“There, now, milady,” Tylla said, slipping a last hairpin in place. “All back to proper.”
“The same may not be true for that poor dress,” Vixen said ruefully. “I'm terribly hard on my clothes. I'd wear my shyani clothes, but I only brought one set and besides, I'm sure I'd horrify everyone. At least they normally manage to survive a day intact.”
“Not to worry, milady. The laundry room is very good with soil, and Karela can mend nearly anything. The damage is usually much less extreme than you believe it is.”
“I hope so.” She rather doubted any highborn woman in living memory had needed to call on those skills so frequently, however. “On a slightly different subject... you suggested that I talk to Lyris. Do you have any idea where I might be able to find her, and how busy she might be?”
“I can think of a few places, and a guest takes precedence over most tasks she could be doing. If you'd like to talk to her alone, milady, may I suggest that I take her a message asking her to join you here? There's still time before dinner. I did ask the cook to set aside something light you could eat here in your room. I believe milord Dayr also asked not to go to dinner.”
“That would probably be a good idea. The last thing we need is eavesdroppers. Could you please? And Dayr can eat with me, if he wants to.”
“Certainly, milady. Excuse me.” Tylla gathered up the slate-blue and white dress and the slippers, which Vixen figured were probably beyond hope, and left the room.
Vixen wandered restlessly while she waited. Muscles had cramped while sitting still for so long, and she was used to being far more active than ladylike behaviour or ladylike clothing allowed for. Irisan and the others would tease her about getting soft, if the tarika didn't show up soon.
At a tap on the door, she tried to compose herself, and called, “Come in.”
Lyris entered, her expression relaxed with a faint smile but Vixen saw uncertainty instead in the set of her shoulders and the way she moved. “You asked to talk about something?”
“I don't bite,” Vixen said. “Neither does Dayr, unless you're a deer or a rabbit. Please don't look so wary.”
“I'm sorry. We don't discover every day that we've been dining with a weyre.”
“He's just a person. He has some traits that are rather feline, some that are closer to human, and both are under the control of a very quick mind that, catnip aside, doesn't want trouble. He's been my dearest friend for years and he's never hurt me.”
“Even after being in the catnip.” Vixen saw some of the tension begin to loosen. “Mirain told me what he saw. I'd hesitate to get that close even to a small cat in that state. The cat I had as a girl gave me some fearsome scratches a time or two, even though the rest of the time she was very sweet and gentle. Speaking of cats, how's the one you rescued?”
That was a potentially safe subject to help Lyris feel more at ease. “The source of my own fearsome scratches, while she was in pain? I healed her broken hip as much as possible, and her body is finishing the last of the process quite smoothly, though it was a bad break left untreated a long time and she may have a bit of a weather-ache. I believe she's feeling a little less threatened. She's rather deep under the chair in the corner, but I doubt she'll allow any contact. Most of the time it takes me some coaxing, although she does enjoy the attention once she relaxes.”
“I wouldn't even try, but if you'll forgive a little eccentricity...” Effortlessly despite her fitted violet dress with its skirt that had far more fullness than it rightfully should on its own, Lyris settled herself on the floor a short way from the chair in question, with her back to the loveseat. Vixen doubted she could see Anna, or at least more than the tip of her tail, but Anna could certainly see her clearly.
Vixen had to smile. There was nothing contrived about it, no attempt to sympathize with a guest's odd fancies. She could easily imagine a much younger Lyris doing the same with her own cat. She was grateful to be back in the high-waisted green dress with no stays under it, having done more than enough fighting against the limitations of her own clothing for one day. She sat down on the rug, facing Lyris.
“I believe,” Lyris said, “you wanted to talk about something, and the impression I got from Tylla is that you aren't simply feeling lonely and looking for company, although obviously I'd be happy to stay and talk for no reason beyond that.”
Vixen sighed. “I'm hoping that you might be able to help me understand why Alys seems to hate me so much.”
“Ah.” Lyris echoed the sigh. “That has a very simple answer: she sees you as a threat to her house and to her own place.”
“That isn't an answer, it's a sign pointing at further questions. I don't want Alys to hate me. I have no intention of doing any harm to her or anyone here—exactly the opposite. I'm hoping that if I understand, I can do something about it.”
“Alys isn't always like she has been the past few days. I was hired when she outgrew having a governess, in part to give her a companion in a household with no other highborn women, and that was several years ago. For the most part, we're friends, and she can usually be quite thoughtful. I've never seen her fail to offer perfect hospitality and perfect courtesy.”
