“With all Hyalin's resources yours,” Vixen said, “I can imagine the size of your library.”
“I haven't had all that long to work on it,” he pointed out. “And acquiring new books takes some effort without making frequent trips to the city personally, which I really don't have time for. Do you remember Willem?”
She frowned in thought for a moment, brought to mind a scrawny pale young man who could never quite sit still. “Stonemason's son? Sponsored by his lord because he was so intelligent?”
“That's him. He's still at the University, he's teaching now, but he's extremely junior and doesn't get many classes or much pay. We have an arrangement involving my paying him to watch for new books on subjects that interest me. He has the money to buy them, and when he runs through it, I send him more.”
“That's a good solution. It not only gets you books, but helps an old friend support himself. If I'd known that,” she added ruefully, “I could have spared myself an interview with Dean Hadley and asked Willem where you were. But I really didn't want to waste time looking at random for classmates who might or might not still be around after eight years.”
He opened a door, gestured invitingly, but as she stepped through his fingers brushed her cheek, and he asked softly, “Was he terribly rude?”
With her stomach all aflutter again, Vixen sighed. “Let's just say I have no trouble believing the rumours about him and women attending the University. He gave me the information I needed, and he kept his hands to himself, which I suppose is all I could ask.”
“I think if he saw you right now, and had something you needed, he'd be much less likely to behave so well. Thank you for facing that for my sake.”
“I... oh my.” She blinked, her scattered thoughts focusing on the wealth of books on the walls of the warmly oak-panelled room. “I don't think I've ever seen this many books in one place other than the University library.”
“Some, I admit, are outdated, or of limited interest,” Jared said, letting the door close. “Books my father or grandfather bought about old-fashioned advice on running a Domain. A few I imagine were my mother or aunt or grandmother, on etiquette and the like, and a few dreadful romances claiming to be history. There are some quite good real histories, however, and some excellent classics of philosophy and geography, and some newer works on land management.”
“Which never used to be an interest of yours.”
He shrugged, leaned against a heavy oak table, watching her investigate the shelves. “I had planned to stay at the University, you know that, but with the title dropped in my lap, what else was I supposed to do? If I can't spend all my time on studying, I can at least do my best by Hyalin. And, in ways, it can be fascinating and challenging.”
She ran a finger along the spine of a work on human anatomy she remembered very well indeed. “Changes happen,” she said quietly. “What happened to your father and brother?”
“My brother got himself killed hunting a boar. I got the news about that about two years after you disappeared. My father and I argued for the next year and a half about whether I was going to come back here so he could try to turn me into a copy of himself or whether I was going to stay at the University and turn my attention to researching land use and resource management. His heart failed.”
“Not much love lost between me and either. I was mostly annoyed that they'd managed to disrupt my plans after all.”
“Mm, yes, your plans.” Jared always had plans. Other classmates sometimes found them intriguing, but at other times considered them boringly abstract or impractically ambitious.
To Corin, still the misfit, the weird one to snicker about, nothing Jared found interesting could ever be dull or pointless—because, in all the world, Jared was the one person to find Corin interesting, the one person willing to defend him and listen to him seriously and encourage him.
She didn't need to wonder whether Jared had been aware of how intensely Corin had idolized him, or how completely he'd become the centre of her personal universe at the time, his approval the sun's light and warmth.
She already knew: he had no idea at all.
“But you couldn't possibly have planned for a wandering peddler to have a genuine shyani grimoire in his pack. One he stole when a small shyani hill offered him shelter and a meal, and that wasn't even missed for some time.”
“What happened to him?” Jared sounded only idly curious.
