In the front hall, Jared excused himself and promised to see them shortly; that fit perfectly with Vixen's intention of checking on Anna.
She wasn't under the table.
Dayr sniffed around a little, and found her beneath the bed. She appeared to be happy there, though, so they let her be. The bowl of meat had been emptied; she'd found her sandbox, as well.
Vixen and Dayr cleaned themselves up quickly in the bathroom—her commoner-style clothes were woefully inappropriate for dinner, but she currently had little other option except perhaps throwing a tantrum of the sort she recalled her birth-sisters indulging in—and headed for the dining room.
“Will this be like you thought lunch would be?” Dayr asked.
Vixen sighed. “Probably. If not worse.”
“Oh. Then why are we going?”
“Humans have strange ideas of courtesy.” He shrugged philosophically. “Well, I'll have some interesting stories to take home but Fero will never believe I'm telling the truth.”
Near one of the tall dining room windows, Jared stood with Lyris and the man Vixen had glimpsed earlier; Jared smiled in welcome, beckoned them over.
“Vixen, Dayr, our resident physician Balduin,” Jared said.
He deserved the benefit of the doubt, whatever her general opinion of physicians. After all, he probably had a genuine desire to help people, and was unlikely to know how many simple cures his patients could find in the kitchen garden or the nearest meadow. Being as extremely well-dressed as he was might owe more to Jared's generosity than to fees from patients, and be intended to reassure patients that he was a professional. She gave him the friendliest smile she could muster, and offered her hand. “Doctor. Hyalin is fortunate.”
He clasped it perfunctorily with a curt nod. “Mistress.”
“Milady Vixen is highborn,” Jared said softly, with a faint edge to it.
“My apologies. Milady.” To Dayr he granted only the briefest inclination of his head in acknowledgement of his existence.
The potentially awkward situation was interrupted by a new arrival: the dark man who had also been there to overhear her tirade, perhaps younger than Jared, and certainly more active by his build. He joined them immediately.
“Vixen and Dayr, Mirain,” Jared said.
Mirain bowed gracefully. “Milady.” He held out a hand, and when she took it, he pressed a kiss to her fingers. Vixen smiled, oddly charmed by the somewhat archaic gesture. He turned to Dayr, clasping his forearm; this Dayr knew, and returned warmly. “I'm sorry I wasn't here when you arrived.”
“I'm sure you had things to take care of.” She studied Mirain curiously. He was really quite attractive, dark-haired like his sister, around Jared's height. He was dressed simply, in drab colours, though the material was high-quality, and trousers, shirt, and vest all fit him well. “How was your journey?”
“It went well. Every so often, I visit the towns and villages to check on matters,” Mirain said. “For the most part, the headmen take care of everything, but...”
“...but I prefer to have the first-hand report of a trusted member of my family,” Jared finished smoothly. “And some situations can be solved relatively easily this way.”
“Like arbitration,” Mirain said. “This time, I was in one village where there was a disagreement over who actually owned a particular animal. One of the parties was the headman's son-in-law.”
“Mirain has a talent for seeing both sides of everything,” Jared said. His tone was neutral, but Mirain winced, barely perceptibly.
“I would certainly call that a gift,” Vixen said. “That can be one of the most difficult things for a shaman to learn.”
Mirain smiled easily. “Jared mentioned that. It seems a long journey to bring a message.”
“As for riding out to check the villages personally,” Vixen continued, letting the hint slide, “given that they are your family's responsibility to care for, that seems only sensible.”
Alys crossed the room to them. Vixen noticed that she positioned herself between Jared and Mirain, and that her quick glances at the pair from the hills were decidedly uneasy. “Dinner is ready.”
Jared nodded. “Shall we?” He gestured to the table, and escorted Vixen personally to the seat to the right of his own. Dayr slid into the seat beside her, pretending that he hadn't noticed that Mirain had the same intention. An extra chair had been added to the far side of the table; Lyris sat at Jared's left, across from Vixen, with Balduin beside her, and Mirain calmly took the empty place beside Balduin. Alys waited until everyone was settled before seating herself smoothly at the foot of the table and nodding to the servant waiting by the kitchen door.
The soup served to distract from the uncomfortable silence for a moment. After a couple of bites, Lyris broke it.
“I've been curious a long time,” she said lightly. “Many of the stories Jared has found have referred to the music of the hills. Is music so important a part of life there?”