“So I bring out the worst in her. That isn't very reassuring. Why?”
“She isn't talking to me, not really, but I would say that she doesn't hate you. She resents and fears you. That's different. And it's a long story.”
“I have nowhere to be until dinner. And I'm not asking you to break the confidences of a friend. Anything is more than I know right now. Tell me this story. Please. I need to know.”
Lyris mostly managed to hide a sigh, and paused to think. Vixen waited.
“It's a story that has happened to other houses, and sometimes ends well, sometimes not: a series of tragic deaths leading to a rather precarious position. The previous Lord Hyalin and a single sister were Lady Riane's only children to live to adulthood—there were more, but an epidemic claimed them, and Lady Riane's husband as well. Jared's mother bore two sons before she died, and Jared's father declined to marry again. Evert and Jared, both healthy sons, I'm sure seemed sufficient, and we all know the complications of too many children. His sister married a good man of a good house, Romild... are you all right?”
“Oh, yes. Sorry. I have a distant family connection to Romild myself, in a cadet branch. But then, isn't every family related to every other, if you go back a little? It just startled me. Please don't ask—my family would prefer not to know I'm still alive, believe me, so I'd rather not say.” I suppose you can consider my mother distant in some sense, at least.
“You're entitled to that, and yes, there seem to be blood and marriage connections everywhere. So, she married into Romild, a second son but of the direct line and there were important trade connections involved, and the two were already acquainted and quite amenable to the match. She bore Mirain and Alys, of course, and died trying to give birth to a third child, a son who also died.”
“Oh dear.” Human women died of childbirth complications more often than shyani women did, as a result of factors ranging from too many pregnancies too quickly to poor prenatal care to the way the birth itself was approached; she'd forgotten about that. “But why do Mirain and Alys consider themselves Hyalin after their mother, and not Romild after their father?”
“Romild has an abundance of sons and daughters, direct and cadet. Their parents chose to live here, to support the old Lord, and when Jared's mother died, their mother took over as chatelaine. This has always been home to Mirain and Alys. Romild certainly acknowledges them, but they tend to use the Hyalin name. Since Jared's brother Evert died, I think they've become even more determined that they are Hyalin. There really are only the three of them. No cadet lines within any reasonable distance. I believe the next after them would be Lord Godwin, who's never been here and the Godwin estates are at least two hundred miles from here.”
“Not a good situation, granted. As you said, it has happened before, and resolves itself in different ways. But why is Alys not married, or at least surrounded by ardent suitors? At this point, if anything were to happen to Jared and Mirain, her husband would inherit Hyalin, lands and title and all, with no contest.”
At the mention of harm coming to Jared and Mirain, Lyris flinched visibly. “Alys was engaged when Evert died. She went into deep mourning, for long enough that several people tried to coax her into ending it but she refused. She had no interest in anything and had to be reminded to eat. The physician said it was melancholy. Her fiance grew tired of waiting, and the old Lord could only delay for so long. He finally had to ask Alys to choose, though she was still not well.”
“And she couldn't face it,” Vixen said softly. “And that sort of thing tends to have long-term effects on marriage prospects.”
Lyris nodded. “With Hyalin's wealth providing a dowry and the possibility, All-Father forbid, of inheriting Hyalin itself, she could find a husband anyway. But she doesn't want to marry someone who wants her only for her dowry. One, who shall remain nameless out of respect for his family, courted her quite diligently for some time after she recovered, and she warmed to him and believed it was her he wanted. When she found out it was otherwise, she was devastated.”
“If a situation arises in which her marriage can help Hyalin, she'll go to it willingly. Otherwise, she prefers to stay here.” Lyris smiled. “She feels Jared needs someone practical to oversee the day-to-day running of the house.”
“She's right, I would say.”
“I agree. She's absolutely loyal to Hyalin, and wants Jared to find the sort of wife who will bring Hyalin what it badly needs right now: support among the other highborn, who are rather sceptical about Jared's suitability, and children. With any luck, many children.”
“Hm, and a scandal could damage those chances. That makes sense. But I'm no threat to her position.”
Lyris paused delicately. “Do you think it's common for Jared to welcome a guest by throwing open storerooms and putting everything at her disposal? Or, for that matter, accepting being reprimanded without there being repercussions? I think Alys fears that she's about to be displaced from the position she has built her life around.”