“He's dead. I hope before they discovered he no longer had it, but I doubt it.” This shelf was geography and maps and traveller's tales; she spotted one claiming to be a human's journey in the highlands. She made a mental note to take a look at it later to see how bad it was. “The tarika are in absolute grim earnest, they hate all humans passionately and want us exterminated on this continent so the shyani and weyres can have the lowlands back. Mostly what stops them is that they're a minority and there are quite a lot of humans and the other shyani and weyres don't want any more fighting. Humans very nearly destroyed the jaguars and the sea otters, they're so rare now that they might not ultimately survive the damage. The sea otters and seals and dolphins used to live with shyani along the coast, but now there are shyani coastal settlements only in the far north and far south. Only the wolves and pumas and bears and dolphins came through largely intact. The shyani population is lower than it once was, though they're at no risk of vanishing, but they've had to adapt to not having access to resources they used to have. Humans have hurt them very badly. They could have killed all the humans who first came here, but they welcomed them as friends. When humans started to get aggressive, they tried to draw back instead of fighting. That cost them a horrific number of lives. It's possible they still could kill us all, but they don't want to. Most are willing to just leave the past in the past and live with the present as it is. They're happy to offer hospitality to individual humans, including traders. They do interact with humans regularly, right along the boundary, and it's for the most part friendly. But even the friendlier ones usually resent humans trying to pry into matters that the shyani consider private.”
“You don't think we should know what they could do if they ever do decide to start a war?”
She turned away from a shelf of histories, leaned against the oak-panelled wall beside it, mirroring his position as she regarded him. “If they haven't by now, they never will. But that isn't why you wanted that book. You just want to know what they know, purely for itself.”
“Knowledge shouldn't be restricted.”
“No, but it should always be kept in context. And that book alone has no context. It could give you no more real understanding of the shyani than one of your books on land use would give a shyani of humans. After eight years living entirely with them, there are still times when we just can't entirely understand each other, but you can accept and respect even what you don't understand. Shyani and weyres don't always entirely understand each other, either, but nearly any shyani hill has a family of weyres living there anyway. My father and mother and sister, Vixen's, not Corin's, I love them very much and they've done their best by the cuckoo chick in their nest. They aren't alone in that. I've lived in two shyani communities and have met people from others. In spite of being human, I've had no more than a few questioning looks that pass before long. Here in Hyalin or at the University or anywhere else in the lowlands, you know the same wouldn't happen if people saw and understood these,” she touched one silver earring, “as meaning I'm osana. I'd be stoned in the street, more likely. To the shyani, the ultimate goal is for each individual to become completely and wonderfully and fully who they are, because that, in the end, makes the community stronger and brighter. To humans, it's mostly about fitting yourself into the place that society ordains for you, regardless of the personal cost. The differences just in the very fundamental premise of what life is for are immense.”
Jared crossed the room to her in a few long strides; it gave her a moment to appreciate the extra muscle he'd gained in the past few years, though the self-assurance of his bearing had been there long before. Directly in front of her, he cupped a gentle hand around her cheek and met her eyes. “Does that mean we can't all just be friendly?”
Suddenly stays and dress felt too tight, too warm, it was hard to catch her breath. She was grateful for the solidity of the wall behind her.
“That's what they want,” she managed to point out. “They just take exception to thieves.”
“And what do you want?”
“You.” She almost forgot to add the next word. “Safe. And the people who gave me a new life, safe.”
“I certainly owe them something, since without them, you wouldn't be here right now, much more confident and sure of yourself than I can ever remember.”
Right at that instant, she wasn't feeling at all sure of herself. She did, however, have a mission she could cling to. “Then for their sake and yours, give me that grimoire.” She smiled up at him. “I bet you can't read it anyway. They're usually in the old shyani language. They leave them that way for a reason.”
“I can read a little old shyani,” he conceded. “Not much. Can you?”
“I have no particular interest in it. I do know it's a syllabary with over a hundred characters, and the language we all use now is a mingling of the languages each side spoke when they came together so it has a lot of unfamiliar vocabulary and structures as well.” Misleading, but if she told him that she could both speak it and write it moderately well, all part of her shaman training, it would be contrary to her primary goal. “You could work on it until you're old and grey and not translate enough to grasp the meaning. How is that worth your life?”
“It isn't. But I don't regret it. It brought you here. How are they going to feel about you having it?”
“The tarika will tolerate me. Respect for shamans runs very deep in shyani culture—you've heard Dayr.” She held up her hands to show the tattooed palms. “While I suppose they could be faked, there is no power that would make a weyre confirm that they're real unless he's absolutely certain of that.”
