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
Few things would have convinced Tamami to willingly spend time talking to Waseem Javid. The old man was too powerful to ignore but Tamami had spent entirely too much time over the last year dealing with the man’s not at all discrete attempts to find her a spouse. Even after she’d threatened to have the man decapitated for insolence against the nobility, the man continued to ‘suggest’ young people who might be ‘interesting’.
She breathed slowly, hoped her smile wasn’t as forced as it felt, and stayed by the old man’s side. Behind her, Tamami could smell the too-sweet blackberry wine that Lady Cantara favored. Tamami could almost feel the woman’s breath on the nape of her neck. Worse, Firas’ grumbles about the disrespect to him and his new wife were anything but quiet.
“It is a lovely party, though,” Waseem said. His smile was as forced as Tamami’s. “I do worry a touch about Yasuda Keiko. When I talked to her parents earlier they were somewhat concerned that Keiko wouldn’t adjust to her new life.”
“New life?” Tamami asked.
“They plan to move here,” Waseem explained. The smile disappeared into a concerned frown. “Mori admitted, privately, that he is still in a considerable amount of pain. He hasn’t been able to return to his glass blowing and at the moment can only support the family through teaching. His wife, Gentle Rain, is an incredible administrator, quite gifted. She had some truly enlightened suggestions that Lord Bilal is considering implementing.”
“He could get better medical care here,” Tamami said slowly. “She can help support the family. It would mean a better education for the youngest, Haruka. And they would all be much closer to Shizuka, as well.”
“Exactly,” Waseem said.
The both stiffened as Firas edged around to Waseem’s left, trying to join the conversation. Waseem turned to face Tamami squarely, one hand sweeping almost grandly towards the buffet table that Tamami had avoided so far tonight.
“Perhaps a drink?” Waseem suggested while soundly ignoring both Firas and Lady Cantara.
“That sounds good,” Tamami said even though she didn’t want anything at all from the buffet, not even a glass of plain water. “Though not the blackberry wine. Never have been able to stand it.”
“Too sweet,” Waseem agreed. He looked hopeful and then relieved as they made their slow way through the crowds away from Lady Cantara and Firas. “They may have tea. Or soup. Soup would be good.”
Tamami looked behind them, just a quick glance. Their mutual annoyances had stayed where they were, thank every deity everywhere. She looked sidelong at Waseem and nodded. He sighed happily.
“Is that hot things to drink?” Tamami asked. “Or hot things to throw in people’s faces?”
Waseem barked a laugh, startling the last cluster of people out of their way. “More the later than the former. But it appears that might not be necessary. Such a poor choice there.”
“No, she was always like that,” Tamami replied. “Never any manners or sense of propriety. I’m not at all surprised that she found someone just like herself to marry.”
Waseem nodded as he studied the sickening expanse of food on the buffet. How anyone could enjoy half-congealed nihari, rice that was crunchy from lack of cooking and whatever had happened to turn the soup into a slowly roiling pot with puddles of fat on it, Tamami would never know. She didn’t bother with an attempt at smiling, only refused Waseem’s offer of wilted strawberries on cracker-hard naan that looked days old.
“Quite tasty,” Waseem murmured around his naan-and-strawberry monstrosity. “Not hungry?”
“I… prefer not to eat from buffets,” Tamami said, heading for the windows because she could not stand to stay next to that expanse of nauseating food.
Of course, Waseem followed, eating his treat as though it actually tasted good. Rina would probably scold Tamami and tell her that it did. She still wouldn’t try the food. Better to go hungry overnight and have a larger breakfast than spend the evening in the toilets throwing up. It never failed. Every time Tamami bowed to the pressure to eat at buffets, she ended up sick to her stomach. Not worth it.
The crowds pushed them towards the corner where Yasuda Mori and his wife Gentle Rain sat with Keiko. Tamami let herself go that way even though it would only fuel Waseem’s efforts to match-make. She frowned when she saw Keiko’s face. The girl looked as though she’d been crying, as though she wanted nothing more than to escape the party entirely.
