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 stared at the ice forming on the kitchen window. She couldn’t remember it ever getting this cold before. Maybe when she was very tiny, only four or five years old. There’d been a winter where the weather had cooled until the rain shifted in mountains of snow. That snow had continued for three days, burying the world under a frigid blanket of white that smothered everything. The drifts outside the house had been so high that Haruka hadn’t been able to see the top of them.
Shizuka had loved it, running out and leaping into piles of snow while giggling madly. When she came up she looked like a frost spirit, or maybe a snow spirit, though no spirit giggled like that. Keiko had enjoyed it as well, making snow balls and pitching them at every boy and girl who claimed that they could climb to the top of the pile the adults had created on the edge of town.
Unlike her sisters, Haruka had refused to go outside unless forced to.
Too cold, too wet, too different from what Haruka had always known. She’d cried every time Mother and Father made her go out and had come back inside the instant she could only to huddle by the fire shivering.
Now, without snow but with cold that made that long-ago winter seem temperate, Haruka wished that she could curl up in bed with about a dozen hot bricks, every blanket she owned and all the hot tea in the world. Even with her warmest cotton under-kimono, three thickest kimono, a pair of heavy cotton hakama, two pairs of tabi and slippers over the top of that Haruka was cold. Her ears ached. Her nose felt like it was slowly freezing solid, not at all helped by her runny nose. Not to mention that her fingers were like living ice cubes inside the gloves Shizuka had shoved at her when she came to roust Haruka out of bed.
“Now, these have to go to the north wing,” Nabeela said as she carried in a stack of hibachi that she and Ouchi, the head of Breding Manor’s stores, had pulled out of storage. “They’re old and not very fancy but we can’t let our guests freeze overnight.”
“Told you that we should have installed mass heaters,” Haruka sighed as she took the hibachi from Nabeela with a grunt for her weight. “The servants aren’t doing this why, exactly?”
“Because,” Nabeela said with a scowl at Haruka for the eternal argument about mass heaters, “they went home to check on their families and now the road is so icy that they can’t get back up. Kosuke almost broke his arm trying to go down the road to his grandmother’s house. If Shahzad hadn’t gone with him he’d be seriously hurt and stuck outside in the cold.”
“It’s that icy out?” Rina asked at the exact same time as Haruka.
Nabeela’s grim nod made Rina frown and Haruka sigh. Lovely. So much for getting back into her nice warm bed before it cooled off. Granted, it was probably already too late for that. Her bedroom was one of the traditional Japanese-styled ones with paper covered shoji and tatami mats. It was perfect for summer heat and humidity but much less livable when the temperature dropped. Even with the heavy wood shutters over the shoji her room was icy.
“All right,” Haruka said, looking at the little brazier that Ouchi had lit. “Give me that and I’ll head out to help them. Who’s missing hibachi?”
“One of the auditor’s staff,” Shizuka said from her place wrapping hot bricks straight from the fire in thick cotton furoshiki. She tied the knots to make it easier to carry the bricks, not that it would work that well once they were in use. The knots would be uncomfortable for their recipients. “Then Fatima and Zainab. They’re the only ones in the north wing. And they’re all in Japanese style rooms.”
“Ah, give me a blanket, too, then,” Haruka said. She grinned at Ouchi’s worried frown. “I know how many blankets Fatima and Zainab have. They’re probably fine. They have bricks, too. Pretty sure the auditor doesn’t have a spare blanket.”
He hobbled over and then came back to drape a nice thick blanket over Haruka’s shoulder. The lit brazier went into the top of the two hibachi she held, heat from the lump of slowly burning coal heating her freezing face, and then Haruka was off, scurrying down dark, icy cold hallways.
Haruka bit her lip as she hurried along the hallway. Breding Manor had been home for several years now but it was still so large and dark at night that she found her heart beating faster, silly thing that it was. Old ghost stories, told when she was young enough to live and breathe wild stories, flitted through her mind.
She could easily imagine a ghost, white kimono shining in the darkness of the hallway, hair hanging loose to obscure her face, lurking around the corner. Shivers of fear combined with the cold to make Haruka tremble. Her steps slowed, slowed further, until she crept along the dark hallway, ice-covered glass windows making what little moonlight that came through the window into a patchwork of misty shadows and lurking threats. Haruka swallowed down her fear, sternly scolding herself for letting her imagination run riot, and turned the corner.
The corner to turn down the north wing’s main aisle was empty. She sagged a little, hurrying again. As if there would be a ghost here. This wing had no ghosts. The one ghost in the manor was said to haunt the south wing and it was a little child who played with a ball, not a yuurie hunting for people’s souls.
“Excuse me,” Haruka called as she set down the hibachi outside the auditor’s assistant’s door. “I have a hibachi for you.”
No one answered.
Haruka gulped as visions of ghosts surged up again, shook her head hard and then carefully opened the door a crack. The futon wasn’t there. The assistant’s clothes were, neatly stacked by the bag she’d brought her things in, but the futon and the assistant weren’t. For a very long moment Haruka stared and then she pressed her lips together against the giggles that threatened to spill over into outright laughter.
“Well, someone’s decided to combine beds with a coworker,” Haruka murmured. She wrinkled her nose and grinned as she scooped everything back up again. “Far be it for me to interrupt.”