“Very,” Vixen said, glad to have a relatively safe topic. “A shyani child, or a young weyre growing up in a shyani hill, is sung to frequently, not only by the parents. Shyani often sing while they work, especially when it's a task that needs more than one person, or goes more smoothly with an even rhythm. There are prayer-songs, and songs to give thanks, to honour a birth or a death or a changing. Some songs tell stories, or histories. Shamans often sing to summon and direct power. Music's one of the most central foundations of the community.”
“Are instruments common?”
“Drums, pipes, small harps. There are others available, but I'm sorry, I don't really know about them.”
“There's lots of different kinds of all three,” Dayr supplied. “I saw someone play a thing sort of like a shallow box with strings across it, but I didn't bother asking its name. And a stringed thing with a long neck. There are lots of kinds of pipes and flutes and such. I used to know someone with a bronze flute. And lots of kinds of drums, little ones and big ones and flat ones you hold onto with one hand and hit with both ends of a stick in the other.” He shrugged. “Most people sing or have wooden or bone pipes or small hand drums, though.”
“It sounds heavenly,” Lyris laughed. “Music all the time. Would you be willing to sing us a song or two, later?”
Vixen paused. Yes, there were a few harmless songs that they could hear. “I'd love to.”
“Perhaps you should write a song about your own story,” Alys said. “One about how you came from a highborn house and became a hill-woman.” Her tone was casual, conversational, but Dayr raised his head, and Vixen heard a faint rumble of warning.
“I doubt anyone would care to hear it,” Vixen said blandly. “No more than I would care to share it.”
“Which is, of course, your right,” Jared said firmly, with a dark look at Alys. She lowered her eyes.
“I noticed your animals in the stable,” Mirain said quickly. “I've never seen full donkeys before, only an occasional mule from the border villages. They seem very friendly. And Dayr said to limit what they're fed, and no grain?”
“The grey is Dove, the dun is Sparrow,” Vixen said. “And yes, they're generally very friendly and good-natured, unless they're being asked to do something that seems to them to be dangerous.”
“They're especially friendly if you have carrots in your hands,” Dayr muttered.
Mirain flashed him a quick smile. “They're larger than I expected, but more pony-sized than horse-sized. How strong are they?”
“At least as strong as a horse of similar size,” Vixen said. “They work hard, and they'll give all they have when it's asked of them by someone they trust. And they're smart. If I take one with me to carry everything when I'm out gathering what I need, she'll stay near me without needing to be watched constantly, and she'll alert me if she senses anyone or anything nearby. The nervousness of one in the place I used to live kept her and me out of a rock-slide once, which was enough proof for me that it's worth listening to them. They're very easy to keep fed, too, compared to a horse. They eat less, and the richer foods that a horse needs would make them ill or at best fat. We don't have grain fields. They get through the winter partly by foraging for themselves, and we supplement it with some hay as necessary, but it's not nearly as demanding as horses would be. Their hooves are stronger and they don't need shoeing, especially since there's no paving. They don't have the speed of a larger horse, and they get cold very easily if they get wet, but I wouldn't trade them.”
“As much as I love my big brute, there are times I wish he were easier to keep,” Mirain laughed. “All-Father, but he eats a lot.”
“They're quite safe for children to be around. They're actually quite fond of children fussing over them. There isn't much of a mane or tail for braiding, which is a shame, but I've seen them both with flower garlands draped all over them looking very pleased with themselves. And there's a sort of paint small children are given that's safe no matter what they do, I've seen the two jennies where I used to live and the foal of one of them all painted with interesting colours, with no protest. If they aren't being hurt, and for children they tend to be forgiving, they'll be very gentle.”
She'd also seen the Copper Springs jennies playing with a pair of small wolf cubs, allowing the cubs to chase them but not really alarmed, and every donkey she'd seen calmly accepted the presence of adult weyres—wolves and pumas, that she'd met personally, but she had no reason to believe others were different. Nuriel, the Copper Springs witch, had told her that donkeys were too canny to waste energy panicking over anything that wasn't a threat, and growing up around weyres, they knew the large carnivores weren't dangerous to them, no matter what instinct said.
“I'll pass that on. With those sweet faces, I think half the children on the estate have found an excuse to drop by the corral they're in and see them.”
Well, that should keep them from getting bored, even if Dayr and I get too busy to spend a lot of time with them. Human children or shyani children, the difference should be minimal. And a corral with some hay is probably best for them, the pastureland here would probably be too rich for safety.
