Nails tapped on the door of the library, and once Vixen acknowledged it, Tylla peeked in.
“Milady, it would be good to start getting ready.”
“Already? Well, you're the expert. I'll be right there.” She closed the book on astronomy she'd been reading through to refresh her memory. While some shyani did study the motions of the stars, for most only a few constellations were of much interest or use, and she'd been too busy with other subjects of greater immediacy to pay much attention.
Back in her room, Vixen cleaned up in the bathroom, before obediently putting on the thin low-fronted shift Tylla gave her. The stiffer stays over that, but not the dress yet. Tylla had her sit, and started doing something elaborate to her hair. Sitting was certainly interesting with the stays on, forcing her erect and making slouching at all impossible.
“There,” Tylla said in satisfaction. “Don't move yet, milady.” She moved around in front of Vixen.
She had some kind of lotion she rubbed into the skin of Vixen's face and neck—and onto her abused hands, still bearing Anna's scratches. She followed that with a light dusting of some fine powder.
“Long enough with the right lotion every day would undo the damage the sun and the wind have done to your skin,” the maid observed. “But even ladies who never let either touch them and spend a great deal of time and effort on care of their skin use a few tricks.”
She did something with a very small brush to Vixen's lips, and something else with at least one more to her eyes.
“Done,” Tylla said finally. “Wait, don't look yet, let's do the dress first so you can see it all at once.”
Vixen stepped into the dress, so Tylla's careful artwork wouldn't be damaged, and Tylla laced it loosely; then the petticoat, up underneath and tied, and Tylla resumed lacing the back of the dress properly.
“Will that do, milady?” Tylla asked, with just a trace of mischief in her voice, as Vixen went to the mirror.
It took Vixen a moment to find her voice. “That's me?”
That made Tylla laugh. “Absolutely.”
Her skin looked smoother and more even in tone, and her lips had been turned to a dull red and looked fuller. Her eyes were lined black, and the lids and a short way out from them were glittery green.
“Malachite and mica,” Tylla said, and grinned. “Green doesn't suit Lady Alys at all, she does much better with other colours, and she'll never notice there's a little less.”
Her hair had been plaited into a kind of crown, which was normal, but now part of it hung down loose to frame and soften her face.
And, of course, the beautiful green silk dress. The stays and petticoat gave it a shape right out of a fantasy, and kept her posture erect and elegant.
In combination with the rest, her height was no longer ungainly; instead, it made her look larger than life and regal.
“I am never going to be able to act right to live up to this,” Vixen said in sudden despair. “This is impossible.”
“Nonsense,” Tylla said briskly. “I've seen you. You'll be fine. Keep your head up and your back straight...”
“As though I could do anything else.”
“Don't even try. If you're fighting against it, it will show. It isn't restrictive if you don't do anything that forces you into conflict with it, and a lady shouldn't find it restrictive at all. Shorter strides, and the most fashionable ladies typically keep gestures small and close to their bodies.”
“Don't fight it. I'll try. I only hope I don't spill soup down the front of myself or something.”
“I have complete faith in you, milady.” Tylla fetched a pair of green slippers with deeper green ribbons and laced them on for her. “And it's near enough time. I'll show you to the balcony.”
“Oh, yes, please.”
Tylla escorted her through the halls, carefully deferential outside of Vixen's own room. Vixen was too distracted by working out the changes in her own posture and the ways she could move, and trying to remember to shorten her strides somewhat, though that felt awkward and unnatural.
A set of solid double doors stood open, offering access to a pleasant sitting room; to either side was a door. Given the luxuriousness of the furnishings, Vixen guessed that the Lord's suite lay to one side, that of the Lady to the other, with this room to link them. Straight ahead, a second set of open double doors, these ones each with a sizable central panel of small murky glass diamonds, led to the balcony.
Tylla's eyes darted over Vixen in a last-minute check, and she gave her a reassuring smile. Properly, she curtsied. “Milady.”
The willowy maid walked, Vixen thought with a sigh while watching her leave, with a kind of unthinking grace and subtle sway she could only envy.
The balcony was as large as the dining room, with a stone railing bordering three sides. A circular table had been set up with two chairs and two place settings. On a second table lay a leather-and-wood case the length of her arm, and beside that was a tripod of metal-bound polished wood.