The hallway seemed much less threatening after that. Giggling about secret love affairs among the auditor’s staff was certainly much better than thinking about yuurie stalking behind her in the silent hallway. And if Haruka’s giggles had a somewhat hysterical edge, well, no one was there to hear it.
At the end of the hallway, where Fatima, Zainab and Count Rafi were staying, the air was significantly colder. Haruka frowned, her steps slowing from concern this time. The little pocket garden that made their suite so lovely had to be chilling it even worse than everywhere else. And Count Rafi was certain to have the worst of it as his bedroom was right next to the garden.
“Excuse me,” Haruka called as she set the hibachi down again and tapped on the door. “Coming in with more hibachi. And another blanket.”
No one answered, or at least Haruka didn’t think anyone had. There was a muffled sound from Fatima and Zainab’s bedroom but it wasn’t comprehensible. Haruka went to Count Rafi’s room, wincing when she opened the door to find that he’d curled up in a ball, other than his bad leg stuck out awkwardly.
“I have more blankets and another hibachi for you,” Haruka announced.
“Hah?” Count Rafi’s head poked up out of his nest of blankets. He blinked at her and then smiled gratefully. “Thank you. It’s quite cold.”
“It really is,” Haruka agreed as she spread the blanket on top of him very carefully. The last thing she wanted to do was hurt his leg. “We’re running spare hibachi everywhere right now. I am sorry about the cold. You might be warmer in your daughter’s room though that would mean giving up your warm spot.”
“I’ll keep the warm spot,” Count Rafi said with a snort of amusement. “Though if you don’t mind running back for more bricks, that would be lovely. My leg is… giving me trouble.”
“Understandable,” Haruka said. “I can get you something for the pain, if you’d like. I mean, if you haven’t taken your medications already.”
His cheeks went blotchily red as he blushed and then refused to meet her eyes.
Haruka stared at him and then growled. “You’re not taking medications for the pain. No. Just no. You are not suffering in this household, Count Rafi. My father was viciously burned and I know what pain can do to you as well as how the medications can affect your mind. I’m getting Shahzad, he’s talking to you and then you’re taking something for the pain.”
Count Rafi opened his mouth to disagree but snapped it back shut again when Haruka glowered and pointed an imperious finger at him.
“Hibachi for you,” Haruka said while loading it with coal and then carefully lighting it with the brazier. “Hibachi for the girls. Then Shahzad and more bricks and medication. No arguments out of you. I had more than enough of that out of my father. I won’t put up with it from someone else’s father. In fact,” she glared at him, “I’m getting Shahzad first. Then Fatima and Zainab get their spare hibachi.”
“Ahem,” Count Rafi mock-coughed, eyes sparkling with laughter that didn’t make it to his dead serious face. “All right then. If you insist.”
“I do,” Haruka grumbled. “I’ll be right back.”
She ran through the hallways back to the kitchen, delighted that Shahzad was there tending to Kosuke’s very sprained wrist. It was already purple and black, hugely swollen. The apprentice was there as well, biting her nails and on the verge of tears. Haruka sighed at the girl. Really, how had she made it through the apprentice training program much less been assigned here? That level of inability to adapt just wasn’t normal for apprentices. Most of them could handle anything thrown at them.
“You, heat bricks,” Haruka snapped at her. “I need at least three more for Count Rafi. His room is practically the same as being outside. Shahzad, I need your help. Count Rafi hasn’t been taking any medication for his leg and I think it’s in very bad shape. Even with as cold as his room was he didn’t curl it up to conserve heat.”
“That is bad,” Shahzad said with a worried frown. “No lifting anything with that hand, Kosuke. Let your girl here lift everything for you. And do quit whimpering, dear girl. He’ll be fine. He’s just going to be grumpy for a while. You’ll have to be his hands until he heals.”
That was that as far as Haruka was concerned. She took three of the bricks that had been previously heated, grateful for the carrying knots that Shizuka had tied on them. They were hot enough that carrying them in her arms would have been painful quickly. Then she and Shahzad trotted back through the manor’s cold hallways.
It was so much less frightening with Shahzad by her side. He tried to turn the wrong way twice but only sighed and followed her when she kept going. Count Rafi looked up as they entered, smiling both ruefully for Shahzad and gratefully for the bricks that he carefully tucked around his leg. Haruka nodded firmly and then took the brazier and the hibachi.
“I’ll be next door,” Haruka said. “They need more heat, too.”
“Certainly do,” Shahzad said. His breath gusted out in a frosty cloud that hung over Count Rafi’s head. “If you weren’t so snug in there I’d suggest moving to a different suite.”
Haruka slipped out as Count Rafi laughed quietly. She paused outside of Fatima and Zainab’s room, hesitating for completely different reasons than in the hallway. Did Fatima wear night clothes? Well, she had to right now, certainly. It was too cold to sleep nude. But the mental image of Fatima’s luscious dark skin, her full bust and strong shoulders, filled Haruka’s mind so that she barely heard the murmur of Shahzad and Count Rafi’s voices as they discussed Count Rafi’s bad leg.
“Silly woman,” Haruka whispered before knocking firmly on Fatima’s door. “I have another hibachi for you!”
“Oh! Come in,” Fatima replied, sounding quite awake if very startled.
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