The servants cleared the soup bowls, brought the next course: individual fowl much smaller than an average hen, served whole and stuffed with a bread mixture, glazed with what tasted like honey. Dayr tore into his happily, pausing briefly to regard the stuffing in perplexity.
“My understanding was that hill culture isn't advanced enough for agriculture,” Balduin said lazily. “I'm afraid I don't see what hard work there would be for a couple of donkeys.”
Dayr's sharp teeth crunched through a bone, his gaze fixed on the physician. The unexpected sound made everyone save Vixen start, and gave her an extra heartbeat to bring her temper under control.
“We choose not to,” she said evenly. “To plough fields on a hillside is begging to have all the soil wash down into the nearest river. To plant a large field with a single crop creates imbalances in the soil and invites whatever insects prey on that crop to move in and multiply beyond the ability of natural predators to control. Larger livestock are impossible to feed through the winter without great quantities of grain and hay. Many small scattered mixed gardens, goats and rabbits and poultry, fishing, hunting, and gathering from the forest supply all the food and medicines we need. Fibre for clothing and nets and the like comes from at least a dozen sources, animal and vegetable both, along with leather and fur.”
“Ah. Medicines.” He didn't quite manage to veil the disdain in his voice and expression. “Herbal simples.”
“Oh? Well, perhaps for small common ailments, I suppose there might be treatments of some sort. But quicksilver doesn't grow in a forest.”
“No, and I'm grateful for that. Alisander, dandelion, dock, sage... the right combination will cleanse the blood and liver considerably more effectively, and not one of them is a poison. I can't say the same of quicksilver.”
Dayr responded to the scent of her carefully-leashed anger, dropping his fowl, hands curving into claws. The threatening growl was just loud enough to be audible, and his pupils dilated. Vixen grabbed his shoulder and pressed him back into his seat before he could rise, hissed, “They're only words, I'm not in danger.”
Alys paled, white showing around her eyes; Lyris and Mirain looked appalled, though Vixen couldn't tell what by. Jared gave Balduin a frown that could have frozen the southern wetlands, but before he could speak, Dayr did.
“You think we're backwards and barbaric?” he spat. Strong fingernails left dull tracks in the polish of the table as his hands flexed. “No one in the hills would use that tone to a healer! Anyone who devotes her life to taking care of other people deserves to be treated with respect no matter what your personal opinion is!”
“Dayr! I appreciate your concern, truly I do, but please, calm down.” She was a bit worried about Balduin: he was alarmingly white, even for someone who had the leisure to avoid long exposure to the sun, and couldn't seem to look away from Dayr.
“He can't talk to you like that!”
“Everyone be still,” Jared commanded. He didn't raise his voice, but he gained silence. Dayr glanced at him, visibly thought about it, and sat back in his chair, though he continued to glower at Balduin.
“Now,” Jared continued. “This has gotten entirely out of hand. Doctor, that is not appropriate behaviour towards a highborn lady, towards my personal guest, or towards a respected healer from the hills, regardless of your beliefs about her calling.” Balduin inclined his head in acknowledgement. “Dayr, that is not generally considered a civilized response to offensive behaviour.”
“I'm not civilized,” Dayr growled, but it was subdued. “I don't want to be. I'm here to protect Vixen, and I'm going to do it.”
“I certainly won't argue that goal. However. We normally try to keep verbal disagreements from turning into physical assaults.”
Dayr made a derisive noise. “He isn't worth the effort anyway. I wasn't going to fight him. I just won't let people talk to Vixen like that.”
“Neither will I, so I'm sure between us...”
“If both of you don't mind too terribly, I can take care of my own honour,” Vixen said tartly. I'm right here while you talk around me! And I'm neither so helpless nor so foolish as to be unable to defend myself! “I'm sorry to interrupt another meal, but I'm afraid I've lost my appetite.” She shoved her chair back, and stood. “Milady Lyris, will you forgive me for postponing music until another evening?”
“Of course,” Lyris said swiftly, her smile sympathetic.
“Excuse me.” She controlled herself firmly, not storming off, simply walking away and returning to her own room.
Anna wasn't under the bed. Vixen searched for her, discovered her in a window, hidden by the curtains. She drew a chair over and sat near the cat, stroking her gently and humming to her, letting the company and the view of the sunset relax her.
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