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
6. Hide Out
Fatima paused outside the door, staring around the far larger than expected room. It did look warm. Cozy, almost. There was too much indigo, indigo-dyed cushions and curtains and even the thick carpet spread in the middle of the room looked to be indigo. But the walls were paneled with warm coppery cedar that still smelled of the fragrant woods back home.
Someone had cut cedar bows and put them in a big sturdy earthenware vase in on the far side of the room by the one tiny grilled window. The splash of green against the red and blue felt like spotting land after sailing for too long on foggy seas. There were thick blankets, yes indigo but also red and cream, sitting on the one long deep couch set against the left wall of the room. It was hard to tell with the blankets folded but Fatima thought that someone had pieced rabbits and wolves on the covers though the designs looked more Japanese than they did native.
Opposite the couch was a floor to ceiling bookshelf that were filled, stacked and overflowing with books. That was what enticed Fatima into the room, not the promise of a quiet dark room to hide in or Haruka’s humming as she started a tiny little charcoal burner and fussed with an iron teapot.
Law, history, popular fiction. Fatima pursed her lips at one very well read scroll that appeared to be the newest romance story loosely (though not loosely enough) based on Countess Dancing Otter and Sunlight on Water. That one looked as though it had been read so much that the ink was fading.
But there were other books, better ones, that looked equally loved. Her Majesty’s treatise on the responsibilities of nobility towards their subjects was positively velvet from having been rolled and unrolled so many times. Surprisingly, an old, old text on the art of war written in ancient China was right next to it. It’s pages, bound into a hard book, were rounded on the edges from readers turning the pages.
“What is this place?” Fatima finally asked.
“Nothing, really,” Haruka said.
Fatima turned, stared at Haruka’s sheepish grin. She’d gotten the fire going and had the teapot on to boil. Two sturdy mugs already had a nice amount of tea waiting. Haruka waved at the little basket she’d brought the tea in. Only then did Fatima notice that she’d snagged treats, too.
“It used to be a store room,” Haruka admitted as she passed the soft white lump to Fatima. “Mochi. Pounded rice with bean paste inside. Tasty. I commandeered it after my family moved here and made it into my little hideaway. Nothing was really stored in here, anyway, just some old furniture and a few spare quilts that people had forgotten about.”
“This is your place,” Fatima murmured as she cautiously sat on the wide, very soft and comfy, couch. “Your books.”
“Oh yes,” Haruka agreed. Her smile as she gazed at her bookshelf was dreamy, contented, even more lovely than normal. “Almost all of them are old books. I found them at second-hand bookshops in town or when I went on trips with my family. I like that they’ve been loved, read. Cherished.”
“Do you read them?” Fatima asked, blushing and nibbling on her piece of strange doughy ‘mochi’ that she’d ask such a silly question.
Of course Haruka read them. Why else buy and collect them here? The mocha made Fatima frown. It didn’t have much taste and the texture was very like eating uncooked bread dough. The powdery covering wasn’t sugar as Fatima had thought. It seemed to be starch. A second, deeper, bite revealed thick brown filling that tasted nothing at all like the beans that Fatima was used to.
Haruka laughed, holding out her hand for the mochi as Fatima struggled to chew and swallow the bite. “It’s not something everyone likes. A Japanese treat. I grew up with it so I love it.”
“I’d rather have blackberry filling than that,” Fatima admitted. She looked at the teapot but no, it wasn’t boiling yet. “It’s… odd.”
That just made Haruka laugh harder. She ate the mochi in two big bites, chewing and swallowing with enough relish that Fatima had to believe that yes, it really was something that Haruka liked. Not something that Fatima would want to have to eat daily, though.
While the teapot simmered, Haruka shook out one of the blankets, yes covered with a gold rabbit and a red wolf chasing each other’s tails, and offered it to Fatima. The weight was surprisingly comforting. So was the warmth.
Haruka’s hideaway wasn’t cold, exactly, but Fatima still felt chilled from her time staring out the window at the storm. With the blanket her toes started to warm and her legs stopped feeling prickly, as if the skin was stretched too tight.
“We do make it with fruit fillings,” Haruka said as she cuddled under a second blanket, this one with green eagles and white hawks circling on a deep blue background. “Strawberry, blackberry, rhubarb. And squash, sometimes. Lots of things. But Kosuke, the chef, decided on bean paste so bean paste it is today.”
Fatima tried not to laugh at the sheer delight in Haruka’s eyes as she talked about mochi. It didn’t work. Smothering her giggles turned them into embarrassing little hiccup-snorts that only made Haruka grin even wider. The warmth in her cheeks spread to her heart, filling Fatima with the sort of giddy joy that had only come from watching her childhood crush, the head accountant for Skagit Manor.
Haruka wrapped the second blanket around her legs, smoothing it out with quick little brushes of her fingertips. Her toes wiggled underneath the hem. Fatima curled her legs up and under herself, curling into a ball. A blushing, embarrassed, infatuated ball.
