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
3. Sudden Vision
Tamami stared up at Lord Ammad. She’d heard that Lady Nabeela’s bride was incredibly bright and beautiful but she hadn’t thought that the intelligence went that deep. Usually when people praised apprentices in that fashion they were being kind, not literal.
“Is that possible?” Captain Nafiso asked, a skeptical frown twisting her lean, dark face.
“So far, it looks as though it is,” Lord Ammad said. He smiled and waved one hand aimlessly. “One of our kitchen girls was burned quite badly on Shizuka’s first day. She helped keep the burn from getting worse and had this odd treatment of putting the lining of a pig’s stomach over the burn. Amazingly enough, it helped. The girl recovered with barely any scarring at all.”
“A pig’s stomach?” Tamami asked. “That’s horrifying!”
“But effective,” Lord Ammad said. He shrugged. “I don’t understand it myself but Shizuka has been working to grow new sheets of skin for burn victims. It’s limited, so far, but it seems to work. I think she has the aim of helping her father return to glass blowing. His accident was what sent her into the apprentice program in the first place.”
Tamami looked towards the manor, stomach roiling at the sheer idea of growing skin as though you were growing maize or rice. She had no idea how it could be done or how it would be attached. Did you just flay the person’s skin off and put new skin on top?
The broad door that led from the garden to the ballroom opened, allowing Lady Nabeela and her bride Shizuka emerge. They smiled at each other so sweetly that Tamami did her best to shake off the nightmare images of people’s skin being flayed off only to be replaced with pale new sheets of skin, wrapping around them like a shroud.
“There she is,” Lord Ammad said. “You can ask her to explain it if you like. The last time I did, Shizuka said that it would be years, perhaps decades, before the treatment would be available widely.”
“No, thank you,” Tamami said a bit too hastily given the surprise in Lord Ammad’s eyes and the raised eyebrow from Captain Nafiso. “My apologies. I think I’m going to have nightmares about it as it is.”
“Understandable,” Lord Ammad said so wryly that Tamami immediately felt better. “I was much the same but, well, I just met her father and I can see why Shizuka is so focused on it.”
He looked towards the ballroom, nodding as several more people slipped out behind Lady Nabeela and Shizuka. One was a girl of about fourteen or so, bright, cheerful and the sort of beauty that promised battles in a few years. After her were two older people who must be Shizuka’s father and mother. The mother was native, Tamami assumed Snohomish given what she’d heard about Shizuka’s origins, but the father might have been full Japanese.
It was hard to tell. Terrible burn scars disfigured the left side of his body, all down his left cheek, his neck. Tamami had to assume that the burns covered his arm, as well, because his left hand curled in a disfigured claw. Even his leg appeared affected. He limped badly. His kimono hid most of the damage but something horrific obviously had happened to the man.
“What happened?” Captain Nafiso asked much more quietly.
“He was a glass blower,” Lord Ammad explained in a low tone that wouldn’t carry beyond the three of them. “There was an accident at the forge and a fishing globe he was blowing exploded. Two of his assistants were killed outright. They thought that he would die as well but he didn’t. As I said, Shizuka became an apprentice to get proper medical treatment for him. Their village is small, up in the mountains, very distant.”
“Ah,” Tamami sighed, shaking her head in dismay while watching the poor man’s slow progress towards one of the seats close to the ballroom entrance. “Too remote for proper care.”
Whatever Lord Ammad said went in one ear and out the other as another young woman emerged from the ballroom. Even with her head bowed so that she could watch her step, the girl was gorgeous. A face like a fat grain of rice, round and brown, hair as black as ink swept up into a simple bun on the back of her head. She moved with the sort of grace that brought to mind dancers in the spring singing for a good harvest.
Tamami’s heart skipped a beat. She couldn’t remember the last time someone had struck her that strongly. The young woman seemed like grace and charm personified, as if the kami had come down and slipped into an elegant blue and green kimono. Even the sweeping lines of the grass and bamboo on her kimono emphasized her looks.