She made her way to the railing and rested her hands on it, looking out over the lush green of Hyalin, all spread out in long darkly-contrasting shadows with the sun so near the horizon. Gardens and lawns up close, pastures and cropland farther off. Hyalin's wealth, all that fertile land and enough water to keep it flourishing. All of it tamed and controlled, even the patches of woodland managed and harvested.
What had it looked like before humans came here, when this was shyani land? Parts of it would have been cultivated, enough to feed the nearest community, but much of it would have been left wild, a near-bottomless source of game and vegetable foods and medicines for a population kept carefully stable.
She spun around, and smiled. “Good evening, Jared.” Then, as he didn't move, his eyes wide and flickering up and down the length of her body, she frowned. “Is everything all right?”
“I don't very often find myself at a complete loss for words. You look...” He groped visibly for the right adjective. “'Exquisite' often implies delicacy and fragility, and you are not that. I keep coming back to old-fashioned 'beautiful'.”
“Oh. I... actually, I haven't the faintest idea what the properly courteous response to that is.”
Jared laughed and came closer. “Good. What's the point of a conversation when every reply comes from one of the leading books on etiquette? It becomes nothing but a scripted play that belongs on a stage. If you're ever tempted to re-read them, I'll hide or burn them. I'd far rather hear what you're actually thinking than what's polite.”
“In that case... I'm very glad you think so. And, in return... hm, 'elegant,' old-fashioned 'handsome'... but I think I have to go with 'charming'.”
That made him laugh again. He closed both hands around hers, but instead of leaving it at a chaste gentle squeeze or even a rather archaic kiss on her fingers, he leaned closer and kissed her cheek. The contact made Vixen's heart speed up, and her stays suddenly felt too tight. Before she could embarrass herself, though she wasn't sure how, he let go of one hand and stepped past her to look over the railing, her other hand still in his.
“Were you looking at anything in particular?”
“No, not really. My mind was wandering.”
“To anywhere interesting?”
She shook her head. “No. What did you do today?”
“Sorting out some legal disputes. Or at least looking over the complaints and responses as filed and any supporting evidence. The day after tomorrow is the monthly open court session. Anyone who has submitted the case in advance, so my people can do some investigation, is heard first and normally gets a verdict. Anyone else can be heard but since I might need information I don't have, they might have to wait on a ruling. I find it's easier to concentrate on it when I'm in my own office.”
“Doesn't that mean you've essentially decided on a verdict before you have the hearing?”
“To some degree. I will change it, if I have a reason to. But that is work, and not particularly interesting work. You, on the other hand, are not work, and you are extremely interesting. I hoped you'd like the dress, and I thought it might suit you, but I had no idea the rewards of generosity could be so great. If I could, I'd take you to the capital instead, and have the finest houses of fashion create a whole season's wardrobe for you, all in the latest styles. Or, perhaps, some of them in more classical styles, the sort of elegance that's never outdated. There wouldn't be a woman in the city who could outshine you.”
“Flattery, Jared? That's beneath you.” But the images it created set her heart a-flutter, and that made it hard to keep her tone light.
“Not flattery. Fantasy, I suppose, since you're so determined to leave.”
“I have responsibilities.” It sounded weak, even to her.
“Things no one else could do?”
“Well, no, there are other shamans, but...”
His hand tightened around hers. “Would you even consider the possibility of staying?”
All those wistful fantasies of her own surged up towards the surface, somewhere inside, a tide that made her feel vaguely light-headed. “I can't spend the rest of my life as your guest.”
“I'm sure we could think of something. There are several boys around with quite active minds, I'm contemplating sending one or two to the University. Maybe I could hire you to teach them and decide which would get the most benefit from it. I don't have the time, unfortunately, and University educations are rather thin in Hyalin. You seem to be very good at finding ways to keep yourself busy, otherwise. And we could have every evening for the rest of time to talk. Or whatever else takes our fancy.” He looked sideways as her breath caught. “Like look at planetary alignments.”
Had he really been implying things other than astronomy, or was that only her own wishful thinking? He certainly seemed highly appreciative, and she was sure she'd know if he were lying. She'd heard him with Alys...
I thought you weren't going to lie to yourself anymore.
She swallowed. “That's... rather a large decision to make. Lowland culture isn't very accepting of people like me.”
“Do you think I wouldn't, or couldn't, protect you?”
“You used to, you know. Even when neither of us knew.”
