I could get used to afternoons like this, Vixen thought contentedly, spinning another story for Karela and Perla, Lyris and Tylla, who all listened with considerable interest. Of course, they'd never heard shyani stories before, and there were an abundance of those that she could tell even without getting into dangerous ground. I'm sure I could even learn to sew, or at least something that's useful here. Dicing up food to stew and sifting through gathered herbs for anything blighted or foreign really aren't so useful here. I don't have my needle and shuttle and spacers for tying net even if that would be any use. I didn't bring my discs and frames for any of the shyani complex braids, and the wool carding and spinning Aerfen so patiently taught me aren't normal activities at this level.

It's lucky for me I'm good at healing and storytelling and spirit-walking, because my practical skills, as a woman or a man, in either culture, are abysmally poor.

It felt wonderful and natural at once, being right here. In combination with the idea of teaching Cole and others, perhaps keeping an eye out for girls who were equally bright but being overlooked, and Jared... it all added up to a tempting new path open before her.

All looked up, startled, as the door opened without warning.

“Would you excuse milady Vixen and I for a moment, please?” Alys said, absolutely expressionless, but Vixen saw her knuckles show white where they twisted the fine fabric of her deep yellow-orange skirt.

Lyris' eyes went to Vixen, a worried crease appearing between her brows.

“I'd have been happy to come to you anywhere you like,” Vixen said, forcing her tone to stay light and casual. “Is there somewhere that won't interrupt everyone else?”

“The other room's a mess, miladies,” Karela said uneasily, “since that's where I store and cut and such, but you're welcome to that if you like.”

“This shouldn't take long,” Alys said, crossing the room with quick steps.

Vixen rose and followed her.

Alys closed the door tightly and leaned against it.

“You're shaking,” Vixen said, worry for her taking precedence over worry about what this was. “What...?”

“You and I,” Alys said grimly, “need to have a very serious talk about exactly what you're doing, because I'm coming to conclusions that I find rather unsettling.”

“I... all right.” Karela was right about the room being somewhat chaotic, but Vixen found a high stool and perched on it, doing her best to keep her body language relaxed and non-threatening. “Alys, I'm not your enemy. Whatever it is...”

She saw Alys' knuckles go white again, as the other woman took a deep breath.

“Are you Corin Laures?”

Vixen, ready to answer and reassure as much as possible, opened her mouth to reply, but as the meaning of that sank in, she couldn't formulate anything beyond, “What?”

“There has never,” Alys said, her voice trembling just a little, “been a highborn woman Jared has not spoken of with scorn for being what we're forced to be, with our entire value in our appeal to the husband best for our houses, not ourselves. I went back through my journals and the letters I exchange with my... with the women who were my friends, from over a decade ago up until just after Evert's death, and there is no mention anywhere of a highborn woman of any age simply disappearing. Given your age, and the city social seasons, someone would have noticed even if a house tried to keep it quiet, and I would have heard. No woman of even remotely the right age was announced to have died, other than two that you certainly are not. The only unexplained disappearance, as opposed to a clear death, of anyone even possibly the correct age is Corin Laures, from the University while Jared was there. Which upset Jared quite a lot at the time. Jared behaves as if he knows you extremely well, and given looking at the stars from his balcony and how much time you spend in his library, I think you share his interests. He values you enough to be extraordinarily generous even for him, and beyond that, he seems to have stopped considering any possibility at all of scandal. That doesn't make sense, given that Jared thinks highborn women are deliberately stupid, but it makes perfect sense for a friend from the University. I have absolutely no idea why you'd show up here in skirts and claiming to be a woman...”

“I am a woman,” Vixen said quietly. This particular highborn woman was certainly not stupid: she'd just turned an impressive chain of evidence into a conclusion that was not only improbable but correct. That anyone could put pieces together that way had never occurred to her. It would have been better to let everyone think her an unusually educated commoner.

“Certainly enough so to convince even Karela and Tylla and Lyris. I don't know. I don't particularly care about the details. I'm inclined to think that you genuinely care about Jared, and this isn't some insane bit of theatre meant to gain you Hyalin's wealth. Despite what you may think of me, and no matter how angry he makes me sometimes, I love Jared deeply and I like to see him happy. I'm very sorry that he's going to have to marry someone he will probably never even try to really see for herself because he'll be so certain already that she has nothing to offer him except a womb and a family connection. I feel even more sorry for her, and when that day comes, I will do everything in my power to make a bad situation more bearable for her. But you... you're a threat to my family, and I have no idea what to do about you. I don't even know what you are or how you can possibly be who I'm sure you have to be, so how do I find a way to protect my family from you?” She wound down, all the words had had probably been struggling for release running dry.

