Everyone has plans for Haruka’s life. They assume she’ll marry her best friend Shahzad, youngest son of Lord Bilal of Breding Manor. They assume she’s a pretty face with no mind or will of her own.
Fatima’s plans for her life had fallen apart around her ears. Her father and twin sister Zainab were at each other’s throats, no matter how Fatima tried to keep the peace.
Then Fatima’s father, Count Rafi, offered her hand in marriage to Haruka with the assumption that Haruka would be delighted to accept. After a swift, firm denial, it was up to Haruka and Fatima to craft a future together that held not just their happiness but their families’ as well.
Crafting Home is a sweet romance where patience and determination bring the rewards both girls seek.
By Meyari McFarland
2. Offensive Offer
Wind blasted Fatima’s skirt around her legs, gusting under the hem to throw it up towards her knees. Fatima shrieked, slapping her hands over her thighs to keep it from going any higher. At the same time, the wind blasted her hair around her face so that she couldn’t see who had come in the front door of Breding Manor.
The wind stopped with a great bang of Breding Manor’s double doors, dropping Fatima’s hair and skirt back into something close to what they should have been. She brushed her hair out of her eyes and then stopped, staring, as the most beautiful girl she’d ever seen laughed and tossed luxurious long black hair over her shoulder.
Unlike Fatima, short and stout with skin the color of mud, the other girl was tall and slender. Her clothes were completely Japanese, pale green padded coat over blue kimono and hakama, though her eyes were wide and brown and her nose was the beautiful arch of a native Snohomish woman.
She grinned, nose wrinkling adorably, and flapped a hand in Fatima’s direction. “So sorry for the blast of wind. The weather’s changed.”
Fatima gasped, turning to stare at her twin sister Zainab. Her hair was scattered over her shoulders though she’d worn pants today so she hadn’t had to worry about a skirt going flying. Zainab, of course, looked annoyed. She always did even when Zainab was thoughtful or quietly happy. It didn’t appear to bother the woman or the doctor that Fatima only noticed when he sighed and sat on the step like a commoner to remove his boots.
“I’m afraid so,” the woman said. “Are you visiting? Or waiting for someone?”
“Ah, Father is coming with Lady Shizuka,” Fatima said, sketching an awkward bow in the woman’s direction. Her cheeks burned. “We weren’t sure which sitting room we were to go to.”
“Shouldn’t have to go anywhere at all,” Zainab growled, arms crossed over her chest. “Father should have never made the offer.”
“Oh, you’re the ones that Count Rafi offered,” the woman said.
“This is Yasuda Haruka Sweet Fern,” the doctor explained, his smile wry while the woman’s smile was positively gentle. “I’m Doctor Shahzad Bilal, the youngest son of Lord Bilal.”
“You shouldn’t fuss over the offer,” Haruka said, waving both hands as Fatima cringed and Zainab fumed. “It happens all the time, really. I hardly take such things seriously anymore. Most of the time it’s just someone who saw my face and decided they wanted the pretty.”
Fatima stared, mouth dropping open as she realized that Haruka was quite serious about that. As difficult as their lack of marriage offers had been, especially for Fatima’s sense of attractiveness, she thought having people offer for nothing more than the looks of your face might be worse.
“I’m sorry,” Fatima said.
“Oh, I’m used to it,” Haruka said, reassuring her with a little shrug, a smile that looked forced and a tired sigh. “I won’t marry until I find someone that I can create a true home with. I will of course listen to your father but you shouldn’t worry that you’ll be forced into anything. I won’t allow that.”
“And you have the authority to do that?” Zainab asked. When Fatima looked her way, Zainab looked hopeful for the first time since Father announced his plan to marry them off to Yasuda Haruka.
“Well, not so much the authority,” Shahzad laughed, “as the determination.”
“My mother was a warrior,” Haruka announced with the sort of grin that Fatima was used to seeing from the warriors just before a battle against raiders from the sea. “She taught me to defend myself. My sisters both married Ladies. And no matter what comes, I’ve no intention of settling for a marriage that’s less happy than theirs or our parent’s. I’m looking for love, not power or money. And I won’t settle for less.”
