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 eased the door to their suite open, peering inside. Two pairs of worried, accusatory eyes met her. Father tried to stand only to fail. He dropped back onto the indigo couch with a frustrated grunt but he didn’t clutch his thigh. Thankfully, their suite was warm, very warm, warm enough to make Fatima’s breasts and shoulder blades prickle with sweat as soon as she shut the door. The blankets that Haruka had brought were beside him, still folded neatly.
Zainab sat on the floor next to a small charcoal burner that had a cheery little fire burning in it. She stared up at Fatima with the sort of glower that meant she was worried that Fatima had been having fun without her. It was a glower that Fatima hadn’t seen in years, not since they were eleven or twelve and their future duties started to become a reality instead of a hazy thing in the impossibly distant future.
“Where did you go?” Zainab asked.
“Well, at first I wandered,” Fatima said.
“Got lost,” Father sighed.
“A little bit,” Fatima said and laughed quietly. “Not badly. I know which quadrant of the manor I was in, though not how to get there again. Then Haruka found me and she swept me off to her hiding place for tea.”
Father immediately perked up at that, looking delighted that Fatima and Haruka had spent time together. That was completely understandable given his poor leg but Zainab glowered at him as if he was being cruel to want Fatima to marry. Rather than let another round of arguments break out, Fatima smiled at the wall, deliberately not meeting either of their eyes.
“We had the best herbal tea,” Fatima continued. “It was lovely. Dried blueberries and blackberries, herbs mixed into the tea leaves. Not sure what herbs but Haruka did promise to gift us with some before we go home. I might ask her for the recipe. I suspect that guests to Skagit Manor would like that tea much more than my poor green tea.”
“That’s lovely, dear,” Father said. “So you talked?”
“Oh no,” Fatima said. Her wry smile made both Father and Zainab frown, confusion evident in Father’s cocked head and Zainab’s teeth chomping down on her bottom lip. “We’d only just finished the first mug of tea, so tasty that, when Lady Rina showed up with news that the auditor wanted to talk to Haruka. So we went off and she answered his questions. Then I asked him questions for, oh, goodness, how long was I gone?”
Zainab’s head went back a little as a smile started twitching at the corners of her lips. Maybe the battle between her and Father had gone better than Fatima feared. Or maybe Fatima was just so much more relaxed that they were both afraid to upset her. She wasn’t sure.
“Almost four hours,” Zainab said. Father snorted and nodded, gesturing for Fatima to continue.
“Well, then I asked him questions for about three and a half hours,” Fatima said. She grinned at the startled laughter from Zainab and Father’s dropped jaw. “Really, I had so many questions. The procedures are completely different. We’re going to have to revised at least half of the forms we use, Father. And the audits are going to take much more time now. Their Majesties have completely new information they want to gather about how the province is running.”
“Must be related to Lady Cantara and Countess Dancing Otter,” Father sighed.
“I think so,” Fatima agreed.
She rubbed her hands over her thighs thoughtfully. The only reason she’d come back to the suite was that she wanted to make sure that both Father and Zainab behaved at dinner. Haruka had warned her against saying so, though. So had Lady Shizuka who was very gentle and very kind about it but forbiddingly stern.
Both of them felt that anything Fatima said or did would simply be fuel to the fire in her sister and Father’s feud. After so long between the two of them, Fatima had gotten to the point where she felt like everything they did was her fault. It seemed so natural to blame herself.
But the auditor’s questions had gotten Fatima thinking. So much of what Their Majesties wanted to know was how well the ruling family was functioning. Fatima could smooth things over a few moments at a time but she couldn’t fix anything. Not one thing.
Father and Zainab fought when they fought, over nothing most of the time. Until they opened up and admitted the real reasons for their battles, not one single thing Fatima said or did would make any difference.
It was still very, very hard not to comment on the quiet room when she’d walked in.
“Well, dinner is almost ready,” Fatima said as she stood. “Father, I strongly recommend wearing your house coat. Haruka and Lady Shizuka both warned me that the dining room was a bit chilly. Apparently Duchess Chin-Sun always needs warmed bricks, blankets and sometimes a wrap to be comfortable.”
“I’ll wear it then,” Father said, snorting. His eyes were still a bit too wide, too startled, but he didn’t ask anything else. “Her chills are usually a good predictor of my leg seizing up.”
Zainab flinched. She rolled to her feet, went into Father’s room and came out with his heavily quilted house coat, the more formal one that went down to his knees that looked like it was designed for a man three times his size. Then she carefully poured water over the charcoal fire, making sure that it was truly out.
“Do we know what’s for dinner?” Zainab asked as Fatima helped Father get his coat on, stand and then get steady with his cane.
“I believe they had several warm stews and rice,” Fatima said. “I didn’t recognize the names of the dishes that Haruka told me about. But elk and salmon and something called pai that she said was sticky but very, very good.”
“I’ve had that,” Father murmured as he hobbled towards the door, leaning in equal measures on his cane and Fatima’s arm. “Generally it’s made from hooves. Do you know what animal it came from?”
“I think moose but I’m not sure,” Fatima said.
The walk up the inner hallway, narrow and simple with only a couple of serene ocean paintings on the wall, to the northern glass-covered hallway took forever. Servants were waiting for them to escort them to the dining room. That took even longer. The farther they went, the slower Father walked.
