A fantasy novel


Steph Shangraw

Shaman Cover

Prysmcat Books



Steph Shangraw

Copyright 2018 by Stephanie Shangraw

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Cover by the author, in the spirit of designs by Robin Collet for previous novels

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Mountain lion from a US National Parks Service public domain image found at

Landscape background by Adam Baker

Fox by Peter Trimming

Prysmcat Books

Kingston, Ontario, Canada



It's impossible to list everyone who, over a lifetime, has helped to encourage my writing in general and assisted with this book in particular.

However, I do need to mention:

My parents
Jackie LaRonde
My cats

Of course, my awesome beta-readers:

Gina Cuccu
Linda Mull
Kris Parsons
Ruth Wood

who made this a better book

And for everyone who just can't fit into the box that society says they belong in.

You aren't alone.




“Mama! Someone's at the door!” five-year-old Tammas called excitedly.

“I heard. You keep at it, lamb.”

Tammas nodded solemnly, and moved a stool out of the way so he could sweep the wooden floor beneath it. Matilda, regarding her youngest with a fond smile, wiped her potato-starchy hands on her apron.

Rap-rap-rap. Louder, this time.

“I'm coming!” Although, she reflected, she'd be impatient to get indoors with rain coming, too. She moved around the table, limping somewhat worse than usual thanks to the heavy spring dampness, and crossed the room to the door to open it. “Yes?”

Two strangers stood there: a tall woman, and a man behind her who was half a head shorter, the latter holding the reins of a pair of large ponies or small horses. Matilda took note of the gloominess of the sky, and hoped her husband and older children finished their chores in the barn quickly.

“I apologize for disturbing you, mistress,” the woman said softly. Her voice was low, and her faint accent odd, but the combination sounded pleasant to the ear. “Might we beg shelter for the night? I would not ask, save...” She gestured towards the low dark clouds.

There was something strange here other than the woman's speech; Matilda hesitated a moment, wary of possible danger. Yet they didn't seem threatening, and for no other reason would she refuse hospitality.

“Certainly you can stay, though we can't promise much comfort, milady.”

The woman smiled. “No lady, only Vixen. This is Dayr. Thank you. We can at least offer something in return, if you'd share the rabbits we intended for our dinner tonight.”

“Done,” Matilda said briskly. If this obvious lady, with her genteel inflections under the accent, wanted to pretend she'd never seen the inside of a lord's house, that was no business of Matilda's. “Come in, then.” She turned her gaze to the man. “The barn's 'round the back, my husband will show you where you can put up your beasts.”

The man Dayr nodded silently. Efficiently, he unstrapped the packs from behind both saddles and left them there, a brace of rabbits atop them, before leading the ponies away. No, those weren't ponies or horses at all. The longer ears and shorter face, the sturdy legs and the tail that had only a tuft of long hair at the end... those could only be donkeys, though she'd never seen one before, only now and then one of the mules that turned up sometimes from the area along the edge of the highlands.

The woman Vixen—unusual name—smiled again, and gathered up the packs with little difficulty. Matilda picked up the rabbits, and ushered her guest inside, indicating an out-of-the-way corner for the packs.

Tammas stopped sweeping again, staring in wonder at Vixen. Natural enough, Matilda supposed. He seldom saw strangers, and this one was quite striking. When she shed her dark russet cloak she revealed an oak-green wool divided skirt, pale linen blouse, and black-dyed leather bodice, all of simple enough style, and could perhap pass for a wealthy villager's festival best. Still, Matilda remained convinced that she was a lady: Vixen carried herself with an unconscious grace and... and pride, Matilda decided, grace and pride unlike any commoner woman learned. She stood as tall as many men, her skin healthy golden, her long neatly-braided hair deep brown. She couldn't be called pretty—her aristocratic face had too much strength, her shoulders were a trifle too wide, her hips a trifle too narrow—but there was a kind of beauty. Not, however, of the more curvy and comfortable kind that her husband and elder sons found appealing, which was rather a relief.

“My youngest, Tammas. I'm Matilda. Tam, this is Vixen. She and her friend Dayr will be staying the night.”

Vixen inclined her head. “Good evening, Tammas. Mistress Matilda, what can I do to help?”

“Any good at cleaning those rabbits?”

“I've had some practice.”

“Tam, fetch the cutting board and the mid-sized orange bowl,” Matilda requested. Tammas abandoned sweeping and scurried to obey. Matilda wished the weather would clear so her leg would stop aching, though her days of moving that easily were long gone even without that. She took both items from Tammas, and set them on the table. “Thank you. In bites, if you please, and we'll have it as stew.”

“It's all but done.” Vixen drew a bone-hilted knife from a sheath at her back, and set to work deftly.

“Finish the floor, please, lamb.”

“Yes, mama,” Tammas said dutifully, but his eyes kept straying to Vixen.

“Travelling far?” Matilda asked, picking up another potato.

“To the University,” Vixen said.

“That's still three days or so t'the south. Must be important.”

“Yes. There's something I absolutely must tell an old friend, as quickly as possible. When... when I last saw him, he was at the University. I'm hoping he's there still, or that they can tell me where he's gone.” That entirely charming smile came back. “Dayr wouldn't let me go alone, he's too good a friend for that.”

“I should hope so! The road is no safe place for a woman alone. I hope your journey goes well and you find your friend.”

“Thank you. I appreciate your hospitality. I don't mind sleeping under the moons, but I'm not fond of being drenched to the skin.”

“Well, who is?”

Tammas finished sweeping, and perched on a stool at the table. “Have you been to the University?”

“There are some forty to fifty men for every woman at the University,” Vixen said. “Not many women apply, and fewer are accepted.”

“Mama's smart. My sister's smart, too, even if she's a pest. Why aren't there women there?”

“Because women are too busy with practical affairs,” Matilda grumbled.

“Most women are dependent on a father, or a guardian, or a husband, for support,” Vixen explained. Her long-fingered hands continued to work efficiently on the rabbits while she spoke. “Many men refuse to pay tuition and living expenses for a woman. So few can apply.”

“Why won't they?”

“They say it's a waste, that a woman needs to know only how to bear children, please her husband, and manage his household. I think maybe it's because a lot of men are afraid of their wives and daughters knowing more than they do.”

Tammas giggled. Matilda frowned in proper disapproval, but privately agreed, and decided not to interrupt.

“Then, for anyone who applies, there's an examination. I've been told that the professors who give the test judge women more harshly. And for the women who are accepted, the rules are much more strict. They must live in a dormitory with the other women, they must be indoors by a certain hour, they may not be seen in certain places, and others. Men have none of those rules. Women who break a rule are usually expelled permanently, thrown out of the University in disgrace and not allowed to return. Men are usually suspended, not allowed to attend classes for a few days, and are expelled only after several suspensions. So you see, it's very difficult for a woman to study there.”

“That isn't fair,” Tammas decided.

“No, it isn't, but that's the way life works, here in the lowlands.”

“And where would you have us live?” Matilda asked. “Underground with the hill-folks?”

Vixen smiled faintly. “I'm sure their lives have good and bad aspects, like anyone else's.”

“Do you know any stories about the hill-people?” Tammas demanded. “Will you tell me one?”

Vixen looked to Matilda for approval. “May I?”

Matilda frowned. “I don't want his head full of nonsense.”

“Please, mama?” Tammas begged.

“Well... I suppose one story won't hurt.”

Vixen nodded acknowledgement. “Those who live in the hills were here in this land before humans. They aren't so very different from humans, except that they dislike bright light, like at noon. They can't see in complete darkness, although they can see in dim light better than we can. So they prefer to be awake just as the sky begins to grow light, and to sleep or rest in the middle part of the day, and then be active again until it grows too dark even for them. Then they sleep through the deep part of the night. Their real name is the shyani.”

“Shyani,” Tammas repeated carefully. “Why do they live in hills?”

“In their hills, they're safe from even the worst weather, and humans can't find them. The weyres often live with the shyani. Each weyre has an animal shape, like a wolf or a puma or a bear.”

Tammas shivered in delighted fear. “Do they eat people?”

Vixen considered that. “I suppose there might be a few, just like there are always humans who do violent and evil things. But most weyres would have no interest in eating a human. They'd rather have a deer or a rabbit. Or change to human form and eat meals with the shyani. So. I wanted to be sure that you understood the proper names, because those are what I use in my stories. It's not respectful to call them by other names—no offence, mistress Matilda.”

“None taken,” Matilda said, intrigued despite herself. How did this uncommon woman know such things about the University and the hill-folk? Or was she inventing it as she told it? And, on reflection, she hadn't answered Tammas' question of whether she'd ever studied at the University.

The back door opened, and Matilda's husband Aldan came in, followed by her daughter, her two elder sons, and Dayr. Introductions were duly made; Matilda noticed Aldan eyeing the rabbit meat with considerable, if surreptitious, interest.

“My story,” Tammas prompted Vixen eagerly.

Vixen laughed. “A moment, I pray you. Mistress Matilda, your stew meat. Is there anything else?”

“Only to give him his story,” Matilda said. “He'll let us have no peace until you do.”

Another laugh, and Vixen moved away, seating herself gracefully on a bench by the fire; Matilda had a brief vision of a queen taking her throne. “Well. A story about shyani and weyres, hm?”

Tammas sat at her feet. “Please, mistress Vixen?”

“Certainly. I always keep promises. I'm thinking which to tell you.” She paused. “Otherwhen and otherwhere,” she began, the traditional opening for a tale, “there lived a woman, on a farm, with her husband. Though they'd been wed near to ten years, they had no children. This saddened them, but over time their hope had faded. They even saved up enough coin to visit a physician, only to be told that nothing could be done.”

Matilda's other children drifted over, drawn by the story. Vixen welcomed them with a smile. Dayr settled himself quietly at the far side of the fireplace, on the floor and leaning against the wall, his face in shadow.

Aldan edged over to Matilda. “What's this?” he asked in an undertone.

“Just a story,” she whispered back. “No harm in it. Hush.”

“They lived a full day's travel from the nearest town,” Vixen continued, to all appearances unaware of the exchange. “A few times a year, the woman's husband made the trip, to sell what they could spare and buy what they could neither grow nor make themselves.

“One late spring, while her husband was away, there came a great rainstorm, much like the one I think we'll have tonight. This woman had seen many a storm, and their house was sturdy with a sound roof, so she thought little of it. She made herself a simple dinner and sat down to eat, hoping her husband had found shelter—perhaps with kind folk unwilling to leave a traveller out in the rain. The wind whipped around the house, wild as a falcon protecting her fledglings. Still, through the wind, she heard a high-pitched crying.

“She listened for a moment, until she was sure it was real. After all, who would want to go out in the rain without reason? But the noise continued, so she fetched her cloak and went out to investigate.

“The rain pounded her with drops as big as grapes, and the wool of her cloak was quickly soaked. She persisted, though, and finally tracked the sound to a small animal huddled against the wall. She gathered it under her cloak and brought it back inside. She hung her wet cloak on its hook, and fetched a towel, and carried the animal over to the fireplace.

“By the light, she could finally identify it: it was the size of a barn cat, but clearly a very young kitten, still all spots and fine fuzzy fur. That frightened her a little, because the only cats of that size on this continent are weyres, but the kitten was so cold, and mewing so pitiably, that she had mercy on it and towelled it dry. After lapping a bowl of crumbled bread in warm milk, it fell asleep in a blanket-lined basket she set by the hearth.

“She knew that if she were to throw it outside, it would die, even if the weather should clear. But how could she keep a weyre in her house, even such a small and helpless one? Greatly troubled, she finished her dinner, and cleaned up, and went to bed.”

Matilda glanced at Aldan, and suppressed a grin. He'd chosen a chair well away from the fire, but he was no less enthralled than were their children.

“A knock at the door woke her. She got up, still sleepy, and drew a blanket about her over her shift, and opened the door.

“A man and a woman stood there, and beside them was a great tawny cat, one whose shoulders would reach to mid-thigh on your mother. The human woman was afraid, because the man and the woman were both very beautiful and very pale, with eyes a little larger than those of a human and with very little white. The shyani woman had long pale gold hair, like ripe wheat, in a narrow braid on each side with beads in it and the rest loose, and wore silver in her ears, and leather trousers instead of skirts, and her eyes were the blue of the summer sky at noon. The man's hair was long, too, though a deeper gold, and it was tied back, and his eyes were a paler blue, like winter sky mirrored in water.

“'Don't be frightened,' the shyani woman said gently. 'We mean you no harm. We seek our sister's lost kitten.' She gestured to the cat at her side.

“That reassured the human woman. What mother of any breed would do less than seek a lost youngling? Had she children of her own, she'd have done the same. She went to the hearth and gathered up the kitten, and brought him to the shyani.

“'See,' she said, 'your lost one is here and well. I heard him crying and brought him in.'

“The adult puma's form turned blurry, like a reflection in water if you throw a stone, and suddenly another woman was there in its place, naked save for her tawny hair that fell loose to just below her shoulders. She held out her arms for the kitten, her expression full of pleading, and the human woman gave it to her, carefully.

“'Thank you for your compassion,' the man said. 'What gift can we give you to show our gratitude?'

“'I need no gift,' the human woman said, feeling embarrassed. 'All I ask of life is that our garden grow well and that our livestock and ourselves stay healthy.'

“'You've no other wish?' persisted the shyani woman.

“'My only other wish is that I might bear a child, but there's no hope of that.'

“'Perhaps,' the shyani woman said. 'But will you allow us to try? I'm a healer, my companion is a witch. Together, if the wrongness lies in you and not in your mate, we have a fair chance of fixing it.'

“The human woman feared what they might do, but her longing for a child was very strong, and she believed they truly meant only to even the scales. So she agreed.

“They came inside and closed the door. The weyre sat by the fire, nursing what was now a human infant, and the human woman could hear a sound that she realized was purring, like the barn cats when they were happy or nursing their kittens.

“'Lie down,' said the shyani woman, and the human woman obeyed, her heart pounding.

“Each of the shyani laid a hand on her belly, and the woman began to sing. The human woman laid still and trembled, feeling nothing save that light touch.

“She woke to find her husband there, and sunlight pouring in, and no sign of her visitors. Her husband, when she told him her adventure, insisted that she'd dreamed it.”

Vixen paused, and smiled.

“But nine months later, their first child was born. And every year while the woman lived, the garden flourished.”

She ended there, and looked to Matilda. “Might I beg a drink? Storytelling is a thirsty pastime.”

Aldan rose himself, filled their best pottery cup with their own currant wine, and brought it to her wordlessly. Vixen accepted it with thanks, and drank.

Tammas and the other children started pleading for another story. Matilda took charge, assigning them to set the table and other tasks.

