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
Haruka smiled as Fatima finally relaxed, leaning back against the pillows as if she hadn’t relaxed in years. Given her family, she might not have and that was a dreadful shame. The girl was beautiful when she lost that pinched, worried expression. Her nose was broader than Haruka’s and her cheekbones far more pronounced, but it gave her face such dignity that Haruka decided she liked it.
If the situation was different, less coercive, Haruka would have given serious thought to marrying Fatima. At the very least, Fatima seemed as dedicated to taking care of people as Haruka was. She wouldn’t be so utterly miserable about her family’s battles if she weren’t.
They could craft a life together, blending Haruka’s love of dealing with people together with Fatima’s talent for the administrative and legal side of ruling. And Haruka had to admit that she was curious about Skagit Manor. It sounded so lovely, warmer and more welcoming than Breding Manor’s imposing bulk.
“What’s it like?” Haruka asked. “Skagit Manor. Is it half buried? Are there windows?”
“It is mostly buried, actually,” Fatima said so happily that Haruka squirmed around to face her more directly. “The roof is exposed, of course, but everything else is dug down into the earth. Father’s started investing in mass heaters for the peasants. We’re financing it for the most part. The island gets much colder than here so we want everyone to have reliable, low-fuel cost heating.”
“I wish I could convince the others that it made sense here,” Haruka sighed. “Goodness, we’d save so much money with mass heaters.”
“They are very nice,” Fatima agreed. She smiled, a little sad but mostly thoughtful as she stared towards the cedar bows that Haruka had brought into the room to give it that living tree smell. “We won’t get them in Skagit Manor for a year or two but it’s on the long-term plan. I’m looking forward to it. The manor is fairly easy to heat so we’ll only need to add a few to heat the whole thing. I ah, suspect that you’ll need more than a couple to heat Breding Manor.”
Haruka groaned, rolling her eyes. Far more than a few. Every single room would need one, or close to it. The manor had never been designed properly for heating considerations. Its many winding halls and vast expanses of north-facing windows meant that it lost heat like water flowing through a sieve.
Before Haruka could explain that, someone knocked on the door. That was unexpected. Haruka had told the servants that she was entertaining Fatima to keep her away from Fatima’s family battles. Kosuke had said that he’d make sure that they weren’t interrupted.
“Yes?” Haruka called.
Rina stuck her head into the room, her simple black bun covered with a traditional hijab that she’d taken to wearing after her marriage to Ammad. “I’m so sorry to interrupt, girls, but Haruka, we really need you in the library.”
“The audit?” Haruka asked as she took Fatima’s offered mug and her own, setting them by the hibachi for the servants to collect later. Or maybe her, once the events of the day were over. Everyone was so busy that it was likely to be Haruka doing it.
“Yes,” Rina said with a grimace of disgust. “You’re the one doing the majority of the work reorganizing the files. The auditor had questions about what happened and he wanted to hear from you directly.”
“All right,” Haruka groaned as she pushed the blanket off and turned to Fatima. “All right. I’m sorry. I’m afraid I have to go. You’re free to stay as long as you like, Fatima. And to come back anytime you wish during your stay.”
“Actually, I was hoping to talk to the auditor myself,” Fatima said so shyly that Rina nodded and encouragingly flapped a hand for her to continue. “The regulations that we received weren’t especially clear on what to expect when our turn for an audit comes around.”
Both Rina and Haruka snorted at that. They’d had the exact same problem with the regulations and now it was biting them in the rear end. Getting ahead of the problem when she could was a very wise move on Fatima’s part. Rina nodded her approval so Fatima stood, carefully folding Haruka’s blanket before following them to the library.
Which was considerably more crowded than Haruka expected. Lord Bilal was there, reclining in one of the big comfy chairs that Shizuka had brought in. At the great central table that could comfortably seat twelve, Ammad sat opposite the auditor and his stacks of paperwork. Shizuka and Nabeela sat next to Ammad, Nabeela with the sort of blank expression that spoke of frustration and Shizuka with that faint frown that meant she was utterly confused by everything that had happened.
In addition, there was Rina, several of the librarians hovering around, one of the clerks who worked under Rina and Haruka saw a servant scurry out the side door with a tray of tea goods that looked largely untouched.
Not a good sign there. The auditor spending so much time on their records that he forgot to drink the tea he’d specifically requested was not what any of them wanted. Haruka took a deep breath, smiled brightly and came to sit at the end of the table. Fatima joined them, pulling her chair back a little bit so that she was observing rather than interacting directly.
“Lady Rina said that you had some questions for me?” Haruka asked, still smiling at the auditor.
He was an older man, slowly nodding as he studied the paperwork in front of him. Her smile was completely wasted as he didn’t look up. Instead he ran a wrinkled hand over a slightly wrinkled piece of paper that had to be one of the ones that had been crammed between file cabinets.
The standard black uniform that she was used to seeing on representatives of Their Majesties was slightly different for him. He had discrete silver piping around his high coat collar and at the hem of his sleeves. She suspected that his hair was thinning because he’d cut it all off other than a bare quarter inch that was black at the base of his neck and nearly invisible silver at his forehead.
“These papers are damaged,” the auditor said, finally looking up and then staring at Haruka’s bright smile. “Miss.”
“Yes, they are,” Haruka agreed.
He waited and then sighed when Haruka just smiled at him. Not having the slightest clue what questions had gone before meant that she was absolutely not going to offer anything that might trip the others up. The audit was already stressful enough. Haruka didn’t want to make it any worse.
