Though Vixen's misgivings about her reunion with Jared made each day's ride eternal, it still felt as though they'd arrived all too quickly.
A tree-edged grassy lane meandered from the road to a stone-paved yard before a huge red brick house. The ivy overgrowing it reminded Vixen briefly of grassy shyani hills.
She dismounted, drawing her cloak around her protectively as she approached the iron-bound wooden door. A tug at the bell-rope brought an impressively quick response: a well-kept middle-aged man in blue and white livery opened the door and looked at her inquiringly.
“I'm looking for Jared Hyalin,” Vixen said, schooling her voice to calmness.
“May I ask your business with His Grace?”
“I will reveal that only to Jared personally. Tell him... if you would, tell him an old friend who shares his interest in the hills has important news.”
“Of course, mistress.” Tone and expression both were so bland as to convey disapproval by that alone. She remembered that kind of very superior servant from her earlier life. He reached to one side and pulled a bell-rope. “A stable-boy will be here in a moment to see to your... mounts. I believe His Grace is currently occupied with domain business, but I will relay your message. Will you come in and wait?”
“Thank you,” Vixen said, but didn't move until a teenaged boy in rather less immaculate blue and white appeared from somewhere outside off to the right to take the jennies. “Don't give them too much or anything too rich,” she said. “They'll founder on what would be normal for a pony their size. Only hay, no grain, but all the water they want. I'm very serious about this.”
“Yes, mistress,” the boy said, forehead furrowed in perplexity, but she studied him and decided that he was going to pay attention.
Only then did she reluctantly allow the man to remove her cloak for her—Dayr pretended not to notice the gesture towards his rabbit-fur-lined leather jacket—and escort them to a room.
Vixen sat down, smoothing her skirt nervously. Over a week of hard use had left the fine soft goat wool the worse for wear, though she'd tried to take care of it. She felt uncomfortably out of place here, tired and vaguely depressed, impatient with all the formal courtesy.
Dayr prowled restlessly. They seemed to be in a small study or office: there were two sets of shelves, bearing books and a few intriguing trinkets, and a desk in one corner. Other furniture consisted of a central table, three comfortable chairs, and the well-cushioned couch Vixen had chosen. The weyre paused to investigate a large window, made of eight panes of glass.
“Mostly the lowlands are barbaric, but it would be useful to have so much glass,” he observed. A witch could convert sand to glass, but only at a high cost in personal energy.
The man who had admitted them returned, accompanied by a slender woman in an attractive elaborately-styled cream-and-lilac gown, her long intricately-braided and coiled hair an even darker brown than Vixen's.
“I'm Alys Hyalin,” she said, before the man could do more than open his mouth. “Unfortunately, His Grace will be closeted discussing important domain business for some time yet. May I offer you the hospitality of the house? A late lunch, perhaps, or a hot bath to wash off the dust of the road?”
Vixen stifled a sigh. Yet another delay.
She'd had enough of being patient and polite.
“Does he know I'm here?” she asked.
Alys frowned delicately. “He cannot be interrupted...” she began.
Vixen closed her hands so tightly her nails dug into her tattooed palms. “Interrupt him.”
“I'm sorry, I can't...”
“I've travelled for over a week, at some inconvenience to myself and to my companion, in order to bring Jared a message of vital importance. I apologize for the difficulty it causes you, but would you please inform His Grace that I would like to speak with him at his earliest possible convenience?”
Alys hesitated, expression faintly pained, then looked at the man. “Kendric, go, please,” she said, with no less graciousness. “Pass on the lady's request to His Grace. And send someone with wine, the southern golden.”
Kendric nodded stiffly. “Yes, milady.”
As he left, Alys settled herself in one of the padded chairs, absently twitching her skirt straight.
“Thank you,” Vixen said.
Alys laughed lightly. “I will trust that it must be very urgent, for you to be so insistent on seeing him, without even taking time to wash and refresh yourself.”