Conversation until, during, and after dinner was innocuous, concerned with weather and farming and livestock and the like. The drumming of rain on the roof created a comfortable and familiar background rhythm. Matilda relaxed, letting go of her vague uncertainties about their guests.

Some time later, the children were sent to bed, and the four adults settled themselves around the fireplace.

“Mistress Matilda, please, do not think me rude,” Vixen said softly. “I could not help but notice your lameness.”

Matilda shrugged. “It's been sore a long time, never seems to heal. It's more painful in weather like this. No great thing.”

“I'm a healer. Will you allow me to try?”

“No!” Aldan thundered. “No witchery and superstition here!”

“Hush,” Matilda said. “You'll wake the children.” She met Vixen's eyes, and the other woman held her gaze steadily. Oddly, only then did she notice the small silver rings glinting in Vixen's ears. “I trust her. And I'm the one who lives with a limp.”

Aldan subsided, grumbling.

Vixen rose, and sat on the floor at her feet, to draw the lame leg into her lap and push Matilda's coarsely-woven dun skirt up to her knees. Nimble fingers, much softer and less calloused than any farmer's, probed gently.

“Is that where it hurts?”

“That's the place.”

Vixen closed her eyes, and began to sing, a song low in both volume and pitch, with no words Matilda could recognize. It made it hard to think; Matilda closed her eyes, too, feeling light-headed. For the space of a slow breath, she saw an image, of a red fox leading a speckled hound towards her; then it was gone, and she realized that Vixen's song had ended. She opened her eyes.

Vixen looked weary, but content. “There was a fine crack in the bone. It could not heal alone while you continued to use your leg. It would be best if you could put as little strain on it as possible for, perhaps, three days while the healing completes itself. Then it will pain you no more.” She made it halfway to her feet before swaying; Dayr was beside her, steadying her with an arm around her waist, before Matilda had hardly registered the problem.

“What are you?” Matilda asked. “Humans aren't healers.”

Vixen smiled tiredly. “I am human and healer. We mean you no harm, only gratitude for the meal and the shelter. I give you my word.”

Matilda studied her briefly, and decided. Whatever they were, their intentions were good.

“I believe you. I wish we could offer a better bed than a hard floor.”

“A hard floor is much better than the soft mud outside,” Dayr said. “Thank you.”

Matilda found extra blankets for them, delighted at the easing of the ache in her leg, and she and Aldan retired.

When they rose the next morning, their guests were gone, with their donkeys and gear, leaving no trace save the neatly folded blankets.



“You took a chance, offering to heal her,” Dayr said.

Vixen glanced sideways at him, her grey donkey matching strides with his dun along the deserted road. “I'm a shaman. She needed me. I had to, no matter the risk.” She smiled. “Besides, had they turned violent, I'm sure you could have protected me.”

Dayr brushed tawny-brown hair out of his golden-green eyes irritably. “Physically, easily enough. But you'd have been badly hurt if Matilda refused, even if she didn't demand we leave her house.”

“Do you think me so fragile? Am I a pampered city woman, then, sheltered and indulged and controlled all her life?” she asked lightly.

Dayr rolled his eyes. “I know you aren't. But I don't like to see you hurt!”

Vixen threw him an affectionate look. “I know, and I'm more grateful than I can ever tell you that you came with me. We've been lucky, though, these past days. I never expected this journey to be easy. And finding Jared may be the least difficult part. I've changed so completely, after eight years in the hills...”

“Yes. You're healthy, whole, and happy,” Dayr said dryly.

“Dayr, please, can't you understand? The culture of the lowlands is different...”

“Healthy is healthy.”

“For three years at the University, Jared knew a lonely and confused boy named Corin. In the hills, I'm osana, and treated as I would had I been born a woman.”

“Of course. And I don't need a reminder about what bizarre ideas the lowlands have about body being more important than spirit. I remember you telling me I should have let you die.”

She remembered it, too, much too clearly. And she remembered the utter contempt in the lowlands for anyone who strayed outside the rigidly defined behaviour of their physical sex.

“Jared is intelligent and open-minded about many things, but I'm afraid of how he'll react.”

“If he has a problem with your being happy and healthy, I wouldn't call him intelligent,” Dayr said stubbornly.

Vixen sighed to herself, and yielded yet another battle. Dayr, too, was intelligent, but the beliefs of the hills regarding the nature of women and men and those who had other combinations of body and spirit were so strong that he couldn't grasp the human fixation on drawing uncrossable lines. Nor could she truly object, since those beliefs had led to a welcome and acceptance she'd never known in the lowlands. She could only hope that they encountered no situation in which Dayr's blind spot caused them trouble.

They rode quietly for a time. The highlands that sheltered the shyani and weyres shadowed the horizon to their left; a day could bring them to them. All around was wilderness: along one stretch sparse forest, along another rocky meadow, or an isolated farm, or low marshland. The clouds had cleared to leave a deep blue sky; birds sang happily, enjoying the late spring warmth. At least, Vixen thought wryly, this emergency wasn't taking place at midwinter. Although to save Jared's life, to protect him as much as she could from the price of his own curiosity, she'd have come even through the snow.

How could he have been so mad as to acquire a shyani grimoire? Did he truly believe they wouldn't know, or would let him keep it—or that the more fanatical shyani and weyres would let him live? Well, perhaps that last wasn't fair, he couldn't know that even the pacific shyani had their extremists. Still, though...

They paused briefly for a cold lunch, and rode on. The grey's rhythmic motion lulled Vixen into a light trance, which she allowed; her awareness shifted and expanded, her senses bringing her information about the state of the world around her. Humans had come here little, as yet; nature remained in balance. She rode, content and at peace, until Dayr called her name gently.


“This looks like a good place to camp. Or would you rather go on and hope we find another?”

Vixen shook her head. “We were up early. Here's fine.” The sun was near to vanishing behind the mountains, and the donkeys needed a proper rest.

They unsaddled the easygoing jennies, a pair of mature but not elderly females who had been together for most of their lives, and tethered them to graze near the stream that had carved a channel down the hill. Grey Dove settled promptly into investigating available food, while dun Sparrow headed for the stream to drink first.

Dayr stripped and shifted to his puma form, and padded off four-footed in search of fresh meat for dinner. Vixen gathered stones and fallen dry wood to make a cooking fire, then eyed the stream. The air was cool, and cold stream water was no substitute for a hot bath, but better that than to spend another day without washing. She rummaged in her pack for something clean to wear overnight and the pottery jar of soap, and climbed farther up the hill, not wanting to be downstream from where the donkeys had stirred up the bottom.

Shivering a little, she let fall her heavy cloak of dark russet wool, then braced each foot in turn on a convenient rock to unlace her low boots. A woman clad in shyani style would be considered shockingly indecent in the lowlands; her divided skirt of soft oak-green wool and bodice of black leather had been a gift. Her sister Shabra had wanted her to feel more free to go into the lowlands, but not until now had Vixen worn them other than on an occasional holiday and a trade visit or two to the border villages. The skirt had a simple ribbon drawstring in the waist; the bodice had laces at the back to adjust it, but also laces at the front that she could manage alone. The commoner styles suited her better than upper-class fashions that, as she recalled, typically required the assistance of a maid. She laid her clothes, the skirt and bodice, her undyed linen blouse embroidered with green and russet vines, and her underclothes, on her cloak.

Kneeling by the edge of the water, she washed herself as quickly as she could, her nipples hard from the chill. It lay well within the power of a shaman to make some changes in her own body, though shyani osana and their counterparts the man-spirited umana and the changeable etana varied greatly in how much need they felt to do so. Long ago, her teacher and adopted father had banished facial hair for her forever. On her own since then, Vixen had worked hard to adjust the balances within her body and make it conform more closely to her image of her true self: somewhat softer curves; breasts that, though not large, were enough. Male genitalia inevitably remained, but a trifle smaller, and it no longer troubled her with inopportune responses. Vanity in part, because the shyani and weyres would accept her as a woman regardless. But it made her feel more truly herself, and for that alone it was worth the time and effort.

If her birth father could see where her path had led her, he'd have been horrified. He'd tried so relentlessly to make his third son into a proper man...

Vixen turned her thoughts firmly away. She was what was natural for her, an adopted daughter of the hills, who wore the silver earrings of an osana. Her right palm bore the tattoo of a simplified eye in purple-black, and her left palm a dark blue stylized willow. Together, they represented the two key aspects of a shaman's responsibility: to communicate with the spirit world that others could normally not perceive, and to heal and shelter. She'd chosen them and earned them. They meant more to her than her birth father's name ever had, and the pride and love of her shyani parents and sister meant more than the endless disappointment of her birth parents and siblings.

She unbraided her elbow-length hair, soft and full as any woman's, and washed it as well, wringing it out thoroughly.

She could at least wear something different overnight. She slipped on clean underpants, knitted soft wool that fit closely, partly lined with linen and held in place with a ribbon drawstring, and over them her shyani leather pants, tugging the laces tight at her hips with hardly a thought. The leather was stained dark with walnut, nearly the colour of her hair. Since it was chilly, and since a tunic alone would be the next thing to nakedness here, she pulled an undershirt over her head, lightweight undyed fabric with a cheerful rainbow of flowers embroidered down the centre of the chest, and over that, the tunic of a shyani woman. This one was a warm buttercup yellow. The neck was a deep V all the way to her solar plexus, crisscrossed with multi-coloured cord lacing, showing the flowers beneath. The sleeves were solid down to a third of the way from shoulder to elbow, and from there down to just past her elbow, if she held her arm straight down, they were fringed: bunches of thread were knotted close to the edge of the fabric, then braided tightly, and the end tied in another knot. The bottom of the tunic was similar: solid to midway between hip and knee, and fringed from there to just below her knees, but here, a dyed wooden bead had been threaded onto each just above the lower knot.

A man's tunic had much shallower lacing at the neck, since they didn't need to nurse, and was shorter, only hip-length, but otherwise was much the same. Weyres tended to find the fringes distracting, and preferred simpler clothes that they could get out of rapidly and into easily.

She'd have to go back to the skirt and blouse and bodice in the morning, this would all be appallingly barbaric in the eyes of any respectable lowlander despite being more practical in many ways, but they could use the chance to air out.

She washed her other underpants and her blouse, since those should all dry by morning, before starting back.

Having lived so long with the shyani, who preferred dawn and dusk, she had no difficulty making her way back down the hill by the silvery light of the larger moon, half-full and waxing.

Dayr paused in his own grooming to look at her briefly, then went on licking his shoulder. The meat from what must have been a large rabbit lay on a bed of broad green leaves, neatly cleaned; the skin, head, and bones lay nearby, on more leaves, but the innards were nowhere to be seen.

“Rabbit again?” she teased, while she hung her wet clothing on a nearby bush. He flicked the tip of his tail, but otherwise ignored her. Smiling, Vixen started the fire she'd laid.

As always, when they were outside, Vixen slept leaning against Dayr's soft-furred side to the sound of his purr, feeling utterly safe.



At the crest of a tall hill, they paused to give the donkeys a brief rest.

Dayr eyed the sprawling complex of stone buildings below, and the thousands of people moving between them in no readily discernible pattern. “How are we supposed to find one person who might or might not be here?”

Vixen smiled at his tone, though she was shivering with apprehension. What if someone recognized her? She'd need to speak to whoever was Dean; what if it were the same one she'd known as Corin? She winced inwardly from the thought of facing him as a woman, shorn of the fragile protection of maleness and her father's name. “We go to the tall building with the clock-tower and ask.”

Dayr glanced at her. “Ah. Do you want me to go? You could wait here.”

She took a deep breath to steady herself, and shook her head firmly. “Thanks, but I can do this.” I hope.

They rode down to the campus, ignoring the curious looks in their direction, and halted in front of the clock-tower.

“This may take some time,” Vixen warned, as she dismounted.

Dayr shrugged and sat down on the broad shallow stairs, holding the reins of both jennies. “The sun's warm. We'll be fine, however long it takes.” Dove nuzzled him, and he stroked her nose.

Vixen collected herself, climbed the half-dozen stairs, and opened the great wooden door.

She stepped into a large room, richly tapestried, sunlight streaming through many glazed windows. A wide stone stairway led up to a balcony, and a stone archway to one side allowed a glimpse of a long corridor beyond. A man, fairly young, scholar-pale, with mousy-brown hair, staffed a wooden desk near the stairs.

“Excuse me.” Her voice had never been excessively deep, and she'd both deliberately worked at lightening it and inadvertently picked up the inflections of a shyani woman; she doubted it would betray her.

He looked up from a book. “Yes, mistress?”

“I'm trying to find someone. I understand he studies here, or at least he did eight years ago. Could you tell me how to find out whether he's still here?”

The man blinked, his expression faintly startled. Clearly, he'd expected a woman dressed like a commoner to be awed and diffident, not direct and at least outwardly confident. He would simply have to cope with it: she refused to act like a helpless fool.

“I... of course, milady. Please, make yourself comfortable,” he indicated a cushioned bench nearby. “I'll ask the Dean whether he's free to see you. I'll be just a moment.”

“Thank you.” She sat down and composed herself to wait, while he hastened off through the archway. Interesting how commoner 'mistress' had become highborn 'milady'.

He returned promptly. “Dean Hadley is with someone at present, but he'll see you as soon as he's available.”

“Thank you,” she repeated. Hadley. She quailed inside, tried not to show it. It would have been too much to ask of the world that the post might now be held by someone new.

Other women had sat here, gazing at these same tapestries, waiting to be called in to see Dean Hadley. Whispers ran around the University that female students sometimes passed suddenly and unexpectedly after spending a lot of time with the Dean. Whispers equally told of women who were expelled soon after a meeting with him.

Fixing her gaze on a knotwork pattern in the tapestry in front of her, she followed the line around and around, concentrating with all the force of a shaman's will. As she'd intended, it calmed her, made her feel centred again, steadied her mental defences against the echoes of emotions in this room. Thus, when a darker young man emerged from the archway and announced that the Dean was prepared to see her now, she rose unhurriedly.

The one who had been at the desk escorted her down the hall to a door and knocked.

“Come,” barked a baritone from within.

Her guide opened the door and ushered her in, then closed it, leaving her alone with the Dean.

As his gaze ran appraisingly along the length of her body, Vixen fought the urge to wrap her cloak around herself as protection from the look and whatever lay behind it. He was a fairly large man, his hair a slightly paler iron-grey than she recalled, as richly-clad as ever.

He gestured to a chair, and folded his hands on his big dark wooden desk.

“What can I do for you?” he asked coolly.

The receptionist had been easily impressed, but Hadley was another matter altogether. She weighed her pride against her mission, and decided.

She sat gracefully on the hard wooden chair, taking care that her cloak not hide her body. Decorously, she folded her hands in her lap and lowered her eyes.

