Dayr invited himself in while Vixen was eating breakfast, not bothering to knock. He draped himself into the chair across from her.

Tylla, across the room at Vixen's wardrobe, murmured something about needing to fetch something, and tactfully withdrew.

“I didn't see you yesterday except at lunch and dinner,” he said. “And it's not like there's much we can talk about with half the building in and out of the room.”

“It's at least more peaceful without Alys and Balduin glaring at us and making snide comments,” Vixen pointed out. “I was busy.”

“More clothes?”

“Healing, mostly, and music.”

“That's a change. I've never seen anyone spend so much of their time on clothes. It's like small children dressing dolls over and over.”

At moments I feel like a doll being dressed. “Are you doing all right?”

He shrugged. “Before, people didn't talk to me much because I was a stranger. Now they don't talk to me much and edge away smelling like fear. Why would I bother attacking them? If I wanted to, I would have before they knew I could. It would be stupid to wait until after prey knows you're there to pounce. And what would be the point? They wouldn't taste good, they wouldn't be any fun at all to chase, and I'd just end up with everyone else wanting to kill me. I'm not that stupid.”

“They aren't used to dealing with anyone who isn't human, and definitely not with anyone who can be a very large and dangerous animal.”

“I'm more dangerous than Mirain with a longbow? Have you seen him shoot? Oh wait, you've been indoors being a lady.” He shrugged. “So, if people want to avoid me, I don't care. There are sunny places to sleep in, and Mirain and I went for a ride yesterday. He doesn't act like I'm about to eat him. Anything planned for today?”

Well, that was consistent with what she saw at meals: Mirain seemed quite willing to remain friendly, and Lyris, while a little nervous, made a distinct effort to remain courteous and did seem to be relaxing again, especially when Mirain was also present.

“Jared sent me a message inviting me to have dinner with him alone on the balcony. There's an interesting planetary conjunction not long after full dark.”

“A what?”

“Three of the wandering stars are going to line up.”

“Oh. Whatever. Alone will make it easier for you to keep showing off for Jared.” He snorted. “Leave it to humans to get things completely backwards. Males are supposed to be the ones trying to prove to females that they're worthy for mating, not females trying to prove themselves to males.”

“I am not!”

“You're doing everything short of spraying and howling with your tail in the air. And he's just short of grabbing you by the scruff of the neck. Which is pretty stupid, when he's the one encouraging everyone else to encourage you to become someone you aren't, so who exactly is it he wants, anyway?”


“I thought you weren't going to lie to yourself anymore.” Another shrug. “There's probably more new clothes involved before dinner, too. Whatever. I hope the tarika get here soon. I don't care where we are, but I don't like what this place does to you.” He heaved an enormous sigh and left her to her breakfast.

Left her wondering why she'd been completely at a loss for a way to refute anything he'd said.

Well, he was right about the new clothes: the note had included a reference to Karela having something for her that would need to be properly fitted.

Tylla returned before long, and went back to sorting through the contents of the wardrobe smoothly and silently.

Vixen looked down wearily into her tea, and finished the last of it with a single gulp before setting it on the empty tray. “Doesn't it get maddening, leaving the room so diplomatically?”

“Everyone needs their privacy, milady. The trick is knowing when to leave and when to stay.” Tylla shook out the dark blue dress with the butterflies. “This one, milady? It's not so complex to get out of or back into, that might he easier so Karela can do fittings.”

“That's fine. I trust you.” She got up and moved out into the middle of the room, where there was enough space for Tylla to help her into the cord-stiffened stays and then the blue dress. “I'm getting spoiled. How's Cole feeling?”

“Much better. He's back on his feet like he'd never had a bad spell. Most of the time it's taken at least three or four days before he's been able to function at all. And none of those frightening mood changes. I can't ever thank you enough for that.”

“Good, I'm glad it helped. It's going to be frustrating sometimes, I imagine, and I suppose the occasional mistake might happen, but it should be possible to almost entirely avoid it.”