Dayr left the window, and sat on the floor just beside Vixen, leaning against the couch, gaze fixed on Alys. Vixen touched his shoulder lightly, and he glanced up, then looked away, and didn't return that unblinking green-gold stare to Alys.
The silence was uncomfortable; Alys did her best to break it with meaningless chatter about weather and travel, and then about the golden wine that arrived in a crystal decanter with four silver and crystal goblets. Dayr declined, but Vixen accepted a cup. It was really quite good.
At long last, the door opened and Jared came in.
He looked much healthier than he had eight years ago: there was some muscle, if not much, over his once too-visible bones, and he was no longer scholar-pale. His clothes were plain and practical, but clearly of high quality. His sandy-brown hair was still a little longer than was usual for the lowlands, overdue to be trimmed, but it didn't make him look less masculine in the slightest.
Vixen felt her already rapid heartbeat grow faster yet. The tightness of her bodice made it hard to catch her breath. Sternly, she brought her body under control before she could faint like some silly townbred maiden.
“Thank you, cousin,” he said.
Alys rose quickly, nodded, and left them, closing the door carefully behind her.
Jared turned to Vixen, surveying her thoughtfully; she saw puzzlement cross his face, though he covered it quickly.
“Now. I understand you wished to speak to me, milady?”
He didn't recognize her, any more than the Dean had.
She couldn't decide whether she was relieved to be able to give him one shock at a time, or disappointed, or both. Well, the message first, and let the other wait.
She took as deep a breath as her bodice permitted. “I'm Vixen of Willow River. In the highlands,” she said, forcing her voice to stay calm. “This is Dayr.” She gestured to the weyre at her feet.
Jared chose the chair Alys had vacated, facing her at an angle. “And to what do I owe such an unexpected honour?”
“You've been interested in the hills for a long time.”
“Are you aware of what happened when the shyani welcomed humans to these lands and shared their knowledge freely?”
Jared blinked. “What happened...? Did they ever?”
“They did, and were betrayed. Humans used what they learned against them. Shyani and weyres died, and the survivors retreated to the highlands.”
“I'm afraid I don't follow.”
“Some shyani and weyres resent that still, and do not believe that shyani knowledge belongs in human hands. The most extreme are satisfied only with the death of any human who dares lay claim to that knowledge.”
“Indeed?” He leaned back in his chair. “And are you among these fanatics, milady?”
“Shyani knowledge used without shyani wisdom is a dangerous thing, and wisdom is not found in books. But no, I'm not here to kill you. Word travels through the hills that you hold something you have no right to. There are shyani and weyres who will come to take it and your life. Your house walls and human guards can't protect you. Someone heard this who has a reason not to wish you dead, and for the sake of that one Dayr and I have come.” True, if misleading. “We should be able to talk to them and keep you alive.”
“Who would this someone be, who is so concerned for my well-being?”
“I would prefer not to say at present.”
The room held only silence, for a few breaths.
“Milady, I apologize for the discourtesy. However. You arrive at my door with no warning, tell me that assassins from the hills want my blood and that only you can prevent it, and that you'll try to do so for the sake of some mysterious unidentified individual. And I think you are human, and I have never heard of humans in the hills. This is all extremely perplexing and disturbing, and please forgive me, but I find it difficult to take on faith.”
Vixen hesitated, undecided, distracted briefly by a growl from Dayr so low that she could only feel it, not hear it. “I... had hoped to spare you, and wait a day or two to tell you who. I don't believe you'll find it easy to accept.”
“I doubt it can be harder to accept than the news that my life is in danger.”
She had to concede the logic, though she didn't like it. “This is somewhat difficult to explain, and I don't really know where to start. Jared... Look at me. You knew me once. Eight years ago, at the University, before I was adopted into the hills. I had a different name then.”
Jared studied her face intently. Vixen held still, but not easily.
His eyes widened. “Corin?” he whispered. Then he shook his head. “No, that can't be.”
“It can,” Vixen said gently. “It is. My name used to be Corin Laures.”
“That's impossible. Corin's dead.”
“In a sense, although not the way you mean it.”
