A lady with no knowledge of sewing or embroidery, Vixen reflected with a sigh, was certainly an odd beast in the lowlands.
Lyris and Karela were too courteous to comment on it, and she doubted she'd heard more than twenty words from Perla at all, and Tylla, she thought, was getting used to her peculiarities.
She could, however, entertain them with stories while they worked, and sing to them, and offer an unskilled pair of hands where useful.
“I do wish I were more use,” she sighed once, obligingly holding a hem taut while Karela delicately picked the existing stitches out of it. “Especially since these are for me.”
“Work goes much more quickly in company and with some amusement,” Lyris said. “It is appreciated, all the more so when you have no obligation to be here. Jared has made it very clear that Hyalin is yours.”
Though Alys would prefer to see the back of me forever. “And I'm sure you have other responsibilities.”
“I often help Karela, when I have time. I enjoy the company, and I rather enjoy sewing, when it's not endless pointless little decorative trifles. Nor is it unusual for Tylla to join us, when the house has no female guests of any rank. I don't keep her as busy as all that.”
“I have little skill with embroidery, milady,” Tylla said, “but I can sew a neat straight seam, and there's always a need for that.”
“Between the household proper,” Karela said, “the upper and lower house staff, the stable and grounds staff, and a few in the village itself, there's a great deal of clothing to make each year. I'm entitled to assistance from the maids, but some are of more help than others. This is a pleasant change.”
“I assume one doesn't run around naked in the hills,” Lyris said, which made Perla give her a wide-eyed look. “And that probably there's no single seamstress clothing everyone.”
“Leather is common,” Vixen said. “And fur from animals killed for other reasons, though not generally for the fur alone, rabbit most often. Wool from the goats and multiple kinds of plant fibres are spun to make yarn for knitting and thread for weaving and cord for fishing nets. Nettles, hemp, rushes, bark. Even hair, and the fur weyres shed in their other forms. There's less division between tasks for men and tasks for women, and less division between households. Someone very good at, oh, working with wood, can trade off doing more of that in return for someone else taking over her or his other jobs.” The thought of Tethan's clever hands shaping a reddish piece of wood into a vixen to be the decorative part of a comb, while she lay beside him under the late-afternoon autumn sun watching in fascination, made her smile, though it was a bittersweet sort of memory. “My adopted mother is a very talented weaver, so she's rarely expected to do anything else unless she chooses to. But most people grow up learning the basics of many skills. As often as possible, repetitive jobs are done communally, with a lot of singing and storytelling.”
For just a moment, she saw Willow River on a winter evening, the whole community of thirty-nine gathered in the six-sided space at the heart of the hill.
Buried under a thick layer of soil overgrown over many decades with grass and greenery, it truly did look like a simple mound, if a trifle more regular in shape. Two curtained doors granted access to the cold-trapping ditch just within, and a bridge crossed the latter at each. The great hexagonal building was home to six households on each of two floors, accessible from the walkway ringing the inner wall. Each floor had common space in the centre that was put to communal use as frequently as possible, and the upper floor, typically, was where everyone gathered.
It was so absolutely and impenetrably dark even the shyani couldn't see without artificial light, but it was warm in any weather and safe and welcoming. The ceilings were home to a thick layer of phosphorescent fungus that cast a thin glow over everything, not much more than starlight but enough that once Vixen got used to it she could keep from walking into things. The witches, long ago, had discovered a way to store energy inside quartz crystals, and a side effect was that they glowed, quite brightly to begin with but it gradually faded.
When the entire community gathered, they always had a few quartz crystals around, but they readily tolerated extra light close to Vixen so she could see to to read aloud or work on such small tasks as she had any skill with. Around her, some were sewing or embroidering, knitting or tablet-braiding, others working with leather or wood or horn, or cutting up foodstuffs for cooking or preserving. A four-year-old was being amused by her eight-year-old brother with a set of carved wooden animals. A girl nearly old enough for her coming-of-age was practising a more complex bit of knitting, with help from her father and grandmother. Linyel set her own mending aside to shift her tiny son, the newest addition to the community, in his sling so he could nurse. Elderly Kevar, whose hands shook too much for fine work despite Vixen and Irisan's best efforts, could still handle a tambourine to keep the beat of the round that spiralled and echoed from the stone around them. Dayr and Fero were a single heap of tawny fur, grooming each other; Fero had declined several other male pumas as mates, but her response to Dayr was distinctly more favourable.