“I had an extremely vivid dream last night, a memory of being at the University. We were at the pub and discussing weyres and shapechanging. Every time one of the others said something insulting to me, you made them stop. When they wanted to dismiss my ideas out of hand, you listened, and because they wanted your approval, they had to listen.” She closed her eyes briefly; the dream, like all her dreams since coming to Hyalin, had been so realistic it made the memories feel far more recent. “Until then, no one ever cared what I thought. To everyone else, I never did anything right. I had no confidence in myself, no money or status, and a head full of ideas that no one ever wanted to hear. Then you decided that I wasn't even just useful or tolerable, I was interesting, and for you, interesting is about the highest compliment possible. No one dared anything more than an occasional nasty comment after that. Not where you could hear, anyway. And there were new ones, about what I was willing to do to keep your approval, and why you'd keep me around, but they'd never say those ones in your hearing. Those ones... they made me angry for your sake, and they scared me.”
“Why?” he asked softly.
“Because they didn't make me angry for my sake.” She'd never admitted that, even to herself before. Oh, don't cry, you cannot let yourself cry, you'll mess up all Tylla's work! “They made me feel frustrated and rather melancholy and ashamed, instead. I didn't know, or couldn't allow myself to know, why. I very nearly worshipped you, you know. I don't think you could ever have asked anything of me that I wouldn't have done happily. If you hadn't been there... I don't know. I might have done better at lying to myself, and stumbled through to my diploma, and I'd be out there somewhere right now, still miserable and hating myself and never daring to admit why. Or I might have reached that point of despair earlier, and I might have succeeded at dying. It wasn't your fault. I was actually happy when I was with you, and that was new and addictive and I couldn't get enough. But I knew that you didn't feel that way, and that I couldn't have everything I realized I wanted.”
Jared turned to face her, and his hand on her shoulder urged her to mirror it. When that hand moved upwards to cup her cheek, she felt her heartbeat speed up again, wanting to nuzzle into it like Anna into her own. “Which was?”
She smiled ruefully, shrugged, and said nothing.
Jared took one step closer, and kissed her. Not her hand, not her cheek, but full on her lips, which parted instinctively in surprise. She felt his other hand slide around her waist, though it was a different sensation through the stays than it would have been without it, keeping her close without any actual coercion behind it. What did it feel like for him, the tight compressed curves under his hand? But then, he'd be used to that, it wouldn't be new to him the way it was to her.
Just for a moment, she thought her heart might stop entirely. Oh, this can't be real, I'm actually dying out in the hills somewhere and I'm hallucinating.
Dreamily, she twined her arms around the back of his neck and allowed all those guilty fantasies to wash over mind and body, drowning blissfully in them.
Forever, or only a few fast heartbeats, before Jared raised his head and smiled, his eyes meeting hers. “I'm sorry so much has happened,” he said softly, “and I'm sorry I had no idea what was happening. But I'm very, very glad that you're happy now. And that you're here.”
Happy doesn't even begin to cover it.
“And just what would you have really done, if you'd known how I felt?” she pointed out, taking refuge in rationality. “I'm reasonably certain it wouldn't have involved a kiss.”
“Sadly true,” he sighed, then the smile came back. “But at least I know better now. One example of anything is insufficient evidence, though.”
So, he kissed her again.
Now collided with then, Corin who adored Jared and would have done anything for his approval and been grateful for the chance, Vixen who knew who and what she was and had left shame behind, and she returned it with all the fervour of both.
Jared was perceptibly out of breath when they finally broke that time.
“Is two a better sample?” she asked mischievously.
“Better,” he agreed. “But the larger the sample the better.”
Several long moments later, Vixen reluctantly drew back a step. “I've heard a servant come to the doors and very quietly leave at least twice now. While I'm sure they're as tactful and discreet as anyone could ask, it's possible dinner is ready and won't keep well.”
“It's only food,” he grumbled, but he conceded. One hand followed her arm down to hers, and with courtly gallantry, he escorted her to one of the chairs at the table.
“Most of your staff work hard at their jobs,” she pointed out. “This includes the ones preparing your meals. Acknowledgement costs you very little.”
“That's what you think.” He took the seat across from her.
She gave him a teasing smile. “And you need to keep your strength up.”
“Mm. There is that.”
As the first of the servants appeared, bearing wine, she groped for a conversational subject that would be more appropriate.
“You said there are several boys you're considering sending to the University? I believe I've met one, the son of the previous steward. Cole.”