“I... oh. I don't even know what to say to that. Jared and I are old friends, that's all. I can't stay here, I have responsibilities elsewhere.” And I wouldn't have the faintest idea how to keep this place running smoothly. She groped for a way to get off that particular line of thought. “What about Mirain marrying?”
Lyris blushed and looked down. “Jared wants the option of Mirain marrying for the good of the house.”
“And Mirain wants to marry you. And it's mutual.”
“You're very observant.”
“So I've been told,” Vixen said dryly. “What's the problem? You're a Somarl, correct? That's certainly a good family.”
“A good family that had a long run of daughters before finally having a son. My father can't afford dowries for all of us. I'm fortunate enough to have a talent for music. Thus, the musician and companion of a house with the opposite problem.”
“But Somarl has ties to any number of important families, including the royal family. Hyalin doesn't need a dowry, but support from your family could be very useful.”
“Mirain has made it quite clear that he doesn't care whether I have a dowry or not. I think Jared, however, is keeping options open, hoping for something better.”
“That is so like him,” Vixen sighed. “Don't commit to any path until you've assessed all the possibilities. Meanwhile, time passes, and one would think this house had had enough reminders of how uncertain life can be. If I get a chance to, subtly and without making it look like you asked me to, because of course you haven't, I'll bring it up and try to make him see reason. A love match that would also do well by both houses is a very hard thing to better.”
“Thank you,” Lyris said quietly. “So. Alys does not hate you, but I do think that she may do things in fear that she would otherwise not do. I feel bad saying this about a friend, but I do not believe you can trust her at this point.”
“And that's a sad thing indeed. Thank you for telling me the truth. I'll do my best not to make things worse for her, but it seems that the harder I try to be quiet and decorous and invisible, the more things happen that I react to and so the more I fail. Dayr and I will both be out of here as soon as we can. I can't tell you what we're here for, I'm sorry, but Jared knows. Dayr wants to go home as badly as Alys wants us out of her house.”
“A loyal friend, to stay with you anyway. But then, anyone who thinks cats can't be loyal has never befriended one.”
Vixen blinked. “Anna is...”
Lyris smiled, carefully not looking down at her lap and the long-haired tortoiseshell cat lying on it, equally carefully keeping her hands off to the sides and still. “Cats like me.”
“I think cats know you understand them. I've been worrying about what will happen to her once I leave. I don't think it would be good for her to go back to living the way she was, and taking her with me would be difficult. Would you consider taking her?”
“Will I make room in my life for a cat who has been hurt and is fearful of people, and try to help her see that not all people are like that? Yes, of course. She's beautiful, and I've felt bad for her since I heard what happened. I'm glad you found her and helped her.”
“Oh, good. One less thing to worry about a solution to. I'd rather keep an eye on her a bit longer, but I won't be able to do much more for her.”
“I'm not going anywhere,” Lyris said lightly, and smiled. “Especially right at the moment.”
A door closing elsewhere in the corridor spooked Anna into bolting back under the chair.
“Nice timing,” Vixen muttered.
“That may be Leofric looking for Dayr to find out whether he's joining us for dinner,” Lyris pointed out. “It is getting on towards time.”
“Dayr's not coming to dinner,” Vixen said. “Neither am I. I just cannot deal with the atmosphere right now.”
“Quite understandable. I, however, have to be there. It's part of my job. Enjoy your dinner, and I'm sure I'll see you tomorrow. Good evening, lovely Anna, and I hope we can become good friends.”
Tylla came in as Lyris was on the way out, with a tray of food, and Dayr not far behind her, carrying his own. Lyris greeted each with a nod and a smile.
“I won't need any help getting out of my clothes tonight,” Vixen said. “I'm planning on a quiet meal and a quiet evening and some sleep. You can consider your job done for today, as far as I'm concerned. Dishes can wait until morning, I'm sure.”
“If you're certain you won't need anything else, milady, I'll be sure not to disturb you.”
“I'll be fine. And thank you.”
Tylla curtsied and left.
Once the door closed, Dayr said, “Shaman work?”
“Yes. I had a talk with Lyris about the situation with Alys. I think in a way she isn't so different from Anna. We're intruders in her territory and we're potentially threatening.”
Dayr considered that, draping himself into one of the chairs at the table. “I can see it. I didn't think humans did that, but it makes sense. She's been hurt?”
“You can't help her unless she lets you.”
“I know, and I doubt she will, which is sad because I suspect that simply calling her spirit animal could do a great deal. I want to check on the wards I set, and I want to do a little prowling.”