The community that had, after a brief period of wariness about their human shaman, accepted her as one of them, and trusted her to look after them.
But it felt strangely far away and alien, here in Karela's sun-bright workroom, with only four other women.
She shook off the feeling. “They're used to my deficiencies,” she said lightly. “They work around them. Shyani culture puts heavy emphasis on inclusion and accommodation, and healers get a lot of respect.”
“Seems only right,” Karela said. “If you're working hard, only fair you get paid in some way.”
“Sometimes there are many days in a row when I have very little to do as shaman. It's a small community, around forty people, and major events fortunately tend to be rare, so I help out with other jobs. Not sewing...” She paused, head tilted to listen. Was that a scream?
Every instinct said that it was, and there was trouble, and she needed to be there right now.
“Did you just hear...?” Lyris began, and trailed off.
Rising voices reached them through the open window, in a confused and incoherent babble.
“Someone screamed,” Perla said, with no doubt in her voice.
Vixen caught the last only as she bolted out the door, cursing the hampering folds of layered slate-blue and white skirts—and, when she reached the stairs, cursing as well the soft slippers that forced her to slow down rather than risking a dangerous fall. They were on the side of the building that overlooked the stables, which was where Dayr and Mirain were supposed to be. The source of the disturbance might be something minor, though she doubted that; it might be something that was really none of her business. Or it might be something very bad.
One of the stable-hands caught her arm, jerking her to an unceremonious stop. “You can't go over there, milady!”
“Because you'll be killed and that'll be worth our hides!”
“Killed by what?” People were fleeing, but not all that far; there was a distinct ring of stable-hands and groundskeepers focused on an area behind the stable that she couldn't see.
What she also couldn't see was Dayr.
But there was a faint greenish tang in the air that she recognized.
She dug the nails of her free hand into the underside of the stable-hand's wrist, aiming for nerve-points; in a combination of pain and shock, he let her go with an oath he shouldn't really have said in front of a lady. The dense-packed flagstones of the forecourt in front of the stable were annoyingly slippery, and she nearly fell. The first time she caught her balance. The second time, she was close enough to the ring of bodies to grab the nearest groundskeeper's tunic; that gave her leverage to both keep her feet and to use her own momentum to jerk him out of her way and dart through the ring before anyone could stop her again. She heard several male voices cry out in dismay, and dodged the attempt by someone to catch her from behind.
Atop a large heap of what must be aged manure, about ready to spread in the gardens, an opportunistic weed had taken hold and spread into a luxuriant mass. It figured, that even though it had uses for humans, catnip was ignored instead of harvested.
It was certainly not being ignored by the great tawny cat who was writhing blissfully in the middle of the patch.
“Milady!” Male hands tried yet again to seize her. Wishing for her boots, she stomped on the instep behind her, twisted away, and ran across the hard-packed dirt to the pile.
Dayr looked at her upside-down. His pupils were dilated, only a thin rim of golden-green remaining; enormous paws kneaded rhythmically at the air, spreading wide with deadly claws extending, then relaxing. He twisted to rub his cheek against one stalk that was only slightly askew, grabbing it with a forepaw when it inevitably bent under pressure that was strong enough to tear the leaves from the stem. He snapped up the leaves, chewing on them distractedly while watching her.
“Oh, Dayr,” she sighed. For a puma to resist the scent of catnip would be just too much to ask, and she couldn't even justify being angry at him. She should have checked for catnip patches to warn him away from them, but hadn't thought to.
Meanwhile, this was a problem.
She spun in a swirl of slate-blue and white, stopping the next attempt to drag her to safety with an icy glare. “Keep your hands off me. And leave him alone. He's not going to hurt anyone. Not unless you're stupid about it.”