“You're very kind, to take the time to speak to me,” she said softly.

“I understand there's someone you want to find?” he prompted.

“Yes. I haven't seen him in some time. I believe he studied here eight years ago.” She coloured her tone with respect for that accomplishment. “I need very much to speak with him.”

“I see,” he said, with a trace of scepticism. “His name?”

“Jared Hyalin.”

“Ah. Hyalin.”

“Is he here?” she asked eagerly.


“Oh.” She raised her eyes just enough to give him a disappointed look, and leaned forward entreatingly, allowing him an 'accidental' view of her cleavage, though it made her feel fouled. “Could you tell me where he is? It's very important.” He could so easily balk, stand by the rules and refuse to tell her, if he even knew at all.

The Dean's eyes lingered on her chest, and the glimpse offered by the loose laces of her blouse and the support of the tight bodice. “I'm not permitted to divulge that information. I could offer you one of my students, to write down your message for you, and have it delivered to him.”

She sighed, and sat back, twining one end of her blouse's lacing around a finger. “That's a very generous offer, but I'm afraid I really must speak with him personally. Of course, you mustn't go against the rules here.” Biting her lip, she drew her cloak around her and started to rise.

“Don't go yet, my dear.”

Vixen reseated herself, let her cloak fall open to either side. “You said...”

“I know what I said. It is, however, among my prerogatives to make an exception in a case involving extraordinary circumstances.”

Feeling unclean, she feigned a lack of comprehension.

“I can tell you if it's important enough,” he explained. “What message do you take him?”

“I'm sorry, I can't tell, it's private.”

“Hmm.” He looked unsatisfied; she wondered whether she should invent something. A direct lie was no less honest than her pretence of humility. He leaned back in his great carved chair, expression thoughtful. “That makes it difficult. Have you travelled far?”

“Days,” she sighed. “It feels like forever.”

“How far?”

“I think around a week,” she said truthfully.

“It certainly seems to me that your dedication indicates the seriousness of your mission.”


“It must be very important indeed.”

“It is...” She hesitated delicately. “It is a matter of old promises, and family, and something that must be done in person.”

“I see.” He laced his fingers together meditatively, looked up suddenly enough to catch her gaze directly; she dropped her eyes quickly, as any proper woman of the lowlands would. “Four years ago Jared returned home to his family's estates, to take over the Domain of Hyalin.”

That was quite genuinely startling. “Jared is Lord Hyalin?”


Given Jared's poor relations with his father and elder brother (what had happened to them both?) she hadn't expected to be journeying in that direction. “Oh. Um... could you tell me how to get there?” She had a general idea, but could hope for more specific directions.

The Dean sighed patiently. “Take the road south, and at the first crossroads turn west. Away from the highlands. At a lady's pace, it will take you four or five days to arrive. You really might consider sending a written message...”

Of which he would be sure to learn the contents. “Thank you, but I truly can't.” She flashed him her most charming, grateful smile as she stood. “If I have so far yet to travel, I'd best be on my way. I appreciate your generosity in allowing me to take up your valuable time. The University is surely fortunate to have you.” Now that she had what she needed, if she could only escape the campus unrecognized...

“Have any of your relatives ever studied here?”

“My relatives? I don't believe so.”

“Odd. You seem familiar.” Her heart almost stopped, but he only shrugged. “That comes from seeing so very many students pass through, I suppose. I wish you success in finding Hyalin.”

“Thank you.”

“Turn to the right outside my door, and you'll come to the front hall.”

She inclined her head deferentially, and departed, hugging her cloak tightly around her as soon as she was in the corridor.

Dayr looked up when she emerged. “Well?”

“He's not here. Head south.”

Without comment, he mounted his dun and led the way south.

Well away, Vixen described the whole experience.

“That old lecher thinks anything in skirts lives for men to stare at and patronize.”

“Then why act the way he expected?” Dayr asked, confused.

“Because he would probably have refused to answer me, otherwise. Technically, he broke rules by telling me.” She shrugged. “It worked, that's what matters.”

But the feeling of being somehow soiled persisted. When they camped that night by a stream, she scrubbed herself long and vigorously.



Though Vixen's misgivings about her reunion with Jared made each day's ride eternal, it still felt as though they'd arrived all too quickly.

A tree-edged grassy lane meandered from the road to a stone-paved yard before a huge red brick house. The ivy overgrowing it reminded Vixen briefly of grassy shyani hills.

She dismounted, drawing her cloak around her protectively as she approached the iron-bound wooden door. A tug at the bell-rope brought an impressively quick response: a well-kept middle-aged man in blue and white livery opened the door and looked at her inquiringly.

“I'm looking for Jared Hyalin,” Vixen said, schooling her voice to calmness.

“May I ask your business with His Grace?”

“I will reveal that only to Jared personally. Tell him... if you would, tell him an old friend who shares his interest in the hills has important news.”

“Of course, mistress.” Tone and expression both were so bland as to convey disapproval by that alone. She remembered that kind of very superior servant from her earlier life. He reached to one side and pulled a bell-rope. “A stable-boy will be here in a moment to see to your... mounts. I believe His Grace is currently occupied with domain business, but I will relay your message. Will you come in and wait?”

“Thank you,” Vixen said, but didn't move until a teenaged boy in rather less immaculate blue and white appeared from somewhere outside off to the right to take the jennies. “Don't give them too much or anything too rich,” she said. “They'll founder on what would be normal for a pony their size. Only hay, no grain, but all the water they want. I'm very serious about this.”

“Yes, mistress,” the boy said, forehead furrowed in perplexity, but she studied him and decided that he was going to pay attention.

Only then did she reluctantly allow the man to remove her cloak for her—Dayr pretended not to notice the gesture towards his rabbit-fur-lined leather jacket—and escort them to a room.

Vixen sat down, smoothing her skirt nervously. Over a week of hard use had left the fine soft goat wool the worse for wear, though she'd tried to take care of it. She felt uncomfortably out of place here, tired and vaguely depressed, impatient with all the formal courtesy.

Dayr prowled restlessly. They seemed to be in a small study or office: there were two sets of shelves, bearing books and a few intriguing trinkets, and a desk in one corner. Other furniture consisted of a central table, three comfortable chairs, and the well-cushioned couch Vixen had chosen. The weyre paused to investigate a large window, made of eight panes of glass.

“Mostly the lowlands are barbaric, but it would be useful to have so much glass,” he observed. A witch could convert sand to glass, but only at a high cost in personal energy.


The man who had admitted them returned, accompanied by a slender woman in an attractive elaborately-styled cream-and-lilac gown, her long intricately-braided and coiled hair an even darker brown than Vixen's.

“I'm Alys Hyalin,” she said, before the man could do more than open his mouth. “Unfortunately, His Grace will be closeted discussing important domain business for some time yet. May I offer you the hospitality of the house? A late lunch, perhaps, or a hot bath to wash off the dust of the road?”

Vixen stifled a sigh. Yet another delay.

She'd had enough of being patient and polite.

“Does he know I'm here?” she asked.

Alys frowned delicately. “He cannot be interrupted...” she began.

Vixen closed her hands so tightly her nails dug into her tattooed palms. “Interrupt him.”

“I'm sorry, I can't...”

“I've travelled for over a week, at some inconvenience to myself and to my companion, in order to bring Jared a message of vital importance. I apologize for the difficulty it causes you, but would you please inform His Grace that I would like to speak with him at his earliest possible convenience?”

Alys hesitated, expression faintly pained, then looked at the man. “Kendric, go, please,” she said, with no less graciousness. “Pass on the lady's request to His Grace. And send someone with wine, the southern golden.”

Kendric nodded stiffly. “Yes, milady.”

As he left, Alys settled herself in one of the padded chairs, absently twitching her skirt straight.

“Thank you,” Vixen said.

Alys laughed lightly. “I will trust that it must be very urgent, for you to be so insistent on seeing him, without even taking time to wash and refresh yourself.”


Dayr left the window, and sat on the floor just beside Vixen, leaning against the couch, gaze fixed on Alys. Vixen touched his shoulder lightly, and he glanced up, then looked away, and didn't return that unblinking green-gold stare to Alys.

The silence was uncomfortable; Alys did her best to break it with meaningless chatter about weather and travel, and then about the golden wine that arrived in a crystal decanter with four silver and crystal goblets. Dayr declined, but Vixen accepted a cup. It was really quite good.

At long last, the door opened and Jared came in.

He looked much healthier than he had eight years ago: there was some muscle, if not much, over his once too-visible bones, and he was no longer scholar-pale. His clothes were plain and practical, but clearly of high quality. His sandy-brown hair was still a little longer than was usual for the lowlands, overdue to be trimmed, but it didn't make him look less masculine in the slightest.

Vixen felt her already rapid heartbeat grow faster yet. The tightness of her bodice made it hard to catch her breath. Sternly, she brought her body under control before she could faint like some silly townbred maiden.

“Thank you, cousin,” he said.

Alys rose quickly, nodded, and left them, closing the door carefully behind her.

Jared turned to Vixen, surveying her thoughtfully; she saw puzzlement cross his face, though he covered it quickly.

“Now. I understand you wished to speak to me, milady?”

He didn't recognize her, any more than the Dean had.

She couldn't decide whether she was relieved to be able to give him one shock at a time, or disappointed, or both. Well, the message first, and let the other wait.

She took as deep a breath as her bodice permitted. “I'm Vixen of Willow River. In the highlands,” she said, forcing her voice to stay calm. “This is Dayr.” She gestured to the weyre at her feet.

Jared chose the chair Alys had vacated, facing her at an angle. “And to what do I owe such an unexpected honour?”

“You've been interested in the hills for a long time.”


“Are you aware of what happened when the shyani welcomed humans to these lands and shared their knowledge freely?”

Jared blinked. “What happened...? Did they ever?”

“They did, and were betrayed. Humans used what they learned against them. Shyani and weyres died, and the survivors retreated to the highlands.”

“I'm afraid I don't follow.”

“Some shyani and weyres resent that still, and do not believe that shyani knowledge belongs in human hands. The most extreme are satisfied only with the death of any human who dares lay claim to that knowledge.”

“Indeed?” He leaned back in his chair. “And are you among these fanatics, milady?”

“Shyani knowledge used without shyani wisdom is a dangerous thing, and wisdom is not found in books. But no, I'm not here to kill you. Word travels through the hills that you hold something you have no right to. There are shyani and weyres who will come to take it and your life. Your house walls and human guards can't protect you. Someone heard this who has a reason not to wish you dead, and for the sake of that one Dayr and I have come.” True, if misleading. “We should be able to talk to them and keep you alive.”

“Who would this someone be, who is so concerned for my well-being?”

“I would prefer not to say at present.”

The room held only silence, for a few breaths.

“Milady, I apologize for the discourtesy. However. You arrive at my door with no warning, tell me that assassins from the hills want my blood and that only you can prevent it, and that you'll try to do so for the sake of some mysterious unidentified individual. And I think you are human, and I have never heard of humans in the hills. This is all extremely perplexing and disturbing, and please forgive me, but I find it difficult to take on faith.”

Vixen hesitated, undecided, distracted briefly by a growl from Dayr so low that she could only feel it, not hear it. “I... had hoped to spare you, and wait a day or two to tell you who. I don't believe you'll find it easy to accept.”

“I doubt it can be harder to accept than the news that my life is in danger.”

She had to concede the logic, though she didn't like it. “This is somewhat difficult to explain, and I don't really know where to start. Jared... Look at me. You knew me once. Eight years ago, at the University, before I was adopted into the hills. I had a different name then.”

Jared studied her face intently. Vixen held still, but not easily.

His eyes widened. “Corin?” he whispered. Then he shook his head. “No, that can't be.”

“It can,” Vixen said gently. “It is. My name used to be Corin Laures.”

“That's impossible. Corin's dead.”

“In a sense, although not the way you mean it.”

Jared stood up; Dayr tensed warily, poised to react with feline-fast reflexes, but Jared made no move towards Vixen. He only strode around the table to the window, and looked out it for a few heartbeats before pivoting to face her.

“This is insane. For a woman to claim to be a man who has been dead for years, or that any human could survive in the hills...”

The growl rumbled in Dayr's throat, barely audible to her at such close range; Vixen quickly laid a hand on his shoulder to still him before it grew louder.

“I know how it sounds,” she said softly. “If I intended to lie, I would have invented something much easier to believe. Please. Let me explain.”

Jared turned away, gazing out the window again.

“You have a point,” he said finally. “This is so absurd that no one would invent it and expect to be believed.” He came back to his chair. “I'm listening. Explain how the impossible can be real. And why you're here.”

“I'm here because I couldn't bear to stay in Willow River and let you die. As for being human... you're right, it's unusual. Do you remember? I could never do anything I was supposed to do, no matter how hard I tried. You were the only person who actually listened to me and heard anything I said, and who didn't see me as a perpetual failure. I was always unhappy, even when I was trying to pretend otherwise. I always knew something was wrong. Finally, one day, I just couldn't bear it any longer. I tried to kill myself. A spirit animal, a red fox, stopped me at the last instant, and led me away, into the highlands. I wasn't entirely rational, and that only became worse. By the time Dayr found me I was delirious and not all that far from dying from exposure and dehydration and sheer exhaustion.” She stroked Dayr's hair affectionately, and he leaned against her knee, purring just loudly enough for her to feel the vibration. “Rather than letting me die, he went to the nearest shyani community for help. Copper Springs had and has a wonderfully tolerant shaman.”

She paused; how to compress the reality into a few words? “To the shyani, body and spirit can be of different sexes. An osana is born male with a female spirit, an umana is the opposite, and an etana is in some way both or neither, physically or spiritually. All three are accepted, often even respected, and become many of the most effective shaman. Like Sanovas. He listened to me, and he cared, and he adopted me as daughter and student. Over a year ago, I... graduated, I suppose you could call it, and went to Willow River as their shaman. The shyani witch there is a good friend, she and I work together very well.” Just speaking about it made her homesick for Willow River and Irisan and female puma Fero and the nearly forty other shyani that were her community.

“I see. And how did you find me?”

“We went to the University first.” She flinched mentally away from the memory.

Silence again.

“If these people want my death so badly, how can the two of you stop them?”

“They would never dare lay hands on a shaman,” Dayr said.

Vixen smiled faintly. “Even a human one.”

“That isn't your fault, you can't help it.”

“And they won't want to fight Dayr. You'll have to give up the book you found, though. Otherwise, they won't listen to me.”

Jared closed his eyes. “You were right. This is hard to accept all at once. Or at all, for that matter.”

She found her hands knotting in her skirt, and consciously unclenched them, smoothing the wrinkles from the wool. She couldn't look up. “I was hoping to wait.”

“I appreciate the concern, but I had to know.”

