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
The ballroom loomed around Keiko, roof two stories over her head and so long that three of her family’s house would have fit inside. It was filled. Entirely filled with people, all of whom were far more important than Keiko was.
Her new kimono helped, as did the lovely obi that Shizuka had found for her, but Keiko still felt completely out of place. Their little village had never prepared her for so many people crammed so close together.
Every color of the rainbow appeared on their clothes which were in so many styles that Keiko’s eyes felt dazzled. Simple kimono vied with billowing hanbok made of stiff translucent silk layered over bright underskirts. Pakistani anarkali dresses and lehenga skirts flared and danced around their wearers, all of them sparkling with gorgeous embroidery, bright colors and the sort of movement that kimono could never achieve.
Fortunately, they had completed Shizuka and Nabeela’s mehndi designs without any major problems. Keiko still wasn’t sure about the skin staining designs. They felt far too much like tattoos. But she had to admit that it had been quite nice to sit with Shizuka and carefully trace plovers and cherry blossom outlines onto Shizuka’s palms and forearms, though Keiko’s hands had shaken badly as she made the outlines. Someone else should have gone first, no matter what Shizuka and Haruka had decided.
The dancing that had followed had started out as a laughing competition between Shizuka’s family and Nabeela’s. Lord Ammad’s attempts at dancing had sent both Nabeela and Lord Bilal laughing so hard that tears ran down their cheeks. Haruka and Shahzad had competed against each other with Haruka giving Shahzad the win perhaps more for his blushes than his skill.
Embarrassingly, Keiko’s dance had prompted both sides to throw up their hands and declare that she had won the entire night despite her many small technical errors of style and positioning. But Mother had assured Keiko that they hadn’t harmed the beauty of her spring harvest dance, nor had anyone but the two of them noticed that her right foot had been two degrees out of position or that her sleeves had swung far too wildly when Keiko spun at the end of the dance. From the praise Keiko had received since then Mother had to be right. No one seemed to have noticed or didn’t care about the mistakes at all.
The smell of so many people and so much food overwhelmed the lovely elk nihari that Shizuka had pressed into Keiko’s hands before she was called away to talk to a visiting Duke and Duchess. Keiko nibbled on her nihari, stomach in knots despite how delicious the thick stew was. It truly was wonderful, thick with spices Keiko couldn’t identify, but so skillfully combined that her tongue delighted in it instead of protesting.
The heat of the day had subsided into dusky warmth that promised to lull Keiko to sleep on her feet despite her nervousness. So many bodies gathered together, there were easily two hundred people gathered in the ballroom, only added to the effect.
No one else in the family seemed nervous at all. Father and Mother sat off in a corner, chatting quietly with an older man that Shizuka had introduced briefly as Waseem Javid. He was apparently important. Father treated him as such. But Keiko hadn’t quite caught what Waseem did or why it was important to be polite to him.
In the middle of the ballroom, Haruka laughed with Shahzad, the youngest child of Lord Bilal. They seemed to have become friends instantly, Haruka’s open nature contrasting perfectly with Shahzad’s shyer, more indrawn tendencies. Keiko would have scolded Haruka for flirting but the flapping of her sleeves was from her wild gestures as she told some tale, not from efforts to make Shahzad notice her slim figure or graceful arms.
“I wonder what I do with the plate,” Keiko murmured once she’d finished the nihari, mopping up the last traces of sauce with a bit of naan bread.
Most of the people around her were focused on talk, not on eating. Few of them had finished their plates yet. Keiko craned her neck, trying to see through the crowd to where Shizuka and Nabeela had gone. That was a failure. She was just too short to do it. Instead, Keiko sighed and turned to the buffet table with its many servants dressed in beautiful blue suits cut in the Pakistani styles Lord Bilal preferred.
“Ano ne,” Keiko said, shaking her head and then continuing in common, not Japanese. “Excuse me, where do I take the plate?”
“Ah, please, allow us,” the servant, a tall man with the dark skin of a Pakistani but the eyes and hair of a Japanese person said. “Would you like anything else, miss?”
“Oh no,” Keiko said. “I wouldn’t want to impose.”
“It is not imposition,” the man said in perfect Japanese that relaxed Keiko just because it was Japanese. “You are the sister of the bride. It is our pleasure to make sure that you enjoy yourself.”
“Then I can leave now?” Keiko said quietly enough that hopefully the chatting nobles around her wouldn’t hear.
He grinned, ducked his head, and then far too solemnly for his amusement, shook his head no. Keiko sighed and let him press a little plate with strawberry mochi into her hands. It was powdered with sugar, not starch, but it was still good and tasted like home. She nibbled on it while slowly drifting away from the anchor of the buffet table.