“Mm, yes. He has some rather perplexing health issues. Which I suppose is how you've managed to encounter him?”
She laughed. “Yes. He should be fine now, as long as he's careful what he eats.”
“What he eats? Interesting. Balduin, I believe, tried anti-parasitics, fasting, purging, general tonics, and a variety of other approaches, without success.”
And it's Cole's good luck he wouldn't waste expensive quicksilver on the child of a servant. “I work in a very different way,” she said mildly. “I'm sure there would be things I'd be unable to diagnose or treat that he could.”
“Perhaps. It's a shame he's so antagonistic. Imagine combining the two approaches?” He chuckled. “Maybe we should send you back to the University to finish your diploma?”
“I'd have to start over. And given what we used to hear and my experience with Dean Hadley, I don't think I'd care to experience several years at the University as a woman. Especially not without my protector.”
“Shall we both go back, then? Rent ourselves a room on High Street, the day filled with classes and the evening to debate the nature of the universe and the night to ourselves?”
It was a rather appealing scenario, and once, it would have sounded to her like the resolution of all her dreams. The uncharacteristic wistfulness of his voice didn't belong, though, and that was enough to make her focus on reality.
“You really miss it badly,” she said gently. “Being at the University, being surrounded by people willing and able to hold their own in arguments about science and math and history and engineering, always looking for something new to learn that would give you more clues about the great mystery that is the world.”
He sighed. “Yes. I very much wish that either my parents had several more children ahead of me, or that my brother hadn't managed to get himself killed. In such a pointless way as boar-hunting, yet. I would prefer to be there, not here. I will do my best by Hyalin, and at moments I find it rather satisfying, But it isn't what I wanted or what I would choose.”
“Then do something about it.”
“Like what? Abdicate and let Mirain take over, while I run back to the University?”
“That is one possibility. Lyris would make a good Lady. She does come from a good family with lots of connections and status, and that unfortunate brood of daughters who need dowries that their moderate wealth can't meet. Hyalin doesn't really need a dowry in cash or land, her father's support would be even more valuable. And they love each other, and Mirain loves Hyalin, so they could be happy. But there are other things you could do.”
“Start a school here. It doesn't need to compete with the University. Make it a school for those too young to get into the University, so they can go there with the foundations they need in order to do well. Or a school specifically for women who want to find out what exists beyond the discussions of style and marriages and children and household management that are all they're ever supposed to be exposed to. I'm certain there are women out there who are as miserable in that role as I was in mine or as you are in this one. They don't all want to be trained into being pretty vapid dolls around men, but they're not given a choice.” Sanovas, born human, would have been in exactly the mirror of her own trap, forced into marriage and motherhood and hating it all, never even knowing his own wonderful loving self. “Or a school for the children of commoners, one they could get into without a highborn sponsor. One that focuses on practical subjects, math and engineering and concrete forms of science and more advanced literacy, not so much philosophy and rhetoric and astronomy and fencing. You'd need people around to teach, which gives you someone to talk to, and the students would become more interesting as they learn more. Some could go on to start teaching in turn.”
“If I can't go to the University, bring the University to me.”
“Exactly.” It had been either a long time, or only last night, since she'd seen that smile, the one that said he was intrigued by an idea and pleased with its source for offering it to him. “Let Mirain take over more of the routine responsibilities for you, so you have the time to spend on a major challenge to plan and construct and find the right people for. It would be a rather daunting project for most people, but for you?”
In complete defiance of etiquette, he rested his elbow on the table and his chin on his hand, eyes losing focus as his attention went inwards. “Any of those would have potential to be worthwhile, and also the potential to wreak havoc on Hyalin's standing. One offering preparation for University would be the safest, but also has the least likelihood of good company. One for women, hm, that's a new idea, since I assume you don't mean classes in dancing, flower-arrangement, embroidery, and elocution. But what would they be able to do with it? Most people won't hire women.”
“They'll hire women as governesses and companions and house musicians like Lyris,” Vixen pointed out. “Imagine how much more value a governess would have if she had the education to teach more than basic literacy and math. Imagine someone with Lyris' charm and courtesy, and her musical gifts, who also has the background to be involved in a conversation with her employer and his guests about the history of the songs she's singing or the mathematics of music, or for that matter, to hold her own when the conversation turns to other subjects. I suppose most ladies would actually prefer not to have a companion better-educated than they are. But how often are people reluctant to hire women on the grounds that few women have had a chance at the education to do the job in question, rather than simply because they're women? It creates a self-perpetuating cycle based on circular reasoning. If women had the chance to learn, the system might begin to change and allow them another possible path.”