“You said that she’s not adjusting well,” Tamami murmured to Waseem.
“Not at all,” Waseem agreed. “Apparently she’s decided that she will return to their family home and she thinks that the whole family will go with her. Well, other than Shizuka, of course. That young lady shows no signs of leaving Nabeela’s side.”
Tamami chuckled. “They are quite sweet together.”
“Just what Lord Bilal’s family needed,” Waseem said with the sort of sigh that Tamami was used to when her parents’ deaths were mentioned. “The whole family was, well. Not handling their mother’s death well. Shizuka arrived and swept the grief away. They’ve all improved dramatically, even Lord Bilal. Such a miracle that he survived his injuries.”
That was something that Tamami knew very well. Everyone in the area had heard about the collapsed bridge that had swept Lord Bilal’s wife away in a flash flood. His broken ribs and deep bout with pneumonia had nearly killed the man though a year later he looked fully restored.
Perhaps not, though. Tamami watched the way Lord Bilal moved through the crowd with Nabeela and Shizuka. He’d never taken control of the manor back from Nabeela and Ammad. In fact, he’d shifted more and more control over his estates to his children over the last year. Frankly, Tamami expected that he would announce his retirement as the Lord of Breding sometime after the wedding.
“Can she go back?” Tamami asked. Her eyes drifted from Lord Bilal to Keiko, now sitting quietly and watching the crowd as if she found it the most intimidating thing she’d ever encountered.
“Perhaps,” Waseem sighed. He smiled wryly, just a twist of his lips coupled with a tiny shrug. “The house is there. But her parents have discussed selling it and the glass shop to gain money to buy their own home here. So perhaps not. I think she’s simply afraid of the change.”
And was that not something that Tamami understood to the very heart of her? Rina always called Tamami ‘bold’ and ‘adventurous’. It was true that Tamami rarely allowed fear or convention to stop her from doing what she deemed necessary. But the fear was always there. No matter what Tamami did, it lurked inside of her along with her legendary temper, waiting to explode at any moment.
“Oh dear, not again,” Waseem said, his eyes looking back the way they’d come.
“Lady Cantara?” Tamami asked.
“Yes,” Waseem replied. “Would you allow me to introduce you properly to Keiko, Mori and Gentle Rain?”
“I’ve been introduced to Keiko but yes,” Tamami said, glaring at the oncoming Lady Cantara. “I’d appreciate that.”
His eyes sparkled in just the wrong way but he still led Tamami over, bowing with her to Mori and Gentle Rain. Mori’s scars were truly horrific. The left side of his face was a different color entirely from the right, covered with ropey scar tissue that twisted his lip and cheek. His ear appeared to have been removed and his left hand was more a claw though Tamami could see very little of it. He’d mostly tucked the hand away into his kimono sleeve. It didn’t appear to matter to Gentle Rain. She sat by his side, holding his good hand and smiling at him when she wasn’t looking at the crowd or Keiko.
“Ah, Mori,” Waseem said. “Allow me to introduce Lady Tamami of Metchosin Manor. Lady Tamami, this is Yasuda Mori, his wife Gentle Rain, and their middle daughter Keiko Summer Wind. We’re attempting to avoid some unpleasant individuals currently. You’ll excuse us for pointedly ignoring the rest of the party in favor of disturbing your peace.”
“Oh, them,” Keiko said with a sniff of disapproval that prompted Waseem to laugh. “They were quite rude to me earlier.”
“Is that them?” Gentle Rain asked. She looked over Lady Cantara so disapprovingly that she and Firas slowed down. “I stand by what I advised earlier, dear. It seems quite appropriate.”
“Darling,” Mori said but his tone was amused, approving, not scolding at all.
“And what was your advice?” Tamami asked.