There was more of a breeze close to the windows. Keiko went that way, following the faint scraps of coolness that drifted across her cheeks. Eventually, after dodging several earnestly chatting clusters of nobles discussing the long-running civil war in Chartea and the scandal of Countess Dancing Water’s refusal of her latest suitor in favor of her lover Sunlight on Water, Keiko fetched up against one of the windows, letting the wind blow across her cheeks.
Really, the kimono that Shizuka had given Keiko was lovely, but far too warm for this weather. With under-kimono, under obi, kimono and obi, Keiko felt rather like she was slowly steaming inside the many layers of silk. A simple cotton kimono would have been far more pleasant, if not at all appropriate to the party.
“Hmm, so you’re the younger sister.”
Keiko turned, frowning when she saw a noble lady and lord looking at her as if they expected Keiko to be a potato bug rather than a person. “I don’t believe we’ve been introduced.”
The lady frowned as if Keiko were the one being inappropriate. “I am Lady Cantara. This is my husband Firas.”
“I see,” Keiko said because what sort of introduction was that? “And you are from where, precisely? What relation do you have to Lady Nabeela? Are you guests? Relatives? Business partners?”
“You’re very rude,” Firas huffed.
“I beg your pardon,” Keiko said while standing as tall as she could. She still barely reached as high as Firas’ chin. “I am not the one attempting to have a conversation without introductions. You will excuse me. I believe I will go talk to my sister.”
She could see the offense in Lady Cantara’s face but truly, what else could Keiko do? With no idea of who they were and how Keiko ranked against them, having a conversation would be a disaster waiting to happen. But as Keiko slipped away, passing her empty plate to a servant who grinned and bowed slightly, Keiko couldn’t see Shizuka anywhere.
Lord Ammad’s mop of wavy black hair was fairly close-by, though, so Keiko headed his way. Him she knew, had been introduced to, and hopefully could trust to explain exactly how to interact with Lady Cantara and her husband. And if Keiko was truly lucky, the answer would be don’t talk to them at all.
Lady Cantara didn’t seem at all a pleasant person to associate with. She smiled politely as she carefully slipped past a knot of men in grand, heavily embroidered shirts that came down past their knees, bowing her head at their stares and suddenly paused conversation.
“Ah, Keiko,” Lord Ammad said as she appeared through the crowd. “I wondered where you were.”
“The nihari was quite excellent, Lord Ammad,” Keiko said. She bowed to the others, two women and one man, none of whom she knew. “I was hoping you could tell me who Lady Cantara was. She ah, introduced herself just now.”
“Really?” Lord Ammad said. He turned and looked around, apparently spotting Lady Cantara and Firas by the windows, because he turned back to Keiko with a snort and a wryly annoyed expression. “Hm. Well, Lady Cantara rules over the neighboring district just to the south of here. We have a lot of trade agreements with her so of course she and her new husband were invited.”
“Ah,” Keiko said, nodding politely. “I suppose my sister talks with them often, then.”
“More me than Nabeela and Shizuka, honestly,” Lord Ammad said. “But I’m being rude. Please allow me to introduce you. This is Duke Laughing Seal and his wife Duchess Chin-Sun. They are very good friends to the family and Duchess Chin-Sun has been advising Nabeela and Shizuka on their relationship from the beginning.”
He grinned at the way Duchess Chin-Sun squeaked and giggled as if she were as young as Haruka.
“And this is Lady Tamami’s cousin,” Lord Ammad continued, “Rina Screaming Eagle who was invited to come because, and I quote Lady Tamami on this, ‘someone had to come and it wasn’t going to be a potential spouse’. Duke, Duchess, Rina, this is Shizuka’s younger sister, Yasuda Keiko Summer Wind, come for the wedding.”
Keiko bowed deeply, somewhat dismayed for Rina but also amused. Rina seemed equally amused by the introduction, bowing back to almost exactly the same level as Keiko while Duke Laughing Seal and Duchess Chin-Sun only nodded slightly which was perfectly proper. Their response only highlighted Rina’s bow. Lord Ammad seemed to have overlooked it as he turned back to the Duke and Duchess, but his eyes were quite firmly on Rina’s lovely round face.
“Breathe,” Rina whispered as Lord Ammad nodded for Duchess Chin-Sun to continue whatever she’d been saying before Keiko interrupted.
“I’m not the same rank as you,” Keiko replied, smoothing her hand over her perfectly unwrinkled obi. She paused as Rina’s lips twitched and creases appeared around her eyes. “Am I? I couldn’t be!”
“You’re higher rank than you seem to think,” Rina said.