Fatima’s heart did a weird little leap inside her chest. There was so much confidence in Haruka’s eyes that Fatima straightened up a little bit. It felt strange to see someone that strong, that determined, when Fatima felt as though she’d spent her whole life battling just to be allowed to breathe.
Silly, that. Father had always done what he could to protect Fatima and Zainab from people’s expectations. He’d trained them to rule after him wisely and well, educated them in everything they might need to know. But Fatima had always been shy and retiring, preferring handling the books and dealing with legal cases to dealing with the social aspects of being a future countess.
She’d always felt that people watched everything she did, that her actions carried more weight than they should simply because of her parentage. Zainab used to complain about it too though in the last few years she’d stopped, only glaring angrily when anyone commented on her pants, the plain colors she preferred or her refusal to take over any portion of Father’s duties.
“It’s… important to Father,” Fatima murmured as Zainab looked away, glaring up the hallway that led towards the kitchens where Father and Lady Shizuka had disappeared. “He won’t explain why but it’s important.”
“Hmm,” Haruka murmured. She nodded once. “Well, he’ll explain it to me or I’ll simply say no.”
“Please do,” Zainab grumbled. “I can’t believe he’d do this at all.”
“Let me take your coat,” Shahzad said. “Then you can take them to the blue sitting room.”
“That is the most likely spot,” Haruka agreed as she took off her lovely padded coat. “Thank you, Shahzad. Don’t forget to fill out your patient report. Ammad will want to have it as soon as possible.”
“Audit,” Shahzad sighed, nodding as he took the coat, bowed to Fatima and Zainab and then headed up the hallway with his doctor’s bad securely in one hand.
The blue sitting room wasn’t that far up the hallway from the main entrance but it seemed like a completely different world from what Fatima had seen so far. The broad hallways with their expensive rugs hung on the walls, delicate imported pottery and enormous, intimidating windows were gone.
In the place of the wide expanses, so foreign after Skagit Manor’s heavy forest and longhouse construction, was a small, warm room with a bright cheerful fire and long couches around each wall that were more comfortable than Fatima’s bed back home. It was, as suited the name, very blue. The walls and ceiling had been painted pale blue. The cushions were covered in indigo blue cotton and the many, many pillows for propping your back or resting your feet were in every shade of blue that existed. Even the carpet on the floor, thick and soft as a cloud, was woven in blues accented by red and gold.
Fatima sat, hands clenched between her knees, while Zainab paced between the fireplace and the far corner of the room. She really should say something to calm Zainab down but it would just make Zainab yell. The last few months had been nothing but yelling, it seemed, from Zainab, from Father, from the rest of Father’s court. Skagit Manor used to be a warm, comfortable place but it hadn’t been since Father divorced Mother.
And that still hurt. Mother had been the one to want the divorce. She’d always admitted to being uncomfortable with being the Countess despite adoring both Fatima and Zainab. Fatima liked to think that at one time she’d even loved Father but the pressures of court, of the duties of Countess, had dimmed the love until it guttered out like the coals of a fire going grey and dim.
“You really don’t want this,” Haruka commented.
“He shouldn’t be attempting to force us to marry in the first place!” Zainab yelled. She sighed and waved one hand to apologize for Fatima’s flinch and Haruka’s wide eyes. “He shouldn’t. We’re both full adults. Mother always says that we should choose our own path in life and now he’s trying to make us do this and it just makes me so mad!”
“I wonder why,” Haruka mused, eyes on the fireplace, not either of their faces. The beautiful curve of her neck distracted Fatima for a moment from the pensive expression in her eyes.
“Mother divorced him,” Fatima whispered. She winced as Zainab huffed. “I think that’s why, Zai. He needs more help. I’m not good with the social things. You know that.”
“I don’t want to do all that,” Zainab complained. “I’m no better at it than you are! The Great Spirit knows that we’re neither of us good candidates for Countess.”