There was a lot in that to address; where to even begin? With the concrete, she decided.

“I used to be Corin Laures,” she said. After years never even thinking that name, now she'd actually spoken it twice only days apart. “But Corin is dead, in every possible meaningful sense, and there is absolutely no chance he will ever be alive again. Corin felt useful to and valued by no one except Jared. I now have an important job to do and a community that accepts me as I am and a family that loves me, but Jared once mattered more than anything and still does a great deal. I came here to save him, not to destroy Hyalin.”

“But you're going to anyway,” Alys said wearily. “Affairs happen. Everyone expects men to take lovers. Women do it too, but being caught or conceiving a child will ruin a reputation and usually a life, so we're discreet and careful. Discretion, as near as I can tell, does not come naturally to men in regards to affairs. Neither of you seems to even know the meaning of the word. There is more at stake than your great romance.”

“What am I missing?”

Alys sighed. “And you're highborn, and Jared knows all this.” Slowly and carefully, as though speaking to a child, she explained. “Everyone expected Evert to inherit the title, although not for some years yet since my uncle was, to all appearances, in excellent health. No one in power paid much attention to Jared as anything but the younger son with a tendency to talk about things that most people don't understand or care about. Most of the other houses are extremely ambivalent about the abrupt change. Jared really isn't making it any better with his rapid changes and new ideas about the best way to manage Hyalin lands. The old way might not have been optimized for production,” Vixen could all but hear Jared's voice on that phrase, “but it was comfortable and understood. No one is quite certain yet whether he's a genius or about to ruin the Domain. This is not encouraging other houses to want to form ties to us, of any sort, including trade. There are only three Hyalins left, and only Jared is in the direct male line. We desperately need for him to find a wife who can give him children which will be his beyond any reasonable doubt, and whose family can and will offer some support and reassurance to the other houses. What house is likely to send a daughter of good reputation to be the wife of a man who openly keeps a mistress in his house? A passing fling might be excusable, but Jared wants you to stay, even though you say you're only here a short time. There is no one who could possibly see you together who could ever believe he would put you aside when he marries. If Jared doesn't marry well, or if there is the slightest question about the parentage of his children, then Hyalin will be generations recovering—assuming that Mirain or even I have legitimate children who can inherit, but how much less likely is it for any house to let their children marry into the junior branch of a family with a scandal attached?”

“Lyris,” Vixen said, though her mind was racing on other tracks.

“Well, yes. Her family seems well-disposed towards us, probably because Lyris is treated well here, much better than the experience one of her sisters had. I'd suggest that Jared make an offer for any of them, but that would remove any hope of his allowing Lyris and Mirain to marry, and I'm hoping we can find an alternative.”

You aren't entirely fixated on the good of Hyalin, then. You want your brother and your friend happy together, even if that wish creates something of a conflict.

“How bad will it be for Hyalin if Jared dies?” Vixen asked.

Alys' forehead furrowed. “The old Lord and both sons dead in less than a decade? The superstitious would probably claim a shyani curse. Even the more rational would find a run of luck like that hard to ignore.”

Vixen rolled her eyes. “Yes, because shyani actually care about human politics so deeply they spend time and energy to cast curses. I'm here to make sure Jared stays alive. He managed to get ahold of a stolen shyani grimoire, a book of hidden knowledge. A small extremist group of shyani and weyres want it back, and they will try to kill him.”

Alys paled.

Vixen held up her tattooed palms. “I may be human, but I'm a shaman. Dayr and I can keep him safe, as long as no one else gets in the way or gets involved in this. Shyani culture gives shamans a high level of respect, and weyres don't like to fight other weyres. That's why we're here. I couldn't just let him die. I... really wasn't expecting anything else that has happened. And I mean that: anything. I expect them to arrive very soon, no more than a few days.”

“And then what?”

“I don't know,” Vixen said softly. “I don't expect it to be an ongoing threat. Once they have the grimoire back, it should be over. I promised that I'd be home as soon as possible. My community is doing without a shaman for over a month, because of this trip, even if we were to leave tomorrow morning. They agreed that it's important and that I needed to come. I don't want to abandon them. But even if I hated myself as Corin, I am human and I did grow up in highborn society. Jared suggested that I stay to teach some of the young people on the estate. I seem to keep finding ways my healing skills are useful, and maybe I could try to correct some of the misunderstandings humans have about shyani and weyres. It's very tempting.”