“That's true. But how to convince highborn fathers and mothers that I'm not collecting them together because I have designs on their virtue?” He hardly seemed to notice when the servant set a bowl of soup in front of him, but he picked up his spoon automatically.
They spent the rest of dinner on animated discussion of possibilities for curricula, facilities, rules, people they remembered who might be suitable as staff.
This was much more the Jared Vixen remembered, so completely engaged in the subject at hand that extraneous things like the excellent dinner they were served barely registered in his awareness. Vixen made a point of giving the servants grateful smiles and thanking them quietly, which seemed to surprise them as much as it gratified them.
“The alignment should be soon,” he said suddenly, in the middle of speculation about the best location to build. Dinner was well past, with only fruit left to nibble on with the rest of the wine. He took a swallow of the latter and got up, offering her a hand. “Milady?”
She laid her hand in his and let him help her to her feet. Maybe she was adjusting to the new stays. Following Karela's advice, she'd eaten only lightly and slowly, not filling her stomach, and wasn't drinking a great deal of wine. After what must by now be several hours, they felt less restrictive, more supportive, more like the relatively pliable cord-stiffened ones. She could, she thought, get used to wearing this regularly, for a good reason. And if she could adjust to these stays, how bad could even the more fashionable, more rigid ones really be?
“A telescope must have cost you an enormous amount,” she said, as Jared urged her over to the long rectangular case and the tripod.
“It was expensive,” he admitted. “But it was worth it. And if I'm going to put the amount of work into Hyalin I do, I'm going to take advantage of the rewards. Like being able to indulge myself with scientific equipment.” He smiled at her, his eyes sliding down her body an inch at a time so obviously that it was almost a caress. “And give gifts to people who matter to me.”
“And was this a gift for me or for you?” she retorted.
He laughed. “Both, I think.”
Deftly, he opened the case and took out the brass and bronze and steel tube that lay cradled in soft thick felt padding. It fit neatly onto the tripod, screwing securely into place.
“And that simply,” Jared said, “the universe comes much closer. The moon, for example.” He adjusted the angle of the telescope, head bowed over the tube, and after a moment stepped back, gesturing invitingly.
Vixen came closer and bent down to look.
“Oh my. Drawings and descriptions don't do it justice. It looks so... solid. Like we should be able to climb up to it and walk around.”
“Wouldn't that be wonderful? With those mountains, there must be rocks lying around one could pick up and study and compare with ours. It doesn't look green, but is that because it's dead or because plants there aren't green?”
“Or maybe some atmospheric effect that washes out the colour?”
“Or that. I hadn't thought of that one. The alignment is higher and more to the south.” He wrapped an arm around her waist, keeping her near, while he adjusted the position and angle of the telescope. “Ah, there they are. See?”
The planets were currently of much less interest than Jared's arm and the proximity of Jared's body and the warmth and scent and sheer presence of him. She forced her mind back to astronomy only with some difficulty. Two of the planets were visible with the naked eye, though one barely; through the telescope, the third came into view.
“It's an almost perfect equilateral triangle,” she said in delight, trying not to be disappointed when he let his arm fall. After all, he was still close to her. “So close they're almost touching.”
“It was perfect just a few nights before you came here,” he said regretfully. “And, sadly, I didn't think of it again until late last night, that you might like to see.”
“Oh, stop apologizing. A little late and nearly perfect is close enough, and much better than not at all.”
“True not only for stars, I hope.”
She looked sideways at him, and smiled. “True for most things, I think.” She straightened, one hand on her flattened belly. “I am certainly not dressed for leaning over for any length of time. Beautiful as they are, these clothes are not very well suited to much beyond sitting still, looking nice, and talking.”
“For the moment, there's little else to do,” he pointed out. “And while intelligent conversation is wonderful, intelligent conversation with a beautiful woman leaves it very far behind.”
He kissed her again, deeply, one arm around her waist and the other around her shoulders.
Logic, which had been increasingly writhing in her grasp, finally wriggled free entirely and fled.
She did hold onto enough thought to murmur, close to his ear, “I'm not... entirely... a woman. There are limits.”
At least Jared's private rooms were close.
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