“This is foolish!” a much older man snapped. He looked like he knew how to use that pitchfork uncomfortably well. “Get away!”
“That's a wild animal!” another said apprehensively, shifting a metal-headed hoe between his hands.
She heaved a deeper sigh. “Not most of the time.”
The crowd parted enough to admit Mirain, with a longbow in one hand and a quiver at his side, arrow already on the string, and two men Vixen thought were manor guards, each with a spear. Behind them was Lyris, white-faced.
Mirain raised the bow and drew back the string. “Move, please, milady.” He sounded as courteous still as he might while offering her a seat, and as calm.
Vixen shook her head, spread her arms to either side to shelter Dayr with her own body as completely as she could—bringing the tattooed palms into plain sight, but she realized it only belatedly. “No. That's Dayr.”
Mirain did a visible double-take. “What?”
She gestured to the tumbled and rather scattered heap of clothes nearby, the same chestnut-and-sage Dayr had been wearing at breakfast. “He isn't a threat to anyone or to the livestock. He'll play in it a bit longer, then fall asleep, and when he wakes up he'll be clear-headed again. He didn't mean to frighten anyone. This much catnip would've been much too strong a lure.” She felt a paw bat inquisitively at the back of her dress. This would be the day her dress would have a decorative white rosette at the back, trailing broad white ribbons nearly to the hem of the skirt. She doubted the ribbons would survive the experience. Well, it could be a lot worse.
Slowly, Mirain lowered the bow. “Dayr is a weyre?”
“Yes,” she said patiently. “Now, would you please tell everyone to put down all the various implements being pointed at my best friend?”
A fist-sized rock skimmed past her and struck Dayr on the shoulder, hard enough to make him mrowl in outrage and squirm over onto his stomach, scanning for the source of the attack.
“I said, he isn't a threat!” Vixen shouted. Why were humans so stupid? “Unless, of course, you act like fools and provoke him into it while he's in a state that keeps him from judging consequences!” With a brief pang of regret for the gorgeous dress, she dropped to a crouch between Dayr and the uneasy crowd, one hand on his head. “Easy,” she crooned, reaching behind her for one length of ribbon and dangling that in front of him. He forgot the stone instantly, rolling back onto one side so he could swat at the ribbon. “No one's going to hurt you. Not without going through me.” It wasn't at all a comfortable position for her; these clothes were absolutely absurd for anything other than staying indoors and being relatively sedate and decorative! But if it kept Dayr distracted and therefore alive, she could live with it.
“Stand down,” Mirain said finally, easing the tension on the bow entirely and letting go of the string. “And I very much hope that you're right, milady.”
“Does he look like he's attacking me?” Vixen asked acidly. “I'm seeing a singular lack of bloodshed. And you were all just told to stand down, so do it!”
Reluctantly, spears and pitchforks and garden implements were lowered, and rocks were tossed aside, though not without some apprehensive looks and barely-audible muttering.
Vixen let herself take a deep breath finally.
“Are you staying here, milady?” Mirain asked.
“It would be just as well if I can get him out of the catnip. Could you find me, oh, a few feet of rope or leather strap? I can't promise it will be any use afterwards. And think of somewhere not far away that would be quieter? Even the corral the jennies are in would be fine, they're used to him, as long as there are no other animals nearby to be frightened.”
Mirain spoke quietly to the older man with the pitchfork, who looked rebellious but finally yielded and left, muttering under his breath.
“As for where... the threshing floor, perhaps? Not comfortable, but it's not used in this season and it will be at least somewhat private.”
“That will do. Where?”
Mirain gestured past her, in the direction of the other outbuildings. “I'll have to show you.”
The old man finally returned with a coil of something in one hand; Mirain accepted it and took a step towards Vixen, then hesitated. “Will he attack if I come nearer?”
“He likes you, so I doubt it, but go slowly.”
Dayr paused in his assault on the ribbon when Mirain came near, and watched him quizzically, but Vixen saw no signs of aggression. That could, of course, change very rapidly with catnip involved, but it was a good sign at least.