The dining room was larger than Fatima had expected. But then it would have to be with the entire Breding family present, Fatima and her family plus the auditor and his support staff all coming to dinner. Instead of the series of low tables with individual trays that would have been arranged around small fires back home, there was one long table covered by a bright blue cloth. Someone had reverse dyed lovely little birds into it, a whole flock of them flying up the length of the cloth from one end of the table to the other.
In the middle of the table were big platters of rice, stews, huge stacks of lovely naan bread. That made Fatima smile. Father always loved naan bread. Every time they had it Fatima thought about having a proper tandoori oven put in back home but she’d never added it to the budget. Fry bread was so much simpler and the cooks knew exactly how to prepare it.
“Crowded,” Father murmured.
“It is,” Fatima agreed.
Such a large room shouldn’t have felt crowded but it did. Part of it was the crowd of assistants clustered around the auditor, each of them in the simple black uniforms that Their Majesties’ representatives wore. Fatima noted three with pale green trim, all female clerks, two with brown trim that nearly blended back into the black of their collars and cuffs. Those where guards of some sort, perhaps for the clerks as none had been present in the library. And one lone accountant with pale blue trim on his collar and cuffs. Interestingly, the accountant had three lines of trim, giving him higher rank that the ostensible leader, the auditor that Fatima had interrogated earlier.
The auditor nodded towards them, as they came in, a little smile of approval on his lips. Fatima smiled and bowed back, just a little one so that she didn’t convey too much respect. Her rank did exceed his. Even if he had the authority to remove them from their position at Skagit Manor.
Orbiting around the auditor and his team, Breding Manor’s family hovered, fussed and generally tried to make sure that absolutely everyone was comfortable. Lady Rina and Lady Shizuka smiled and directed the auditor and his staff to the places of honor in front of the display alcove at the far end of the room. The auditor made a striking figure seated at the head of the table with a beautiful hand-painted calligraphy behind him.
It looked as though the Breding family would spread between them all with Lord Bilal at the opposite end of the table and Fatima, Father and Zainab in the middle. A safe, comfortable choice.
Fatima would have been a little less deferential to the auditor’s staff, seating them in the middle but then Skagit Manor didn’t seat its guests at one big table. There were little fire pits and individual discussion areas that one could sit at or wander between as one willed. Personally, she liked that setup better for formal dinners. It made private conversations so much easier.
Fatima frowned as she helped Father sit on the big, firm cushion that Lady Shizuka had selected for him. He nearly collapsed and groaned as he stretched his leg out under the table. Lady Shizuka produced a pair of hot bricks that Father placed so that they would support and warm his bad leg, and then a blanket that he gratefully put over his lap to keep the heat in.
They really shouldn’t have come. No matter how much Father tried to pretend otherwise, his leg was getting worse. She hated the thought of Father losing his leg but seeing him in pain this way was so much worse.
It seemed as though Zainab had finally realized just how badly injured Father was. Her cheeks were pale, her eyes almost ice blue with worry, as she sat opposite Father. Thankfully, she didn’t say anything but the worry was there, written on her face as clearly as if someone had taken a paint brush and used indelible ink to inscribe the words.
“You’ll be right here, dear,” Lady Shizuka murmured as she seated Fatima directly opposite Haruka. Her eyes sparkled with amusement at the way Fatima blushed. “Do excuse me. I want to make sure that the auditor’s comfortable.”
“Oh, go,” Fatima said, gently pushing Lady Shizuka away. “We’ll be fine. Make sure to sit and eat sometime.”
Lady Shizuka’s eyes wrinkled in a smile that didn’t escape to her lips. She bowed, sleek straight black hair sweeping over her shoulder for a second before she turned away. It was nice. Very traditionally attractive but Fatima liked Haruka’s dramatic waves better. Looking at Haruka’s hair was like gazing at the sound when the wind picked up and the waves surged up into peaks.
The only person who seemed to be missing was Haruka’s friend, Doctor Shahzad. Fatima frowned, counted cushions along the long edges of the table and realized that there wasn’t a place setting for him.
“Will Doctor Shahzad be joining us?” Fatima asked. She patted Father’s wrist when he stiffed and glared at Fatima. “He will remember to eat, won’t he?”
Haruka clapped a hand over her mouth, eyes dancing with laughter as she nodded. After a second, and a hard swallow that made Zainab smirk at her, Haruka pulled her hand away to wave away Fatima’s concern.
“He got called away on another visit,” Haruka explained. “With this weather I expect he’ll be running most of the night.”
“But he gets lost,” Fatima said. “You said so.”
“Oh yes.” Haruka laughed, drawing most of the other dinner guests’ eyes to her though she didn’t seem to notice it. Her eyes were squarely focused on Fatima. “He does. He’s so bad at directions. When I can’t go with him he takes one of the servants along, a big burly man who can literally pick him up and carry him where he needs to go if Shahzad gets too stubborn about going the wrong way. He’ll be fine, honestly.”
“That’s good to hear,” Fatima sighed. Then she blushed and waved a hand as if to erase those words. “I mean, it’s good to hear that someone is with him and that he will remember to eat.”
“You just can’t help taking care of everyone around you, can you?” Haruka said, a wry smile mixing strangely with the admiration in her eyes.
Fatima blushed harder, nodding that it really was quite true. “I know. I can’t help it. I just want everyone to be happy. But you do it, too, no matter how hard you protest that you don’t.”
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