Still not entirely awake, Vixen stretched languorously and burrowed deeper into the bedding. Clean though it was, she could smell Jared on it, and it roused only pleasant feelings deep inside.
Something had woken her, though...
Motion nearby, in fact.
And she was entirely naked, without even her underpants or her shift—to whatever extent the lightweight shift she'd worn under the silk was any protection.
“Good morning, milady.” She knew that voice, soft and... affectionate, maybe? The beginnings of apprehension dissolved instantly.
“Tylla? What are you doing in Jared's rooms?”
“His Grace forbade anyone else to come in this room, but he asked me to be here for you when you woke up.”
“At least he's more thoughtful of my modesty than he was of Edwena's.”
“Nothing, just a dream. And being deeply relieved. I think it finally crossed my mind around the time Jared got up that I couldn't possibly get back into my clothes by myself, which is rather an absurd situation. I didn't make you wait too long, did I? How late is it?”
“Well past breakfast. I brought sewing to do, along with clothes and the like for you.”
“I suppose I should get up.” She stretched again and sat up, the blankets sliding away from her, though reflexively she kept a corner across her lap. There was something else she should ask... oh, right. “Are you horribly scandalized and pretending otherwise?”
“It wouldn't be my place to have an opinion,” Tylla said, calmly continuing to add small neat stitches to whatever she was working on. “If it were, then I'd say no, not in the least. His Grace has been more relaxed and in a brighter mood the past few days, and it's more noticeable than ever this morning. I think you're good for him. And I think you aren't entirely awake yet. Would you like help getting cleaned up, or would you prefer to do it alone, or simply get dressed?”
“I suppose I should get cleaned up.” Vixen yawned. “I think I can do it. I'll be right back.”
Today's dress was a pale greenish-blue brocade with a dull textured pattern of fish; it amused Vixen deeply for some reason, and made her think of wearing clothing woven out of water. Even the lighter stays felt less restrictive, after hours wearing the more rigid ones. Tylla suggested that the petticoat would give the dress a more modern outline, and Vixen felt much too content to care about the practicality or otherwise of it.
Besides, Jared would be at lunch, she was sure, and she wanted to look good for him.
“If you were a cat, I think you'd be purring, milady,” Tylla observed, deftly starting on her hair.
“You'd be right. Speaking of cats... Anna?”
“I brought her dinner last night and breakfast this morning, and made certain she had water. I think milord Dayr might have visited her.”
“Oh, good. Did I tell you that Lyris is going to take her? Anna seems to quite like her.”
“I think that will be a perfect match. She was quite distressed and asked me more than once how she was recovering.”
“It might be a good idea to move Anna over sooner rather than later. Dayr can explain it to her, to some degree. I imagine I can still visit Anna to check on her healing.”
“I'm sure milady Lyris would be quite accommodating.”
“Speaking of Dayr, no complaints from him about being unable to find me?”
“Not a word. If you like, I can do your face the way it was last night, or something much simpler—just darken your eyes and colour your lips a trifle, maybe.”
Vixen started to decline, then paused. Lunch. Jared. “I... it feels rather vain, but at least the simpler version sounds rather tempting.”
“You'd have a long way to go before anyone could accuse you of vanity.”
Once again, her reflection in the mirror pleased her—something about it simply felt right, as though she were looking at herself in a reality where things had gone the way they should and she'd been born a woman. Not that Jared would have had any use for one of a trio of Laures sisters, even if that self shared her inclination towards curiosity... or perhaps, he could, as a mistress, after all. She twisted back and forth in place, smiling at the heavy swing of her skirt with the petticoat beneath.
“Lovely,” Tylla said in satisfaction.
“Thank you. I'd be lost without you.”
Vixen glanced at the clock on the mantle. “Lunch soon, but I have enough time to look in on Anna. I imagine Dayr's outside somewhere and I won't see him until lunch.”
“I'll clean up and let His Grace's man know he can come in.”
“Oh dear. I suppose the entire house knows where I was overnight.”
Tylla paused delicately in beginning to gather up Vixen's clothing from the previous evening. “Milady... the balcony is not the most private of places. Otherwise, it would be only a very few upper house staff.”
Vixen blushed. “Not terribly ladylike. Clearly you and Karela can do a wonderful job of making me look like a lady, but acting like one...” Couldn't she ever manage to do the right thing?
“Passion against propriety is a very old battle. I think very few will think any less of you. Especially the upper house staff who see His Grace the most often.”
“Well, that's something, at least.”
She wove her way through the maze of halls to her own room.
Another presence made her start, until she identified Dayr sprawled on the floor, in his feline form, making soft chuffing noises and purring quietly; since he was oriented to see under the bed, Vixen guessed that Anna was currently hiding there.
“Good morning,” she greeted him. “How's Anna?”
He changed back to human without moving beyond raising his head to look at her. “Well enough. Her hip doesn't hurt, and she's happy not to be hungry or outside. Still nervous about people, though.” He grinned at her. “You smell interesting.”
Vixen rolled her eyes. It was unlikely that a human sense of smell would detect anything, but a puma's was much more acute. “Yes, I'm sure I do.”
“And you look happy. But what are you wearing?”
“You've seen cosmetics before, silly cat. Shyani use them on any number of special occasions.”
“This isn't a special occasion. And how can you move wearing all that?”
“It isn't as bad as it looks.”