“I've already spoken to the head cook. She's watched Cole grow up, a lot of the staff have, and she wants him safe. She knows everything that happens in her kitchen and everything that goes into every dish. She'll make certain he always has something to eat that won't make him ill.”


“I think so. Will you sit down, and I'll do your hair? With a little time later, I can do something fancier with your hair for dinner tonight, if you like.”

“That would be wonderful.”

Karela was waiting for them, and she was smiling.

“His Grace sent me another of Lady Riane's dresses, milady, but this one is different. Special. I'm glad we finished adjusting the more formal stays, you'll need them with this one.”

“I will?” Vixen wasn't at all sure whether to be excited or apprehensive.

Tylla deftly helped her out of the blue dress and the lighter stays, and into the new set.

This was the one with thin strips of horn stiffening it. She took a deep breath while Tylla was doing up the laces, as the whole thing tightened around her abdomen and diaphragm and ribcage, pushing her breasts up with the quilting beneath enhancing their size. And this was less constricting and confining than the ones currently popular in the high circles of fashion. Even if they were made perfectly, how could one do anything? Except look impossibly curvy and sleek and lovely...

Karela, grinning, brought out a roll of drab fabric, and with a flourish, unrolled it.

Against the unbleached off-white, the intense emerald green almost glowed. The fabric of the dress had a subtle shimmer as the sunlight danced across it.

“That can't be all silk,” Vixen said in disbelief.

Karela nodded. “It is. That's why it wasn't with the rest. I'm told this was Her Ladyship's dress when the King and Queen called on Hyalin. It's beautiful, isn't it? Perhaps not the current fashion, but in this case, I'd have to call it classical rather than out of date.”

“It's worth a fortune!” The house of Laures would be in debt for five years to buy that much silk.

“Then best we make certain you'll do it justice, milady. The skirt falls differently and has less material in it, so you'll need a petticoat to help it create the right shape.”

The petticoat turned out to be a skirt of lightweight linen with gathered flounces added in graduated and overlapped tiers.

Karela picked up the dress and shook it out, and handed it to Tylla, who took it respectfully.

Inevitably, it fastened down the back, not with buttons, but with more lacing, which was meant to meet precisely along her spine. The fabric was wonderfully soft and flowing. Around the edges subtle embroidery showed in darker green and sapphire and black.

It didn't fit exactly, a bit too loose in one spot, too tight in another, but that was a given. Karela deftly let out seams and pinned in others, then had Vixen take off the dress—with Tylla's help.

“If you've the time to stay, milady, I don't believe this will take long and we can make certain it's right.”

“I have time. I really have no useful responsibilities, after all.”

“You're a guest,” Tylla said. “Of course you haven't. And you keep finding ways to help anyway.”

Vixen wandered idly around the sunny room, trying to get used to the tighter and firmer stays, the additional fabric around her legs. It wasn't uncomfortable, really, though she might have felt otherwise without the chance to adapt to the other stays. She was quite sure, however, that any attempt to rescue a cat from the garden or harvest herbs or kneel beside a bed would be problematic.

Of course, what was one supposed to do when wearing a fortune in silk except look pretty and not damage it?

Any reservations vanished once the altered dress was back on and laced properly.

With her hair done, with jewellery other than her plain silver rings in her ears... she was sure she could walk into any gathering and draw only positive attention. The stays did dramatic things to her silhouette, and the petticoat made the green skirt flare out perfectly; over those unseen foundations, the vivid green of the silk shone, and it brought out the subtle hints of red in her dark hair.

“You look absolutely beautiful,” Tylla said in delight.

“Unquestionably,” Karela said in satisfaction. “Fit for a ball in the city, not just dinner with His Grace.” She grinned again. “He'll be at your feet. Any man would.”

Yes, she was probably right. And many women would be jealous.

“This is magnificent,” Vixen said. “Thank you.”

“Not my gift or my making,” Karela said. “Just a few alterations.”

“And the things to wear under it.”

Karela waved that away. “My pleasure, milady. Wear it well and have a wonderful evening.”

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