She caught Keiko’s sleeve as though they were siblings, tugging Keiko away despite the look of dismay on Duchess Chin-Sun’s face. Keiko bowed to them, bowed again when she saw disappointment in Lord Ammad’s eyes and then a third, much deeper bow when Duke Laughing Sun caught both Lord Ammad and his delicate wife by the elbows, steering them away towards the buffet.
“I’m not,” Keiko protested once they were ‘alone’ in the middle of the crowd.
“Your sister is a major medical researcher,” Rina said. “That gives your family rank. You know as well as I do that intelligence is highly prized by Their Majesties.”
“Well, yes,” Keiko said, “but that’s Shizuka. Not me.”
“And you’re related to the Queen and two Dukes,” Rina continued as if Keiko hadn’t spoken. “I asked. Mostly because my cousin Tamami is absolutely terrible about finding these things out. Her introductions are shameful.”
“Oh no,” Keiko said, horrified. “At her level?”
Rina nodded sadly, shaking her head. She smoothed her hands over the women’s hakama she had over her kimono, both in soothing shades of rust that made her skin glow as though she was aged copper. She wasn’t conventionally pretty. There were too sharp of angles to her cheeks and her chin was as pointy as the tip of a sword, but there was a sort of intelligence in her eyes that made Keiko think that she might understand far more of what happened around her than most.
“On top of that,” Rina continued and then laughed as Keiko groaned quietly, “your sister is marrying into Lord Bilal’s family. That jumps your rank up so that you’re minor nobility now. You are, don’t try to deny it. And then you’re the most beautiful woman in the room and an incredible dancer so of course you rank higher again.”
Keiko stared at Rina, mouth dropped open in shock. She shook her head no only to hide her face behind her hands when Rina nodded so seriously that she had to mean it. Which made sense of the men who had stopped talking when Keiko edged by and perhaps of the way that Lady Cantara and Firas had introduced themselves and then been so offended by her refusal to interact without proper information.
“I’m not as pretty as Haruka,” Keiko protested. “I’m too stiff. Formal.”
“And beautiful,” Rina said. She laughed, just a quiet little laugh that was more a shake of her shoulders and the wrinkling around her eyes than anything out loud. “But yes, Haruka is going to have battles fought over her in a few years.”
They both looked towards Haruka and Shahzad’s little knot of people, visible through a gap in the crowd surrounding them. All of them were young, thankfully, but it was clear that Haruka was the center of everyone’s attention. Keiko sighed. That was just like Haruka, always capturing those around her with her wild stories and laughter. Even Shizuka had fallen for Haruka’s stories before she went to be an apprentice, though not as often as the other children back home.
“I worry about her sometimes,” Keiko admitted, folding her hands over her thighs. “She’s always so bright, so open to everyone.”
Rina nodded. “I can see that. Did you realize that Duchess Chin-Sun was trying to convince Lord Ammad that he needed to propose to you?”
“What?” Keiko gasped.
Rina laughed, quite ruefully, and nodded. “Oh yes. But then she was also trying to convince Lord Ammad that I would be a good match, too. She seems quite convinced that Lord Ammad needs to marry right away. It’s nearly as bad as Tamami’s and my relatives. They said for a little while that the two of us should marry.”
“You’re cousins,” Keiko said with a little huff that made Rina’s eyes wrinkle amazingly.
She drifted towards the buffet table while nodding. The crowd parted for the two of them. Everyone they passed glanced at Rina and then stared at Keiko either openly or through little glances that said so much about how attractive they thought she was.
It was ridiculous. Keiko wasn’t that attract-tive. Her face was far too oval, stretched out long, instead of being a lovely moon shape. And her hair was a scandal, curling at the ends no matter what Keiko did. There was no possibility of Keiko ever wearing her hair loose the way Shizuka did or even the way Haruka did despite the waves that made her hair look like a black babbling brook down her back.
But no one else seemed to think that it was silly. Lord Ammad brightened as they approached. He seemed to think that Keiko was as beautiful as Rina said though his eyes spent as much time on Rina’s plain face as on Keiko’s supposedly lovely one. That was a relief. As much as Keiko loved Shizuka, she really didn’t think that being married to the same family would be a good thing.
Not that Keiko wanted to think of marriage. Especially not when she would have to go to parties like this and someday rule the entirety of Breding Manor by Lord Ammad’s side. No, Keiko wanted a quieter life, one where she didn’t have to dress up in fancy clothes all the time, where she didn’t have to worry about politics every minute of every day.
Marrying someone back home in their village was good enough for her, not that there was anyone back home that her heart felt fond for or that Mother and Father wanted to go back. Still. Marriage wasn’t something for her. Not yet. And especially not with a Lord or Lady, no matter who they were.
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