“No other children?” Haruka asked.
“Oh no,” Fatima said. “Father was an only child and Mother couldn’t have any more children after us. There are cousins, distant ones, poor relations, really, but that’s it.”
Fatima didn’t get to ask what Haruka meant by that. The door to the sitting room opened, allowing Lady Shizuka and Father to enter. Lady Shizuka carried a large tray with a tea pot, cups and what looked like treats of some sort. Father walked behind her, leaning on his cane so heavily that Fatima immediately stood and helped him to the seat closest to the fireplace.
He patted Fatima’s hand fondly, rubbing his knee. With the weather changing it had to be hurting. Father always said that weather shifts made his old breaks hurt and the one above his knee was the worst of all. Fatima couldn’t remember how many times Father and Mother had told the story of his fall from Desperation Ridge. It was Father’s favorite story and Mother’s favorite to scoff at, especially since he’d only fallen because he’d been showing off while trying to gather eggs from the sea birds nesting of the cliff.
Fatima fussed with his pillows as Lady Shizuka very properly introduced them all. She did pause as she realized that Haruka truly had no rank at all. Given her sisters’ marriages, Fatima had believed that Haruka’s family had to have some rank other than being related or married to important people. But no, Haruka was just Haruka. Frankly, she was beautiful enough that Fatima was sure that it didn’t make a bit of difference to anyone at all.
“I’m surprised you’re back already,” Lady Shizuka said as she poured tea for them all. “I thought the visit would take longer.”
“No, it was a wood chopping accident, not illness,” Haruka said. “Though the man did have an absolutely lovely mass heater.”
Lady Shizuka groaned as if that was the opening volley of a very well established war. Haruka grinned at her, nose wrinkling adorably again, so maybe it actually was. Either way, Lady Shizuka just shook her head as she started pouring the tea for them all, the first cup, of course, going to Father. Fatima blushed at getting the second while Zainab grumbled before taking hers.
“You help Doctor Shahzad often?” Fatima asked as Zainab glowered at Father who scowled back at her.
“Oh yes,” Haruka said with such a delightful laugh that it filled the room with warmth and joy. “Shahzad is a lovely doctor and a very nice man but he has the worst sense of direction. We’ve been friends ever since Shizuka married Nabeela and I honestly cannot count how many times I’ve had to rescue him from getting lost.”
Zainab snorted but her lips were curled in a little smile that reassured Fatima. Even Father’s scowl had lessened though most of that might be due to his aching knee given that he’d rested the cup on his thigh directly over the old break. The heat might help a bit. Sometimes it did.
“Count Rafi offered his daughters’ hands to you, Haruka,” Lady Shizuka said so exceedingly mildly that Fatima had to wonder if there were issues with the thought of marriage on their side, too.
“Mmm,” Haruka murmured while sipping her tea and nodding slightly. “Shahzad told me. As did Fatima and Zainab. And I will tell you the same thing that I told them, Count Rafi: I intend to marry for love. If you truly want me to marry one or both of your daughters, you would have to have a very powerful reason to compel me to do so. I will not settle for a political match, you see, and as my family are still functionally poor relations, well. I’m not a brilliant match politically, no matter what connections my sisters have made.”
“And our parents have strongly supported Haruka’s choice,” Lady Shizuka said with a little sigh that seemed to imply she’d expected exactly that reply out of her sister. “I did explain to you previously that you will have to make a good case for this offer to be considered.”
Father sighed and stared into the fire rather than answering. He did finally start drinking his tea, one eyebrow going up at the rich flavor of the thick green tea. The longer that he sat there, the angrier Zainab became. She set her tea down on the low table between them all so that she could cross her arms over her chest while glowering at Father.
Fatima shuddered in spite of herself. Not a fight. Not now. Not in front of Lady Shizuka and the far too lovely Haruka. She curled inward, still sipping her tea though the flavor cloyed on her tongue, coating her teeth and throat like the heavy dust of midsummer when the rains stopped and the sun beat down on them like a mallet.
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