“Why are they damaged?” the auditor asked.
“Lord Ammad has a new apprentice,” Haruka explained. She raised an eyebrow when the auditor started to wave her explanation off. “Do you want to know what happened or have you already made up your mind? If so, I can simply leave and you can issue your report without any further interaction from me. I was entertaining Count Rafi’s daughter, Fatima, while he discussed several issues with his other daughter Zainab. I’m certain that Fatima would appreciate the chance to get back to less stressful environments.”
The auditor frowned, pursed his lips but nodded. “My apologies. Please continue.”
“Thank you,” Haruka said. “The apprentice is a very bright young lady but she is very, very bad at stating plainly what she is comfortable doing. She’s also very bad at asking questions when she doesn’t understand something. She was assigned in four separate areas of Breding Manor before she came to the file room. In every one, without fail, she was unsuccessful at her assigned tasks. By the time she came here, Lord Ammad was ah, rather frustrated. I suspect that she was quite aware of that and it made her even less capable of asking questions.”
Haruka took a deep breath, very aware that Ammad had frozen, eyes wide and alarmed while Shizuka winced out of the auditor’s line of sight. Even Fatima made a little horrified noise. Criticizing an apprentice who was desperate to help their family by finding a new profession was just not done.
“She was assigned to file paperwork,” Haruka continued. “It’s very simple. The date is on the upper left corner. The file identification number is on the upper right corner. You put everything with the same file identification number together, in reverse date order, the newest on top. Then you put in the file for that number, again, newest on top.”
“She… couldn’t do it?” the auditor asked, blinking rapidly and then staring at Ammad who sighed and nodded. “Truly?”
“I don’t know if she couldn’t understand it, didn’t want to do it, or if she has a perceptual issue that makes sorting and filing difficult,” Haruka said, recapturing his attention. “But yes, she couldn’t do it. It took almost two weeks to discover that she was doing it very, very wrong. Once it was, she was given one last chance in the kitchens. She’s brilliant there. Kosuke, the chef, thinks that she could replace him when he retires. She’s that good at it. And now I’m going through every single file in the records room to make sure that things are where they should be, that they’re in the proper order and that,” she tapped the wrinkled files the auditor had asked about, “none of them are stuffed between file cabinets, under the file folders or behind shelves.”
The auditor sat back, his mouth dropping open to reveal a gap of several teeth on the right side. He stared, shook his head, and then turned to stare at Lord Ammad who made a face as he shrugged and nodded.
“I’m astonished that she wasn’t sent back sooner,” the auditor said, closing the file with a sort of finality that Haruka hoped meant that he’d stopped metaphorically chasing wild ferrets.
“I was an apprentice,” Shizuka said, her chin coming up and her eyes going so steely that the auditor winced. “We want her to succeed. Her communication issues were not apparent until after the fact.”
The auditor nodded, looking at his notes and then shaking his head in dismay. “Well, until the files have been repaired there is little that I can determine here. I will have to schedule a return visit once you’ve gotten things fixed.”
“If I may?”
Everyone started as Fatima spoke up. Haruka had almost forgotten that she was sitting there, behind her right shoulder. The auditor frowned at her and then nodded for Fatima to go ahead. She smiled, bowed from the waist just enough for it to be thanks but not so much that it would grant him higher rank than her. Nice. Haruka would have loved to be able to get away with that sort of thing.
“I have several questions about the audit procedure document that was sent out,” Fatima said. “Could you perhaps spare a small bit of time to explain it to me? I would rather be prepared for the audit of Skagit Manor when our time comes rather than scramble because I misunderstood the regulations.”
“Of course, Lady Fatima,” the auditor said. “What were your questions?”
Haruka stood and gestured for Fatima to take her place at the table. The offer made Fatima blush, spots of color rising on her cheeks and then one on the right side of her neck, but she took the seat readily enough. That let Haruka sit in Fatima’s abandoned chair.
“I was quite confused by clause seventeen,” Fatima said, her shy tone of voice and hesitant demeanor replaced by the sort of sternness and determination that Haruka expected out of Ammad in the middle of a major legal case.
It suited Fatima. Her blush faded, leaving beautiful brown cheeks that were as sculpted as a sheer cliff face. Her eyes seemed brighter, the blue going deep as a forest pool in the middle of summer. And her intense stare made the auditor sit straighter, nod respectfully and then explain in exactly the sort of detail that everyone, Ammad, Rina, Nabeela and Shizuka seemed to need.
One of the librarian’s stood for a moment, mouth dropped open in shock, and then he started scribbling down everything the auditor and Fatima said. From that one clause, the explanation expanded out to the purpose of each section of the document Their Majesties had sent out, how each would be approached and what records would be expected.
From what Haruka understood, not that much of it made sense, they’d approached the audit exactly in the wrong way. Just looking at the files on the table told Haruka that they’d brought the auditor the wrong things.
Her heart skipped a beat as she realized that Fatima kept asking questions not for her sake. She appeared to have understood what the auditor needed almost immediately if her little nods and grunts were anything to judge by. No, she kept asking for their sake, so that Ammad and Rina would have a much easier time with their next audit.
Amazing. Wonderful. Kind and so under-appreciated. All of it applied to Fatima. And pretty, despite her high cheekbones and pale blue eyes. Haruka but her lip, looking away as she realized that maybe, just maybe, she’d been a bit too abrupt about refusing the marriage offer. There might be more possibilities with Fatima than Haruka had been willing to admit.
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