“Stab them,” Gentle Rain said. Her eyes sparkled with as much mischief as anything Waseem ever got up to. “Not severely, of course, but that sort of behavior really can’t be encouraged. If they won’t learn from social pressure then they apparently need to learn from pain.”
Tamami burst out laughing. She grinned at Lady Cantara who backed off a step, Firas pushed securely behind her. That would be the best thing ever to happen at a party. Well, other than the time her father decided to have a duel with a rival lord and they both fell in the sound in the middle of winter.
“I think I might be smitten with your wife,” Tamami said to Mori.
“Everyone should be,” Mori agreed.
He laughed as Gentle Rain grinned at them both, patting Keiko’s thigh before standing. She offered a hand to Mori who took it. The effort it took for him to stand up told Tamami a great deal about the extent and severity of his injuries. No wonder they were contemplating staying here rather than going home. Mori obviously did need the treatment.
“I’m afraid I must go,” Mori said, more to Keiko than to Waseem or Tamami. “It’s time for my medicine and I tend to fall asleep after I take it. It was a pleasure meeting you, Lady Tamami. I hope that we get the chance to talk more before the wedding.”
“I’m sure we will,” Lady Tamami said. “Sleep well.”
Keiko watched them go, biting her lip as if she wanted to follow them. Tamami didn’t blame her. The party had to be overwhelming to someone from a tiny village. Frankly, Tamami found it somewhat overwhelming but that was more for the proximity to the buffet than anything else. Other than Lady Cantara.
“That woman needs to learn to take a hint,” Waseem grumbled. “Excuse me, Lady Tamami, Yasuda Keiko. I simply will not deal with them if I don’t have to.”
He hobbled off into the crowd, leaving Tamami and Keiko to face Lady Cantara’s determined approach. Tamami glowered at her, looked outside and then turned to Keiko. A change of venue seemed in order.
“Have you seen the garden at night?” Tamami asked. “It’s still quite dry.”
“That’s allowed?” Keiko asked, delight transforming her from ordinary beauty into some-thing so extraordinary that the kami themselves would be charmed.
“I’m not going to ask first,” Tamami said. She grinned as Keiko’s delight turned into the same sort of mischief that Gentle Rain had displayed. “Shall we see if we get scolded?”
“Absolutely,” Keiko said. She sniffed as Lady Cantara and Firas stopped directly in front of them. “I’m so sorry but we were just leaving. Do please excuse us.”
“Do you think you’re more important than me?” Lady Cantara hissed, her cheeks going blazingly red.
“I am,” Tamami declared.
“I’ve been reliably informed that yes, I actually am,” Keiko said so sweetly, so mildly, that Tamami turned to stare at her. “After all, I am related to the Queen, two Dukes and soon, Lord Bilal as well. I believe that I may outrank Lady Tamami, as well.”
Tamami nodded thoughtfully. “That’s… very possible, actually. I hadn’t thought of it that way. I usually let Rina keep track of things like that. She keeps all the bloodlines and connections of Ambermarle in her head. Somehow. No idea how she manages it.”
“Well then,” Keiko said, nodding as if that in and of itself solved the matter. “Good evening.”
“You would do well to cultivate connections,” Lady Cantara hissed.
Tamami’s hand landed on her dagger again but the tone didn’t appear to bother Keiko. She turned, looked over her shoulder at Lady Cantara and then blinked several times as if confused by what Lady Cantara had said.
“I thought I was,” Keiko said. “Worthwhile connections. Shall we, Lady Tamami?”
Tamami grinned and nodded, gesturing for Keiko to precede her. It only emphasized Keiko’s importance relative Tamami’s but that was all right. At this point all Tamami wanted was to get away from Lady Cantara and her unpleasant husband. She really would have to ask Rina about their relative ranks later on but that could wait. There was a garden away from the crowds and the buffet table and a lovely young woman with a temper that seemed to be a match for Tamami’s. At least they could complain at each other.
Tamami didn’t let herself consider that they would be alone together in the dark garden. They had only just met and lustful fantasies were just that: fantasies.
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