“I understand.”

“I wish I did.” His eyes ran down the length of her body, kept coming back to the swell of her breasts above her bodice, visible through the untied laces of her blouse.

“Jared.” She left the couch, dropped to her knees beside his chair, gazing up into his eyes. “This is really me, who I really am,” she said gently. “I'm a shaman, and I have a fair talent for shamanic healing and herbalism and for dealing with the spirit world. I'm happier with the shyani than I ever was in the lowlands.”

He reached out, hand shaking, to run his fingers down her cheek, and pain showed on his face. “Why did you let me think you were dead?”

Vixen looked down. “I... to heal over a score of years of hurting and self-deception and shame takes a long time. I'm not sure anymore that I have even now, not completely, although I didn't know that until the past few days. I was hiding, I think.” She raised her eyes again, smiled. “But I'm here now.”

Neither spoke for a moment.

“Well. You'll be staying, then?” She got the impression that he was struggling to regain control of the situation.

“I had planned to. Unless you want Dayr and me out of your house.”

“No, please, stay and be welcome, both of you. Consider my house yours, ask for anything you want. Will you join my cousins and me for dinner?”

“I'd like that. There's one thing we need to decide first, though.” She returned to her seat, rubbing her eye-tattooed palm absently with her other thumb. “We came here to help you, not to destroy your reputation. I have no choice save to offer healing to anyone in need of it. Beyond that, what would you have your household and your family know?”

Jared considered that. “I think it would be best that the general household know as little as possible. That you are my personal guests, certainly. Perhaps that you are an old friend...” He faltered perceptibly, as though unsure of the last two words.

“I am.”

“And that you're a healer who brought important personal news.”

She nodded. “Not that I'm osana and Dayr is weyre. Agreed.”

Jared did a double-take. “Weyre?”

Dayr grinned at him, showing his teeth, the slightly long and perceptibly cat-like canines. “What did you think I am? Shyani?”

“I... suppose I hadn't really thought.”

“You should know better than to believe in the stories,” Vixen said.

“I don't.” Jared shrugged, managed an uncertain laugh. “Well, what's one more surprise? Any more major revelations?”

“None that I can bring to mind at present.”

“Good. My cousins Mirain and Alys are my only surviving kin. As a rule, I trust them completely and tell them everything.”

“I'm not certain that's wise, in this case.”

Jared frowned. “How so?”

“For their own safety.”

“But they...” He stopped, shook his head. “I'm sure you have reasons. I'd like to hear them.”

She paused, trying to put her jumbled thoughts in order. For all her worrying, this difficulty she hadn't foreseen. “If you tell them you're in danger, what will they do? Realistically?”

“Alys would want the whole house on alert, to stop any stranger immediately before he could come near me. Mirain would appoint himself my personal bodyguard.”

“The tarika, the extremists, they aren't cubs hunting butterflies.” Oops; that was an expression borrowed from one of the Copper Springs wolves. “To them, you've committed a very serious crime. If Mirain comes between them and you, they'll go through him, and he's very likely to be badly hurt or killed. Alys too, possibly. For their safety, it would be best if you could send them somewhere else...”

“No.” His tone was flat, final. Nothing to be gained from pressing that angle, then.

“Then keep them here, but tell them nothing that will make them put themselves at risk.”

“I don't like keeping secrets from them.” She knew that expression, had once always backed down from the stubbornness behind it. This time, she couldn't.

“I can understand that. I'd hate to keep such a secret from Dayr. And it would certainly be easier for me to have their cooperation. But for their safety?” She disliked forcing this on him; her own priorities were clear, though. “I can't effectively protect you if I have to divide my attention between that and keeping your cousins out of harm's way. Nor did I come here to place my life and Dayr's at any more risk than absolutely necessary, and to have your cousins interfere could mean exactly that. I'm sorry, Jared, and truly, I sympathize. But I don't think you should tell them.”

“I have to tell them something!”

“Then tell them that there are those coming to reclaim the grimoire. Leave it at that. They'll be prepared for something to happen, but they won't put anyone, including themselves, in danger.”

No reaction for a long moment, then he sighed heavily. “All right, I can see your point, although I don't entirely agree. For the moment, then, we'll leave it at that.”

“It won't be for long. Dayr? How long, do you think?”

Dayr nibbled a fingernail thoughtfully. “We made good time, we should have at least three or four days. Depending on tracking and travelling conditions, might have as much as a fortnight. No longer than that. Could be a scout or two around already, though, a wolf could've beaten us easily.”

“That's why I interrupted your meeting,” Vixen said softly. “Because of that chance. But now you know to watch your back and not take chances, and we can behave as proper guests should until we're needed.” She smiled. “You look good, Jared.”

Jared answered the smile, if a bit shakily. “I need time to think, but... I'm glad you're here and happy. So.” He stood up. “I do have other matters I need to return to. It's still some time until dinner. I'll ask Alys to arrange for... one room or two?”

“Two. Thank you.”

“And I'll see you again. Soon.”


Jared gave her a last, long look, and strode to the door.



A tentative knock at the door roused Vixen from her musings. “Yes?”

The door opened to admit a willowy maid, neatly dressed in Hyalin's navy-blue and white livery, her light ash-brown hair smoothly braided and coiled into a crown. “Dinner is about to be served, milady.”

Vixen nodded acknowledgement, and slid off the windowseat. She felt much more presentable now, having had her first proper hot bath since leaving Willow River, and wearing clothes Alys had provided. All of cotton from the south: an undershift, and a high-waisted, short-sleeved dress of a deep plum colour. Someone had let out the bottom hem, and with impressive skill and speed had used creamy material that matched the embroidery to alter the upper part so it fit comfortably across her shoulders. Given that they'd found anything that could fit her on short notice, she was inclined to be forgiving, anyway. Accustomed only to trousers as Corin, to shyani clothes or her green divided skirt since, it felt very different, and was going to take some getting used to, but she had concluded that she rather liked it.

She'd known the Domain of Hyalin was wealthy, but hadn't imagined such luxury as this room that even made her father's house look shabby. The great canopied bed would have been impressive alone, even without the cushioned couch, the carved chairs, the polished table, the full-length bronze-framed mirror of true silvered glass with hardly any rippling. A heavy rope, sheathed in soft wool but she expected something heavier as a core, ran up through the ceiling—immediate summons for the maid. For all its comfort, it was actually a little intimidating.

The maid knocked on the door beside hers, as well, the last in the corridor; Dayr emerged, also in borrowed clothes, dark grey trousers and an embroidered slate-blue shirt. Vixen doubted he'd had a bath, though. He greeted her with a mischievous smile.

“What trouble have you been causing?” Vixen murmured, while they followed the maid.

“Trouble?” he asked innocently.

She shook her head, smiling. Most likely, Hyalin would never be the same, having hosted a puma.

The maid showed them to a dining room of moderate size. Six high-backed chairs, beautifully carved and highly polished, surrounded a matching table. Alys sat at one end, a woman to her right who had hair the rich brown of dark honey and a much fuller figure, and she was probably taller. Jared had the seat at the other end. He rose with a smile when they came in.

“Welcome,” he said. “My guests Vixen and Dayr, our house musician and Alys' companion, Lyris Somarl.” The honey-haired woman in the rose-coloured gown nodded, and her smile was friendly. “Please,” he gestured to his right, to the empty seats side by side. “My cousin Mirain will be home tomorrow.”

“I'd prefer tomorrow for anything more, in any case,” Vixen said, choosing the chair beside him; Dayr sat beside her.

“Yes, of course, you must be tired after such a long journey.”

Alys sent the waiting servants to serve dinner.

“Have you travelled far?” Lyris asked.

“Ten sunsets,” Vixen answered distractedly: Dayr was eyeing his soup warily, and she hoped he wouldn't do anything drastically inappropriate. Surely pasta and vegetables and some sort of fowl was harmless enough?


Oops. Shyani counted by nights, humans didn't. “We slept outside ten nights,” she said, improvising. “Nine, actually, the second night it stormed, and a very friendly farm family gave us shelter.” Dayr stirred his soup, nostrils flaring; the scent must have reassured him, because he tentatively tasted it. He brightened instantly, and began to eat it eagerly.

“No trouble on the road?” Lyris' gaze rested on Dayr a moment, curiously, then flicked back to Vixen. “There've been reports of brigands, all to the north-west so far, but I doubt they'll stay there.”

Vixen smiled. The soup was really quite tasty, and she hadn't had pasta of any sort in all her time in the hills. Nor was it really so very hard to keep her tattooed palms out of sight. “I'm afraid we had a thoroughly uninteresting journey, and nothing at all happened that I could use as light conversation over dinner.” Lyris chuckled, and Alys and Jared smiled. “I would like to hear about the Hyalin Domain, however. I'm sure you've made changes and improvements, Jared, with plans for more?”

Jared shrugged. “A few. Truthfully, I've been too caught up in politics to make all the changes I'd like to. There are some among the other Lords who believe I'm not fit to hold the title. I've managed to coordinate the farming, though, so that instead of nine farmers planting wheat, two planting cabbages, and one planting barley, four plant each crop. That's obviously highly simplified.”

“Why?” Dayr asked. “Why shouldn't everyone grow whatever they want?”

“It's inefficient. It leads to having too much of something and not enough of something else. When it's coordinated, the Domain has enough of everything.”

Dayr considered that. “But what if I had a farm on your land, and I didn't want to grow cabbages?”

“If it mattered so greatly to you, you'd come to me and we'd rearrange the plan so that you could grow something different and someone else could grow the cabbages.”

“Or if I didn't want to grow anything except goats?”

“Part of the plan involves the most efficient use of the land. If your land yielded more from goats than it would from crops, I'd encourage it.”


“Otherwise, I'd suggest alternatives.”

“I think I like freedom better than efficiency.”

“Jared,” Vixen said quickly, “what's the population of the Domain now?”

“As of the census we did last year, just over ten thousand adults, about half in a handful of market towns and the rest spread through quite a lot of villages. Hyalin is one of the larger Domains.”

Dayr stopped eating. “You're making decisions for ten thousand people and their children?”

“And making sure that they have food and shelter,” Vixen said.

The weyre shook his head. “It makes no sense to me.”

“I wasn't really expecting it to. Thank you,” that last she directed towards the maid who took her empty bowl and replaced it with a plate of fish. “What else have you done?”

Dayr decided to stay quiet for the most part, after that, though he listened intently. Vixen was grateful, though she felt guilty for it. Jared, with help from his clearly perplexed cousin and musician, described the other changes in the Hyalin Domain: an improvement in the indoor plumbing (still inferior to that of the shyani hills), a revised tax system (Vixen steered the conversation away before Dayr could ask about that), increased trade with other Domains. Vixen found herself contemplating each with a doubled level of awareness: that of the son of a Domain Lord, and that of a healer from a vastly different culture. To the eyes of the former, the changes made a good system better; the latter was glad not to be bound within it and sad for those who couldn't fit neatly into place.

The meal ended with sweet pastry. Dayr tasted his, and wouldn't eat it; Vixen ate part of hers, but after a few bites found it too rich to finish.

Jared leaned back, while the servants cleared the table. “Well. I'm sure you'd like to be to bed early after travelling so far, so I won't keep you.”

“Thank you,” Vixen said. “I'm sure tomorrow will be soon enough to talk.” At least, now that Jared knew of his danger.

“Tylla, would you show His Grace's guests back to their rooms?” Alys requested.

The willowy maid curtsied. She was a few years Vixen's senior, she thought, though Hyalin's staff were obviously well taken care of. “Yes, milady.”

Courteous good-nights were said, and Tylla escorted them through the maze of halls.

“Is there anything else you need, milord, milady? Shall I come in and light the lamps for you?”

“No, thank you,” Vixen said. “Nothing.”

“If you want me, milady, or if you want Leofric, milord, just pull the bell. There's someone listening for them at all times. Sleep well.” Tylla curtsied again, and departed.

“Dayr. I need you.”

Dayr came into her room with her, unquestioningly, and waited while she closed the door.

“Coming here won't do any good if we aren't with him when the tarika arrive.” The room was shadowy, but there was light enough from the window. “I'm going to set a circle around the house, so that I'll know if shyani or weyres cross it.”

“I had wondered about that. This is something you need to go deep for?”

“Yes.” She dropped to each knee in turn to unlace her boots and remove them, then pulled the dress off over her head and tossed it over the chair. The fine cotton shift she left on; unbraiding her hair, so it fell loose around her, she crossed the room barefoot to her pack to rummage through it. She found the bag she wanted, woven of black goat's wool.

Unasked, Dayr tossed a couple of pillows onto the floor immediately in front of the door and made himself comfortable. He said nothing. He didn't need to. She was safe.

She settled herself in the centre of the great bed, legs crossed comfortably. From the bag she took a smaller pouch, again woven black wool. For a long moment she sat still, centring and preparing herself.

One at a time, eyes closed, she took five of the clay runes from the pouch, and arranged them in front of her on the blue quilt, one in the centre, four circling it. Only then did she lay aside the pouch and open her eyes.

She'd made the runes herself, from pale moon-coloured clay, as every shaman did. She knew what she had to do, but she hoped for insight.

The centre rune was a straight line with two more lines forming a small triangle pointing right, etched deep and coloured purple, though in this light she couldn't distinguish that last detail: Thorn, the rune of defence and protection. That was certainly the task at hand.

The rune to the left, the past, was two triangles, points touching, in blue: the Hourglass of time, change, motion. Above, to show the appearances of the present situation... the Fish-hook, stylized and angular, red: need, necessity, often implying that it might be unpleasant. What could be less pleasant than to be trapped between loyalties?

Below, to show the root of the matter. Vixen frowned. Two vertical white lines, a third across their tops. The Trilithon, an image of the huge stones found here and there in the highlands. It indicated memory and the past. But... it was inverted. How could memory reversed be at the root?

She went on to the fifth, the near future. Three purple lines rayed out from a single point at the left. The Paths, choices, decisions to make about what mattered and what to do.

Distinctly troubled, she returned the runes to their pouch. She'd have to spend some time pondering the reading and hope to find some meaning in it.

For the time being, she had something else to do. She slid from the bag an egg made of bone, its hollow heart filled with tiny seeds. There were as many rattles and drums, with as many different sounds, as there were shamans. Vixen found the whispery quality of this one soothing, the best to help her both relax and concentrate. She rearranged herself more comfortably, and began to shake the egg rhythmically, gradually increasing the tempo. Eyes closed, she slowed her breathing, willing each muscle loose.

Then, in the Old Tongue, she sang. In her mind she formed an image of a waterfall, and walked towards it, her song a part of and yet apart from the thunder of the water. She followed a narrow ledge along the cliff, and stepped beneath the waterfall, her breath catching momentarily from the force and the cold against her skin. Beyond, a round tunnel led her onward, the bone egg glowing to light her way.

