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
“But which one do you like the most?” Duchess Chin-Sun asked so insistently that Ammad could only sigh and shake his head at her.
“My dear, he did just meet both of them today,” Duke Laughing Seal said. He could have been scolding. Maybe. If you ignored the way his lips twitched with amusement and the mischievous expression. “You should give him time to get to know them before making them kiss.”
“I am not going to kiss either of them,” Ammad complained. “Keiko is a lovely young woman, yes, but she doesn’t show any signs of being interested in a relationship. And Rina already told you outright not to attempt to match her up with anyone.”
Duchess Chin-Sun sighed sadly over that, leaning on Duke Laughing Seal’s arm as if she’d just been struck through the heart. He, of course, laughed and supported her, pressing a kiss on her cheek. They were horrible, both of them. All of them, actually, because it felt as though the entire party had decided that Keiko and Rina were rivals for his hand in marriage.
The two young women, so different in appearance, slowly walked their way. Ammad didn’t know what they were discussing but Keiko looked horrified and Rina had a wry, amused expression on her face. As they neared the buffet table where Ammad, Duke Laughing Seal and Duchess Chin-Sun stood, both young women put on determined expressions that suggested going into battle more than getting a bite to eat.
“I am not,” Keiko said as soon as they were within earshot.
“Yes, you are,” Rina said, laughing quietly. Her smile exposed crooked front teeth but she didn’t appear to mind that at all.
“Aren’t what?” Ammad asked.
“I am not the most beautiful woman in the room,” Keiko declared. “I don’t care what anyone says. I’m not. It’s simply not possible. There are other women here who are far more attractive than I am and I won’t listen to anyone who says anything different.”
Duke Laughing Seal shouted a laugh that was so much like his namesake that Ammad jumped. He shook his head at Keiko who glared back at him so ferociously that Ammad eased off a step only to run into the edge of the buffet table. Keiko didn’t seem to notice it. She just glowered up at Duke Laughing Seal, graceful hands clenched into fists by her sides, though those fists were nearly hidden by the folds of her kimono sleeves.
“Yes, you are,” Duke Laughing Seal said. “I completely agreed with that, Rina. She is gorgeous. No offense, my dear.”
“Oh, none taken,” Duchess Chin-Sun said with a wrinkled nose and a fond kiss to his cheek. “I’m afraid you’ll just have to deal with being beautiful, dear. Because you are. And I think you’d make a lovely lady for someone. Who do you like the most?”
“You would have to talk to my parents about that,” Keiko declared so sternly that even Duke Laughing Seal winced. Duchess Chin-Sun stared. Ammad did too, though it was more for the effect she had on the two notorious jokesters. “I am not considering marriage at this time. Taking care of Father takes quite too much of my time. Thank you for your concern for me but I would appreciate it if you stopped. Entirely.”
Ammad sighed, patting Keiko’s shoulder and then pulling that hand right back in when she glared up at him. “That doesn’t work. I’ve tried. So many times.”
“Sadly, it really doesn’t,” Rina agreed. “No one will stop no matter what I tell them.”
“I don’t care,” Keiko said. She stood tall, glaring at the Duke and Duchess as if she wanted to beat them both. “My parents are the only ones who have the right to encourage me to marry someone in particular. You do not. It’s rude and inappropriate to attempt to force people into relationships and I won’t have it.”
Duchess Chin-Sun opened her mouth and then snapped it shut immediately when Keiko quite literally growled at her. Keiko bowed properly to Ammad, then to Rina and just barely bobbed her head at the Duke and Duchess before whirling and stalking through the crowd towards her parents’ side. Rina put one hand over her mouth, eyes wrinkling adorably in a suppressed laugh that Ammad completely sympathized with.
“Did she just cut us?” Duchess Chin-Sun asked. “Really?”
Ammad started laughing. He couldn’t help it, not when both the duke and the duchess looked as though someone had just slapped them. It was a terrible insult but Ammad could see Keiko’s face as she sat next to her mother. She looked as though she wanted to cry and was holding the tears in by sheer will power.
Next to him, Rina laughed too, though her laugh was a softer, sadder one. She looked through the crowd at Keiko and nodded slowly. When she turned back it was to Duchess Chin-Sun who huffed as if determined to go lecture Keiko about proper behavior.
“She doesn’t think that she’s beautiful,” Rina said. “Or important.”
Duchess Chin-Sun stopped, frowned. “How could she not?”
“I commented on her looks and Keiko said that her sister Haruka is the true beauty of the family,” Rina continued, her eyes now on Keiko and the way she leaned into her mother’s embrace, not on Duchess Chin-Sun. “I think that she truly doesn’t see herself as attractive.”
“Shortly after Shizuka came to us,” Ammad said thoughtfully, “Shizuka said something about her sisters not even being the most beautiful women in the village. She thought she was average, not extraordinary. I wonder. Maybe she really does come from the Village of Beautiful Women if both of them think their looks are only average.”
Rina nodded, just as thoughtful as Ammad was. It would explain a great deal about both Shizuka and Keiko’s behavior if they truly were only average compared to the women they’d grown up around. Though Ammad had a hard time imagining a village with that many truly stunning women.
Duchess Chin-Sun shook her head sharply, tugging at Duke Laughing Seal’s arm. He didn’t move, didn’t even meet her eyes. Instead he stared over the crowd towards Keiko and her mother murmuring together. Keiko had her sleeve over her face but her shoulders trembled as though she was crying behind that shield. Her mother had a soft, sad smile and kept kissing Keiko’s forehead as if trying to make her feel better.