“That…” Tamami didn’t know what she was going to say. Words ran out after the one because the young woman raised her face and she was even lovelier than Tamami had thought.
“That’s Shizuka’s younger sister, Keiko,” Lord Ammad said, grinning at Tamami’s open mouth. “I tease Shizuka that she comes from the Village of Beautiful Women but I think I might be right about that.”
Tamami nodded, unable to do more than that. Three gorgeous daughters in the same family? And the mother was equally beautiful. There must be something magical in the water in her home village for them to be that beautiful. The scent of roses and dust from the road combined in Tamami’s nose with Keiko’s lovely face as she looked up over the garden terraces, eyes widening and mouth pursing in a tiny ‘o’ of awe. Keiko looked like a spirit, a goddess, something ethereal and yet utterly human all at once.
Her feet moved of their own accord, carrying Tamami down the stairs past Duke Laughing Seal and the equally stunned Duchess Chin-Sun. Both Lord Ammad and Captain Nafiso followed her. As they approached, Keiko stopped, one hand discretely smoothing her kimono so that it lay perfectly across her thighs, the hem pooling around her delicate feet and the elaborately embroidered tabi protecting her toes.
Tamami bowed slightly, her eyes locked on Keiko’s lovely brown face. She could see shyness, curiosity, and a sort of strength that Tamami wasn’t used to in truly beautiful people. Keiko nodded, cheeks darkening in a slight blush, before turning to Lord Ammad with her thick eyebrows drawn together into a disapproving frown that prompted Lord Ammad to laugh quietly as he gestured towards Tamami and Captain Nafiso.
“Keiko,” Lord Ammad said. “Allow me to introduce you. This is Lady Tamami of Metchosin Manor and Captain Nafiso of Somalia, Africa. Lady Tamami, Captain Nafiso, this is Yasuda Keiko Summer Wind, sister to my sister’s bride.”
“I am most honored to meet you,” Keiko said.
She bowed deeply, far too deeply in Tamami’s opinion but that was more because Tamami wanted to see more of that lovely face. Captain Nafiso chuckled as Keiko straightened back up, smiling at the young woman though the look in her eyes was somewhat wary.
“More names means more important?” Captain Nafiso asked.
Tamami burst out laughing, shaking her head ‘no’. “More names means that her parents had more traditions to honor, that’s all.”
“Yes,” Keiko agreed, one hand over her blushing cheek. “I am not important at all. Truly, all my family’s connections are quite indirect. My father’s family name is Yasuda. I was named Keiko for my great-grandmother and Summer Wind by my mother’s tribe. I would prefer if you referred to me as Keiko. That is the name I am most comfortable with.”
Her cheeks continued to redden as she spoke until her whole face had turned a dusky rose. Keiko glanced up at Tamami and Lord Ammad, then out over the lawn. Immediately, her eyes snapped downwards towards the grass as if she couldn’t bear whatever she’d seen.
When Tamami managed to tear her eyes off Keiko’s face she saw exactly what had upset the girl. Duchess Chin-Sun, Duke Laughing Seal and that old busybody Waseem Javid were all staring at them with delighted, anticipatory expressions. Tamami huffed, one hand on her dagger. The lot of them should be shoved into the sound if only the shock of the cold water wouldn’t stop Waseem’s old heart.
“Ignore them,” Tamami told Keiko. “They’re excited that you’re beautiful and talking to Lord Ammad and I. Should mind their own business.”
“They think it is their business,” Ammad sighed.
“I… do not understand?” Keiko said, eyes finally rising to move from Lord Ammad’s face to Tamami’s and back.
“Even I know what it is,” Captain Nafiso chuckled. She shrugged at Keiko’s impatient gesture. “Matchmaking. Both Lord Ammad and Lady Tamami are of an age to marry. Everyone I have spoken to so far is talking of what engagement will come from your sister’s wedding.”
Tamami stiffened at the ‘everyone’. It had better not be everyone. She’d already made it clear that she wouldn’t put up with anyone shoving potential romantic partners at her. Though. Looking at Keiko, Tamami had to admit that she wouldn’t mind that much, as long as it was Keiko she got to spend time with.