The tunnel ended against a glassy wall. Vixen laid a hand against it, and it rippled and let her step through, back into her bedroom in Jared's house through the full-length mirror. Her body still sat, shaking the egg-rattle and singing the same low song. Dayr, however, raised his head, nostrils flaring; it wasn't uncommon for a weyre to sense a shaman travelling. But then, weyres had a connection of their own with the spirit world.

Vixen stopped both shaking and singing, not needing it for the moment, and in reflection, her body wound down to stillness. As she passed Dayr, he stirred restlessly, aware of her proximity and yet unable to entirely perceive her. The door was no barrier to her in this state. She followed the hall, checking that the route she'd made a point of memorizing was indeed correct.

Outside she halted, and looked up at the moon. “There is something I feel I must do,” she said in the Old Tongue. “Will you help me?”

“Must, is it?” High, yapping laughter sounded from one side. “Did I call you from your cage, for you to choose a collar and leash?”

Vixen turned and knelt to face the red fox. “When you saved my life, you called me to be your daughter and to be a healer. I learned to honour and value all life. Shall I forsake that?”

“Why this one, of all the chosen prey of the tarika?”

“Jared was, once, the only friend Corin had. I repaid that badly, by allowing him to believe me dead. The scales are not yet balanced between us.”

The spirit-fox laughed again. “Are you sure? Maybe they were balanced, maybe it was better he think you dead than know what you are, maybe you unbalanced it by coming here? Ah?”

Vixen shook her head. At first, years ago, Red Fox's words had often reduced her to tears. Now she understood that he only gave voice to her own secret fears, goading her into facing them. “I was right to come,” she said firmly. “I'm right to try to keep Jared safe. Anything beyond that... I'll have to decide as it comes.”

“Where lies your loyalty, fox-daughter? Where lies your heart?”

“In the hills. With Dayr, with my father and teacher Sanovas and my mother Aerfen and everyone else in Copper Springs, and my sister Shabra in Rainbow Falls, and with Irisan and Fero and all the others of Willow River. But to be worthy of that, I have to do what I feel is right.”

Another laugh. “What would you do this night?”

“I'd like to set a circle around the house, so that when the tarika come, I'll sense them near in time.”

“Ah. A circle to sense, blind only to humans.”


“Walk your circle. I walk with you.”

“Thank you.”

“Your choices are yours to make.”

That worried Vixen a little, but it was too late now. She paced a ring around the house and immediate grounds, and on the ground behind her appeared a glowing line, all colours shifting and swirling within it. Every step tired her more, but she persisted. No more than the length of her forearm from completing the circuit, she knelt and traced the rune Thorn on the ground to close the gap. In that instant, the colours flared up, and subsided to a steady purple.

“It is done,” Red Fox said. “Choose well and with care.”

“Thank you,” Vixen said, to empty air—the fox was gone.

Wearily, she turned her attention to the bone egg still clasped in her hand. She started to shake it again, matching the earlier rhythm precisely, then slowing it, closing her eyes briefly. When she opened them, she stood before the mirror. She retraced her path, through tunnel and waterfall, and felt the transition back to her body.

Carefully, she stretched, was pleased to find no stiffness. “Dayr? I'm back. Could you get me a drink of water?”

Dayr rose promptly, took a silver cup from the table and filled it with water in the bathroom. Vixen sipped it gratefully.



“Should I not ask about your rune reading?”

“I could tell you the runes, but I'd rather wait until I have time to think, so I can give you some idea what it means.”


“I won't be doing anything else tonight except sleeping.”

Deep trance always left her a trifle disoriented and off-balance. Dayr stayed to make sure she made it to the bathroom and into bed safely before leaving for his own room.

Vixen fell asleep wishing, oddly, that she and Dayr were still out on the open road.




Corin looked up from the book open in front of him. The Laures estate house wasn't as large and lavish as many, and as a younger—and far from favoured—child, his room was correspondingly smaller and simpler. That was fine by him: not being in the same part of the building as his parents and elder siblings tended to make it easier for them to overlook his existence, or at least how he spent his time.

It didn't always help, though. He'd know that bellow anywhere. Not a week passed without hearing it.

Resignedly, he laid his tattered ribbon bookmark in place and closed the book before heading out to the upstairs landing that, after a corner or two, linked the corridor outside his door to the corridor outside the rooms of his parents.

Lord and Lady Laures both this time, and both looked annoyed and impatient.

I wonder what I did wrong this time? Or at least, what I did so much more wrong than usual...

He tried his best to keep his sigh to himself as he stopped before them, eyes low, hands linked submissively in front of him. He had no idea what to say. “I'm sorry and I'll try not to do it again, whatever it was,” tended to be heard by his father as sarcasm. It didn't matter, since they launched into today's list of sins before he could have opened his mouth anyway.

“You're supposed to be at a horsemanship lesson right now,” his father said. “I don't hire tutors for my own benefit. I expect you to make use of their skills to learn something.”

“They aren't just for me,” Corin felt compelled to point out, even knowing it wouldn't help.

“Your sisters spend more time with the riding master than you do! Which is just as well, since your brothers no longer need him, and if it were entirely up to you, he'd be lazing around with no work at all!”

I can ride well enough to get around, why do I need more than that? He'd asked it before, and the reply generally involved the phrase “manly arts,” so he'd given up. A suggestion to dismiss the riding master would probably get his ears boxed for impudence. He settled for, “Yessir,” eyes fixed firmly on the floor.

“You will not shame this family by becoming some spineless effeminate weakling useful for nothing but pandering to real men. You will live up to your name!”

“Yessir.” That's about as likely as his favourite hound learning to recite poetry.

“I am running out of patience with this nonsense. Keep this up, and I'll have to take more drastic action.”

“Yessir.” You've been saying the first part for as long as I can remember, and using that threat for at least two years. It's hard to come up with drastic action that punishes me worse without it being public gossip and bad for the family name.

“You've been upsetting the kitchen staff again,” Lady Laures reproved him, when her husband paused. “What were you doing with that deer?”

“I wanted to look at the anatomy of its internal organs fresh, before they went into pie or to the dogs.”

“What in the All-Father's name for?”

“To compare them to the organs from the pig that was slaughtered last week,” he said reluctantly. “And the ones from the hares three days ago.”


“To see how they're different and how they're the same.” That is what compare means. “To see how they work.”

“If you wanted to hunt, that would be fine,” Lord Laures said with a scowl. “I'd certainly encourage that. But wanting to be up to your elbows in the blood and guts of animals being cleaned for the kitchen, that's not natural. They're food, what difference does it make what's inside that's the same or not?”

“It's a way to understand.”

“Understand what?”

“Everything. The way the world works.”

“The way the world works is this. I'm your father and your Lord, and you will do as you're told. You will spend less time in your damned books and you will stop upsetting the kitchen staff, and the gardening staff with whatever you were doing a fortnight ago...”

“I wanted to see the way the roots grow.” Corin bit his lip hard, regretting that as soon as it was out.

“You will stay away from the kennels. The kennel master is rather unhappy that every time you're near the dogs, things happen. A whelp you say is doing poorly dies, the white-eared bitch who runs like the wind's chasing her turns up lame...”

“I don't hurt them! I just watch them! She was starting to favour one hind leg a little, but he sent her on the next hunt anyway! And old Growler isn't slowing down because of his joints, he's slowing down because his eyes are all cloudy and I don't think he can see right to avoid obstacles. But he can still track by scent. And the whelp wasn't nursing as long or as much as the others and it was less active.”

“I doubt you've got the balls to actually hurt them. But stay away from the kennels anyway. Common folk can be superstitious and you're getting a reputation as a witch. And whatever other bizarre ideas come into your head, you will keep to yourself and behave like a normal person! Go chase the chambermaids like your brothers—tell them you want to compare things.” Lady Laures' lips pressed together in disapproval of her husband's statement but she said nothing. “Or learn to hunt instead of playing with dead things. I don't care, as long as it's normal for a young highborn man! And you will attend your scheduled lessons! Do you understand me?”

“Yessir.” Just like I've understood the last hundred times. And I can't do it. Why can't you understand that?

Lord Laures heaved a martyred sigh. “Go change your clothes and get down to the stableyard immediately.”


Corin waited until they moved before he did, fleeing back to his own room. He'd have preferred to go back to his book, but given a direct order like that, he'd have to drag himself down to the stable and endure a lesson. He didn't mind horses, and was actually fond of his own easygoing gelding. Acutely sensitive as he was to atmosphere and body language, the veiled contempt and dislike of the riding master were impossible to ignore, and that turned lessons from merely pointless to excruciating.

But what could he do except try to obey, even though he knew with despairing certainty that he was doomed to fail, just like every time before?



Someone close, someone unfamiliar...

Vixen bolted sharply out of dreams of her birth-father's house and one of the endless scoldings, instantly alert though she didn't move. Cautiously, she opened her eyes.

A well-laden tray sat on the table near one of the large windows. The maid Tylla was moving around the room, gathering up the clothes Vixen had dumped from her pack last night. Draping them over one arm, she reached for the black wool bag on the small table beside the bed.

“No! Don't touch that!”

Tylla jerked back, dropping the clothes. “Oh! I'm sorry, milady, I...”

Vixen sat up, wrapping the blankets around her. “You're Tylla, correct?”

“Yes, milady. I'm to see to you while you're here.” Hastily, she went to one knee to pick up the fallen garments.

“I realize you're doing your job. In regards to clothes and such, I appreciate your services very much, but I have things with me that I would prefer no one touched but myself. Mostly that means anything in black wool. And I... I'll probably be a bit jumpy about having someone unfamiliar around when I'm not expecting it, until I get used to you. Could you keep just those two things in mind? And I'll do my best to add as little difficulty as I can to your responsibilities.”

“Oh, milady, you're no trouble! Of course, if you want me to do that, I will. I'm sorry.”

“Forgotten already. Is that breakfast?”

“Yes, milady. His Grace asks that you join the household in the dining room for lunch. Lord Mirain will be home.”

“I'd be happy to.”

“I'll relay that to him, milady. Lady Alys sent clothes for you.” She nodded towards a mass of forest green draped over the back of a chair. “Is there anything else you'll need?”

Vixen's insistence yesterday on bathing and dressing herself must have made an impression. “No, that's... wait. Is there an herb garden here?”

“An herb garden? There's the kitchen garden, that's spices mostly, and a few simples.”

“That will do. Where would I find it?”

“At the south-west corner of the main house, milady.”

“Thank you.” She'd probably walked right past it last night, but with her attention on creating the boundary, she'd noticed very little detail.

Tylla curtsied and left.

Vixen waited until she was gone before getting out of bed, a light blanket wrapped around her, and sitting down at the table. Oatmeal, with a miniature pitcher of cream and another of sweet syrup, a small plate of cold fowl, and a cup of some sort of tea. She tasted the latter, cautiously, and identified it as a blend of mint and a common lowlands herb that was quite an effective, if mild, stimulant. It could also interfere with shamanic work, so she set it aside. The oatmeal, though, she laced with cream and syrup and started on.

She'd had only a few bites when Dayr invited himself in, closed the door behind him, and sprawled into the chair across from her. He gestured to her bowl. “How can you eat that? And what is it?”

“It's oatmeal, it's made from a kind of grain, and I can eat it because I like it and I haven't had it in a long time.” She handed him her plate of fowl. “Here, eat.” She gave him the rest of her cream, too. He ate contentedly while she finished her oatmeal.

“Don't human understand privacy?” he asked, between bites.

“Not in the same way. What did you do to whoever brought you breakfast?”

“Nothing. Much.”

“Was it nothing or was it much?”

“He startled me. So I swatted at him.” He demonstrated, fingers hooked into claws. “I missed because he was too far away. He jumped, and the tea spilled, but I didn't want it anyway. Then I told him not to ever come in the room while I was asleep.”

“Hmm. Well enough. At least he didn't come in and find you sleeping furform.”

“If he did, he'd never do that again.”

“Dayr. We're a long way from home. Do not let yourself be caught furform. Clear?”

“Oh, I know, I'm only teasing.”

“There are times I wonder.” She smiled to take any sting from the words, scraped the last bite from her bowl, and rose to see about clothes.

Alys had provided, this time, an attractive, high-waisted gown of soft dark green wool, embroidered with varied shades of blue, and a clean shift of white linen. Vixen washed thoroughly in the bathroom before getting dressed and braiding her hair neatly. This one showed no signs at all of recent alterations, which was interesting. She rather liked how it looked, when she checked her reflection in the mirror.

“If you like, we can go to the kitchen and get you more meat,” she offered.

Dayr shrugged. “I'm not hungry now, it doesn't matter. What's next?”

“I'm going to visit the kitchen garden. Did you get the message about lunch?”

“Yes. What'll happen at that?”

“You and I will meet Mirain and anyone else Jared has invited, we'll all eat and be polite, and they'll try to overlook our eccentricities. Nothing particularly practical, just courtesy.”

“Huh. Humans are like fleas, y'know. They're irritating, they don't make any sense, and you can't get rid of them.”

Vixen laughed. “You might be right. With luck, we'll be out of here before you can start scratching. Ready to go?”


She had a reasonable idea of the layout of the house, and between that and Dayr's directional sense they found the kitchen garden fairly readily.

Within its tall thick evergreen hedge, the garden was neatly organized into small patches by borders of stone. Vixen paused to examine some of the young plants, and identified common flavourings for the most part.

“Chamomile here, feverfew there, but otherwise, I believe this is, precisely, a garden for use by the kitchen. Which is normal, really, any House this size would have a resident physician.”

“A what? Oh. What you were going to be until you learned better.”

Vixen chuckled. “Yes.”

“And you think there's one here because there's no healing herbs.” He wrinkled his nose in disgust. “Physicians make people give them things before they'll help them, and they don't want people to help themselves, because then they wouldn't get rich.” He said the last word distastefully.

“Many of them truly want to help people, the way I did. One was very kind to me, once. But they don't learn all the right things about prevention and the importance of the mind and the whole body instead of its parts separately. And, in the lowlands, they aren't just given what they need by the people they care for, the way Willow River supports Irisan and me.” She considered. “Unless they're working in a House like this, anyway. But the others need to pay for food and clothing and a place to live and the tools and medicines they use.”

Dayr just shook his head, unconvinced.

They wandered on along the stone-edged path, Vixen taking note of what was available. Maybe tomorrow she could persuade them to bring her lemon balm tea with breakfast, or mint alone.

Dayr stopped, nostrils flaring. “Something just moved... towards the kitchen door.”

Without question, Vixen lengthened her strides to match his.

A housecat lay curled under a bush, weakly licking at her wet fur.

