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
7. Dark Garden
The garden was silent, cool, and mysterious. Keiko carefully picked her way along the trail, following the lantern that Lady Tamami carried. She hadn’t expected to actually walk deep into the garden but now that they were out of the heat and noise, Keiko didn’t want to go back.
She could smell moss and dusty ferns. Tiny brooks babbled through the garden, tumbling over carefully placed rocks and scampering under tiny bridges. Earlier in the day, Keiko had assumed that the garden was tiny, especially in comparison to Breding Manor but now, following Lady Tamami, it unfurled like a spring fern, revealing tiny glade after little lawn after winding trail.
“It’s huge,” Keiko whispered and then ducked her head at the amused look Lady Tamami threw over her shoulder. “I feel like we could encounter a kitsune at any moment.”
“I certainly hope not,” Lady Tamami said with a shudder for that thought. “I have enough trouble with that old man Waseem.”
“Really?” Keiko asked. “He seemed quite reasonable.”
“He’s a matchmaker,” Lady Tamami said as though that was comparable to being a murderer. “Every time I see the man he’s pushing me at some eligible young thing. Threatened to stab him if he keeps it up.”
Keiko laughed despite herself. “I think Mother would approve of you. When she was young she chased one suitor off by firing arrows at him. Hit him in the thigh. He still walks with a limp.”
Lady Tamami’s laughter echoed through the little glade they’d entered. It was high enough that when Keiko looked back at Breding Manor, she could see right over the top of it to the town below and the sound beyond. The moon shown down over them all, transforming the dark shadows into silvery outlines of trees and shrubs. In the village she could see the peaks of rooftops and beyond, the gentle waves of the sound sparkled like the stars overhead.
“It’s beautiful,” Keiko whispered, one hand over her beating heart.
“It is,” Lady Tamami agreed, her voice low and throaty. “Didn’t expect that. Rina’s always on me to build gardens behind Metchosin Manor but there’s just no room. Might work if we did it this way.”
“Terraces do make a difference,” Keiko agreed.
They stood together, looking out over the night. It was quiet, still. Comfortable. Keiko blinked and then frowned. She hadn’t been comfortable in so long. When was the last time she truly felt at peace with the world and herself?
Not since Father’s accident, certainly. He was always in such pain that Keiko worried endlessly about him. And truly, not for a while before that, too. Boys from the neighboring villages had started following Keiko about when she was thirteen, far too young for marriage. Nothing she’d been able to do made a difference. But that was life. It was just how things worked. Wasn’t it?
Keiko glanced at Lady Tamami. She probably never felt the anxiety that haunted Keiko. Lady Tamami was a warrior, quite obviously, and a powerful and successful Lady. Her eyes lingered for a moment too long. Lady Tamami caught the glance, turned and frowned at her.
“Did I say something wrong?” Lady Tamami asked. “You look distressed.”
“I am sorry,” Keiko sighed. “I get anxious at times. This is all so new and unfamiliar. I will be very glad to go home.”
“I thought that your parents were considering staying,” Lady Tamami said more slowly. “So that your father could get better treatment for his burns.”
Keiko winced. They had discussed it. Extensively. Haruka was of course excited about the idea but Keiko had argued strongly against it. Moving to a place that they didn’t know, where they had no guaranteed source of income, seemed like madness, even with the possibility of Father getting better. But then, Father could teach so many more students here. And Mother could always get another job doing administration work. Shizuka’s letters had been very clear on the fact that they needed someone truly expert at administration to handle the many treaties and contracts that came through Breding Manor.
“They’ve discussed it,” Keiko admitted in the face of Lady Tamami’s worried frown. “I don’t believe they’ve decided yet. I still want to go home.”
“I understand that very well,” Lady Tamami sighed. “I’m going to starve before I get home again.”
This time it was Lady Tamami who winced and looked away, rubbing the back of her neck as if she was embarrassed. The lantern wobbled in her hand, prompting Keiko to take it and set it on the ground away from their feet. Kicking it over would make getting back down to the manor nearly impossible.
“You don’t like the food here?” Keiko asked.
“No, it’s the buffet,” Lady Tamami admitted, her cheeks bright red even in the dim light of the moon and the lantern. “I can’t eat food from a buffet. It’s… horrifying. Sitting there, congealing and going rotten while you watch. Makes me sick to my stomach to even think of it.”
Keiko blinked. “So, that means you haven’t eaten at all. Lunch was a buffet. So was dinner. Breakfast?”
“I ah, had a persimmon,” Lady Tamami said. She winced and groaned as Keiko picked up the lantern. “I’ll get something later.”
“You’ll get something right now,” Keiko huffed. “Goodness, you’re as bad as Father. If you can’t eat from the buffet then you need to let the servants know so that they can prepare a little tray for you. Father has one to go with his medicine. They were very clear that it wasn’t a bother at all. Come on. We’re going to the kitchen.”
Keiko lifted her kimono skirt again, carefully picking her way down the stairs towards the next level of the garden. Behind her, Lady Tamami groaned and then laughed quietly, as if she’d given up. Which was good. Silly to avoid eating entirely just because one had issues with buffets.
Not that Keiko really saw what Lady Tamami did. The food on the buffet had looked and tasted incredibly fresh to her. And quite tasty, as well, despite Keiko’s nerves at the party. Still, she’d only had the one tiny serving of elk nihari. A bit of food would do Keiko some good, too.