“Leave it be for the moment, dear one,” Duke Laughing Seal said. “The girl is deeply upset.”
“I can’t see,” Duchess Chin-Sun said. She gasped as Duke Laughing Seal scooped her up in his arms, somehow arranging the billowing skirt so that it wouldn’t expose her legs. “You!”
“Look,” Duke Laughing Seal said with a nod in Keiko’s direction.
Finally, Duchess Chin-Sun looked. She winced, looked again and then sighed as she cuddled into Duke Laughing Seal’s arms. He smiled, holding her close as if she was a child, before setting her back down to pat at her skirts and hair.
“All right, I’ll leave her alone for a while,” Duchess Chin-Sun said. “Even though it’s a shame that someone so lovely doesn’t have faith in her own looks.”
To Ammad’s relief, the duke and duchess nodded towards him and then set off towards Father’s post on the far side of the ballroom. He waited until they were out of earshot to lean on the edge of the buffet table and sigh in relief.
“You know it won’t last,” Rina said.
“I do,” Ammad agreed. “But it’s nice not to have the constant pressure every time I look at someone. It’s gotten bad enough that I hesitate even speaking to someone suitable for fear that people will start planning our wedding immediately.”
He sighed for the inevitable return of one or another matchmaker. Sometimes he envied Nabeela and Shizuka their quiet, unremarkable meeting. They’d gotten to know each other without all the pressure and expectations that marked every single introduction for Ammad. No matter who he was introduced to now, there was an underlying thread of evaluation that he had to be aware of.
Did this person have the correct class? Could they be a good spouse to him? Would they be able to handle the pressure of being the Lady of Breding Manor? Or the Lord Consort for that matter. Ammad had met several young men who would be eminently suitable but none of them were people he could live his life with. It wasn’t the public portion that worried Ammad.
It was the private portion. How was he to meet someone and find out if they were a person he’d want to wake up to over the decades when everyone stared and commented behind their hands? Just as they were at the moment. Ammad looked towards Keiko and nodded that she seemed to have calmed down slightly. When he looked at Rina, her eyes were locked on Keiko, as well.
“I think she’ll be all right,” Ammad observed.
“She will,” Rina said confidently enough that Ammad stared at her. She grinned back at him, openly instead of hiding the smile behind an upraised hand as most Japanese-descended women did. “She’s very much like my cousin Tamami. Both of them seem to get upset, explode like the tide coming through a blow hole and then subside back to their normal practical selves.”
“That does describe Lady Tamami, doesn’t it?” Ammad laughed. “Goodness, her argument with Waseem the other day was fierce enough that I thought one or the other was going to be stabbed. But now she doesn’t seem upset at him at all.”
Rina peered through the crowd. When Ammad pointed out Waseem and Lady Tamami talking together while pointedly ignoring Lady Cantara and Firas, Rina snorted. She shook her head and then studiously pretended that that entire side of the ballroom didn’t exist. Ammad followed suit, focusing on her despite the risk of people deciding that they should immediately get married, too.
“I think that has more to do with a mutual desire to snub Lady Cantara than anything else,” Rina said.
“What happened, if I may ask?” Ammad looked despite his intentions and Lady Cantara’s face was positively livid while Firas glared daggers at both Lady Tamami and Waseem’s back.
“There was a small problem with a delegation from the south,” Rina said so carefully that Ammad raised an eyebrow at her. “It was significant at the time. Lady Cantara was visiting and well, she felt free to step in and try to ‘solve it’ for Tamami. It ah, didn’t go well for many reasons.”
“Is that why Lady Tamami came to Captain Nafiso’s rescue earlier?” Ammad asked. “I was on my way but Lady Tamami got there first.”
“Possibly,” Rina said. “I don’t know for certain but I do know that Tamami hurried away while we were exploring the gardens. They’re quite lovely. Rare to see that sort of arrangement.”
Ammad took the change of topic for what it was, an attempt to direct Ammad away from something politically sensitive. He would have to talk to Nabeela and Father about it later. If it was something that important then it was likely that it would affect them as well soon enough. Lady Cantara was their closest neighbor. Her actions always affected things at Breding Manor.
“Mother wanted gardens,” Ammad said, smiling fondly as he looked out the window towards the dark gardens. There wasn’t much to see right now but he didn’t need to actually see them. “It took several years to achieve her vision for them but I think it was well worth it. She was from the capital and always missed the rolling hills there. It’s much easier to have elaborate gardens down there than it is here. We moved so much earth and put in so many pilings to create the terraces and stairs.”
“Tell me more,” Rina suggested. She waved a dismissive hand at his concerned look. “I’ve always wanted gardens but Metchosin is as steep as it is here. I’d love to know exactly how the terraces were created so that I can cajole Tamami into creating some of our own.”
Ammad laughed, gesturing for her to follow him. “Well, far be it for me to block your efforts to scheme for gardens. It’s certainly better than scheming to get people engaged.”
Rina laughed again, bowing just enough to him that it meant go ahead. He waited until she walked at his side, not behind him, even though he knew that people were watching. They might not have equal rank but it was a party and Ammad had never learned the trick of having a proper conversation with someone who walked behind him instead of beside him.
“Well, it starts with mapping out where the water flows,” Ammad began as they approached the windows. “You see, you have to account for that or the winter rains will wash your terraces away entirely.”
Rina nodded, listening so intently that Ammad didn’t feel bad at all about abandoning the other party guests to focus on her. At least with her he didn’t have to worry about more matchmaking attempts.
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