A long afternoon ride, with Mirain as a friendly and knowledgeable guide on his tall liver chestnut gelding, was spoiled only briefly by the initial argument with the elderly stable-master over feminine modesty and sidesaddles. The situation had been solved more by Mirain's intervention than her own influence, although possibly the instant anxiety of every horse in range when Dayr came to see what was keeping them was a factor as well. The result was a man in his late forties, who looked oddly skittish, bringing out Dove in her own tack. Despite that beginning, it was pleasant and relaxing and did a lot to revive her spirits and energy. Mirain knew the terrain, could answer her inquisitive questions about the farmland they skirted, and took them on quite a pleasant woodland trail, along which Vixen automatically identified a number of the useful plants that were missing from the gardens.
With Dove back in the hands of the stablehands, she returned to her room to get ready for dinner. Tylla helped her out of the honey-brown divided riding skirt and jacket, tactfully left her to clean up by herself, but was immediately ready with something new to wear. The soft dark blue wool was drawn in close to her body by the laces at the back, showing off the shape created by the quilted cord-stiffened stays, and the skirt draped in loose folds almost to the floor; the square neck was low enough to provide a daring glimpse of enhanced cleavage without being indecent. The embroidery of butterflies in bright yellow and white and rose was cheery and made her smile while Tylla redid her hair after the wind's damage to the neat coiled plaits.
“You look absolutely beautiful, milady,” Tylla said in satisfaction. “Some jewellery would be a nice touch, but even without it, you're every inch a lady.”
“Thanks to you and Karela and Lyris,” Vixen said. “Otherwise, I'd be every inch a disgrace to Jared's house.” She got up, walked towards the mirror, absolutely delighted by the woman looking back. That woman could have stepped right out of long-ago shame-coloured fantasies.
Karela had even managed a pair of the soft slippers women typically wore indoors, in a blue only a little darker than the dress, with white ribbons to tie them. They felt, in fact, rather like being barefoot, with only a single thin layer of leather between her and the floor.
“My duty and my pleasure, milady.” Tylla gathered up Vixen's riding clothes, shaking them out to hang up, while Vixen tore herself away from the mirror and left for the dining room.
In the unaccustomed constriction of the stays, laced somewhat more snugly than the other during riding, and the very different feel of everything from dress to slippers, she found herself oddly self-conscious about every motion. Karela's skill might make sure the clothes fit, Tylla might make sure she was wearing them properly, but could she really act like a proper lady?
Dayr, there ahead of her, of course abandoned his conversation with Mirain and came to meet her. Green-gold eyes looked her over, and he frowned.
“Every time I see you, you're dressed different, and you look less like you.”
“While we're in human lands...”
“...we play by human rules. You said that before.”
As Jared stepped through the door, his gaze fell on her, and ran along the length of her body. She saw his expression shift to what she was certain was genuine appreciation, and he adjusted his path to come directly towards her. Dayr glanced at him, rolled his eyes with his back turned so Jared wouldn't see, and went back to Mirain.
“You look,” Jared said softly, “wonderful.”
“That would be Lyris and Karela and Tylla's doing.”
“They may have had a hand in it, but they aren't the reason.” He ran a hand lightly down the side of her throat; something deep inside Vixen tightened and quivered, and she felt her heartbeat skip a little. “I think we need to find you some jewellery. Something green, I think. Jade or tourmaline or emeralds.”
“You're already being extremely generous.” Although that wasn't new at all: Jared's casual generosity towards his friends had been well-known at the University.
“In what offers itself, maybe, but no more than you deserve. And compared to the rewards, the cost is nothing.”
That was more than just aesthetic approval in his eyes, in his smile. She'd seen it before, but never turned in her direction, had tried not to admit to herself how much it had hurt every time to know that it never could be.
Jared was actually seeing her, not as the troubled young man he'd known, or as a visitor with an extraordinary mission, but as a woman who had his full interest.
Caught completely off-stride, she could only blush and look down, groping for something to say.
“Come sit down?” he suggested. “By me? I was unfortunately too tired to be much company last night, and you were rather quiet. But other than dinner, I haven't seen you at all yesterday or today, and I'd like to try to change that.” He offered a hand, and escorted her rather formally to the seat at his own right.
Dayr, cat-quick, claimed the one on her other side. Vixen glanced at him, found him glowering at Jared, and nudged him with one foot. Dayr turned his dark look on Balduin instead.
Well, once the food arrived, that should distract him—she could only hope tonight's meal was something he'd eat.
All through dinner, Jared paid only courtesy heed to the others at the table, all his attention on Vixen. He wanted to know what she'd been doing, how his household had been treating her, how Anna was; she dodged the whole issue of Ilsa simply by declaring that there was something private she'd needed to do that was part of being a shaman, and Jared let it go. At her urging, he explained the issues he'd been dealing with that day—a complex tangle of traditional land use and modern best practice. That drew low derisive noises from Dayr more than once that Vixen hoped only she heard. She'd have liked to offer a coherent discussion of it, but somehow every time he looked at her and smiled like that, her thoughts unravelled. He didn't seem to mind.
“Are you terribly tired?” Jared asked over dessert, which was something creamy with fruit in it, a trifle rich but not unbearably so.
“No, not really. Why?”
“You haven't seen my library yet. I thought you might like to.”
“Very much so.” Maybe, surrounded by books, she could be in Jared's presence and still keep some kind of grasp on her own thoughts, instead of having them scatter with no trace of proper shaman self-discipline. After all, much of their original friendship had been spent among books.
She could feel Dayr looking at her, but when she turned towards him, he was talking innocently to Mirain about a board game Mirain had promised to teach him.
Dayr's eyes weren't the only ones she could feel, and Alys made less effort to disguise it.
That was easy to dismiss as unimportant, though, with Jared pushing back his chair, offering her his hand again. With good-nights duly said, they left the others to make their own arrangements.
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