“Wake, daughter! Quickly!”
The words snapped Vixen from dreams to heart-thumping consciousness with painful abruptness. She lay still, trying to clear her mind. What had roused her? Jared lay beside her in her own bed, his breathing slow and deep, a warm arm over her possessively.
A touch, but not on her body. A touch on other senses...
The warning ring around the house.
She scrambled out of bed, grabbing a blanket to wrap around herself like a cloak as an afterthought, and bolted for the door. In the hall, she fumbled with the handle of Dayr's until she got it open. “Dayr! Tarika!”
Catlike, he woke instantly. “Coming.”
She ran back to her own room, found Jared awake but confused.
“Stay here,” she ordered, cutting off the beginning of a question. “I mean it. Don't leave this room until I get back. I don't have time to argue.” She snatched her walnut-dyed leather trousers from the shelf in the wardrobe and pulled them on hastily. The fringes of her buttercup-yellow tunic tangled as she wriggled into it, and she combed through them distractedly with the fingers of one hand while she darted to the vanity to fetch her wide bead necklace. A shaman deserving of respect should look the part. Her bare feet, her unbound and dishevelled hair, they would take too long to do anything useful about, but at least she was dressed, and in unmistakably shyani style.
The most important of all, anyway, were the tattoos on her palms, and Dayr's confirmation, and that the grimoire was surrendered without challenge.
Just in case, she scooped up the black wool bag that held her bone egg and her runestones and her other tools, and slung the longer cord across her chest so the bag hung at her hip, a comforting weight.
She met Dayr, in furform, in the hall; something the right size and shape for the grimoire was wrapped in leather and tied, and he was holding it by the strap. He looked up at her expectantly.
She led him in the direction of the twanging against her inner senses—down towards the kitchen garden, in fact.
Two great grey wolves were sniffing around the area; two shyani waited with a third person, a black-haired woman who was half a head taller and significantly broader than either. Vixen hadn't met a bear before, but she'd heard about them, and figured the woman must be one.
“You may not enter this house,” she said, forcing her voice to stay steady and confident.
“And you believe we'll listen to a human?” the shyani woman said mockingly. “Do you think dressing like a shyani will make us believe that you're one of us?”
She raised both hands, palm-out. “You will listen to a shaman.”
“Those can't be real,” the bear said uncertainly. “Can they?”
Dayr set the grimoire down at Vixen's side and changed, still crouched over the bundle. “They're real. I was with her the whole time. Vixen is the daughter and student of Sanovas of Copper Springs. She earned those tattoos, and is now the shaman of Willow River. Human or not, she is a shaman.”
One of the wolves snarled and turned on them, teeth bared threateningly. Dayr growled in response, a low warning sound.
“Stop,” the shyani man said quietly. “Whatever tradition was violated in training a human as a shaman, it would be a still greater wrong against everything sacred to attack a shaman. I suppose there's no need to ask why a human would protect another, no matter what he's done.”
“He didn't know what he was doing,” Vixen said. “He's hungry to understand the world and how it has come to be the way it is. He bought something interesting from a trader without knowing the trader had no right to it. Once I told him, he gave it to me without hesitation.”
Dayr unwrapped the leather bundle and held out the grimoire. “Here. Take it.”
The bear looked askance at the two shyani, then came nearer to close a large hand around it.
“That is something,” the shyani man conceded grudgingly. “But the fact remains that he trespassed on shyani matters that humans have no right to, and he must pay for that.”
“No one else in this house,” Vixen said, “even knew what he had, nor could they have done anything about it. If you punish only humans who have trespassed, then there is only one man in this house who is in danger from you. Correct?”
“That is correct, shaman.”
“She's a human,” growled the wolf, now human-form. “She doesn't deserve the title.”
“If she bears shaman tattoos,” the shyani man said, “and they are real, then every tradition of the shyani for countless generations says that she does deserve it, even if she is human. And she has silver in her ears, as well. Accusing a weyre of lying about something so enormous needs some very strong evidence.”
“Vixen has been Willow River's healer, working with the witch Irisan, for well over a year,” Dayr said, an answering growl still in his own voice. “All of Willow River acknowledges her and treasures her. You go ask them if they love and honour their shaman. All of Copper Springs acknowledges her, including Sanovas and the Copper Springs witch Nuriel. The wolves there, Ellai and Chira, have trusted her to look after their cubs. If you have a problem, go ask them.”
“Are we done establishing my legitimacy?” Vixen said acidly. “Only one man has trespassed, and it was unintentional. I will not allow you to do him any harm. You will kill him only if you kill me first.”
“And you will touch Vixen only when I'm dead,” Dayr said.
“He couldn't read it and has no idea what's actually in it. How could he violate shyani secrets if the text is in characters and a language he doesn't know? I know human culture better than any shyani, and I am extremely aware of how bad it could be for shyani knowledge to fall into human hands, for shyani and weyres and humans alike. The two cultures are too different. As a shaman, part of my responsibility is the safety of my people.”
“And who, exactly, are your people, shaman?” asked the shyani man.
That's a very good question. “Copper Springs saved my life and then gave me a reason to live and a loving and beloved family. Willow River is my home and my community and I love them very much too. The puma beside me is my best and truest friend. How could I do anything that would bring them harm? I was taught to honour all life, so how could I stand by and allow a misunderstanding to occur that would have a negative effect on a very large number of innocent humans—which would then increase the human fear and hatred of shyani and weyres...”
