A tentative knock at the door roused Vixen from her musings. “Yes?”
The door opened to admit a willowy maid, neatly dressed in Hyalin's navy-blue and white livery, her light ash-brown hair smoothly braided and coiled into a crown. “Dinner is about to be served, milady.”
Vixen nodded acknowledgement, and slid off the windowseat. She felt much more presentable now, having had her first proper hot bath since leaving Willow River, and wearing clothes Alys had provided. All of cotton from the south: an undershift, and a high-waisted, short-sleeved dress of a deep plum colour. Someone had let out the bottom hem, and with impressive skill and speed had used creamy material that matched the embroidery to alter the upper part so it fit comfortably across her shoulders. Given that they'd found anything that could fit her on short notice, she was inclined to be forgiving, anyway. Accustomed only to trousers as Corin, to shyani clothes or her green divided skirt since, it felt very different, and was going to take some getting used to, but she had concluded that she rather liked it.
She'd known the Domain of Hyalin was wealthy, but hadn't imagined such luxury as this room that even made her father's house look shabby. The great canopied bed would have been impressive alone, even without the cushioned couch, the carved chairs, the polished table, the full-length bronze-framed mirror of true silvered glass with hardly any rippling. A heavy rope, sheathed in soft wool but she expected something heavier as a core, ran up through the ceiling—immediate summons for the maid. For all its comfort, it was actually a little intimidating.
The maid knocked on the door beside hers, as well, the last in the corridor; Dayr emerged, also in borrowed clothes, dark grey trousers and an embroidered slate-blue shirt. Vixen doubted he'd had a bath, though. He greeted her with a mischievous smile.
“What trouble have you been causing?” Vixen murmured, while they followed the maid.
“Trouble?” he asked innocently.
She shook her head, smiling. Most likely, Hyalin would never be the same, having hosted a puma.
The maid showed them to a dining room of moderate size. Six high-backed chairs, beautifully carved and highly polished, surrounded a matching table. Alys sat at one end, a woman to her right who had hair the rich brown of dark honey and a much fuller figure, and she was probably taller. Jared had the seat at the other end. He rose with a smile when they came in.
“Welcome,” he said. “My guests Vixen and Dayr, our house musician and Alys' companion, Lyris Somarl.” The honey-haired woman in the rose-coloured gown nodded, and her smile was friendly. “Please,” he gestured to his right, to the empty seats side by side. “My cousin Mirain will be home tomorrow.”
“I'd prefer tomorrow for anything more, in any case,” Vixen said, choosing the chair beside him; Dayr sat beside her.
“Yes, of course, you must be tired after such a long journey.”
Alys sent the waiting servants to serve dinner.
“Have you travelled far?” Lyris asked.
“Ten sunsets,” Vixen answered distractedly: Dayr was eyeing his soup warily, and she hoped he wouldn't do anything drastically inappropriate. Surely pasta and vegetables and some sort of fowl was harmless enough?
Oops. Shyani counted by nights, humans didn't. “We slept outside ten nights,” she said, improvising. “Nine, actually, the second night it stormed, and a very friendly farm family gave us shelter.” Dayr stirred his soup, nostrils flaring; the scent must have reassured him, because he tentatively tasted it. He brightened instantly, and began to eat it eagerly.
“No trouble on the road?” Lyris' gaze rested on Dayr a moment, curiously, then flicked back to Vixen. “There've been reports of brigands, all to the north-west so far, but I doubt they'll stay there.”
Vixen smiled. The soup was really quite tasty, and she hadn't had pasta of any sort in all her time in the hills. Nor was it really so very hard to keep her tattooed palms out of sight. “I'm afraid we had a thoroughly uninteresting journey, and nothing at all happened that I could use as light conversation over dinner.” Lyris chuckled, and Alys and Jared smiled. “I would like to hear about the Hyalin Domain, however. I'm sure you've made changes and improvements, Jared, with plans for more?”
Jared shrugged. “A few. Truthfully, I've been too caught up in politics to make all the changes I'd like to. There are some among the other Lords who believe I'm not fit to hold the title. I've managed to coordinate the farming, though, so that instead of nine farmers planting wheat, two planting cabbages, and one planting barley, four plant each crop. That's obviously highly simplified.”
“Why?” Dayr asked. “Why shouldn't everyone grow whatever they want?”
“It's inefficient. It leads to having too much of something and not enough of something else. When it's coordinated, the Domain has enough of everything.”
Dayr considered that. “But what if I had a farm on your land, and I didn't want to grow cabbages?”
“If it mattered so greatly to you, you'd come to me and we'd rearrange the plan so that you could grow something different and someone else could grow the cabbages.”