Dayr dropped to his knees, heedless of his clothes, and made a soft mrring sound. The cat looked up, ears flattening and eyes dilating, but Dayr started to purr as he offered her a hand to sniff.

“Come on, little sister,” he murmured. “Come out and let us help you. Come, we'll protect you...”

Vixen approached slowly and knelt beside him, offering her hand as well. “We won't hurt you, little one, you'll be safe with us.”

The cat eyed them uncertainly for a moment, then wriggled out from under the bush, limping heavily on one hind leg. Vixen gathered her up gently and cuddled her close with care for her injured leg.

“Let's take her upstairs.”

Dayr nodded. His pupils were dilated, too, but in anger, not fear.

Twice, maids scuttled hastily out of their way. The cat pressed against Vixen, shivering, claws digging into her arm.

Dayr stripped a knitted blanket from Vixen's bed and made it into a nest in a sheltered corner under a table, next to a well-padded chair. Carefully, Vixen let the cat down onto the blanket. She promptly retreated against the wall.

“Can you talk to her?” Vixen asked softly.

Dayr shrugged. “Sort of. I think we need to just let her be for a little while, then you can try healing her. We'll probably get some scratches.”

“I don't care. She looks like someone poured wash-water on her. Will she let us dry her at all?”

“I doubt it. It's warm in here, she'll dry herself and feel safer. We could get her some food, though.”

“Will you stay here with her? I'll go down to the kitchen.”

He nodded again, and arranged himself leaning against the wall, purring reassuringly.

Vixen made her way down to the kitchen, and cornered a plump woman in an apron. The woman's gaze flickered down Vixen's wet and muddy dress, eyes wide in horror. “Oh, milady, what happened?”

Vixen cut her off with a gesture. “I want meat, right now, about as much as a soup-bowl will hold. Good cooked meat, not scraps, and if you have any liver or heart include that. And an empty soup bowl.”


“Do I need to repeat myself?”

“No, milady.” Obviously bewildered, she turned away to obey, calling orders.

It was readied with impressive speed, and presented to her on a bronze tray.

“Thank you,” Vixen said coolly, and returned to her room.

Dayr took the bowl of meat, and sniffed it. “Chicken, chicken liver. It's too big.” He broke each piece up into smaller bits before offering the bowl to the cat, while Vixen filled the empty bowl with cool water in the bathroom. Cautiously, the cat investigated. Dayr moved away, slowly so he wouldn't startle her, and he and Vixen sat on the couch where she could watch them while eating.

They waited patiently until she had eaten her fill; she scratched at the blanket diligently until she'd buried the remainder of her meat with a fold of it, then settled down to lick herself relatively dry. She was a beautiful cat, black and orange with a little white, her eyes a warm amber, though her long fur was badly matted. She'd be quite large, too, were she not so skinny.

Once the cat satisfied herself that she was as dry as she could manage, Vixen joined her, speaking reassuringly. The cat lay still, allowing Vixen to stroke her head and a few inches down her back, but when her hand neared hip-level, claws flashed out.

“Hush, little one, hush, I won't hurt you, I just want to see what's wrong and try to fix it. That's all.” Quietly, she began to sing her healing song. Dayr knelt beside her, purring in harmony.

Before she'd finished healing the broken hip, she and Dayr had gained a number of scratches, some deep, but they persisted until she'd done all she could.

“There, little one, does that feel better? I know, you're only scared, that's why you scratched us, it's all right. Poor baby, why didn't anyone take care of you before this?” She eyed the livid marks on her hands and forearms ruefully; Dayr started to lick his. They would take more work to fix than it was worth, but they did hurt. “It could have spared you a lot of fear and all of us some pain. Well, don't worry, you're safe now. If I have to, I'll take you back to Willow River with me. Irisan would love you. You need a name. What shall we call you?” She pondered, toying with sounds. “Anna,” she decided. “Your name is Anna, the name I give you is Anna, you are Anna.” She turned it into a singsong, playing with it, pleased when Anna gradually relaxed and curled up on her blanket.

She stayed there, singing softly, until someone tapped on the door.

Dayr rose to open it, and admitted Tylla into the room.

“Milord, milady, lunch is... oh, what happened?”

“Hush,” Dayr said. “Keep your voice down.”

Vixen eased herself to her feet. “Lunch, yes. Where, in the dining room we were in last night?”

“Yes, milady,” Tylla said faintly.

“Thank you. Dayr, stay here? I won't be long.” Vixen stepped past Tylla, and strode downstairs to the dining room.

Jared rose, smiling, as she came in; the smile turned to shock. “What... Your hands...”

“My apologies, Your Grace,” she said coldly, “but my calling takes precedence over decorum. Or, for that matter, my own comfort. I certainly hope that the rest of the living things in your Domain are better treated.”

“I'm sorry, I don't understand.”

Vaguely, Vixen realized that Alys and Lyris were there, and a young man who resembled the former, and a finely-clad man with silvery streaks in his hair. “There is a cat, now safe in my room, that has had a broken hip for the past week at least, scant food for at least that long, and no care at all. In fact, someone from your kitchen dumped greasy water on her this morning. She is not wild, she's definitely a housecat. Wild or tame, that she should be treated that way is... is... appalling! It does not speak well of your household that a vulnerable and trusting creature was abused like that. She is staying in my room, and anyone who so much as speaks loudly to her is going to answer to me!” She spun around, skirt swirling, and stormed away.

She calmed herself before entering her room. Cats could be highly sensitive to moods, and the last thing Anna needed was a temper tantrum.

She settled herself where she could both look out the window and watch Dayr, sprawled on the floor near Anna and still purring reassuringly to her.

By the time there was another knock at the door, this one decidedly tentative, Vixen felt like she had her internal balance back.

Tylla gave her a timorous smile hen Vixen opened the door. “His Grace said to bring you and milord Dayr lunch, milady. And that you're to have anything you need for your... your new friend. And Lady Alys said to bring your clothes, so you'd have something clean to wear.”

“I'm not going to bite you,” Vixen said gently, taking the tray. “You haven't done anything wrong. Leave the clothes on the bed, please.” She frowned, trying to remember what Nuriel's pet cats at Copper Springs had. “I'll need some sort of shallow box or basin with clean sand in it. And she'll need meat, twice a day, cooked lightly and cut small, it would be best if some of it could be a mixture of organ meats and ground uncooked bone.”

“Yes, milady. I can bring some at breakfast, and again after dinner.”

“That would be perfect. She only needs about half a bowlful at a time. And water, always, but I'll see to that. Thank you. If you could find a sandbox?”

“I'll think of something, milady,” Tylla said earnestly. “Milady? May I ask something?”

“Yes, always.”

“My friend was in the dining room, when you, um, spoke to His Grace. What did you mean, your calling?”

“I'm a healer. And, as a healer, I was taught to honour and respect life in all forms.” She turned away, setting the tray on the table by the window where she'd had her breakfast.

“Oh. Thank you, milady.” With a quick curtsey, Tylla left and closed the door.



Vixen left off singing to Anna and rose to answer the door, expecting Tylla.

Tylla was there, but she hovered a couple of steps behind Jared.

Jared smiled. “May I come in?”

“Please.” Vixen stepped back, admitting them both. Jared gestured Tylla forward; the maid curtsied nervously, held up a large oval bronze roast-pan that had seen better days, now half-filled with clean sand.

“Will this do, milady?”

“That'll be perfect, thank you. Just set it in the bathroom.”

Tylla obeyed, and left promptly with another curtsey, taking the soiled green wool dress.

“I apologize,” Vixen said. “My behaviour was inappropriate for a guest in your house.” She hoped it didn't sound as stiff as she feared it did. Truthfully, she didn't feel particularly repentant, other than for the violation of hospitality.

Jared shook his head. “You were well within your rights to be angry. I'm sorry anything happened that could cause you such distress. Alys is speaking to the kitchen staff now. Is she badly hurt?”

Vixen shrugged. “Frightened, hungry. Her fur was a mess to begin with, and greasy water didn't help. I healed her hip, though it still needs time to strengthen properly. With time, safety, love, and good food, she'll be fine.”

“Healed her?”

“I told you. I'm a shaman. In part, that means healer.”

“Mm. I'd love to hear more about that. So she's well. I'm glad to hear it.” He hesitated for a heartbeat. “Could I possibly coax you away from her to walk with me in the garden?”

“Yes, of course. Time alone to settle in won't do Anna any harm.” She brushed the traces of cat-fur off her oak-green divided skirt—Tylla had brought back her own clothes, clean and neatly mended. Dayr gave Anna a last gentle caress, and got to his feet.

A vertical line appeared in the centre of Jared's forehead. “Alone, perhaps?”

“Humans don't know about proper respect for a shaman,” Dayr said flatly. “It's my responsibility to keep Vixen safe.”

“And I honour that. However, I think there's no danger in the garden in mid-afternoon.”

“Dayr,” Vixen said. “Would you wait for me in one part of the garden, so you'll be close enough to hear if I need you?”

Dayr considered that, and nodded.

“A good compromise,” Jared said, and offered Vixen his arm. “Shall we, milady?”

Jared showed them outside, questioning them about Anna as they walked. Or rather, questioning Vixen, with Dayr simply answering when he felt like it; Jared didn't seem to be entirely at ease with the weyre. It wasn't the kitchen garden to which they came, though it was hedge-ringed like the other.

Dayr chose a sunny spot just outside the hedge, and made himself comfortable on the grass to catnap.

This garden was larger, beautifully landscaped with trees and stone and gentle slopes and a small stream, young plants emerging in small patches defined neatly by borders of limestone. Vixen crouched to examine some of the seedlings, and identified common flowers for the most part, useful mainly for pleasing the eye.

“No healing herbs here, either,” she murmured.

“Simple ones,” Jared said. “The ones that look attractive are here, the others are in the kitchen garden. We do have a physician here.”

“A physician. Mmm.”

“You planned to be one, once.”

“I know.” She remembered the courses, the lessons that focused on treatment of disease but neglected maintenance of health, the body broken down into separate parts instead of being taught in all its complex unity, the contempt for the herbalist who knew from her grandmother that a tisane of these leaves or those roots could cure that complaint.

She said nothing, though, only wandered on.

“Have my household been treating you well?” Jared asked, after a moment.

“Very well, yes.”

“If there's anything you'd like, please, ask. Particular meals, even. Last night at dinner you looked like... like you hadn't had a proper meal in a while.”

Vixen laughed. “Not a meal quite the same as in the lowlands, no. It's certainly a pleasant treat. But I've always eaten quite well, both at Copper Springs and at Willow River. Do you think we lurk in caves, squabbling over raw meat and berries?”

“How am I to know what you eat in the hills?” he said lightly. “For all I know, it could be moonlight and thistles.”

“For the most part, all the bounty of the forest, and of small mixed gardens that don't harm the earth. No grain-fields, but we make flour from nuts and from wild grains and from several kinds of roots. Hills are always near a river or a lake with plentiful fish, which often means wild rice. Most have weyres, usually a mated pair and their young; they need a much greater amount of meat in their diet, so they hunt, and sometimes they bring some home as a change from fish. We have goats, for milk and wool, and fowl similar to lowland chickens, for eggs and occasionally meat. Not once have I gone hungry, other than deliberate fasting at times for shamanic work. As for living in caves... the inside of a hill is dark, yes, but it's warm and dry and comfortable.” With better lighting than anything the lowlands could offer, but that was best not discussed. She moved a few steps away and crouched to look at a flowerbed. “Oh, there's evening primrose over here! I can think of easily four or five uses for it. Lily-of-the-valley there, that's good for the heart, and peony... Jared, there are any number of other beautiful flowers that could also make the lives of your people better. Windflower, honeysuckle, violets, nerveroot... no, sorry, in the lowlands it's called lady's slipper. They should all be here.”

“I generally leave the garden to Alys and her head gardener, and medical matters to Balduin,” Jared said, with a shrug. “I would like to hear about it, though.”


“Why not?”

One of a shaman's responsibilities was teaching; she began the same way she would have with a shyani or weyre child, by showing him what to look for in identifying plants: the shape of the stem, the shape and texture of the leaves, the pattern in which the latter grew from the former. It was too early in the season yet for many flowers, but she explained what each looked like.

“Knowing that honeysuckle helps congested lungs is no use if you can't recognize it when you see it,” Vixen said. “We'll have to go out looking for wild plants, if you really want to learn.”

“I'd like that. This is fascinating. And, truthfully, more scientific than I expected.”

“Science is knowledge. It's only a different set of knowledge.”

“True. Well. I think it must be coming near to dinner, and Alys will be highly displeased if everyone else has to wait on us. And surely Dayr is losing patience by now.”

Vixen laughed. “Most likely he's asleep. Listening for me all the while.” They turned back towards the gate.

“He's very protective.”

“He meant exactly what he said. Ever since a certain cat rescued a stray human, he has considered my safety to be his responsibility. And in hill terms, the lowland attitude towards osana and towards shamans is... disrespectful, to say the least.”

“Then you'll simply have to teach us all to be properly respectful.”

She smiled, but shook her head. “I'm not certain that can happen. The cultures are too different.”

His fingertips brushed her arm lightly; Vixen shivered. “You don't think they can mix?”

“To some extent, it must be possible, or I wouldn't be here. Here in Hyalin, or here alive.”

Jared fell silent when they reached the gate. Dayr was stretched on the grass still, eyes closed, but he opened them as soon as they neared.

“Nice nap?” Vixen teased.

Dayr yawned hugely. “The hedge keeps the wind away, the sun's warm, and the grass is soft. What more could I ask for?” He stretched as only a cat could, deliberately and thoroughly, and rose in a single graceful motion. “Nice walk?”

“Very. Ready for dinner?”

“Any time.”



In the front hall, Jared excused himself and promised to see them shortly; that fit perfectly with Vixen's intention of checking on Anna.

She wasn't under the table.

Dayr sniffed around a little, and found her beneath the bed. She appeared to be happy there, though, so they let her be. The bowl of meat had been emptied; she'd found her sandbox, as well.

Vixen and Dayr cleaned themselves up quickly in the bathroom—her commoner-style clothes were woefully inappropriate for dinner, but she currently had little other option except perhaps throwing a tantrum of the sort she recalled her birth-sisters indulging in—and headed for the dining room.

“Will this be like you thought lunch would be?” Dayr asked.

Vixen sighed. “Probably. If not worse.”

“Oh. Then why are we going?”


“Humans have strange ideas of courtesy.” He shrugged philosophically. “Well, I'll have some interesting stories to take home but Fero will never believe I'm telling the truth.”

Near one of the tall dining room windows, Jared stood with Lyris and the man Vixen had glimpsed earlier; Jared smiled in welcome, beckoned them over.