“Good,” the wolf muttered.
“Not good. Humans probably outnumber shyani and weyres. At the very least, they are more rigidly organized. If they are goaded into it, they could make things very difficult for the hills. Many more shyani and weyres would die. Perhaps the wolves or the bears or the pumas would follow the jaguars and otters into precarious existence. I know you want an all-out war, once and for all. But most in the hills do not. They want to go on with their lives in peace. The law in the hills is that everyone is free to make their own choices, so what right do you have to try to force a war they do not want? What right do you have to put the hills nearest the lowlands at risk of retaliation? If you will put shyani and weyre children in danger over your offended pride, when no harm has truly been done and matters have now been set right, then how are you different from the humans you despise so much?”
Where did all that come from? She wished her gratitude to Red Fox, certain that she'd had help. She'd been playing this encounter through in her mind for days, but hadn't thought of some of that before now.
The two shyani looked at each other.
The man heaved a sigh, but inclined his head. “You make very good points, shaman, though I'm not inclined to agree with all of them.”
“We will not fight our own,” the shyani woman said reluctantly. “Nor will we violate our own traditions by attacking a shaman, even a human one. You've intruded into shyani privacy far more deeply than he has, and you should have died for it, but much of the responsibility lies on the shaman who chose to teach you. And shamans often do things that to the rest of us have no apparent purpose or logic, but we honour and respect them for a reason.”
“You have his life,” the man said. “This time, and with misgivings. We will be watching. As long as he makes no further attempts to invade our privacy, we will take no action against him. We will not be turned aside a second time.”
“There will not be a second time,” Vixen said. “Thank you.”
“And we leave them here?” the wolf said in outrage. “What about her and how much she's probably telling them? She's an even worse danger!”
Dayr hissed and changed back to feline, placing himself crosswise in front of Vixen, tail lashing and ears back.
“There, we need to trust to the judgement of Copper Springs' shaman,” the shyani man said. “I don't like it either. Had we known some years ago, we might have been able to do something. But we cannot assault a shaman, and we have little choice save to accept her as such.”
“Do you think we don't know about humans?” the shyani woman said mockingly. “That men dressing as women is considered deep shame? Is that your only reason for wanting to live in the hills, that we're more sensible about that?”
Dayr's hiss was louder that time, and he arched his back, ears flattening entirely. Even the shyani's own companions stared at her, aghast.
“No,” Vixen said quietly. “It was the reason I wanted to die, but only one part of the reason I now have to live.”
“That was inappropriate and beneath you,” the shyani man told his companion icily. “There is nothing more to be done here. For the time being, his life is yours, shaman.”
“Thank you,” Vixen said. What else could she say? They'd reject any blessing she offered.
She and Dayr stayed where they were, watching warily, as the tarika walked away into the night. Slowly, Dayr allowed himself to relax from his defensive crouch and changed back to human; Vixen held herself under iron control until she was certain they'd truly left.
“It's over,” she whispered, almost afraid to say it. “They listened.”
“Sort of listened,” Dayr amended. “What matters is, he's safe from them as long as he isn't stupid anymore. And that means we can go home, right?”
Who are your people, shaman?
Where lies your loyalty, fox-daughter? Where lies your heart?
“As soon as I'm sure Jared understands how close he just came to a nasty death, and how close he'll always be now, yes. Then we'll go home.”
Dayr heaved a martyred sigh. “So, never, then.”
“A couple of days, Dayr. Don't be so dramatic.”
He just rolled his eyes, went back to feline, and trotted over to the door, waiting for her to open it so they could go back inside and back to bed.
Jared was wide awake, though still lying in bed, head propped on one hand.
“The tarika,” she said, leaving her bag of tools on the nearest table. “You're safe. This time. You need to drop all questioning about the hills, permanently. If they ever have reason to come back, nothing will stop them.” She stripped off her tunic and trousers and put them away on the shelf before joining him in bed.
He sighed, wrapping both arms around her. “I don't like restrictions on what I'm allowed to be curious about.”
“You have everything else in the world. Just not that. You have a second chance that most people targeted by the tarika don't get. Don't waste it.”
“It didn't take you long.”
“If it had taken much longer than that, it would have meant something going wrong, that they wouldn't listen to me.”
“Well, milady.” He drew her closer for a kiss. “It seems I owe you my life. I believe you are entitled to name your own reward for that.”
“Oh, am I? Well, let me think about what you might have that I want, or what you could do that I might want you to do.” She ran a hand down his side, down his hip, and smiled.
Somewhat later, nestled contentedly in his arms, she realized what she wanted.
“About that reward,” she murmured.
“Mmhmm?” he said drowsily.
“Let Mirain marry Lyris.”
He opened his eyes to look at her. “Not the sort of reward I was expecting.”
“You won't do better than Somarl,” she pointed out. “And they love each other. Highborn loving a viable spouse is rare enough to be a treasure in itself. I prefer that sort of treasure.”
He heaved a sigh and closed his eyes again. “All right, fine. I'll tell them tomorrow.”
“Thank you,” she said softly.
“I probably would have anyway. So I suppose I'll have to think of a reward myself.” He yawned hugely. “After some sleep. I sleep less with you here...”
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