Novel Monday: Transplant of War – Chapter 3


Description:
Adane barely escaped war in his homeland. He wanted nothing more than to hide in this new city with his adopted child Chisa by his side. But every choice he makes risks their quiet lives and every day brings the war that Adane fled closer to their doorstep. Soon Adane will have to choose between running away again or taking a stand against an enemy that can’t be seen and cannot be fought.

Transplant of War
by Meyari McFarland

3. Renovation

“Where this goes?” Chisa asked as they carried a bundle of blankets as big they were into their finally renovated house.

“Bedroom upstairs,” Adane said.

“Awful small,” Chisa said, giggling a little.

“So true,” Adane sighed. “Still, bedroom.”

Their bedroom was tiny, barely three paces one way and two the other but there was room for a mattress and a chest for clothes under the narrow stairs up to the roof. Adane had thought of having Chisa sleep in a hammock on the far side of the room but both Chisa’s and Adane’s nightmares made that impossible. Thankfully they both slept better with someone to touch or cuddle in the night. They’d just have to share the mattress until Adane could expand the house or figure out another place for Chisa’s bed. And, of course, until they were over their nightmares.

“Will do!”

He grinned as the entire bundle nodded along with Chisa’s head. A month along the house was livable. They’d spend half the rudraii getting the house to a point where the walls wouldn’t collapse, the ceiling didn’t leak and the kitchen could be used to prepare food. There was still a huge amount of work to be done, including plastering all the walls, redoing the floor downstairs and then getting actual furniture for them to sleep on but it was something to be done in the future. For now they had a home.

Which had, actually, gotten named Shiraida House much to Chisa’s amusement. Adane shrugged off the comments every time people saw them together. It was a good old house and it was theirs. Other people’s opinions didn’t matter. The only thing that mattered to Adane was getting the place livable. He breathed slowly against the surge of memories from before. His flashbacks had already frightened Chisa once. No reason to repeat it now when Adane was safe and secure.

“What now?” Chisa asked.

They grinned up at Adane, the gap in their teeth starting to fill in. Having three meals a day seemed to have triggered a growth spurt. Chisa’s now perpetually clean face had filled out but their arms and legs had grown enough that the new shirt and pants Adane had bought were slightly too short.

“Walls?” Adane said, looking out the door towards the crumbling plaster on the outer walls.

“Can’t reach big chunks of wall,” Chisa said doubtfully. They sucked on their bottom lip, hesitantly sidling closer to Adane. “Too many plants.”

Adane laughed, scooped Chisa up in his arms and pressed a kiss against Chisa’s cheek. The startled squeak and then laughter just made Adane laugh harder. He could taste the sugar of Chisa’s morning pastry. Chisa giggled as they hugged Adane, settling into Adane’s arms with a little sigh of contentment that always made Adane’s heart break for how lonely the child’s life had been.
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Sale!

On Sale Now: Consort of the Crystal Palace! Get it on Kobo for $0.99 but only until Monday.

wlw romance / SF adventure FTW!

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Free Fiction Friday: Drifting Leaves, Misty Skies

POD Drifting Leaves Misty Skies Ebook Cover 03

Description:

Sand shifted under Simeon’s feet, under the stairs, the buildings, the entire town.

James waited, eyes on the horizon like a onyx sculpture of a man as he gazed across the misty beach towards the booming waves.

The waves summoned James’ magic away from Simeon while Simeon’s magic swirled him away into the echoes of the past.

They drew together, shifting with the waves, the sand, the misty rain.

Drifting Leaves, Misty Skies

By Meyari McFarland

Simeon rubbed one shoe against the grass, carefully scrubbing sand off of it. The surf boomed off to his right, shushing as the waves withdrew only to crash again. His toes were cold. Wet. Sandy. There really wasn’t much point to cleaning the sand off his shoes when his feet were covered in sand, too. Still Simeon carefully brushed them off, making sure every speck of gray fell off the white plastic sole, the neon green upper.