“Or if I didn't want to grow anything except goats?”
“Part of the plan involves the most efficient use of the land. If your land yielded more from goats than it would from crops, I'd encourage it.”
“Otherwise, I'd suggest alternatives.”
“I think I like freedom better than efficiency.”
“Jared,” Vixen said quickly, “what's the population of the Domain now?”
“As of the census we did last year, just over ten thousand adults, about half in a handful of market towns and the rest spread through quite a lot of villages. Hyalin is one of the larger Domains.”
Dayr stopped eating. “You're making decisions for ten thousand people and their children?”
“And making sure that they have food and shelter,” Vixen said.
The weyre shook his head. “It makes no sense to me.”
“I wasn't really expecting it to. Thank you,” that last she directed towards the maid who took her empty bowl and replaced it with a plate of fish. “What else have you done?”
Dayr decided to stay quiet for the most part, after that, though he listened intently. Vixen was grateful, though she felt guilty for it. Jared, with help from his clearly perplexed cousin and musician, described the other changes in the Hyalin Domain: an improvement in the indoor plumbing (still inferior to that of the shyani hills), a revised tax system (Vixen steered the conversation away before Dayr could ask about that), increased trade with other Domains. Vixen found herself contemplating each with a doubled level of awareness: that of the son of a Domain Lord, and that of a healer from a vastly different culture. To the eyes of the former, the changes made a good system better; the latter was glad not to be bound within it and sad for those who couldn't fit neatly into place.
The meal ended with sweet pastry. Dayr tasted his, and wouldn't eat it; Vixen ate part of hers, but after a few bites found it too rich to finish.
Jared leaned back, while the servants cleared the table. “Well. I'm sure you'd like to be to bed early after travelling so far, so I won't keep you.”
“Thank you,” Vixen said. “I'm sure tomorrow will be soon enough to talk.” At least, now that Jared knew of his danger.
“Tylla, would you show His Grace's guests back to their rooms?” Alys requested.
The willowy maid curtsied. She was a few years Vixen's senior, she thought, though Hyalin's staff were obviously well taken care of. “Yes, milady.”
Courteous good-nights were said, and Tylla escorted them through the maze of halls.
“Is there anything else you need, milord, milady? Shall I come in and light the lamps for you?”
“No, thank you,” Vixen said. “Nothing.”
“If you want me, milady, or if you want Leofric, milord, just pull the bell. There's someone listening for them at all times. Sleep well.” Tylla curtsied again, and departed.
“Dayr. I need you.”
Dayr came into her room with her, unquestioningly, and waited while she closed the door.
“Coming here won't do any good if we aren't with him when the tarika arrive.” The room was shadowy, but there was light enough from the window. “I'm going to set a circle around the house, so that I'll know if shyani or weyres cross it.”
“I had wondered about that. This is something you need to go deep for?”
“Yes.” She dropped to each knee in turn to unlace her boots and remove them, then pulled the dress off over her head and tossed it over the chair. The fine cotton shift she left on; unbraiding her hair, so it fell loose around her, she crossed the room barefoot to her pack to rummage through it. She found the bag she wanted, woven of black goat's wool.
Unasked, Dayr tossed a couple of pillows onto the floor immediately in front of the door and made himself comfortable. He said nothing. He didn't need to. She was safe.
She settled herself in the centre of the great bed, legs crossed comfortably. From the bag she took a smaller pouch, again woven black wool. For a long moment she sat still, centring and preparing herself.
One at a time, eyes closed, she took five of the clay runes from the pouch, and arranged them in front of her on the blue quilt, one in the centre, four circling it. Only then did she lay aside the pouch and open her eyes.
She'd made the runes herself, from pale moon-coloured clay, as every shaman did. She knew what she had to do, but she hoped for insight.
The centre rune was a straight line with two more lines forming a small triangle pointing right, etched deep and coloured purple, though in this light she couldn't distinguish that last detail: Thorn, the rune of defence and protection. That was certainly the task at hand.
The rune to the left, the past, was two triangles, points touching, in blue: the Hourglass of time, change, motion. Above, to show the appearances of the present situation... the Fish-hook, stylized and angular, red: need, necessity, often implying that it might be unpleasant. What could be less pleasant than to be trapped between loyalties?
Below, to show the root of the matter. Vixen frowned. Two vertical white lines, a third across their tops. The Trilithon, an image of the huge stones found here and there in the highlands. It indicated memory and the past. But... it was inverted. How could memory reversed be at the root?
She went on to the fifth, the near future. Three purple lines rayed out from a single point at the left. The Paths, choices, decisions to make about what mattered and what to do.