Mirain, catching on, uncoiled what he held—a harness rein, perhaps, since it didn't look like rope—and tossed the end in Dayr's direction. The great cat rolled to all fours and crouched, tail end wriggling, then pounced. With impressive courage, Mirain held his ground, though he did recoil perceptibly.
Vixen took pity on him and seized the leather strap herself. Even in this state, Dayr would never hurt her. Gratefully, Mirain moved back a few feet, but stayed near enough to guide her.
Dayr was quite willing to keep stalking the twitching end of the worn leather strap, jerking her repeatedly to a halt. Once, the strap broke, much closer to his end, and he worried and gnawed at the short piece for a moment before his attention came back to the moving end.
The threshing barn had huge sliding doors on two sides that could be opened both at once to allow a breeze through for separating the lighter chaff from the heavier grain. Mirain pushed one door open and stood well back so she could lead Dayr inside onto the well-worn wooden floor.
“I should stay with him,” Vixen said quietly. “I don't want any accidents to happen. I don't imagine we'll be there for lunch.”
“I'll explain,” Mirain said. “You're very brave, milady.”
She looked down at the cat who was batting at the leather strap to see if it would move again. “No, not really. He saved my life, a long time ago, and has been watching out for me ever since. And weyres aren't so hard to understand, on their own terms. They're usually less complicated and less contradictory than humans are.”
He gave her a thoughtful look. “Perhaps. I'll return in a moment.”
When he came back, it was with an armload of blankets or rugs, which he spread on the floor in front of one of the supporting pillars; the one on top looked finer and cleaner than the rest. “Scant comfort, milady, and I'm sure Jared will be displeased...”
“He has no call to be,” Vixen interrupted firmly. “I'm quite capable of sleeping outside on the ground to get here, so I'm sure I can endure having something softer than the bare wood to sit on. Thank you, I appreciate it. If it will make you feel better, you can leave the door open enough that you can check that I'm still safe.”
Mirain got the hint; he swept her a bow and retreated.
For a while, Dayr continued to play, kitten-like, chasing the leather strap around. Vixen paused to remove the soft slippers, down to her bare feet, and rather wished for Tylla's presence so she could get out of the heavy and rather constricting dress, which also grew excessively warm from even this much exertion.
With no more catnip in reach, though, Dayr wound down, and when Vixen seated herself on the bed of rugs, legs crossed and her back against the pillar, he sprawled with his head in her lap. The vibrant purr faded gradually down into silence as she sang shyani lullabies to him, stroking the soft fur of his face and head, throat and shoulders.
Vaguely, she was aware of low voices outside, but didn't care enough to bother looking in that direction.
Jared's voice she recognized, however, and Dayr's ears flicked, a growl rumbling low in his throat. Hoping Jared had more sense than to come nearer, she kept her attention on her feline friend, soothing him back to sleep.
“Milady?” That was Tylla, a distinct quaver in her voice; Vixen looked up quickly. The maid, with a well-filled tray, crossed the wooden floor towards her, though every line of her body spoke of understandable nervousness.
“Oh, please don't tell me someone ordered you to bring me lunch,” Vixen said in exasperation.
“No, milady, but it's well past, and you should eat.”
“You didn't need to, but thank you. It's all right, he won't hurt you, but I can't move. I'm afraid I've just made more laundry for someone to do. And probably repairs. With any luck, that's all. But we won't be able to check the damage until Dayr wakes up and I can get up. Which may have to wait until I can feel my legs again.” Tylla was clearly determined despite her fear, and Vixen's running chatter appeared to help reassure her. “Silly cat. Don't worry, weyres don't eat people, and this particular one once rescued a human who was lost and who would have died. He's the same person he has been since we got here. He just made a mistake and let a secret slip out that should have stayed a secret. In either form, he's still him. Although after a lot of catnip, well, the nearest parallel would be enough wine or ale to interfere with judgement. But he isn't like the kind who get aggressive.”
Tylla dropped to one knee to set the tray in easy reach. Dayr opened one eye to look at her sleepily, and yawned. Understandably, Tylla blanched and backed hastily away from the alarming display of teeth.
“That was just a yawn,” Vixen said. “Not an attack.”