Off to his left James waited, eyes on the horizon. He could have just arrived at the beach. Face calm, shoulders relaxed. He’d thrust his hands into his pockets, all but the thumbs that stuck out, hooked through a belt loop. James’ mop of curly hair drooped over his forehead to shield his eyes, dark against the gray concrete retaining wall that kept the cliff from slumping down onto the beach. His skin looked darker than normal down here, almost black instead of warm reddish brown.

Cedric had sniffed the first time he saw James, had curled a lip and turned away to look side-long at Simeon as if he suspected that Simeon had lost his mind. Of course, Cedric always did that. He’d sneered at Simeon’s first grade painting of the sky, at the news that he was going to be in band in junior high. When Simeon’s test results came back positive, Cedric’s sneer had curled so high that Simeon had punched him in the face.

Just because Cedric had no gifts, no magic, didn’t mean he had the right to put Simeon down.

He still did. Every time they spoke, emailed, texted, there would always be some snide comment about Simeon that was designed to make him feel like crap.

“He’s not here,” James murmured. His voice blended into the crash and suck of the waves just as James always blended into his environment, quiet, still, calm.

“I know,” Simeon said. “Except for how he is.”

James turned his head, electric green eyes softening to deep moss green when he saw Simeon’s face. He chuckled and came over to brush a hand over Simeon’s cheek. The sand dropped from Simeon’s feet, fell from his shoes. Simeon ducked his head and smiled, looked up through his lashes and laughed under his breath that his heart could beat so fast just from James smiling at him that way.

Simeon blushed as James took his hand, led him up the stairs towards the street above. Sand should have stuck to his feet. The stairs, damp with misty rain, dotted with soggy blackberry and maple leaves that had fallen into the stair well, were coated with sand. Many of the steps domed in the center from the amount of sand people had tracked up on the bottoms of their shoes.

No sand stuck. When they got to the top, Simeon panting a little, James with his eyes crinkled in a quiet smile that didn’t touch his lips, Simeon put on his shoes without any worries about sand between his toes. It was still odd. A little frightening. Exhilarating.

“Do you think I’ll learn how to do that?” Simeon asked as they slowly strolled up the street as it wound to the left and then climbed sharply towards the main road above.

“The sand?” James asked. He shrugged. “Maybe. I doubt it. It’s not your gift, really.”

His eyes were distant, looking ahead, not at the road, per se, but the future that only James could see. The future? A future, maybe. James had told Simeon that the future shifted, drifting like leaves in the wind, subject to the choices they made moment to moment.
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Now Available: Living Beginning of the Storm


Description:
Keanu clung to his form. Only Cyrille, his beloved First Follower, kept him from being blown apart by the power of the sea surrounding him.

Baby gods should never confront the Gods of the Sea. They just shouldn’t.

But the team needed Keanu so he had to cope with the roar of the waves, the pounding of the surf, the tearing at his fragile energies.

Somehow.

Find This Story:

On Kobo $2.99 ebook
On Smashwords $2.99 ebook
On Amazon $2.99 ebook or $5.99 TPB
On CreateSpace $5.99 TPB

Yay, I got this up when I wanted to instead of weeks later! *laughs at myself* Sometimes you have to take your wins where you get them.

So yeah, another Gods Above and Below story up and available. Keanu faces some threats and makes some changes in this one. Hope you enjoy if you choose to read!

*happy dance*

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Novel Monday: Transplant of War – Chapter 2


Description:
Adane barely escaped war in his homeland. He wanted nothing more than to hide in this new city with his adopted child Chisa by his side. But every choice he makes risks their quiet lives and every day brings the war that Adane fled closer to their doorstep. Soon Adane will have to choose between running away again or taking a stand against an enemy that can’t be seen and cannot be fought.

Transplant of War
by Meyari McFarland

2. Trap

Copper tainted Adane’s tongue as he licked his split lip. The wood of the door flaked away under his fingers. Something large and heavy scuttled away from the slow drag of the door across the uneven stones that marked an ancient pathway into the garden at the center of the house. Heavy green ferns covered the ground. Moss as thick and soft as a one hundred year carpet spread between the worn stones of the path.