“Listening to people?” Dayr didn't look particularly concerned.
“Well... yes. It's a bit invasive, but I need to know what's happening, especially after today.”
“At least you're telling me so I can be here to guard the door. Are you going to eat afterwards?”
“Yes. I'm sure nothing will turn dangerous before I get back.” She freed her hair and stripped down to her shift before going in search of her shaman tools.
The soft whispery song of the bone egg, and her own will, took her along a familiar route, under the waterfall and out.
Dayr had moved to sit leaning against the door, though he took his own dinner to eat there.
First she tested the circle, and found it bright and clean, ready to warn her immediately if any shyani or weyre but Dayr crossed it. She roamed around at random, listening to people talking—and much of it was about Dayr and the catnip. Some of the stories were exaggerated, to say the least, but none actually claimed Dayr had hurt anyone. That was better than she'd feared. Of course, in an environment like the estate, reports of injuries could be easily disproved, but panic and logic seldom kept company. She did catch “Milord Mirain says,” and “Milady Lyris says,” and even, “Tylla says,” prefacing more rational refutation several times, which was interesting. She decided that it was probably safe to let the issue lie, but perhaps she could find a place where she could do a storytelling session or two, open to anyone interested, and spin them a few stories about shyani and weyres and humans interacting in beneficial ways.
Her single specific target, of course, was Alys.
Since dinner was over, it took a bit of looking around to find her.
Vixen finally located her in the sitting room of a rich-looking suite that looked like it belonged to a man.
Given the number of books in evidence as well, this was most likely to be Jared's own suite.
Alys was alone, pacing restlessly. Vixen studied her. Not a great beauty, but fairly pretty; a genuine smile would have done her as much good as the elegant dress and elaborately-styled hair. It was a shame she'd been hurt, and that her recovery had been incomplete and left her with so much lingering anxiety around her place. The shadowing of spirit that physicians called melancholy was a state Vixen had a great deal of sympathy for, and wished lowland medicine had better responses to—and wished equally that she could personally use other methods to start it healing properly.
Jared came in, saw Alys, and heaved a sigh; he nodded to the liveried valet who had followed him in, and the servant went on to one of the inner rooms of the suite. Jared dropped into a chair, stretched his legs out in front of him, and let his arms fall along the padded arms of the chair.
“No, I am not forcing them out of Hyalin.”
“He's a weyre!” Alys' voice cracked on the final word.
“A weyre who has slept four nights in this house. If anyone has been attacked or devoured or gone missing, no one has seen fit to bring it to my attention. He is here with Vixen...”
“She's hardly any better!”
“You say she's highborn, but she certainly didn't get a name like that in a highborn house, and neither of you will say what family she's from! She certainly doesn't behave like a lady. Just to begin with, no lady spends that much time alone behind closed doors with a man who isn't a relative!”
Oh dear. I completely forgot about that particular type of modesty.
“Her family has... problems, and that includes her upbringing.” Well that was a neatly vague, if accurate, way to put it. “Leave her alone. She's here for my sake, and she will be welcome here for as long as she stays.”
“Which is how long?”
“As long as I can persuade her to do so.”
“That's ridiculous! You need to be thinking about how to make a proper marriage! Having that... that...”
“Alys.” There was warning in his voice.
“Having her around is hardly going to help with that. What about her is so appealing, anyway? She showed up here dressed like a commoner...”
“Which you were in scant hurry to rectify. Lyris had to bring it to my attention.”
“... makes demands, behaves abominably and with no modesty to speak of, all over this mysterious message or mission or whatever it is...”
“That's enough. The appeal is that she is very good company. You're exaggerating about her manners to the point of absurdity. After several years living with the shyani, one would expect her to have forgotten a few details.”
“All-Father only knows what she was up to with them, and what kind of family allows a daughter of the house to live like that? Or what kind of woman chooses that over her house, and why?”
Jared waited barely long enough for her to finish before continuing, and Vixen thought it was less that he was listening, more just wanting to be sure she heard him. “Unlike the overwhelming majority of highborn women, she has not spent her life turning herself into the perfect vapid doll who can make polite non-controversial conversation that will entertain others and always knows every nuance of etiquette and this season's fashions while never allowing an original thought to penetrate her delicate head. For the good of Hyalin, I'll find an appropriate wife, although I positively dread the idea of marrying someone who has strong feelings only about the superficial and trivial and who is going to regard a marital bed as a distasteful but necessary duty. However, anyone I can find that I can actually have an interesting conversation with, I will continue to treasure.”