“We could keep exploring,” Lady Tamami suggested. “You don’t have to cater to my stomach.”
“I was too nervous to eat more than a little bit of elk nihari,” Keiko said as Lady Tamami stepped to her side on the next level patch, “I don’t tend to be comfortable with large crowds. There are more people in the ballroom than there are in our whole village. It’s intimidating.”
“I can see how it would be,” Lady Tamami said with a shocked shake of her head. “I didn’t realize that your village was that remote.”
Keiko nodded, carefully leading the way over a tiny bridge, down some stairs and then along a winding path through ferns and sleeping irises. She could smell roses but they were invisible in the darkness, their delicate pink leaves hidden by the night. Below, she could hear someone else, a man and perhaps a woman, chatting together but they were too far away for Keiko to hear what they said.
“It’s very remote,” Keiko said. “Our Lord rarely visits more than once every year or two. But there are some lovely glass-sand deposits there so Father settled in the village. Then Mother caught his eye and he never wanted to go anywhere else. Some lovely clay, too. The potter in town makes beautiful bowls and cups, most of them in creams and rust colors.”
“Oh, I think I’ve purchased his work,” Lady Tamami said, wagging a finger at Keiko. “Decorated with cherry blossoms? I received a set of six tea cups that sound just like that.”
Keiko paused, delighted. “You got them? Goodness, I helped his wife package them up. Did they all arrive intact? We were so worried that they would break during transit.”
Lady Tamami laughed, her head flung back and eyes shut. It was a stunning thing, so open and wild that Keiko’s heart thumped against her chest. She’d never seen another Japanese woman laugh that way, never seen one be so free. Keiko swallowed hard as she tried to compose herself enough that the sudden blush wouldn’t show.
“They were perfect,” Lady Tamami said, still grinning. “We had a hard time getting them out of the basket, actually. So many cords binding it shut and then digging into the straw was like a treasure hunt. Every time we thought we had them all Rina or I would find another cup buried deep in the straw.”
That image set Keiko’s giggles off. It had felt like burying treasure, each cup wrapped in furoshiki carefully tied to protect the cup from the straw. And then the straw had been packed around so tightly that Keiko had been hopeful that the cups would barely even budge while bounced around in their basket, carried over hill and dale and then across the sound to their new home.
“I’m so glad that they made it safely,” Keiko said once she got her giggles under control. Lady Tamami didn’t seem to mind the laughter. If anything, she looked delighted by it. “As I said, we were worried they wouldn’t make it.”
They continued onwards down the next flight of stairs and then across a broader expanse of lawn bordered by what Keiko believed to be vegetable gardens of some sort. At least the beds had the remnants of winter cabbage lurking like toads in them. As they rounded a corner Keiko stopped. Ahead, Lord Ammad knelt, a lantern held in his hand, showing something about the retaining wall to Rina.
“I am never going to hear the end of this garden,” Lady Tamami sighed. She grinned when Keiko looked her way. “Rina will nag me until I create something similar.”
Keiko laughed and then blushed as Lord Ammad jumped to his feet. Rina appeared to be blushing though it was hard to tell. Lord Ammad’s lantern had delicate rosy glass walls rather than the simple paper that Keiko’s lantern had.
“Had to escape the party?” Rina asked.
“We had to escape Lady Cantara,” Lady Tamami replied. “Keiko did a lovely job of cutting her directly.”
“For the second time,” Keiko sighed. “She doesn’t listen well, does she?”
Both Lord Ammad and Lady Tamami laughed but it was a grim laugh, the sort of laugh that meant they wanted to hurt someone instead of being truly amused. Rina’s smile was wry and so dry that Keiko sighed and shook her head. Hopefully she wouldn’t have to continue to be shockingly rude to Lady Cantara. Keiko wasn’t fond of doing so, though she’d had to do it several times back home when young men wouldn’t listen to her refusals.
“We’re going to the kitchen,” Keiko announ-ced. “I was too nervous to eat in the ballroom so Lady Tamami and I were going to go get something to eat directly from the staff.”
“Really?” Rina said with such a fierce, suspicious look that Lady Tamami cleared her throat and took the lantern back.
“I could hardly send her alone,” Lady Tamami said and yes, her cheeks actually were bright red. Even in the light of the lanterns with the moon’s silvery glow that showed. “Lady Cantara might follow her.”
“And then I might have to use my mother’s advice,” Keiko sighed, shaking her head with dismay even though she didn’t really feel all that upset about doing it.
“Do I want to know?” Lord Ammad asked.
“Mother thinks I should stab her,” Keiko said.
She grinned as Rina burst out laughing, both hands raised to hide her mouth, and Lord Ammad spluttered and then laughed long and hard. Lady Tamami nodding approvingly, leading the way so that Keiko could follow her back to the manor. As she passed, Rina stepped alongside Keiko, still laughing into her sleeve. Lord Ammad took the rear, holding his lantern high so that it cast light over the path for Keiko and Rina.
And that was just as ridiculous as it could be. Given the position of honor with two nobles lighting the way like servants. Keiko shook her head, looked up at the moon, and then decided that it didn’t matter. Just for right now, this moment in the evening, she wouldn’t worry about what might happen or who was watching. Tomorrow would come soon enough on its own.
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