It was an old style house, older than Adane had expected. Instead of an outer ring of building that opened into a central courtyard, the house loomed like a moss and vine-covered shadow to the left. Something that might be an outdoor kitchen lurked directly opposite the door behind shrubs that had grown into trees during their decades of neglect. And to the right Adane could just make out what he thought might be a wash house and toilet. Maybe.

“Got lots of work to do,” the Shiraida hunter snorted.

“Lots,” Adane agreed, much more tense. “Do the summoning spell, please.”

“Not gonna get Shiraida in a place like that,” the hunter sighed and spat towards Adane’s feet as if to drive him away for his stupidity. “Don’t like that much greenery.”

“Please,” Adane said. He deliberately didn’t respond to the insult. There was no benefit to that. “Get paid either way.”

The hunter snorted, spat towards Sand who glowered at the man but didn’t clench their fists as Adane expected. Instead Sand bit their lip, swallowing so hard that Adane could hear the swallow from yards away. Adane waved Sand to come over to his side so that he could protect the child. He was alive because of Sand. It was only appropriate, no matter what the others around them might think of him for protecting a homeless, filthy child with no name.
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Free Fiction Friday: Stars Drifting Ever Upwards

POD Stars Drifting Ever Upwards Ebook Cover 03

Description:

Gisela paused, one foot planted on a fallen log, the other buried in a mound of long brown pine needles.

Beaten, cast out with her sisters, Gisela burned with fury that Harbart had turned on her this way.

She’d left their village to protect her sisters but as Harbart chased her Gisela’s reserve burned away in the flames of revenge.

Harbart’s obsession with magic would be the world’s doom.

Stars Drifting Ever Upwards

By Meyari McFarland

Gisela paused, one foot planted on a fallen log, the other buried in a mound of long brown pine needles. The rough bark of the pine scraped against her bare sole, as rough as a rasp despite the wet dragging her hair down over her eyes. The forest was quiet, nothing but the sound of water dripping, dripping, endlessly dripping from moss-covered branches and drooping bunches of needles as long as her hand.

If it were summer, if things were different, Gisela would stoop and gather great handfuls of the needles so that she could bring them home and carefully weave them into baskets for sale. Or bundle them into loose balls to set aflame, piney sap filling the air with the scent of summer and joy and heat. But these needles were already half rotted, the clear amber color so prized during the summer turned to musty brown patched with blackish mold.

Nothing good could come of the needles right now. But at least they did not burn. That was good. Better. Safer. For the moment. They shouldn’t bring too much attention to themselves, not while they fled. Someday, once they had a new home, then they could be open again but not now.

Ahead, Alli had one shoulder under Coby’s arm, supporting her so that they could hobble along together, their three good legs doing what they could to spare Coby’s badly broken leg. Even if Coby still had the crutches that had been taken from her they wouldn’t have done much good. The forest floor was too uneven, the blanket of pine needles too thick, for crutches to help.

It still burned that they’d taken the crutches away before chasing them out of town.

Gisela shook her head, spraying tiny hot sparks all around her as the anger shifted and left her. A few yards away Liselot glowered at Gisela, sparks rising from her eyes. They’d all agreed, no fire, no magic, no revenge for the slight but it was hard to let anger go.

Necessary, yes, but still hard. Gisela shook her head again, ignored the upward drifting sparks, and lifted her skirts as she followed Alli and Coby. Her back ached where the mob had kicked, hit, beaten her. Her neck throbbed where the mob had wrapped a rope around her neck, tried to drag her to be hung before Gisela had burned it away in a flash of fury and fire that had sent people screaming in terror. When she swallowed sour bile crept back up, tainting the back of her throat like the hurt fury that wouldn’t leave.