“But yes, I do read them all,” Haruka said. She nodded towards her bookshelf when Fatima blinked, confused. “Some of them repeatedly. I like Her Majesty’s book quite a lot though I think she treats the peasants as children instead of adults in it. I spoke with her once about it, after Keiko’s wedding. She admitted that the language was a bit unfortunate. Apparently she’s working on a sequel to it covering peasant rights and responsibilities.”
“Really?” Fatima asked, immediately fascinated by the concept. “Would she want the peasants to read it? So many at home can’t read well enough for something like that.”
“No, my impression was that she wanted the nobility to read it,” Haruka said with a little nod as if the peasants she knew were also functionally illiterate. “My village was actually very good with reading. We read Snohomish and Japanese, as well as common. But then we were pretty evenly mixed Snohomish and Japanese ancestry so that’s not too surprising. Mother can read Chartean script as well but she was the only one. I kept meaning to learn it but I learned Arabic instead.”
Fatima nodded. “It’s kind of ugly.”
“Chartean?” Haruka asked.
The teapot started to blow a jet of steam out its spout so Haruka bent and set to work pouring the water over their tea. Fatima watched and waited as Haruka carefully poured the steaming water over their tea, taking care to pour it down the side of the mug instead of straight down on top of the tea leaves.
That was a level of care that Fatima had never exercised when making tea for guests. She hadn’t even realized that it was something that you might need to do. The sheer seriousness of Haruka’s expression implied that it was actually very important. Sometime during their visit Fatima was going to have to get a lesson in proper tea preparation so that Japanese guests would stop making faces every time they drank Fatima’s preparations.
Once Haruka settled back onto the couch, blanket securely wrapped around her legs, Fatima smiled and nodded.
“Yes,” Haruka said. “It’s rather ugly, I think.”
“The language is quite poetic, though,” Haruka protested with a tiny frown that only made her look even more beautiful.
Fatima was starting to think that there wasn’t a single thing Haruka could do that would make her look ugly. “Oh, the spoken language is quite nice, yes. I meant the written language. Slashes and dots and nothing flowing at all. And the sheer lack of punctuation marks drives me wild every time I have to read a document in Chartean.”
“That,” Haruka said. She rolled her eyes and flapped one hand at Fatima. “Goodness, yes. They really need to add some punctuation to the script. But it’s not used for very many things so I doubt that it’s become an issue for them. As their society develops, if they ever stop the constant wars, they’ll probably get to it.”
Silence fell as Haruka glanced over at their steeping tea. It was more fragrant than Fatima would have expected. She thought she smelled blueberries and blackberries but green tea didn’t have that, did it? Fatima was certainly no expert in tea but she thought that no, it didn’t.
Haruka didn’t appear to care that no one was talking. She sat, eyes distant, content, and leaned her head back against the wall. It stretched her neck slightly, brought out the curve of her jaw. Her wonderful long black hair framed that curve so beautifully that for one wild moment Fatima wished for the wood carvers back home to be there so that they could see Haruka and then carve something to commemorate her beauty.
Even her previous crush hadn’t felt like this. Fatima curled inwards, tugging the blanket up so that she could wrap it around her shoulders, all but hiding underneath the lovely warm thing. She did feel safer with it, as though it was armor protecting her from the world. Or maybe as if it’s weight was like thick clouds settling over a valley in the middle of winter, warming and protecting it from the frigid weather outside.
“I like this room,” Fatima whispered a minute or so later. “It’s so quiet.”
“Exactly,” Haruka agreed. She smiled so dreamily, eyes nearly glowing with contentment. “It’s my special place to retreat from the world. Back home, in the village where I grew up, there was a hollow tree that I used to hide in. A huge old cedar that had been nearly killed by something generations earlier.”
“I have a tree like that!” Fatima exclaimed. She grinned as Haruka laughed gently. “It’s a cedar as well. There was a fire a couple of generations ago and it was hollowed out. The outside is still alive but the inside is blackened. It’s a nice place to go and rest. Think.”
“That’s what I was aiming at when I claimed this room,” Haruka said. She sat forward and then nodded that the tea was ready. “I wanted a quiet place that I could go and rest and hide and think and just be alone.”
She passed one of the mugs to Fatima, taking the other herself. It was still quite warm but not so hot as to sting. In fact, it felt quite good, warming Fatima’s palms as she carefully sipped the tea. There was fruit in it. Tiny blueberries and bits of blackberry floated in the reddish-tinted water. There were also leaves and what looked like herbs though Fatima had no idea what herbs they might be.
“It’s sweet,” Fatima murmured. She drank carefully to avoid getting the tea leaves in her mouth. “I like it.”
“Herbal teas are just the thing, I think,” Haruka said. “Green is good for formal occasions and black can’t be beaten for waking up in the morning but herbal teas are just good for relaxing. If you want more later tell the servants that you’d like some of my berry tea. They’ll know just what to make.”
Fatima smiled, sipping the tea and feeling its warm spread through her body. Or maybe it was the warmth of Haruka’s contented smile. Certainly, escaping from Zainab and Father’s battles helped. But no, she didn’t want to think about that now. There wasn’t a thing that she could do to help them so for this moment, here in Haruka’s private sanctuary, Fatima would forget about that.
Her duties could wait for a little while. Fatima would cherish this tiny bit of joy for however long it lasted.
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