He caught her hands in his, steadied them so he could look more closely. There wasn't the size difference between his hands and hers that there might have been, but he brushed his thumb over the eye, and she shivered. “Those must have hurt.”
What would he think of the others, that don't show under these clothes? “Less than you might think. Less than some of my training. I am not at all a natural at keeping my thoughts still, but it's essential for any shaman to be able to. As for the grimoire, I'm not keeping it anyway. I'm going to give it to Dayr to hold. Weyres often guard things for shyani.”
Jared freed her hands and backed up a step—she rather regretted the loss of the closeness, though it was also, confusingly, a relief. He crossed the room to a substantial desk, fishing a key on a leather thong from under his shirt. With the key, he unlocked one of the drawers of the desk and pulled it open.
The shyani grimoire was just a scroll, wound on a pair of rods with gracefully-shaped but otherwise unadorned finials, tied with a faded rose ribbon. A simple thing to have cost one life already and to potentially cost Jared his as well.
Not while I'm here. I won't allow that.
He presented it to her formally, with both hands. “Milady. The object of your journey.”
She accepted it, but smiled and shook her head. “The object was your safety. This is just the means for that. Thank you for being sensible about this.” She let her hands fall in front of her, both still around the grimoire. Well, it helped to hide that they were trembling. Were they? She was sure they were.
“You're quite right. It isn't worth it. And I very much don't want you and me at odds.”
“I don't want that either.”
She took a deep breath, quietly, as he turned away; he didn't go far, only seated himself on a couch so padded with creamy leather that the wood beneath was invisible. “Come talk to me? Anything. How hard it was to adjust to the hills, or what was really going on before that, that I didn't know? If I'd known you were so unhappy...” He trailed off. “I don't know what I would have done. Something, I hope.”
She joined him, left the grimoire on her far side. “I couldn't tell you. I couldn't even admit it to myself. It is, to say the least, not easy to acknowledge that you've spent your entire life living a lie not of your own making, one so pervasive that no one, even you, knows who you actually are beneath it. When I decided that death was the only way out... I was losing the battle to hide from myself, and it terrified me. I couldn't see any future that was worth enduring even one more day of all the lies, let alone years with no hope of anything else. Human culture isn't kind to anyone who doesn't fit within the neat and accepted categories. And I was certain I'd be entirely alone. How could I expect anyone to stand by me against what felt like the entire world? How could I risk doing harm to my only real friend? Or risk you rejecting me and hating me?”
Jared was silent a moment. “I honestly don't know how I would have reacted,” he said finally. “I'd rather think that I'm more loyal to my friends, but it would have been a shock.”
“Of course it would.” She shrugged. “Before that, it was only... knowing that something was very wrong, and guilty fantasies creeping in that horrified me, and a great deal of effort spent hiding from myself. It mattered more than anything to me that you never cared whether I was any good at fencing or sports, and you listened to me and made sure the others didn't forget I was there or twist everything I said to make fun of me.”
“You always had interesting ideas. More interesting than the ones who were just trying to say what they thought I wanted to hear.”
And you think I didn't figure out fast that what you wanted to hear was something you'd never heard before? “I don't know what I would've done without that. Possibly just quietly killed myself within a few months of getting to the University, and no one would've much cared if Lord Laures' misfit third son was no longer around to be a disgrace. I doubt there was that much fuss when I vanished.”
“I tried,” Jared said. “So did a few of the others. We turned the town upside down, and some way around the edges, but not far enough out, I suppose.” He sighed. “The University itself, though, once they'd contacted your father, they more or less washed their hands of it.”
“Mmhmm. Because they were reassured by Lord Laures that he wasn't going to hold them responsible, so why bother? Let it go. I think it worked out better all around this way, in the end. Could you imagine his reaction if he saw me now? I'm better off at Willow River where I'm not disappointing anyone or disgracing my name or making anyone uncomfortable. I have a job to do, one that matters, and if it involves more hard work at moments than a physician encounters, well, I don't mind. Copper Springs and Willow River both rather quickly got past being unsure how to live with a human, more quickly than the lowlands would get used to an osana. I have friends there, and a family that loves me. I know who I am and where I belong. What else do I really need?”
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