He rocked back onto his knees and then up to his feet, entirely naked with the utter lack of concern or self-consciousness Vixen associated strongly with weyres, though shyani culture in general tended to be casual about exposed skin. “If you say so, but I can't imagine trying to sit astride a horse in that, or do anything practical outside at all.”
“Ladies aren't expected to. We're in the lowlands...”
“... and you're pretending to be a lady for camouflage. There's not much point to trying to hide once the prey sees you and takes off running. They know you're from the hills, they know I'm a weyre, so why are you trying?”
“I'm trying to keep the disruption minimal, for whatever that attempt is actually worth by now.”
“Nothing?” He shrugged, heaved a sigh, and looked around for his clothes. “Whatever.”
That is why I'm going along with the clothes and everything related, isn't it? To avoid, as much as I can, shocking and offending people?
Yes, of course that's why. What other reason could there be?
“Are you coming to lunch?”
“Yes. I'm hungry. But I wanted to talk to Anna.”
“Do you approve of her going to live with Lyris?”
“She's nice. If Anna likes her, that would be a good place for her. Why?”
“I think it might be a good idea to arrange it very soon. So we know she's all settled before we leave.”
If I leave, that is. I could stay and be with Jared and help with a new school, maybe help a few people trapped in one role or another, and try to teach people that shyani and weyres aren't evil...
She didn't dare bring that up to Dayr right now.
Dayr shrugged again, already into underpants and trousers and shirt. Men's clothes are so much simpler in so many ways. I really had no appreciation before. “All right. That'll be better for her than back outside.”
Together, they went down to the dining room, and found it empty.
Not for long: Lyris soon joined them, unfailingly courteous, and her compliment on Vixen's appearance could have meant anything or nothing. Mirain and Jared arrived not long after. Whatever they were discussing, it was abandoned immediately. Vixen saw Mirain trade smiles with Lyris, but it was Dayr he came towards.
What mattered, though, was the way Jared was looking at her, the appreciation in his eyes and the smile that spoke volumes.
He caught both her hands in his and kissed her cheek. “How do you keep getting more beautiful? Did you sleep well? No one woke you?”
“Yes I did, and no they didn't. And thank you for sending Tylla.” And, at his faintly questioning look, “My maid.”
“You're very welcome. I hoped you'd be up in time to join us for lunch. I have something for you.”
“Jared, you have to stop giving me gifts before I own everything but the Hyalin title.”
“Humour me.” From the pouch slung at his belt, he produced a poppy-red drawstring bag.
Vixen accepted it, surprised by the weight of it. She untied it, and teased it open into a flat circle on her palm.
Coiled inside was a web of silver links connecting small gold settings for onyx in both white and black. She lifted it carefully with her other hand, and discovered that it was a necklace, and that the onyx formed an abstract symmetrical pattern on the triangular web.
“That's beautiful! But I can't...”
“It isn't estate jewellery, I promise. Please.” He took it and unfastened the chain. “Turn around?” When she obliged, he fastened it in place for her, and when she turned back to him, he straightened it, smiling again. “That suits you.”
“Thank you.” In defiance of propriety, she gave him a quick kiss. “But I'm not here so you can keep giving me pretty things.”
“Why does that mean I can't, hm?” He glanced behind him as the first servant appeared with a tray. “Shall we, milady?”
She let him escort her to the table, to the seat beside his; Dayr, of course, slid into the one on her other side before anyone else could even consider it, but then, there was only Lyris and Mirain and they wouldn't have anyway. Lyris' eyes rested briefly on the necklace, and she shared a quick smile with Vixen, as she let Mirain show her to the seat at Jared's other side.
Not much surprise that she's heard. Which means Mirain knows. And I suppose it won't help Alys' opinion of me.
She didn't care, not with Jared looking at her like that.
Lunch was certainly more casual and congenial, with only the five of them. She was going to have to do something about the situation with Alys, though. Balduin being excused from meals was one thing—he was probably at least minor highborn, but he wasn't family. Alys feeling so unwelcome at her own table that she was absent a third day in a row, however, was intolerable.
“Unless you'd like to do something else,” Lyris said to Vixen, as they left the table, “I planned to spend the afternoon with Karela. You're welcome to join us, of course.” She smiled. “Since Jared has work to do.”
“Sadly true,” Jared said. He contented himself with clasping her hand tightly. “I'm sure Lyris will take good care of you until later. Although that feels like a very long time.” He inclined his head courteously to Dayr, who was already talking to Mirain but returned it gravely, and left.
“Yes, that would be lovely,” Vixen said to Lyris, gathering her scattered thoughts. “I've been thinking that it might be best to move Anna soon. There isn't much more I can do for her, unless she injures herself again.”
“We can do that any time you like. Now, even, to give her the afternoon to explore in peace before I join her after dinner.”
“That sounds like an excellent plan. Dayr?” She raised her voice. “Before you wander off, can we have you long enough for you to explain to Anna about being moved?”
Dayr nodded, and glanced at Mirain. “Meet you by the archery range afterwards?”
Archery range? Since when was a weyre interested in archery? But Mirain echoed the nod. “Good luck.”
The relocation, with Tylla's efficient assistance, went about as smoothly as Vixen could have asked. Anna promptly went to ground under Lyris' bed, but Dayr said confidently that she understood and would adjust quickly.
They left her to settle in, and Dayr went one way, the three women in another.
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