People were stupid, no matter what sweet, pale, gentle Viona claimed. Her magic was all light, all warmth, a fire so intense that it seemed barely there. She stood at the top of the ridge, staring down into the valley with her stark against the black-brown bark of a great pine. It was like staring at the sun, sometimes, or a single candle flame burning in a still, still room. Viona never had wavered, never had doubted, never had to worry about whether people accepted them or not.

Her fire burned so hot that she had little to fear.

Gisela did not have that luck. Her fire was the smoldering fire of a stove as morning came and new wood was put on old embers, the deep fires of the earth that moved continents and shoved mountains towards the sky. Slow burning, inevitable, like the turn of the seasons and the heat of the sun on a winter day. She couldn’t set the world on fire but if she decided to burn something it was going to go up in flames eventually. Viona was the fast spark, the oil-fed flame that leaped up before you knew it was there.

“What do you see?” Liselot called to Viona. “Anything?”

“They’re following us,” Viona replied.
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Overdue Now Available Posts!

6. The Ice’s Voyagers

Description:
Xun’s breath puffed into the air, crystallizing in a cloud. So cold. If Chifundo hadn’t begged…

But she had. And Xun had to answer her, treking all the way up to the glaciers over Turnbull.

Only to discover that Chifundo didn’t want her.

Or need her.

Something was very, very wrong. Xun had to fix it or lose her cousin forever.

If it wasn’t already too late.

Find This Story:

On Kobo $2.99 ebook
On Smashwords $2.99 ebook
On Amazon $2.99 ebook or $5.99 TPB
On CreateSpace $5.99 TPB

7. First Snake of the Dwindling Ships

Description:
The Headquarters of the Snakes of the Empire was a black blot against the white marble of the Holy City.

Akuchi would rather be anywhere but here.

Bonding to Prince Cyrille was the best thing that had ever happened to him. It had taken him from this duty and he was so glad.

But his old friend Kirran Pekkanen waited for help that only Akuchi could give.

Though Akuchi refused to give what he demanded.

Find This Story:

On Kobo $2.99 ebook
On Smashwords $2.99 ebook
On Amazon $2.99 ebook or $5.99 TPB
On CreateSpace $5.99 TPB

8. Kiss of the High King’s Illusion

Description:
Cyrille strolled to the library window overlooking the east rose garden, Akuchi by his side. Misty rain fell outside.

Odd for his favorite place in the world to be so grim but then the murderous ghost haunting the High King’s library was a great threat.

Greater than Cyrille usually faced.

For being possessed by a ghost determined to kill the High King might get Cyrille and Akuchi both murdered.

Find This Story:

On Kobo $2.99 ebook
On Smashwords $2.99 ebook
On Amazon $2.99 ebook or $5.99 TPB
On CreateSpace $5.99 TPB

Finally! Got the Now Available posts up. Sorry that took so long. It’s been a busy three weeks.

The sixth, seventh and eighth stories in the Gods Above and Below series of short stories is now available pretty much anywhere you look. Hope you enjoy the stories should you choose to read!

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Novel Monday: Transplant of War – Chapter 1

Time for a new novel on Novel Mondays–Hope you enjoy the switch over to the Mages of Tindiere ‘verse and our slide back a thousand or so years into the past.


Description:
Adane barely escaped war in his homeland. He wanted nothing more than to hide in this new city with his adopted child Chisa by his side. But every choice he makes risks their quiet lives and every day brings the war that Adane fled closer to their doorstep. Soon Adane will have to choose between running away again or taking a stand against an enemy that can’t be seen and cannot be fought.

Transplant of War
by Meyari McFarland

1. Sand

Cobbles twisted Adane’s ankle sharply as he picked his way up the narrow street. He cursed under his breath only to stop abruptly, sweat breaking out over his forehead and back. His heart pounded against his chest, shaking his knees and grabbing at his lungs so that breathing abruptly became impossible.

Adane looked over his shoulder. No one was there. No one had heard. They weren’t hunting him. A great flying cart, as long as a block, stacked high with bricks for someone’s house, flew by overhead. Its magical flywheel whirred silently, the driver manipulating the glowing control disks so lazily that he looked three quarters asleep.