Yes, of course... that's Jared. He must be bored out of his mind with no one to talk to.
Jared regarded his cousin with a frown. “And so much the better if the source of that interesting conversation happens to be an attractive, if somewhat unconventional, woman who cares passionately about, and for, things other than herself and appearances.”
“And you will treat her as an honoured guest of this house, and her companion and protector as well, and you will not make a single hostile move against either. A competent housekeeper can do much of your job, and I imagine Lyris could take over the rest entirely.”
Alys paled. “You wouldn't!”
Oh, Jared, don't be so heavy-handed! A little reassurance would go a long way! You're just going to make her more anxious!
“I don't believe it would be in Hyalin's best interests to replace you—until you decide that it's acceptable to disobey direct and explicit orders. Marriage alliances don't need to be my own to be beneficial for Hyalin, but a defiant chatelaine would be detrimental to the house. Don't cross me in this, Alys. Balduin thought he could get away with making inappropriate remarks at dinner while Vixen was absent, and has discovered that he is no longer welcome at my table. The same is true for anyone in this household. I want Vixen to feel welcome here for as long as she's willing to stay. Lyris has been effectively doing your job as hostess, which is fine. She's sincere, and I don't believe those false smiles of yours fool Vixen for a heartbeat. Let Lyris continue to. But you will stay out of her way so she can do so properly, and you will not undermine either of them or Dayr. Is that absolutely clear?”
“Yes, Your Grace,” Alys said resentfully. “I'll do nothing to preserve house dignity or safety, as long as you can be amused.”
Vixen fled back to her body.
Dayr waited until she had her bearings and was comfortable before giving her a questioning look.
“Alys wants us out of here,” Vixen said. “Jared just ordered her not to do anything that would make us feel unwelcome.”
“He won't live past the tarika coming here, if we leave,” Dayr pointed out reasonably.
“I think... I think it's more than that.” She shook her head. “You slept part of the day, but I didn't. Shoo, I'm going to eat and then I need some sleep.”
“I'll see you in the morning.”
Vixen automatically ate, replenishing herself and helping to ground herself as well, though she tasted little of the now-cool soup, the soft white bread and spiced butter, pale cheese and fresh fruit and vegetables cut into bites. Then she curled up in her welcoming bed, mind spinning.
In a class where marriages were typically for the sake of wealth or politics or other advantages, it wasn't uncommon for men to have a mistress—though there was a double standard there, forbidding women the equivalent. The role that would belong to a single woman in a commoner household could be split into two or even three separate roles: a household manager, a companion and lover, a wife and mother.
Some men went through lovers like candy, but others had a single mistress who stayed with them for years or decades, filling a need that could never be met by a marriage of convenience. It was a marginal role, socially, but acknowledged; a mistress might well even accompany her lover to city or Court, especially if the wife disliked travelling or was of frail health or busy with her children. There were households in which wife and mistress were friendly, even. She'd studied enough history to know that, commonly, those lifelong companions were not considered notable beauties; they had something less transitory to offer.
Anyone I can find that I can actually have an interesting conversation with, I will continue to treasure.
And if the source of that interesting conversation happens to be an attractive, if somewhat unconventional, woman...
As long as I can persuade her to stay.
Jared wanted her here.
Enough so that he was prepared to threaten his cousin, rather than simply assuring her that Vixen would be gone in a few days.
Jared wasn't seeing her as Corin wearing different clothes, he was seeing her as a woman.
Marriage was out of the question. She had no family connections or wealth to bring Hyalin, and Hyalin particularly needed the former right now. Besides, Jared needed heirs, and that, she certainly couldn't give.
But a mistress was another matter.
Vixen was no threat to Alys: she completely lacked the early training of a highborn woman in the many skills necessary in order to keep a large and complex household running, and she could certainly never replace her and felt no desire to try. What she could be to Jared, in turn, Alys never could—nor could any woman who lacked at the very least his intellectual leanings. There was no need for the two of them to be at odds.
Would even the family of her birth recognize her? It seemed highly improbable that they'd ever see the youngest brother they believed dead in a woman.
She drifted off lost in fantasies of the colour and glitter and music of a ball—but instead of looking at the ladies in their elegant finery and trying to pretend she didn't have that sick hopeless empty feeling she dared not even acknowledge, she was one of them.
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