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
Fatima slowly laid out the blankets for her and Zainab’s bed, taking her time at it. The suite was lovely. Very beautiful and warm, if decidedly Japanese in style. Rather than raised pallets with furs and heavy straw mattresses, the beds were futon stuffed firm with wool laid over rice-straw tatami mats. The blankets were nearly as thick as the futon, heavy and warm even without the wonderfully dyed indigo cotton covers on them.
The room didn’t have a fireplace but Lady Shizuka had arranged for small charcoal burners to be brought in. They’d heated the room to a much more bearable temperature, one that was almost warm enough for Father’s muscles to relax again. Certainly, they also added a small amount of smoke to the room but it wasn’t enough to cloud the air or interfere with breathing.
“I wonder if these are why Haruka and Lady Shizuka looked on the verge of a fight about mass heaters,” Fatima murmured.
Mass heaters would be more efficient. Father had begun investing in them for all their people back home. It would take a bit longer to install them at Skagit Manor but not too long. It was a grand example of a long house, long and low to the earth with low ceilings that kept the warmth in, but the kitchens were in much greater need of upgrades than the little rooms arranged on either side of the long open hallway that ran down the center of the manor.
Fatima’s heart ached for that long, dim hallway with its skylights sending beams of wan sunlight down. The floor was beaten earth, polished until it shown. Every door along the hallway was carved in native Skagit style. Guest rooms had sea creatures, otters, seals, great orca with their curved dorsal fins. The business rooms, Fatima’s favorites, had sky animals like swift hawks, soaring eagles and dignified turkey. Of course, Zainab’s favorites were always on the far end of the manor where the military and commercial rooms were, all decorated with fierce bears, majestic elk and dangerous moose.
It would be better to be home. Fatima knew every place to hide there. When Zainab and Father’s battles rose until the entire manor huddled silent and afraid, Fatima could run outside and walk through the trees. She had a favorite ancient cedar tree whose heartwood had once been burned out that she could hide inside. As hiding places went it wasn’t terribly private. Everyone knew of the still living tree with its hollow core, the arching vault of fire-scorched wood, but they left it to Fatima.
She’d hidden a blanket there, and a small lantern, both kept safe in a small cedar chest when she wasn’t there. When the fighting or pressures of dealing with people became too much, Fatima retreated to her tree and read or, lately, just breathed. When she was younger, Father had called it her squirrel’s cave, teasing her about burying her cache in the earth inside the tree. He hadn’t said anything like that in quite a while, several years.
“How long have we been falling apart?” Fatima whispered. She sat on the bed, wrapping her arms around her knees. “Years? All my life? Were we ever happy?”
“Yes, we were,” Zainab murmured from the doorway. Rather than meet Fatima’s eyes or come join her on their shared bed, Zainab hesitated by the sliding shoji door, cautiously running a finger over the delicate paper screens. “We were very happy when we were little, Fati.”
“Father?” Fatima asked because really, Zainab might be certain of that but Fatima wasn’t.
“In the bath,” Zainab replied. “It’s huge. Enormous really. We could all bathe at once if we wanted. Maybe invite a couple of people in, too. And hot enough that I think it’ll scald Father’s skin off as he soaks.”
“Good,” Fatima said. “He always does better in warmer weather.”
“Not going to get much of that,” Zainab sighed.
She finally entered the room, came to lie on the bed next to Fatima. Her arms tucked against her chest and her knees pulled close. Fatima smiled sadly as she ran a gentle hand over Zainab’s hair. Zainab might not show it while people were around but she was scared and hurt, too. It just showed in different ways for Zainab than Fatima.
Zainab sighed, waving her left foot towards the door. “The weather’s gone icy. There’s horrible wind, dropping temperatures. Haruka’s right. We might have to stay longer than just the week.”
The single dispirited word made Zainab frown. She grabbed Fatima around the waist, hugging her tightly enough that Fatima couldn’t help but laugh a little. Since Haruka had rejected the proposal, maybe Fatima would be able to hide in their rooms.
But no, that wouldn’t work. Father would have to go out to talk to Lord Ammad and his wife Rina. Fatima would have to go as well. And Zainab would never keep Fatima company in their suite. The cold weather would drive her absolutely wild. She hated being confined any more than she had to be. Which might very well be part of her objection to taking over Father’s duties, even the ones involved with battling sea raiders or visiting the villages.
It was too much like being tied down, restrained, contained, for Zainab.
“You can hide,” Zainab muttered against Fatima’s belly.
“No, I have to go with Father,” Fatima said. “He can’t walk well, not in this weather. Besides, Their Majesties have an auditor here. I should at least observe. The new procedures are so confusing. I didn’t understand the explanation they sent. I want to ask questions if I can.”
Zainab craned her neck to frown up into Fatima’s face. “I have no idea how you deal with it all.”
“I like being inside and dealing with the paperwork, Zai,” Fatima said. She laughed, poking Zainab’s nose perhaps less gently than she should. “It’s dealing with people that I don’t like.”
“You like Haruka well enough,” Zainab observed with her normal blunt honesty. “I could tell. You blushed every time she looked your way. And I think she was worried about you, too. Just mad about Father’s offer.”