The driver didn’t look down at Adane cringing in his narrow, dirty alley. Probably didn’t even notice that Adane was there but still, it was a risk that Adane couldn’t afford. He kept the curses in his head after that, despite how uneven the cobblestones were under his feet. Too much risk, too many dangers; he needed to do everything right including navigating this tiny street.

If you could call it a street. It was a path between two rows of buildings with what should pass for cobblestones under his feet but Adane would have considered it no better than an alley back home. Less than that. Alleys had enough room for a proper cart to go through, space overhead where the neighbors could look across at each other, maybe windows in the walls so that passers-by could glimpse the gardens beyond.

Not here. The walls towered over his head, a good eight feet high. Most were topped with broken shards of glass that said more clearly than signage that no one was welcome to visit. The buildings beyond had no windows, no gardens. Those were all wrapped inside in central courtyards that only the privileged few could enter. Or at least that only the residents could see and complain about the upkeep that had not happened in far too long.

In this portion of town no one had time for gardening. They were too busy surviving, working for every penny they could scrape up. A far cry from his childhood before everything went wrong but this was what Adane could afford. At least here people didn’t ask questions. No one had commented on Adane’s flinches, fear sweats and barely covered scars around his wrists.

The street itself was narrow. Cramped. Worn. He gently brushed his fingers along the grey plastered wall to his left. Chips broke off, white on their underside, falling into the out of place cobbles below. One chunk as large as his head toppled to the cobbles in a crack that made Adane start. Underneath old worn bricks peered outwards, curling inwards at the edges where grout should be as though the grout was slime mold startled by the light.

Adane frowned.
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Free Fiction Friday: Dancing on the Edge of the Waterfall

POD Dancing on the Edge of the Waterfall Ebook Cover 03

Description:

The air was thick with moisture, cold and dark as a shadowy tomb. The cargo hold echoed with the whisper of claws against metal grates.

Devyn heard the drips. Alone in the dark with alien monsters hunting her Devyn feared death.

In the dark, with no one to help and monsters after her, Devyn was trapped.

Droplets of water ghosted over her skin, an icy mist in the cold air.

Dancing on the Edge of the Waterfall

By Meyari McFarland

Devyn shut her eyes, held her breath. The air was thick with moisture, like standing outside of the shower as the water pounded down and steam rose to fill the bathroom. It was a cold moisture, though, not warm and welcoming. She could have sworn that there were droplets running along her arms but when she rubbed one hand over her wrist her palm came away dry.

The hold was dark, lights on dim to conserve energy. They’d all agreed that there was no need for bright lights in rooms that weren’t currently used so everywhere, not just the hold, dimmed the lights after they left the area. That made the hold a shadowy tomb full of nightmare fodder when she opened her eyes again. The little girl who’d been terrified of the dark screamed inside of Devyn for her to turn the lights on so that the monsters wouldn’t get her.

Pointless.

Lights wouldn’t protect her from monsters. The ‘monsters’ they’d picked up were sightless, claw-bedecked beaked monstrosities that enjoyed gnawing on plastic and skittering through the ducts. Even if Arlana thought they were no different than rats, Devyn had private intentions of wiping every single one of the little monsters out before they made planet again. Stupid things didn’t breed fast, didn’t seem to breed at all, so it shouldn’t be hard.

Somewhere, deep inside the echoing cavern of a hold, a water drop pinged against metal. A leak. Three seconds later another ping echoed, as loud as a shout in a silent room and three times as hard to trace given the way the sound bounced off the walls, the crates, the curve of Devyn’s ears.

Great.

“I have a leak,” Devyn announced over the comm.

“Fuck, where?” Isleen demanded.

“I don’t know,” Devyn said as she pulled out her scanner. “Three second interval, somewhere in the hold. That’s all I’ve got so far. It’s damp as hell down here, though. It’s been going for a while.”