“Vixen, Dayr, our resident physician Balduin,” Jared said.

He deserved the benefit of the doubt, whatever her general opinion of physicians. After all, he probably had a genuine desire to help people, and was unlikely to know how many simple cures his patients could find in the kitchen garden or the nearest meadow. Being as extremely well-dressed as he was might owe more to Jared's generosity than to fees from patients, and be intended to reassure patients that he was a professional. She gave him the friendliest smile she could muster, and offered her hand. “Doctor. Hyalin is fortunate.”

He clasped it perfunctorily with a curt nod. “Mistress.”

“Milady Vixen is highborn,” Jared said softly, with a faint edge to it.

“My apologies. Milady.” To Dayr he granted only the briefest inclination of his head in acknowledgement of his existence.

The potentially awkward situation was interrupted by a new arrival: the dark man who had also been there to overhear her tirade, perhaps younger than Jared, and certainly more active by his build. He joined them immediately.

“Vixen and Dayr, Mirain,” Jared said.

Mirain bowed gracefully. “Milady.” He held out a hand, and when she took it, he pressed a kiss to her fingers. Vixen smiled, oddly charmed by the somewhat archaic gesture. He turned to Dayr, clasping his forearm; this Dayr knew, and returned warmly. “I'm sorry I wasn't here when you arrived.”

“I'm sure you had things to take care of.” She studied Mirain curiously. He was really quite attractive, dark-haired like his sister, around Jared's height. He was dressed simply, in drab colours, though the material was high-quality, and trousers, shirt, and vest all fit him well. “How was your journey?”

“It went well. Every so often, I visit the towns and villages to check on matters,” Mirain said. “For the most part, the headmen take care of everything, but...”

“...but I prefer to have the first-hand report of a trusted member of my family,” Jared finished smoothly. “And some situations can be solved relatively easily this way.”

“Like arbitration,” Mirain said. “This time, I was in one village where there was a disagreement over who actually owned a particular animal. One of the parties was the headman's son-in-law.”

“Mirain has a talent for seeing both sides of everything,” Jared said. His tone was neutral, but Mirain winced, barely perceptibly.

“I would certainly call that a gift,” Vixen said. “That can be one of the most difficult things for a shaman to learn.”

Mirain smiled easily. “Jared mentioned that. It seems a long journey to bring a message.”

“As for riding out to check the villages personally,” Vixen continued, letting the hint slide, “given that they are your family's responsibility to care for, that seems only sensible.”

Alys crossed the room to them. Vixen noticed that she positioned herself between Jared and Mirain, and that her quick glances at the pair from the hills were decidedly uneasy. “Dinner is ready.”

Jared nodded. “Shall we?” He gestured to the table, and escorted Vixen personally to the seat to the right of his own. Dayr slid into the seat beside her, pretending that he hadn't noticed that Mirain had the same intention. An extra chair had been added to the far side of the table; Lyris sat at Jared's left, across from Vixen, with Balduin beside her, and Mirain calmly took the empty place beside Balduin. Alys waited until everyone was settled before seating herself smoothly at the foot of the table and nodding to the servant waiting by the kitchen door.

The soup served to distract from the uncomfortable silence for a moment. After a couple of bites, Lyris broke it.

“I've been curious a long time,” she said lightly. “Many of the stories Jared has found have referred to the music of the hills. Is music so important a part of life there?”

“Very,” Vixen said, glad to have a relatively safe topic. “A shyani child, or a young weyre growing up in a shyani hill, is sung to frequently, not only by the parents. Shyani often sing while they work, especially when it's a task that needs more than one person, or goes more smoothly with an even rhythm. There are prayer-songs, and songs to give thanks, to honour a birth or a death or a changing. Some songs tell stories, or histories. Shamans often sing to summon and direct power. Music's one of the most central foundations of the community.”

“Are instruments common?”

“Drums, pipes, small harps. There are others available, but I'm sorry, I don't really know about them.”

“There's lots of different kinds of all three,” Dayr supplied. “I saw someone play a thing sort of like a shallow box with strings across it, but I didn't bother asking its name. And a stringed thing with a long neck. There are lots of kinds of pipes and flutes and such. I used to know someone with a bronze flute. And lots of kinds of drums, little ones and big ones and flat ones you hold onto with one hand and hit with both ends of a stick in the other.” He shrugged. “Most people sing or have wooden or bone pipes or small hand drums, though.”

“It sounds heavenly,” Lyris laughed. “Music all the time. Would you be willing to sing us a song or two, later?”

Vixen paused. Yes, there were a few harmless songs that they could hear. “I'd love to.”

“Perhaps you should write a song about your own story,” Alys said. “One about how you came from a highborn house and became a hill-woman.” Her tone was casual, conversational, but Dayr raised his head, and Vixen heard a faint rumble of warning.

“I doubt anyone would care to hear it,” Vixen said blandly. “No more than I would care to share it.”

“Which is, of course, your right,” Jared said firmly, with a dark look at Alys. She lowered her eyes.

“I noticed your animals in the stable,” Mirain said quickly. “I've never seen full donkeys before, only an occasional mule from the border villages. They seem very friendly. And Dayr said to limit what they're fed, and no grain?”

“The grey is Dove, the dun is Sparrow,” Vixen said. “And yes, they're generally very friendly and good-natured, unless they're being asked to do something that seems to them to be dangerous.”

“They're especially friendly if you have carrots in your hands,” Dayr muttered.

Mirain flashed him a quick smile. “They're larger than I expected, but more pony-sized than horse-sized. How strong are they?”

“At least as strong as a horse of similar size,” Vixen said. “They work hard, and they'll give all they have when it's asked of them by someone they trust. And they're smart. If I take one with me to carry everything when I'm out gathering what I need, she'll stay near me without needing to be watched constantly, and she'll alert me if she senses anyone or anything nearby. The nervousness of one in the place I used to live kept her and me out of a rock-slide once, which was enough proof for me that it's worth listening to them. They're very easy to keep fed, too, compared to a horse. They eat less, and the richer foods that a horse needs would make them ill or at best fat. We don't have grain fields. They get through the winter partly by foraging for themselves, and we supplement it with some hay as necessary, but it's not nearly as demanding as horses would be. Their hooves are stronger and they don't need shoeing, especially since there's no paving. They don't have the speed of a larger horse, and they get cold very easily if they get wet, but I wouldn't trade them.”

“As much as I love my big brute, there are times I wish he were easier to keep,” Mirain laughed. “All-Father, but he eats a lot.”

“They're quite safe for children to be around. They're actually quite fond of children fussing over them. There isn't much of a mane or tail for braiding, which is a shame, but I've seen them both with flower garlands draped all over them looking very pleased with themselves. And there's a sort of paint small children are given that's safe no matter what they do, I've seen the two jennies where I used to live and the foal of one of them all painted with interesting colours, with no protest. If they aren't being hurt, and for children they tend to be forgiving, they'll be very gentle.”

She'd also seen the Copper Springs jennies playing with a pair of small wolf cubs, allowing the cubs to chase them but not really alarmed, and every donkey she'd seen calmly accepted the presence of adult weyres—wolves and pumas, that she'd met personally, but she had no reason to believe others were different. Nuriel, the Copper Springs witch, had told her that donkeys were too canny to waste energy panicking over anything that wasn't a threat, and growing up around weyres, they knew the large carnivores weren't dangerous to them, no matter what instinct said.

“I'll pass that on. With those sweet faces, I think half the children on the estate have found an excuse to drop by the corral they're in and see them.”

Well, that should keep them from getting bored, even if Dayr and I get too busy to spend a lot of time with them. Human children or shyani children, the difference should be minimal. And a corral with some hay is probably best for them, the pastureland here would probably be too rich for safety.

The servants cleared the soup bowls, brought the next course: individual fowl much smaller than an average hen, served whole and stuffed with a bread mixture, glazed with what tasted like honey. Dayr tore into his happily, pausing briefly to regard the stuffing in perplexity.

“My understanding was that hill culture isn't advanced enough for agriculture,” Balduin said lazily. “I'm afraid I don't see what hard work there would be for a couple of donkeys.”

Dayr's sharp teeth crunched through a bone, his gaze fixed on the physician. The unexpected sound made everyone save Vixen start, and gave her an extra heartbeat to bring her temper under control.

“We choose not to,” she said evenly. “To plough fields on a hillside is begging to have all the soil wash down into the nearest river. To plant a large field with a single crop creates imbalances in the soil and invites whatever insects prey on that crop to move in and multiply beyond the ability of natural predators to control. Larger livestock are impossible to feed through the winter without great quantities of grain and hay. Many small scattered mixed gardens, goats and rabbits and poultry, fishing, hunting, and gathering from the forest supply all the food and medicines we need. Fibre for clothing and nets and the like comes from at least a dozen sources, animal and vegetable both, along with leather and fur.”

“Ah. Medicines.” He didn't quite manage to veil the disdain in his voice and expression. “Herbal simples.”

“They're effective.”

“Oh? Well, perhaps for small common ailments, I suppose there might be treatments of some sort. But quicksilver doesn't grow in a forest.”

“No, and I'm grateful for that. Alisander, dandelion, dock, sage... the right combination will cleanse the blood and liver considerably more effectively, and not one of them is a poison. I can't say the same of quicksilver.”

Dayr responded to the scent of her carefully-leashed anger, dropping his fowl, hands curving into claws. The threatening growl was just loud enough to be audible, and his pupils dilated. Vixen grabbed his shoulder and pressed him back into his seat before he could rise, hissed, “They're only words, I'm not in danger.”

Alys paled, white showing around her eyes; Lyris and Mirain looked appalled, though Vixen couldn't tell what by. Jared gave Balduin a frown that could have frozen the southern wetlands, but before he could speak, Dayr did.

“You think we're backwards and barbaric?” he spat. Strong fingernails left dull tracks in the polish of the table as his hands flexed. “No one in the hills would use that tone to a healer! Anyone who devotes her life to taking care of other people deserves to be treated with respect no matter what your personal opinion is!”

“Dayr! I appreciate your concern, truly I do, but please, calm down.” She was a bit worried about Balduin: he was alarmingly white, even for someone who had the leisure to avoid long exposure to the sun, and couldn't seem to look away from Dayr.

“He can't talk to you like that!”

“Everyone be still,” Jared commanded. He didn't raise his voice, but he gained silence. Dayr glanced at him, visibly thought about it, and sat back in his chair, though he continued to glower at Balduin.

“Now,” Jared continued. “This has gotten entirely out of hand. Doctor, that is not appropriate behaviour towards a highborn lady, towards my personal guest, or towards a respected healer from the hills, regardless of your beliefs about her calling.” Balduin inclined his head in acknowledgement. “Dayr, that is not generally considered a civilized response to offensive behaviour.”

“I'm not civilized,” Dayr growled, but it was subdued. “I don't want to be. I'm here to protect Vixen, and I'm going to do it.”

“I certainly won't argue that goal. However. We normally try to keep verbal disagreements from turning into physical assaults.”

Dayr made a derisive noise. “He isn't worth the effort anyway. I wasn't going to fight him. I just won't let people talk to Vixen like that.”

“Neither will I, so I'm sure between us...”

“If both of you don't mind too terribly, I can take care of my own honour,” Vixen said tartly. I'm right here while you talk around me! And I'm neither so helpless nor so foolish as to be unable to defend myself! “I'm sorry to interrupt another meal, but I'm afraid I've lost my appetite.” She shoved her chair back, and stood. “Milady Lyris, will you forgive me for postponing music until another evening?”

“Of course,” Lyris said swiftly, her smile sympathetic.

“Excuse me.” She controlled herself firmly, not storming off, simply walking away and returning to her own room.

Anna wasn't under the bed. Vixen searched for her, discovered her in a window, hidden by the curtains. She drew a chair over and sat near the cat, stroking her gently and humming to her, letting the company and the view of the sunset relax her.



The physician was a slightly overweight man of advanced years, with bushy white hair and a friendly demeanour. He closed the door firmly, with Corin's mother on the other side.

Corin looked around with interest. The only physician he'd ever seen was the Laures House physician, a gaunt short-tempered man whose response to most things involved tonics and purgatives and fasting. This bright clean room with a high table a patient could lie on and shelves of neat shiny instruments was something altogether different. In one corner, two chairs with cushions on the seats stood at right angles, close enough for comfortable conversation.

“Parents,” the physician said, with a shake of his head. “Trying to actually talk to a patient with a parent around is impossible without the parent answering all the questions, or the patient answering to please them, and then how is one to get accurate information, hm? Have a seat, lad.” He took the other chair himself, and waited while Corin joined him. “Now, I gather your parents are concerned about your behaviour. Want to tell me about it?”

Corin shrugged. “They keep expecting me to do things I'm just not interested in doing. I try to obey them, I don't like making them angry and I don't like being scolded or slapped or switched, but I just can't.”

“What kinds of things do they want you to do?”

“Hunting. Fencing. Horsemanship. My father would even be happy if I was interested in the maids in the house. Properly manly sorts of things.”

“Hm, yes. What would you rather do?”

Corin regarded him warily, uncertain whether to trust the apparent lack of disapproval. “Read, or study things directly.”

“Such as? Give me an example.”

A lifetime of certainty that no one wanted to listen warred with the physician's attentiveness and the unexpectedly relaxed atmosphere. Well, what do I have to lose? So one more person tells me I'm crazy...

“I was banned from the laundry room just before we came from the estate to the city for the season. I was curious about how some of the things they use for cleaning interact with each other. Two of them had a particularly strong reaction and foamed up rather violently and scared the maids.”

The physician chuckled. “Chemistry in the laundry room. I see. What else?”

That was an encouraging response. “I'm not allowed in any gardens at all anymore, because I was taking samples of plants at different ages and testing which ones will grow roots from cuttings and I planted a few things in different spots to see if they'd grow differently.”

“I'm sure the gardeners were horrified. No one ever considered just letting you have some space of your own to experiment with plants?”

“Digging in the dirt isn't manly,” Corin said, with a sigh. “Oh, wait, that's not proper for highborn, instead. Everything's one or the other.”

“Seems like it sometimes, doesn't it? What else?”

“I'm not allowed near the kennels or any of the livestock, only into the stables to ride. Some people started a rumour that I was cursing or injuring some of the animals because I saw something going wrong before anyone else and told them about it. No one ever pays attention, and then they're surprised and blame me when it happens. I was banned from the kennels over a year ago because I saw that a whelp wasn't thriving and because a bitch went lame after being set to hunt even though she was avoiding pressure on one hip. I told them a foal was blind and they didn't believe me until days later, and one of the stable-hands started muttering that it wasn't blind until I did something. But I wouldn't. I hate it when things suffer. If I could, I'd make sure everything and everyone was healthy all their lives and only died in their sleep when they're old.”