Distinctly troubled, she returned the runes to their pouch. She'd have to spend some time pondering the reading and hope to find some meaning in it.
For the time being, she had something else to do. She slid from the bag an egg made of bone, its hollow heart filled with tiny seeds. There were as many rattles and drums, with as many different sounds, as there were shamans. Vixen found the whispery quality of this one soothing, the best to help her both relax and concentrate. She rearranged herself more comfortably, and began to shake the egg rhythmically, gradually increasing the tempo. Eyes closed, she slowed her breathing, willing each muscle loose.
Then, in the Old Tongue, she sang. In her mind she formed an image of a waterfall, and walked towards it, her song a part of and yet apart from the thunder of the water. She followed a narrow ledge along the cliff, and stepped beneath the waterfall, her breath catching momentarily from the force and the cold against her skin. Beyond, a round tunnel led her onward, the bone egg glowing to light her way.
The tunnel ended against a glassy wall. Vixen laid a hand against it, and it rippled and let her step through, back into her bedroom in Jared's house through the full-length mirror. Her body still sat, shaking the egg-rattle and singing the same low song. Dayr, however, raised his head, nostrils flaring; it wasn't uncommon for a weyre to sense a shaman travelling. But then, weyres had a connection of their own with the spirit world.
Vixen stopped both shaking and singing, not needing it for the moment, and in reflection, her body wound down to stillness. As she passed Dayr, he stirred restlessly, aware of her proximity and yet unable to entirely perceive her. The door was no barrier to her in this state. She followed the hall, checking that the route she'd made a point of memorizing was indeed correct.
Outside she halted, and looked up at the moon. “There is something I feel I must do,” she said in the Old Tongue. “Will you help me?”
“Must, is it?” High, yapping laughter sounded from one side. “Did I call you from your cage, for you to choose a collar and leash?”
Vixen turned and knelt to face the red fox. “When you saved my life, you called me to be your daughter and to be a healer. I learned to honour and value all life. Shall I forsake that?”
“Why this one, of all the chosen prey of the tarika?”
“Jared was, once, the only friend Corin had. I repaid that badly, by allowing him to believe me dead. The scales are not yet balanced between us.”
The spirit-fox laughed again. “Are you sure? Maybe they were balanced, maybe it was better he think you dead than know what you are, maybe you unbalanced it by coming here? Ah?”
Vixen shook her head. At first, years ago, Red Fox's words had often reduced her to tears. Now she understood that he only gave voice to her own secret fears, goading her into facing them. “I was right to come,” she said firmly. “I'm right to try to keep Jared safe. Anything beyond that... I'll have to decide as it comes.”
“Where lies your loyalty, fox-daughter? Where lies your heart?”
“In the hills. With Dayr, with my father and teacher Sanovas and my mother Aerfen and everyone else in Copper Springs, and my sister Shabra in Rainbow Falls, and with Irisan and Fero and all the others of Willow River. But to be worthy of that, I have to do what I feel is right.”
Another laugh. “What would you do this night?”
“I'd like to set a circle around the house, so that when the tarika come, I'll sense them near in time.”
“Ah. A circle to sense, blind only to humans.”
“Walk your circle. I walk with you.”
“Your choices are yours to make.”
That worried Vixen a little, but it was too late now. She paced a ring around the house and immediate grounds, and on the ground behind her appeared a glowing line, all colours shifting and swirling within it. Every step tired her more, but she persisted. No more than the length of her forearm from completing the circuit, she knelt and traced the rune Thorn on the ground to close the gap. In that instant, the colours flared up, and subsided to a steady purple.
“It is done,” Red Fox said. “Choose well and with care.”
“Thank you,” Vixen said, to empty air—the fox was gone.
Wearily, she turned her attention to the bone egg still clasped in her hand. She started to shake it again, matching the earlier rhythm precisely, then slowing it, closing her eyes briefly. When she opened them, she stood before the mirror. She retraced her path, through tunnel and waterfall, and felt the transition back to her body.
Carefully, she stretched, was pleased to find no stiffness. “Dayr? I'm back. Could you get me a drink of water?”
Dayr rose promptly, took a silver cup from the table and filled it with water in the bathroom. Vixen sipped it gratefully.
“Should I not ask about your rune reading?”
“I could tell you the runes, but I'd rather wait until I have time to think, so I can give you some idea what it means.”
“I won't be doing anything else tonight except sleeping.”
Deep trance always left her a trifle disoriented and off-balance. Dayr stayed to make sure she made it to the bathroom and into bed safely before leaving for his own room.
Vixen fell asleep wishing, oddly, that she and Dayr were still out on the open road.
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