She went silent as a double ping echoed through the hold. Devyn cursed under her breath as she set out down the main aisle of the hold, scanning for any pooling of water. Unlikely given the grates under their goods but you never knew. There were places where the floor was solid. Not many, mind you, but a few that had been designed as spots to hold high priced goods that Isleen had never managed to book. Nya had taken to storing crates of dehydrated food there strictly because it was easier on her weak leg to walk on solid plates than open grates.

“How much water are we talking?” Riley asked. Even over the comms her voice came out gruff and so deep that you’d suspect vocal cord damage.

“Too much,” Devyn snapped as her sensor pad came back with entirely too much water under her feet. “It feels like I’m in the middle of a waterfall in here. I think it’s all pooled in the pit under the grates. Not sure yet how much but even with the spin of the hull we’re talking enough to nearly fill the pit.”
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Novel Monday: Crafting Home – Chapter 15

POD Crafting Home Ebook Cover 06
Description:
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.

Crafting Home
By Meyari McFarland

15. Proposal

Somehow, making plans for a proposal weren’t the same as waiting for the proposal to happen calmly. Haruka’s bottom lip hurt. She’d bitten it so many times over the last day and a half that the skin had split and bled. It was such an incredibly long time that felt longer than anything she’d ever lived through before, even Father’s injury and all their worries about Shizuka before that first letter home had arrived.

Haruka swallowed and very deliberately did not bit her lip again. Tea. She had to make tea. The auditor was done and had presented his findings, none world-beating but many that would take far too much time and effort to fix, so he and his staff would be leaving as soon as possible. Which meant this afternoon, likely.

The weather had finally broken earlier in the day, around mid-morning. Clouds had swept in from the west, carrying warmth and water from the sea. Granted, they’d come with fierce winds but that wasn’t too unusual at this time of year. The important part was that they’d raised the temperature until the ice coating everything in Breding Town started to melt in tiny drops, then rivulets that poured down the windows and across the road on their way back to the sea.

So yes, the auditor was leaving on his boat this afternoon. So were Fatima, Zainab and Count Rafi who would be carried by servants on a special chair because his leg was too fragile for crutches. At least the surgery appeared to have been a success.

Time would tell, of course, but Shahzad and Shizuka had been quietly confident that the carefully sterilized titanium plates they’d screwed into his bones over the breaks would stabilize his leg well enough that he wouldn’t need to have it amputated. It was a procedure that was known in the capital, here and a couple of other towns in Ambermarle but it was new, relatively untried.

Count Rafi would be the first at Skagit Manor to have received it. Haruka suspected that he wouldn’t be the last. Fatima had excitedly discussed the entire process with him once he woke up, convincing him that they needed to send their doctors for fresh training in it.

“Tea?” Shizuka asked from across the kitchen where she was gathering lunch for them all.

“Sorry!” Haruka gasped, scrambling to measure out the proper amounts of powdered green tea for each cup. The water was at least properly boiled and cooled to the correct temperature. Scalding the auditor’s tea wouldn’t be a good thing.

“You’re very distracted,” Shizuka commented. “That excited to get out of the manor again? I’m sure it’s been hard being stuck inside when you prefer being out and about.”

Haruka looked over her shoulder but Shizuka’s expression seemed calm, content, not at all teasing. Kosuke’s wasn’t at all. He raised an eyebrow at Haruka, smirking while the apprentice pressed her lips together to avoid giggling.

“I’ll be glad to see the auditor gone,” Haruka said because that was true and she didn’t want to jeopardize Fatima’s entirely simple plan. “It’s been stressful with him here.”

“So desu, ne?” Shizuka sighed as if the weight of the world was on her shoulders.

And it was, really. Rina didn’t handle all the social things. She had no patience for it, no gift at it. That was Nabeela and Shizuka while Ammad and Rina worked together on the legal and administrative side of ruling Breding Manor. Everything fell on Shizuka’s shoulders.

“Is it hard?” Haruka asked as her heart pounded against her breastbone, drying her mouth and making her fingers shake as she picked up the tray. “Being the official Lady, I mean.”