Alys closed her eyes briefly, and wrapped her arms around herself. “Without you, Jared dies. So how can I be anything but grateful you're here, no matter what disorder has reigned since you rang the bell? And I can't blame you for wanting what everyone wants, to feel included and valued. I can't even blame you for being in love with my cousin, although I think I can pity you for it, and I suppose no one ever thinks very clearly when they're in love.” She opened her eyes and met Vixen's squarely; Vixen saw one tear slide down her cheek, saw her swallow hard. “If it's a few days, well, men do that. If it's longer, I don't know what's going to happen to all of us. I suppose the damage is already done. Upper house staff are careful about gossip, if they want to keep their positions, but the balcony is not terribly private. Either way, for Hyalin's sake, could you try to be a little more modest and decorous, and a little less conspicuous?”

“I will do my best,” Vixen said. “And I'll talk to Jared about it. I'm very sorry about the balcony. If there's a way to blame it on me, well, I have no reputation to preserve.”

“But if you're here, you do, as part of the household if not personally.” Alys took a deep breath, and uncrossed her arms. “Maybe Jared will listen better to you than he does to me. He is completely infatuated with you and will not hear anything else.”

“Oh, he'll listen to me.”

“Then you are the only woman in the world since his mother died who can say that.” Alys moved so she could open the door, and left.

Vixen sat still for a long moment, lost in thought.

Lyris tapped on the open door. “Vixen? Are you all right?”

“Hm? Oh, yes.” She got up and came back to the outer room, Lyris stepping aside to let her pass. “I'm fine. I just need to think. I think it might be a good idea for you to go after Alys. She could probably use a friend right now. Excuse me.”

She found her way back to the Lord and Lady's suites, and as she'd hoped, the doors to the sitting room between were open. Those to the balcony weren't, but she left them open behind her. The table and chairs remained, and a few other seats to which she'd paid little attention last night, though the telescope and tripod were of course back indoors for safety. She settled herself on a bench that allowed her to gaze out over the verdant landscape, though she saw little of it.

“Vixen? What... this is a pleasant surprise.”

She looked up and smiled. “Finished for the day?”

“Yes, I came back to change for dinner.” Jared offered a hand; she rose and came to him, but sidestepped his attempt to slide an arm around her waist, and drew him back inside. There, before he could feel like she was rejecting him, she moved closer and kissed him herself, savouring it.

“A part of me,” she murmured, loving the feel of his arm around her, of his other hand stroking and exploring her shape through her clothes, “wants to stay in bed with you always, and whenever you have to leave, to just wait there for you so I can welcome you back, like a dog waiting for her master.”

He chuckled and nuzzled her throat. “Shall I get you a gold collar with my name engraved on it? I think it would be difficult to ever get up, but coming back might make it worth it.”

As a fantasy, it had its appeal, something to toy with later. “In a perfect world. But in this one, we need to be more circumspect.”

“In my own house?” He raised his head to look at her. “I'll do as I please here.”

“No, you'll do what's best for Hyalin. And that means not jeopardizing your prospects for a good marriage.”

No reaction for a couple of heartbeats; then his lips thinned and his brows drew downwards. “Alys,” he said flatly. “I warned her...”

“Leave her alone. Don't you dare punish her for being concerned about Hyalin's future. She's intelligent and perceptive and she deserves to be listened to, not ignored just because she's a woman. And she's right.” She kissed him again, hoping to allay some of the anger. “I didn't say I want to change anything in private, and that's the most important part. Alone, I'm yours. But we need to not give everyone on the Hyalin estates something to gossip about. That's all.”

“I want as much of you as I can get while you're here,” he said, and the arms tightening around her underscored the point. “I'm already not happy with myself for taking days to see what was in front of me.”

“I haven't decided yet about staying. I... it's tempting. But it would be even more important to be more discreet. Shaming your wife by paying more attention to a lover right in front of her isn't right.”

“Even if she's what Hyalin needs but you're what I need?”

“Especially then.” Has he always been this obstinate when someone thwarts him in what he wants? “I'm not suggesting that you pretend not to know me or that we use full formal Court protocol. Just... think of it as a game, hm? While we're being good where anyone else can see, you can be fantasizing about being bad in private.” She nipped his ear gently. “And imagining all the fun of getting me out of my clothes, one layer at a time, as soon as we're alone. Or even finding a few minutes during the day when you aren't needed, but there's no time for either of us to get undressed. Like sweets after spicy food, so the contrast makes both stronger.”

“Because you're asking,” he said finally. “And not because I think it's necessary. But there's one condition.”

She gave him her best flirtatious smile, relieved. She liked that mischievous gleam in his eyes much better than she liked that stubborn expression and the tension that came with it. “Name it and its yours.”

“I get to try out that idea about only having a few minutes right now.” He let one arm fall, but kept the other around her to pull her towards his bedroom.

Well, he did agree, and it will improve his mood before dinner. And we're already here, and no one is likely to come looking for him now, so what harm can it do? And it does sound fun...

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