Jared stood up; Dayr tensed warily, poised to react with feline-fast reflexes, but Jared made no move towards Vixen. He only strode around the table to the window, and looked out it for a few heartbeats before pivoting to face her.
“This is insane. For a woman to claim to be a man who has been dead for years, or that any human could survive in the hills...”
The growl rumbled in Dayr's throat, barely audible to her at such close range; Vixen quickly laid a hand on his shoulder to still him before it grew louder.
“I know how it sounds,” she said softly. “If I intended to lie, I would have invented something much easier to believe. Please. Let me explain.”
Jared turned away, gazing out the window again.
“You have a point,” he said finally. “This is so absurd that no one would invent it and expect to be believed.” He came back to his chair. “I'm listening. Explain how the impossible can be real. And why you're here.”
“I'm here because I couldn't bear to stay in Willow River and let you die. As for being human... you're right, it's unusual. Do you remember? I could never do anything I was supposed to do, no matter how hard I tried. You were the only person who actually listened to me and heard anything I said, and who didn't see me as a perpetual failure. I was always unhappy, even when I was trying to pretend otherwise. I always knew something was wrong. Finally, one day, I just couldn't bear it any longer. I tried to kill myself. A spirit animal, a red fox, stopped me at the last instant, and led me away, into the highlands. I wasn't entirely rational, and that only became worse. By the time Dayr found me I was delirious and not all that far from dying from exposure and dehydration and sheer exhaustion.” She stroked Dayr's hair affectionately, and he leaned against her knee, purring just loudly enough for her to feel the vibration. “Rather than letting me die, he went to the nearest shyani community for help. Copper Springs had and has a wonderfully tolerant shaman.”
She paused; how to compress the reality into a few words? “To the shyani, body and spirit can be of different sexes. An osana is born male with a female spirit, an umana is the opposite, and an etana is in some way both or neither, physically or spiritually. All three are accepted, often even respected, and become many of the most effective shaman. Like Sanovas. He listened to me, and he cared, and he adopted me as daughter and student. Over a year ago, I... graduated, I suppose you could call it, and went to Willow River as their shaman. The shyani witch there is a good friend, she and I work together very well.” Just speaking about it made her homesick for Willow River and Irisan and female puma Fero and the nearly forty other shyani that were her community.
“I see. And how did you find me?”
“We went to the University first.” She flinched mentally away from the memory.
“If these people want my death so badly, how can the two of you stop them?”
“They would never dare lay hands on a shaman,” Dayr said.
Vixen smiled faintly. “Even a human one.”
“That isn't your fault, you can't help it.”
“And they won't want to fight Dayr. You'll have to give up the book you found, though. Otherwise, they won't listen to me.”
Jared closed his eyes. “You were right. This is hard to accept all at once. Or at all, for that matter.”
She found her hands knotting in her skirt, and consciously unclenched them, smoothing the wrinkles from the wool. She couldn't look up. “I was hoping to wait.”
“I appreciate the concern, but I had to know.”
“I wish I did.” His eyes ran down the length of her body, kept coming back to the swell of her breasts above her bodice, visible through the untied laces of her blouse.
“Jared.” She left the couch, dropped to her knees beside his chair, gazing up into his eyes. “This is really me, who I really am,” she said gently. “I'm a shaman, and I have a fair talent for shamanic healing and herbalism and for dealing with the spirit world. I'm happier with the shyani than I ever was in the lowlands.”
He reached out, hand shaking, to run his fingers down her cheek, and pain showed on his face. “Why did you let me think you were dead?”
Vixen looked down. “I... to heal over a score of years of hurting and self-deception and shame takes a long time. I'm not sure anymore that I have even now, not completely, although I didn't know that until the past few days. I was hiding, I think.” She raised her eyes again, smiled. “But I'm here now.”
Neither spoke for a moment.
“Well. You'll be staying, then?” She got the impression that he was struggling to regain control of the situation.
“I had planned to. Unless you want Dayr and me out of your house.”