“Mmm, it can be,” Shizuka said thoughtfully, smiling so gently, so happily that Haruka calmed despite herself. “But it’s worth it. I love working with Nabeela. I enjoy helping the people here. And my research is always there to distract me when I need a break. It works out. Come on. We’d best hurry. I heard the auditor say that he wants to leave before the afternoon tide.”

The hallways were so much warmer that Haruka’s shivers were noticeable. Shizuka frowned slightly at the way the teacups rattled on the Haruka’s tray but she didn’t comment. The auditor, along with his staff, Count Rafi, Fatima and Zainab, waited in the biggest sitting room, the one that doubled as a courtroom when there were big law cases for Ammad to try.

Fatima’s eyes met Haruka’s across the room. She sat next to Count Rafi who smiled ruefully from his traveling chair, leg wrapped in a heavy plaster cast with a colorful wool sock decorating his toes. Behind them, standing with her legs spread wide and a wild grin on her face as she talked to the Skagit Manor warriors who would row them home, stood Zainab. Haruka didn’t get a single glance from Zainab but that probably had more to do with the very tall and very powerfully muscled young warrior that she was talking to. He certainly seemed happy to have Zainab’s focus on him.

“Ah, thank you,” the auditor said as Haruka poured the water, whisked the tea and then passed it over with a proper bow. “Lovely.”

She made her way around the staff, then over to Count Rafi who sighed somewhat sadly at the tea. Haruka laughed despite herself. He looked so very dismayed by green tea.

“Just try it,” Haruka told him. “It’s much better when its prepared properly.”

“Well, one hopes so,” Count Rafi murmured. “Pity you said no.”

“True,” Haruka said, her heart hammering so hard that the room swam for a moment.

Fatima was next. She stared into Haruka’s eyes, licked her lips and then smiled so confidently that Haruka had to shut her eyes for a moment. It was actually happening. They were actually going to do this.

“She told you no,” Fatima said much more loudly, loudly enough that everyone in the room looked their way.

“What?” Count Rafi asked, blinking at Fatima with the cup of tea half-drunk in his hands.

“She told you no,” Fatima repeated, standing up to catch Haruka’s hands before she dropped the cup of tea to the floor where it would smash into a thousand pieces, spraying golden-green formal tea everywhere. “But she hasn’t told me no. So. Yasuda Haruka Sweet Fern, I would like to offer for your hand in marriage. These last few days have… well. I have become very fond of you and would like to never be parted from you again.”

Shizuka gasped behind Haruka, striding over to pull Haruka away. She glowered at Fatima as if she’d just done something horrifically inappropriate. Which, honestly, she sort of had. Except that no, it wasn’t horrible, just a little bit improper.

“You’ve already gotten your rejection,” Shizuka snapped much more quietly than Fatima had spoken, hands still on Haruka’s shoulders. “There’s no need to do this publicly. You’ll only get the same response.”

“She refused my father’s very inappropriate offer,” Fatima said so calmly and certainly that Shizuka’s hands tightened and then released Haruka’s shoulders. “He offered for Haruka’s hand before anyone had met. No words had been spoken. Neither of us had any idea whether or not we were compatible. That is a very different thing from me deciding that I do like Haruka, from her deciding that we might be able to craft a home together. I am, of course, willing to court her formally if that is what she wants.”

“No!” Haruka exclaimed, blushing as Fatima’s eyes went wide. “I mean, not that. I’ve never liked all the gift-giving and formalities. It’s so silly, so expensive when what people need to do is get to know each other.”

Before Haruka could say anything else Shizuka grabbed her by the elbow and dragged her across the room to where Nabeela stood with Rina and Ammad, all staring at Haruka as though she’d grown a second head. Haruka bit back a groan, bit her lip and then winced as her split lip protested. Really, did they have to interfere?

