Vixen hefted the pack she and Tylla had put together, assessing the weight of it. It was certainly going to be significant, but she was strong, and it would grow lighter as she worked her way through the food that comprised part of it. As long as she went due east, she should reach the highlands within maybe six days, and there she could live off the land as necessary between hills while she worked her way north in the direction of Willow River, though alone and on foot that was probably going to take her a further week.
It didn't matter. Home would be there waiting for her, she just had to get there, and distance wasn't an insurmountable barrier—though she was dreading the long solitary silences that would make it hard to escape her own thoughts and memories and regrets.
Almost everything was done.
Only one thing left.
She took a deep breath, hoping to find strength somewhere inside. All she found was the certainty of necessity, which would have to do for now.
She made her way along the maze of corridors to the first floor room that had been used as the semi-public office of the last several Lords Hyalin.
The door was open, and he was alone, head resting on one hand as he scanned the contents of a sheet of paper.
“You don't look happy,” she said quietly from the doorway.
He raised his head sharply, and his gaze raked down the length of her body, walnut-dyed leather and green silk and shyani braids, visibly taken aback. “Of course not, you more or less vanished on me in my own house.”
“I had things to do. And now I have one more thing to do.”
She closed her eyes. “Say good-bye. I need to go home.”
“You said you were staying. I thought you wanted to be here. You were excited about teaching, and we could be together.”
“I know. But I can't be what you want me to be.” Not looking was no protection against the hurt and betrayal in his voice; she opened her eyes, came closer, and closed both hands around his. “Thank you. You've given me a chance to experience what I used to think I wanted. What I used to think I should have had, and was denied. It's been, in many ways, wonderful, and I'm very grateful. But this isn't me. There's no place for an osana shaman in the lowlands, and no matter what I wear or how I try to behave like a lady, underneath everything else, that's what I am. I worked very hard at becoming myself. I can't sacrifice that, and to stay here, I'd have to. I'm a woman, no matter what I do or what I wear, but I'm not a lady.”
“Then be who you are!”
She shook her head. Even knowing that she was walking away as much from her own illusions and his as from any reality, this hurt, not least from the tangle of anger and pain and bewilderment in Jared's eyes.
Yet, she felt more guilt over Tethan, and that, oddly, gave this all a sense of proportion.
I need to go home. This is the road there. No one said it would be easy.
“You don't really want me to be. One companion as a distraction isn't going to keep you interested forever. Jared, you're miserable. You're no more yourself while you're being Lord Hyalin than I was at the University or before. That's no way to live. We don't get enough days to waste them on being something we aren't. Sometimes the path to being who you are has prices, but they're worth it. Find how to be you, so you can be happy. Open your eyes and actually look at women as they are, and maybe you can even find someone you can be happy with.” She leaned down to kiss him. “But stay out of anything involving shyani matters, because next time, I won't be here.”
“Don't leave. Please.” His hands tightened around hers. “Tell me what I did. Tell me what to do. But please don't go.”
“I just did.” Gently, but resolutely, she drew her hands free. “Good-bye, Jared. Be good to yourself.”
She feared he'd follow her and try to stop her.
He didn't, and she didn't look back, not at all sure that she'd be able to keep going if she did. Not all the logic in the world, all the rational and instinctive knowledge of what had to be, would be able to stand up to tears that she could make stop.
And if there were a few tears of her own on her cheeks as she walked back to what had been her room for the past fortnight, well, so be it.
Get my pack, give Tylla a last hug, and then walk away from Hyalin forever.
She found Tylla sitting on her bed beside the pack, waiting.
“I heard that you were on your way to His Grace's office. You weren't there long.”
“I didn't really give him much opportunity to argue. I said what I needed to say and left. I hate hurting him, but staying wouldn't do him any more good than it would do me, in the long run. But I'm not leaving because it's what's best for him or anyone else, only because it's what's best for me.”
“What else can you do?” Tylla asked. “I've made choices based on what Cole needs, but that comes with being a mother. In a few years, when he's old enough to depend on me less, who knows? While I was married, I learned that making decisions for another adult is a chancy thing to do.” She stood up and came closer. Around her throat was the wide choker Vixen had given her, green and blue with its copper pendants. No shyani or weyre could fail to recognize it as shyani-made. “It might be best for you to be out of here before he has time to think of any response that might delay you.”
Vixen sighed. “Very true, that. He doesn't deal well with being thwarted. A bit spoiled, His Grace, and we all go along with it because he can be so wonderful when he's happy. And if he's hurt enough to not respond like himself, I don't want to know. You know how to find me. If now and then you feel like I'm close to you, that just might be me checking that all's well or whether I should be getting a spare bed ready.”
“Maybe once Cole's older, I'll take my saved wages and go travel.”
One more long tight hug, and Vixen reluctantly let go and scooped up her pack. A decade ago, she doubted she'd have made it a day carrying it; too much longer here, acting like a lady, and she'd have been similarly unable to.
Not only did no one stop her on her way down to the front door, but she saw only flickers of motion peripherally. People getting out of the way, presumably. That amused her, in a sad sort of way, thinking of the University and people stepping out of Jared's path so consistently that he noticed only when they didn't.
She felt immediately better once she was out in the morning sunlight. It wouldn't take all that long to be off the Hyalin estate proper, a bit longer to escape Hyalin lands entirely. But short of Jared sending horsemen after her to drag her back by force, which struck her as highly improbable, she was free.
The road climbed a low rise, and dipped down into a shallow valley with a grove of chestnut trees.
In their shade, one figure lounged, sitting at the base of a tree and leaning against it. A pair of donkeys, each with a saddle, one with a small pack strapped behind it, grazed placidly.
Vixen stopped in her tracks for all of three heartbeats of shock, then dropped her pack at the side of the road and ran the rest of the way down. Dayr got up and caught her in a fierce hug, purring thunderously.
“What are you... you should be...”
Dayr just laughed. “Did you really think I'd leave you? Mirain hid the girls in a pasture where you wouldn't see them and put their gear and mine out of sight. And no human's going to find me if I don't want to be seen. I didn't think it would take you all that long.”
“I'm sorry. I'm so sorry. I missed you so much...”
He shrugged and swiped her cheek affectionately with his. “I'm here. You're here and you're you again. That looks much better like that than it did before. We can go home now. It's all good.” Greenish-gold eyes met hers steadily. “Need to talk?”
“Eventually. Not now, not yet.”
“You know where I'll be. Get your pack before someone shows up and walks off with it, and let's see how far we can get.”
“That is about the best plan I've ever heard. Do you suppose we can detour past Copper Springs? I really want to give my parents a hug and apologize to Tethan for something.” Rainbow Falls, unfortunately, would be farther out of their path, but she could take a walk to talk to Shabra, and arrange a visit in person soon.
“I can't think why not. We'll still get home in lots of time before Fero comes into heat. I'm not willing to be late for that.”
She laughed. “I'd never ask that. How else am I going to find out whether puma kittens really do have spots?”
With packs rearranged to be comfortable, both mounted and turned towards the highlands and home.
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