Haruka shook her head. That couldn’t be true. Even if Haruka had said that the rejection was because of Zainab and Father, Fatima knew that she was a part of it, too. She hadn’t resolved the issues Father had with Mother. She hadn’t managed to calm either Father or Zainab down. And the battles were only escalating with time. That was absolutely Fatima’s fault. She was the family peace-keeper. It was her duty to help everyone find the calmest, best way to a solution.
And yet Fatima couldn’t help but think of Haruka’s declaration that it wasn’t her place to fix the issues between Zainab and Father. Maybe she was right and Fatima was wrong. Fatima certainly hadn’t been successful smoothing things over, no matter what she tried.
“Zai,” Fatima said and then paused as Zainab frowned and sat up to stare into her eyes. She looked away, unable to bear seeing Zainab get angry right now. “Why are you so mad at Father?”
“He’s being unreasonable!” Zainab exclaimed. “I’ve said and I’ve said that I won’t take over any of his duties but he still keeps on insisting that I have to.”
“No, I’m not!” Father called from the other room.
Fatima blushed as she realized that the walls were thin enough for Father to hear every single word she’d said, possibly even her murmurs as she set the bedding out. Zainab glowered, standing to glare towards the bathroom separated from them by a paper wall.
“Yes, you are!” Zainab shouted. “I won’t do it. I’ve told you that!”
“And I’ve told you that I need help,” Father shouted back at her. There was a splashing sound as if he’d tried to get out of the bath and failed. “Damn it, I can’t keep doing this, Zainab. I just can’t.”
“Stop it, stop it, stop it!” Fatima screamed at them both.
Silence fell so abruptly that Fatima heard the wind overhead for the first time, wailing as sadly as her heart. She panted, hands clutched to her chest, and stared at Zainab whose mouth had dropped open and eyes gone wide with shock. Zainab moved towards Fatima, hands extended to hug her, but Fatima batted her hands away.
“The two of you need to stop this,” Fatima said more quietly but hopefully still loud enough that Father could hear it. “It’s tearing everyone apart, not just me. The staff is afraid to bring anything to you, Father, and even the warriors don’t want you around, Zainab. This has to stop, it has to, has to!”
Her words echoed in their so-foreign rooms. Fatima swallowed down the tears that she knew were going to well up at any moment. They wouldn’t help. Zainab would just yell harder at Father as she always did when Fatima’s control broke. And Father would scold them both for losing control of their emotions.
If Mother was there, grumpy but still loving, she would probably have scolded Father and Zainab, too. And Fatima knew that Mother would be right. Their private battle had spread until the entire province was involved. No one was exempt, especially Fatima.
“I’m tired,” Fatima said, biting her lip when ‘tired’ broke on a sob halfway through. “So tired. The fighting never stops. Neither of you listen to each other. Neither of you listen to me. I don’t blame Haruka for refusing us, for refusing me. Who would want to marry into this? We’re falling apart and I don’t know what to do to fix it. I don’t know how!”
“Fati…” Zainab whispered.
Her eyes were so wide, so shocked. Fatima shook her head and waved towards Father and the bath. Words fought with the sobs trying to bubble up in her throat but after a few seconds, a half dozen dry swallows, Fatima finally managed to get words out.
“Father can’t get out of the bath by himself, Zai,” Fatima said. “Help him.”
“Yes, he can,” Zainab complained. She stepped back as Fatima clenched her fists and glared.
“No, he can’t!” Fatima screamed. “Are you blind? Or just deaf? The doctors want to amputate his leg because it’s never healed and he can’t support himself with it!”
She ran past Zainab, out of the bedroom, out of the suite. Instead of straight, logical hallways that led exactly where you’d want, three hallways branching in each direction confronted her. Fatima picked the left one at random even though it looked somewhat worn, tired if a hallway could look tired.
Fatima hurried, not quite running but close, away from their suite. She couldn’t deal with them right now. She just couldn’t. Not with tears falling down her cheeks and sobs making it hard to breathe. Haruka had been so very right. They were broken and horrible, something that no reasonable person would ever want to be a part of.
The hallway twisted and turned, dark and windowless. That was familiar, comforting, not that Fatima could really see anything with tears blurring her vision. She sucked in a shuddering breath, wiped her cheeks, but kept going. There wasn’t a safe place to hide in Breding Manor but if she kept walking, exploring, maybe she’d outrun the sorrow and anger that was destroying her family.
“I wish I knew what to do,” Fatima whispered, biting her lip as a fresh wave of tears spilled over, dripping down her cheeks in tiny hot rivers. “I wish I could fix it somehow.”
She passed a window, tall as she was but narrow enough that Fatima got only the briefest glimpse of the world outside. Then a door, plain wood, no carvings at all, and then another wider window that radiated enough cold that Fatima slowed, stopped, in front of it.
Outside was a hillside garden, stripped of any leaves by winter. The trees tossed and thrashed in the wind. Most of the trees were leafy, cottonwood, aspen, maple but a few pine lurked higher up, their thick needle-covered branches tossing in the wind, too. It looked so cold, so lonely, that Fatima stood and stared. Even the Gods thought that something was wrong. And no matter how hard she tried, Fatima simply didn’t know how to fix her broken family so that they had a happy home once more.
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