Nabeela took Haruka’s other elbow, holding her securely when Haruka tried to pull back a little bit. Rina looked concerned. So did Ammad. She shivered, surprised and yet not surprised that her family would try to protect her. They always had. Haruka had expected it, had lived with everyone guarding over her. For the first time she hated it and wished they’d all just go away.

“We can tell her to leave,” Nabeela murmured. “You don’t have to put up with someone stalking you.”

“And this does almost count as stalking,” Rina sighed. “I knew that you’d taken on the task of entertaining them while they waited for the weather to change. I’m sorry. I should have stepped in and done it.”

“No, you were busy with the auditor,” Shizuka said as Haruka opened her mouth and then close it because they were all talking too fast for her to get a word in edgewise. “I should have done it.”

“Will you all shut up?” Haruka hissed at them.

They stared. Haruka sighed and pulled her elbows free from Nabeela and Shizuka’s hands even though Nabeela clutched at her sleeve until Haruka glared at her. So much fuss and so many whispers behind them. Who knew what rumors were starting right now and how far they’d fly?

“Why don’t you let me answer her?” Haruka said, talking low but not low enough to disguise her anger.

“Haruka?” Shizuka asked, eyes so wide that Haruka almost stopped to reassure her.

“I know what I want, Shizuka,” Haruka said. “I always know what I want and you know perfectly well that no one can make me do something I don’t want to. I’ll explain after the auditor is gone, all right?”

“You sneaky girls,” Ammad whispered, his eyes suddenly dancing with amusement. “Go on. Finish your little plot.”

Rina, Nabeela and Shizuka stared at him, then at Haruka. She shook her head at them, turned and then walked back over, that silly cup of tea still in her hands. Rather than pass cold tea over to Fatima, Haruka set it down on her tray and then bowed very properly to Fatima.

When she straightened, Haruka could see the nervousness in Fatima’s eyes, so very like that early fear she’d seen when the wind swept her in out of the cold and nearly deposited Haruka in Fatima’s lap. It faded as Haruka smiled, transforming into joy and a smile so bright that the summer sun, warm and bright and life-giving, might have appeared over their heads.

“Yes,” Haruka declared. “I would like to marry you. I didn’t think I would, not with your father and sister fighting but they’ve worked their problems out and I rather enjoy spending time with you. You’re kind and confident and strong and well. I like you, too. I can’t think of any other offer I’ve ever gotten that I’m even a quarter as interested in as I am in you.”

Count Rafi stared at the two of them, mouth open. Behind him Zainab cheered. She set of a wave of cheers around the room, including from her warriors and from the staff of Breding Manor who had somehow squeezed in or peered through the doorways. There was no hiding anything from servants, of course, so that didn’t surprise Haruka.

She grinned and offered her hands to Fatima, getting a laugh. Fatima grinned as well, stepping closer. Haruka peeked over her shoulder at Shizuka and then laughed out loud because Shizuka had buried her face in her hands as if she’d only just figured out that they’d all been set up.

When Haruka turned back around Fatima’s lips were right there, pressing against Haruka’s poor sore lip. It hurt but it was good, soft and sweet and full of the laughter that Haruka couldn’t stop. She didn’t even try. Instead she kissed Fatima back, clinging to her hands as the shaking of her hands and the pounding of her heart stilled into a joy that she’d never felt before.

“Thank you,” Fatima whispered, barely audible over the cheers and loud gossip around them.

“No,” Haruka said. She giggled. “Well, yes, you’re welcome but no. Thank you. Thank you for being stubborn, for being strong, for pushing past your fears and showing me just who you can actually be.”

Fatima giggled, moving close enough that Haruka could feel the heat of her body radiating at her like a mass heater or the sun. Haruka’s heart beat a steady beat that exactly matched the old clay-pounding songs her father had taught her years ago. They stood, nose to nose, holding hands. Fatima took a deep breath, let it out slowly, her breath washing over Haruka’s face like summer winds.

“You’re welcome,” Fatima whispered. “Always welcome by my side, Haruka Sweet Fern, my wonderful new bride.”

The End

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