious one of the three, I think. Somewhat stern but that may have been an effect of the travel, the dust and wanting to get clean. What surprised me was their parents. Mori’s burns are every bit as bad as Shizuka implied, all across his face and hand, but it doesn’t appear to have made the slightest difference in his marriage to Gentle Rain. She was never more than a few feet from him and he was just as attentive to her needs.”
Waseem nodded, face serious but eyes dancing with amusement. He glanced towards the stairs leading to the next level of the garden, starting so badly that Ammad automatically put a hand under his elbow.
“I think you might need to check on some of your other guests,” Waseem said in a ‘get over there and do something’ tone of voice. “We’ll be fine.”
Ammad looked and then bit his tongue against the urge to curse. Up on the next level of the garden Lady Cantara and her new husband Firas had cornered Duke Laughing Seal’s guest from Somalia, Captain Nafiso. She looked as though she had every intention of stabbing Firas in the throat so Ammad bowed his regrets to Waseem and hurried up the stairs to head off whatever Captain Nafiso was thinking of.
Really, Lady Cantara’s marriage to Firas was nearly as huge a scandal as Countess Dancing Water’s continued relationship with her lifelong friend and companion Sunlight on Water. At least they had the common sense to back off on their plans for marriage over the last year. Yes, they were still together but Countess Dancing Water had at least officially considered marriage to someone more appropriate, for all that the offers had eventually been refused.
Firas was from a poor family, just like Sunlight on Water, though he at least had the advantage of having served for Lady Cantara’s father before catching her eye. Privately, Ammad assumed that Firas had to be absolutely stellar in bed. He certainly had no other advantages to him, not even an especially comely face.
“It isn’t slavery,” Firas snapped at Captain Nafiso, his nasal voice high and grating. “I don’t believe you understand a word I’ve said.”
Ammad opened his mouth to interrupt but Lady Tamami, short and as slender as a sword, appeared on the stairs from the next up level of the gardens, frowning at Firas and Captain Nafiso. She was much like Ammad, a young Lady who was a target for every matchmaker in the area. Unfortunately, her parents had died last year around the same time as Mother, in a mudslide rather than a flash flood.
“You could attempt to explain in a less confrontational way,” Lady Tamami said coolly enough that Lady Cantara took her husband’s elbow and pulled him back. “Captain Nafiso had a valid question. Most everyone outside of Ambermarle assumes that apprentices are actually slaves.”
She strode over, her plain brown kimono covered by men’s hakama in a deep green that was almost black. Unlike Keiko, Lady Tamami’s hair was pulled back into a ponytail, only two strands in front of her ears left loose. Where Keiko and her sisters had round, beautiful faces, Lady Tamami’s face reminded Ammad of rough-hewn granite, all angles and planes instead of soft corners.
“What was your question, Captain Nafiso?” Ammad asked with a respectful bow to the Somali captain. Anyone who sailed across the ocean to set up new trade routes was definitely worthy of respect.
“I wondered why your sister would marry a former slave,” Captain Nafiso said, nodding to Ammad and Lady Tamami, glaring at Firas. “The explanation of the young woman’s position seemed to match with slavery, not anything more prestigious.”
“It’s a common misunderstanding,” Ammad said, smiling wryly. He explained it to travelers at least twice a month. “Apprentices are young people always. They are relatives to more wealthy and powerful nobility. Shizuka is related to the Queen actually. Distantly,” Ammad added that as Captain Nafiso’s eyes widened. “Quite distantly, as well as two Dukes. When poor relations encounter hard times, the King and Queen take one family member in, give them the training and education they need to work with nobility, and then send them out to train in new skills with various nobles.”
“I understood that Shizuka is training to be a doctor?” Lady Tamami said, glowering at Lady Cantara and Firas. “A researcher, yes?”
“Yes,” Ammad said so proudly that Lady Tamami snorted and Captain Nafiso grinned, her white teeth shockingly bright against her dark skin. “She has quite the talent for it, actually. We’re all quite proud of her.”
Lady Cantara snorted, tugging on Firas’ arm to pull him away. “A waste of time and money, that. We have the best medicine in the world. What need is there for spending money on pure research?”
She walked away, husband in tow, before Ammad could do more than glare at her. And if that wasn’t an indication of why Father had refused to deal with her, Ammad didn’t know what else could be. If she wasn’t careful her position would be passed to a relative who would rule her district properly. Their Majesties didn’t tolerate nobles who refused to adapt with the times.
“Fool,” Captain Nafiso murmured.
“More than she even realizes,” Ammad agreed. “Shizuka’s current project promises to help burn victims recover faster and more completely. She thinks she might have found a way to ease their scars and give them normal skin again.”
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