Apparently Keiko found the idea as horrifying as Tamami did. She straightened up so much that she came nearly to the top of Lord Ammad’s shoulder, a truly ferocious frown on her face as she stared at Waseem, Duke Laughing Seal and Duchess Chin-Sun. They blinked, Duchess Chin-sun backing off half a step.
“That is not appropriate,” Keiko hissed at Lord Ammad. He grinned. “It’s not! Our family simply isn’t the right class for me to marry either of you.”
“You’re related to the Queen,” Lord Ammad countered far too mildly, still grinning. “And two Dukes. Plus Shizuka is marrying Nabeela.”
“That doesn’t count!” Keiko protested so earnestly that Tamami started chuckling. Keiko whirled and glared at her, just as fierce as an eagle, as small as a hummingbird. “It doesn’t. The connection is so distant that it’s ridiculous. And Shizuka earned her place through apprenticeship, not because we’re the right class. They shouldn’t simply shove me at people. It’s inappropriate.”
Tamami laughed in earnest. It wasn’t the right thing to do, not at all, not when Keiko glowered ferociously at her but Tamami couldn’t help it. The old rules of class and culture were slowly breaking down. Countess Dancing Water and her lady-love Sunlight on Water certainly were seeing to that.
“I do apologize,” Tamami said through her laughter. “Truly. I completely agree with you. I’ve already warned them all to stop pushing eligible people at me. I’ll marry when I’m ready and not one minute before it. It’s just that those rules aren’t as strong as they once were.”
“It’s scandalous,” Keiko insisted. She huffed and tucked her hands into her sleeves as she glowered at Duchess Chin-Sun and Waseem. The sleeves quivered as if Keiko’s hands shook. “Those rules exist for a reason. Ambermarle has prospered because the nobility take care of the people and the people take care of them. It works. Breaking down the boundaries between the nobility and the common folk just means that the old ways will fail. I don’t approve of that, not at all.”
Lord Ammad stared at her, as did Captain Nafiso. They didn’t seem to think that Keiko could be serious about it but she looked in earnest to Tamami. Keiko’s views were very traditional but she was from a distant village and her family looked to be quite old fashioned. Tamami nodded slowly, gesturing with the hand that wasn’t resting on her dagger.
“Some change is good,” Tamami said. “Your sister is apparently researching new cures for burn victims.”
“Oh yes,” Keiko said nodding and then smiling towards Shizuka with so much pride that Tamami wondered whether she believed that Shizuka set the stars and the sun in the sky. “That’s wonderful. She already came up with a cream that’s helped ease Father’s burns amazingly. It keeps the sun from hurting quite so badly. But that’s different. That’s not throwing away the rules that keep society in order and blindly wandering off without a plan or hope of finding one.”
“You’re still related to the Queen, two Dukes and soon us,” Lord Ammad said.
He laughed at the way Keiko huffed, hiding her face in her hands. Tamami patted Keiko’s shoulder. Really, that was more than Lady Cantara had with her husband Firas. Keiko sighed, her frown like a thing alive as she glared at Lord Ammad.
A breeze swept across the lawn, refreshingly cool compared to the heat of the afternoon. Keiko’s hand drifted up to smooth her hair as if worried that it would come loose. An abrupt vision of Keiko, her hair loose and smooth over her shoulders, smiling at Tamami, filled her mind.
Tamami swallowed and eased back half a step. She really shouldn’t get attached. A girl as lovely as Keiko, with the connections she now had, was going to find a husband or wife very quickly. And Tamami wasn’t going to be the one. There was no reason for Tamami to pursue Keiko, not when the girl seemed so reluctant and Lord Ammad seemed to be interested in her already. His smile included a slight swaying towards Keiko as if he was the fish caught on Keiko’s hook.
Yes, Tamami shouldn’t let her sudden crush on Keiko get the better of her. Lord Ammad clearly had first claim, not that Keiko herself looked as though she’d allow anyone to lay claim to her.
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