Tylla edged back closer, and knelt. “Milady,” she said softly. “It's not my place to gossip, but I do think you need to know. Lady Alys is, well, hysterical, and claiming that you both are disruptive and dangerous. His Grace is currently refusing to see her.” Tylla hesitated. “Lady Alys has been asking me questions about you, milady. I'm refusing to answer. You're His Grace's guest and she has no right to ask me to break confidence that way. Leofric, who sees to milord,” she nodded towards Dayr, “is a good man and will also say nothing. Servants aren't supposed to gossip, but it does happen. We'll do what we can about that. But please be careful.”
Vixen sighed and closed her eyes, letting her head fall back against the pillar briefly. “Why under the sun does she dislike me so much? I haven't done anything to her, as far as I'm aware.”
“I couldn't say, milady, but I think Lady Lyris might be some help.”
“If she's still speaking to me.”
“I think that won't be a problem, milady.”
“Thank you. I'll try to stay out of trouble, although so far that hasn't been very effective. Maybe I should just stay quietly in my room.”
Tylla rose, watching Dayr warily. “I'll make certain there's something clean ready for you to put on when you come in, milady. And I'll bring something here for milord to put on.”
“I don't think I'm going to feel up to going to dinner. Something simple and comfortable, please?”
“You can leave Dayr's right inside the door, that's close enough for us to reach them once he wakes up.”
Alone again, Vixen looked down at the drowsy cat who was also her best friend, and sighed. “I have to admit, I'm rather enjoying the chance to be the lady I should have been, to whatever extent around the excitement, but for the sake of peace in Hyalin, I hope the tarika appear soon so we can go home and let things go back to normal here.”
Home to the more casual ebb and flow of time, punctuated by flurries of intensive activity and by the still times, without the formalities of status and convention.
Home to the community that she'd become a part of, despite the uncomfortable reminders now and then that she had grown up in a fundamentally different culture, and the necessary but inconvenient accommodation to a few aspects of her basic physiology.
Which was ridiculous. Shyani culture had accepted her, given her the freedom to be herself, given her an important job to do. Within human culture, she could only be a freak and an abomination, unless she denied and concealed a part of herself. She didn't belong here; she couldn't even be here for a few days without creating waves.
The contents of the tray were mostly light things: bread, fruit, thin-sliced cold meat. With it, though, was a covered bowl of thicker slices of what she decided was cold venison, roasted and lightly spiced. Whose idea had that been, to include something that would be to Dayr's tastes?
Between lullabies, she nibbled at her own, lost in thought.
Had she only been born right, was life here what could have been?
No, probably not. Lord Laures would never have sent a daughter to the University. If he had, though... as a younger son, Jared might have been able to get away with marrying the daughter of a Lord less wealthy and powerful. Then, when he inherited the title...
Regretfully, she banished the fantasy. There were just too many impossibilities in it, stacked on top of that initial inescapable one. Still, life could have involved a good marriage, if not as Lady, at least within a highborn household. Even with less formal education, she'd still have been literate, and one could learn a lot simply by reading.
Or it could have involved a marriage to a man who was physically abusive or unfaithful or simply treated her like a child, who placed little value on books or forbade her access to them. A highborn woman had little say in her own marriage. As daughter of a Lord, even a minor one, she'd certainly have been married off for the good of her father's house.
All in all, she would have been a very different person, walking a very different path.
Dayr stirred, yawned, and rolled to all fours for an enormous multi-stage stretch: tail up and chest down, then the reverse, then with his back arched upwards in the middle. He sat down with his tail around his feet and looked around, ears twitching.
“Well, good morning,” Vixen said drily.
Dayr blinked once, slowly, then the memory must have clicked into place: he shifted to human, entirely naked, still sitting on the wooden floor. “Uh-oh. How bad?”
“Aside from you nearly being killed? A lot of people have been badly frightened.”
“Sorry. I was waiting for Mirain, the horses mostly don't like me being inside, and I thought I smelled something, and...” He shrugged.
“I expected it was something like that. Get dressed, and let's go to our own rooms before we can cause any further trouble for today, shall we?”
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