“No, please, stay and be welcome, both of you. Consider my house yours, ask for anything you want. Will you join my cousins and me for dinner?”
“I'd like that. There's one thing we need to decide first, though.” She returned to her seat, rubbing her eye-tattooed palm absently with her other thumb. “We came here to help you, not to destroy your reputation. I have no choice save to offer healing to anyone in need of it. Beyond that, what would you have your household and your family know?”
Jared considered that. “I think it would be best that the general household know as little as possible. That you are my personal guests, certainly. Perhaps that you are an old friend...” He faltered perceptibly, as though unsure of the last two words.
“And that you're a healer who brought important personal news.”
She nodded. “Not that I'm osana and Dayr is weyre. Agreed.”
Jared did a double-take. “Weyre?”
Dayr grinned at him, showing his teeth, the slightly long and perceptibly cat-like canines. “What did you think I am? Shyani?”
“I... suppose I hadn't really thought.”
“You should know better than to believe in the stories,” Vixen said.
“I don't.” Jared shrugged, managed an uncertain laugh. “Well, what's one more surprise? Any more major revelations?”
“None that I can bring to mind at present.”
“Good. My cousins Mirain and Alys are my only surviving kin. As a rule, I trust them completely and tell them everything.”
“I'm not certain that's wise, in this case.”
Jared frowned. “How so?”
“For their own safety.”
“But they...” He stopped, shook his head. “I'm sure you have reasons. I'd like to hear them.”
She paused, trying to put her jumbled thoughts in order. For all her worrying, this difficulty she hadn't foreseen. “If you tell them you're in danger, what will they do? Realistically?”
“Alys would want the whole house on alert, to stop any stranger immediately before he could come near me. Mirain would appoint himself my personal bodyguard.”
“The tarika, the extremists, they aren't cubs hunting butterflies.” Oops; that was an expression borrowed from one of the Copper Springs wolves. “To them, you've committed a very serious crime. If Mirain comes between them and you, they'll go through him, and he's very likely to be badly hurt or killed. Alys too, possibly. For their safety, it would be best if you could send them somewhere else...”
“No.” His tone was flat, final. Nothing to be gained from pressing that angle, then.
“Then keep them here, but tell them nothing that will make them put themselves at risk.”
“I don't like keeping secrets from them.” She knew that expression, had once always backed down from the stubbornness behind it. This time, she couldn't.
“I can understand that. I'd hate to keep such a secret from Dayr. And it would certainly be easier for me to have their cooperation. But for their safety?” She disliked forcing this on him; her own priorities were clear, though. “I can't effectively protect you if I have to divide my attention between that and keeping your cousins out of harm's way. Nor did I come here to place my life and Dayr's at any more risk than absolutely necessary, and to have your cousins interfere could mean exactly that. I'm sorry, Jared, and truly, I sympathize. But I don't think you should tell them.”
“I have to tell them something!”
“Then tell them that there are those coming to reclaim the grimoire. Leave it at that. They'll be prepared for something to happen, but they won't put anyone, including themselves, in danger.”
No reaction for a long moment, then he sighed heavily. “All right, I can see your point, although I don't entirely agree. For the moment, then, we'll leave it at that.”
“It won't be for long. Dayr? How long, do you think?”
Dayr nibbled a fingernail thoughtfully. “We made good time, we should have at least three or four days. Depending on tracking and travelling conditions, might have as much as a fortnight. No longer than that. Could be a scout or two around already, though, a wolf could've beaten us easily.”
“That's why I interrupted your meeting,” Vixen said softly. “Because of that chance. But now you know to watch your back and not take chances, and we can behave as proper guests should until we're needed.” She smiled. “You look good, Jared.”
Jared answered the smile, if a bit shakily. “I need time to think, but... I'm glad you're here and happy. So.” He stood up. “I do have other matters I need to return to. It's still some time until dinner. I'll ask Alys to arrange for... one room or two?”
“Two. Thank you.”
“And I'll see you again. Soon.”
Jared gave her a last, long look, and strode to the door.
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