“That's a worthy sentiment. What were you doing just before this appointment?”

“Reading. My father won't buy more books, but I save whatever I can and, well, I found a pawn shop that'll let me sell things I'm given that I don't want.” He flushed, dropped his gaze, but when he dared look up, he saw no condemnation. “A ring my grandmother gave me, it wasn't a family heirloom or anything like that, and a tooled leather sword-belt with a fancy buckle but I really hate fencing, things like that. And I use the money to buy books when we're in the city. No one in my family ever notices if they're the same old books or new ones. I can't always find specific subjects, usually I don't have much time to look and I can't afford anything expensive, but anything is still something.”

“What subjects do you try to find?”

“I like natural science best. Animals and how they live, plants and how they grow, all the different kinds of rocks and how they make the landscape, anything like that. History is good, too. The math my tutor teaches me is interesting, geometry especially, but not as much.”

“Sounds like a fascinating field of study. What were you reading earlier, then?”

“History. The Plague of Mynatt. I've read it before, but I wanted to see whether an idea I had fits with the description in Ogden's text.”

The physician looked intrigued. “What idea?”

“I don't think it was a plague. At least, not the kind spread by air or contact. There's a mention in the description of Mynatt before the plague that they'd been having recurrent problems with the drainage system backing up after heavy rains, just offhanded, like it's a wonderful place and this trivial detail is the only tiny worm in the apple. I checked in Reynell's General History of the North and it says that the same year as the plague, there were repeated unseasonably heavy rains. So maybe it was the water that was the real problem, and it wasn't something sent by a shyani witch or even something brought in by traders.”

“And that's the only history you've ever read about the Plague of Mynatt?”

Corin frowned. “Yes, the only one I could find. Why? Did I say something bad?”

The physician shook his head. “Not at all. There've been two books written since Ogden's on the subject. Both have reached similar conclusions, based on more sources and more evidence.”

“There have? I wonder if I can find them. I'd love to see what else they found out and why.” Confirmation of a theory was a rare treat, and one he intended to treasure. This whole appointment was worth it for that, if nothing else.

“There was some mention of you and dead animals?”

All the delight of vindication fled instantly. That again. “I don't kill them! I don't like hurting anything! It's fine for my brothers to go hunting and kill things and drag them home, but not for me to want to see how they're put together before they're butchered?”

“It's all right, I'm not accusing you of anything. I'm just trying to understand.”

“That's a first,” Corin muttered.

“You feel a lot like no one understands?”

“I know no one understands. My father is smart enough to keep Laures running smoothly, although part of that is being able to choose the right stewards and such, but he's only interested in aristocratic manly things. My brothers are just the same. My mother is mostly interested in appearances and her social standing when we're in the city every year and finding the best husbands for my sisters, and my sisters are just like her. I'm always the odd one out. I keep asking questions no one wants me to ask, and then I go looking for answers myself, and then people tell me I'm not normal. But if I don't ask questions, they just build up in my head and nag at me until I can't think about anything else.”

“Questions about chemistry and plants and animals? Like how they're put together?”

Corin nodded. “Everything's different. At first I was curious about how the bones all fit together like a puzzle, and what keeps them together but lets them move. But I found a lot of other things. Birds have hollow bones and they have all sorts of extra air pockets inside, that has to be so they weigh less and can fly, but why do they only have one hole under their tail for everything instead of two or three separate ones? Why do deer and cattle and sheep have four stomachs but pigs and hares don't? They all have hooves except the hares, and they all eat plants except that the pigs will eat a wider range of things. But the different parts of a pig's hoof look sort of like they're the equivalent of the pads on a hare's paw, or a dog's, and a cow's do too, but a horse's don't so much. And I know horses only have one stomach, too.” He stopped short, biting his lower lip hard. Too dangerous, he was saying far too much.

“Interesting questions. And ones that could be answered fairly readily, with access to the right books. Your parents aren't supportive of buying books, and then get angry when you try to find the answers on your own, whether that involves scandalizing the staff or failing to live up to your parents' idea of what you should be as a son of Laures. Does that about cover it?”


It took time for Corin to get past monosyllables again, after spooking himself by talking freely, but the physician was patient and sympathetic. Corin caught himself starting to show enthusiasm again and again, as the physician brought up subjects long of acute interest.

“Corin, lad,” the physician said finally. “I think we need to bring your mother in.” He either didn't notice Corin's wince or, more likely, tactfully ignored it as he went to the door to courteously invite Lady Laures to join them.

“Your Grace,” he said, “what we have here is your common or garden-variety precocious intellectual. They turn up in all the best families, I assure you. There tend to be fewer of them than the rough-and-ready types, but the world would be in a sad state without them, since they're the ones who come up with some of the most original engineering advances to improve homes and have devised some of the most valuable medical theories and procedures and treatments that we currently use. The treatment for household discord is this: as soon as he turns eighteen, send him to the University. Medicine is probably a good field to focus on, all things considered. I strongly suspect Corin could become a physician of some note, given the opportunity. And until then, buy the lad some books. I'll send you around a list of reading material that will be a good foundation for the University, and I don't believe you'll have any trouble convincing him to study them. Give him his own garden to plant things he can uproot and replant at will without disturbing your gardens, and give your staff a tongue-lashing for being so conceited they'd rather blame superstitious nonsense or malice than listen when Corin observes something afoot with the animals. In short, there is nothing at all wrong with your son beyond being highly intelligent and observant and curious, none of which are sins and all of which can be very powerful blessings if nurtured, but can cause immeasurable misery in the wrong environment.”

Corin listened in astonishment that only grew with every word.

“But everyone says...” he stammered.

“No one normal acts like Corin does,” Lady Laures said, much more firmly.

“Good lady, you are confusing difference with disorder, and they are not the same thing. Corin, as you get older, you'll find that 'they' say a great many things that have very little foundation in fact. There is absolutely nothing here for me to treat, apart from chronic loneliness and withdrawal which I expect the University can cure far better than anything I can offer.”

“Given the choice,” Lady Laures argued, “he'll stay in his room reading day and night!”

“Not if he has his own garden. And permission to observe your animals for early signs of injury or illness. And I suspect that if you get the lad a good book on geology, he'll be wandering all over your lands with no prodding needed. You cannot break a duck to saddle nor convince a horse to lay eggs. Let each do what comes naturally, and it's much better for all involved. If you like, I'd be happy to see Corin again while you're in the city. Once one gets past the reticence, there's a charming conversationalist under there. However, I think there's little I can do beyond making the suggestions I have and sending around a list of books. Would you both excuse me? I have other patients to see. Ones who are actually ill.”



Vixen woke before Tylla arrived with breakfast, as she'd told herself the night before to do. More dreams about her past, but that wasn't so surprising, given the surroundings. The thought of the old physician, someone she'd seen only once yet who had made such a decisive change for the better in her life, made her feel warm inside. Was he still alive? Would he be horrified by her now? Her parents had argued vehemently with each other, but the book list had appeared, and the books not long after, and as soon as she was old enough, she was shipped off to the University—a relief all around. After all, being a physician was a respectable calling, one that would allow her to support herself without disgracing her family. And she'd had a new personal goal, to be able to help others the way that one conversation had helped her.

She stretched lazily, and slid out of bed. Checking under the table, under the bed, and in the window for Anna turned up no trace of her; well, she could find her once she got dressed. She pulled back the sliding door of the wardrobe, and found a pair of amber eyes gazing up at her accusingly from the shadows within.

“Oh, there you are. Sorry, little one, but I can't have Jared's household catching me with no clothes on.” She took the plum-coloured dress Alys had first provided, the only outfit she had at present that was clean other than her shyani clothes, which she spotted lying neatly folded on the wardrobe's shelf. What did Tylla think of those? she wondered. Carefully, she slid the door across again, noting that it wouldn't shut tightly. She left it open a little wider than necessary, and turned her attention to getting dressed.

Well, it didn't flatter her as well as the green one, or her own, but it was clean and wasn't too bad. Amused by her own vain thoughts, she picked up the brush from the vanity and started on the knots in her hair. Her small things from her pack, her own comb among them, lay on top of the vanity. Among them was her wide choker of bright blue and green beads, made from glazed pottery and dyed shell, with three dangling copper discs. Shyani women's clothes left so much of throat and chest bare that elaborate necklaces were popular, and this one had been a gift, made specifically for her.

Without pausing, she called, “Come in,” in response to the knock on the door.

“Good morning, milady.”

Vixen greeted Tylla with a distracted smile, working on a particularly obstinate tangle.

“Here, milady, let me do that.” Tylla picked up a folded piece of paper from the tray, and hastened over to her. “His Grace asked me to give this to you. Please, milady, sit down and let me do your hair?”

Vixen surrendered, sat on the nearest chair and curiously unfolded the note, while Tylla's gentle hands teased out the tangle.

I hope the morning finds you well and rested. It has come to my attention that you're lacking in the clothes appropriate to your station, and Alys' efforts to remedy this have been less than adequate. These keys are for the storerooms, I've taken the liberty of asking Lyris to show you where they are and assist you in choosing anything you might wish. All the resources of Hyalin, including our seamstress, are at your disposal. You will, I hope, have a pleasant morning, and I'm looking forward to seeing you this evening.

Vixen glanced at the tray on the table. Along with her breakfast and the promised bowl of meat for Anna, it held a ring of heavy iron keys.

“Am I so very disgraceful to Jared's house?” Vixen laughed. “He just offered me free access to the storerooms.”

“Oh, no, milady, you aren't at all disgraceful, but a lady should have more to choose from to wear.” Was it imagination, or did Tylla sound rather satisfied, somewhere under the careful neutrality?

“Hmm. It will be easier, I suppose, especially if I keep making a mess of my clothes. Was the green dress terribly hard to clean?”

“Not so bad, I think, milady, and it will be dry for you to wear soon, I'm sure.”

“Well, I'm quite content with what I'm wearing now, and with any luck I can stay clean for the day. Please don't open the wardrobe, it's Anna's new hiding place, although now that I've found her there, I'm sure she'll choose another.”

“Yes, milady.” She moved away briefly to the vanity, searching its drawers quickly. Vixen closed her eyes, enjoying the attentions as Tylla parted her hair and braided each half smoothly, then coiled the two plaits and pinned them neatly. “There, milady, that's much more fitting and very flattering.”

“Thank you.”

“You're very welcome, milady. Anything I can do for you, you only need to tell me.”

“Hm. Then don't be afraid to speak up and give me advice and suggestions. There's too much that I don't know and too many mistakes I can make. For that matter, I'd like to have you there while we go through the storerooms.”

“Certainly, milady, it would be perfectly proper for me to be with you in most situations.”

“Good. Then, please, do what you can to keep me from utterly scandalizing anyone.” She placed Anna's bowl under the table, then seated herself, to discover that today's breakfast was sweet bread rolls with slices of fine milky cheese, slices of ham roasted in some rich sauce, and a bowl of berry preserves of some sort. That should be more to Dayr's tastes than the oatmeal.

Dayr. She'd have to think of something to occupy him, while she was busy.

“Do you know where and when I'm to meet milady Lyris? His Grace asked her to show me the storerooms.”

“Quite likely she will allow you time for breakfast, then come here, milady,” Tylla said, flipping the quilt so it settled smoothly on the bed.

Another tap on the door, and Vixen called, “Come in,” less surprised to see Dayr than that he'd bothered to knock, though it was probably in deference to her not being alone. He nodded to Tylla, and settled himself facing Vixen.

“How's Anna?”

“Hiding in the wardrobe, but don't tell her I told you that. She moves to a new hiding place every time I find her. She seems to be doing as well as we could expect. I'm going to be busy for a while after breakfast.”

“Doing what?”

“Going through the storerooms with Lyris to see what we can find me by way of clothes.”

Dayr frowned. “How many clothes do you need? For that matter, how many do I need? They keep leaving me new ones.”

“You're much of a size with His Grace's elder brother, All-Father rest him, milord,” Tylla supplied. “It's little effort to alter his clothes for you. Milady Vixen is, well, more of a challenge.”

“More work,” Vixen translated. “Dayr, for highborn ladies, how they look is always highly important, and they typically have more different outfits than you'd believe if I told you. While we're in the lowlands, we play by lowland rules.”

The weyre shrugged. “Oh, I know, but it seems silly. There are more important things than dressing up every day like it's a holiday.”

“Yes, but for a highborn lady, not many. Are you going to be bored without me?”

“I'll go check on Sparrow and Dove, maybe take them out to get a little exercise.”

“Good thought.” She pushed the plate with the rest of her cheese and ham towards him, and started on the berry preserves. They finished off the food between them, and relaxed together in companionable quiet. Vixen knew she'd never hear a word from him about last night. Catlike, he would pretend it never happened.

Yet another tap at the door; Tylla glanced at her for permission, and answered it, to admit Lyris and Mirain. Vixen rose, politely, and Dayr followed her lead.

“Good morning,” Lyris greeted them cheerfully. “I hope you slept well?”

“Very well,” Vixen said. “I appreciate this.”

Lyris laughed. “Oh, I'm expecting us to have quite a lot of fun. I asked our house seamstress Karela to meet us there in about an hour, that will give us time to take a look around first, is that all right?”

“Sounds wonderful.”

Mirain chuckled. “Well, I'm going to escape while I can. I thought I'd stop by and see if you'd like to join me? For a ride, perhaps?” That last was to Dayr.

Dayr nodded promptly. “This having lots of clothes thing is too weird for me, and Sparrow and Dove need to stretch.”

Vixen picked up the ring of keys, and ushered everyone out of the room, closing the door behind her to keep Anna inside and safe.

Mirain and Dayr parted ways from the three women at the end of the hall, turning in the opposite direction; Mirain wished them a merry and productive morning.

“Jared's grandmother was nearly as tall as you are,” Lyris said. “If we can find the trunks with her clothes, I'm sure there will be a few things in them that would be suitable and easy to alter quickly. I believe that's where the green wool one came from. And there's plenty of material that can be made into more clothes. Karela is never happier than when she has a lot to keep her busy, especially if it's more interesting than house livery over and over.”

Exploring the storerooms, with Lyris and Tylla, was actually rather fun. Karela soon joined them, a large, dark woman whose richly-embroidered, perfectly-fitted clothes spoke a great deal about her skills.

“Come in, Karela,” Lyris said promptly, if somewhat distractedly. “I think we've found all of Lady Riane's clothes that are still here. Some of them will work, I'm sure. Styles change, but some things always look good. Oh. Vixen, Karela. I don't think we need to stand on formality with only the four of us here, do we?”

“I'd be very grateful if we didn't,” Vixen said in relief.

Karela chuckled. “Then we won't. Now. What do we have in the chests that we can modify? And if I can get some proper measurements this morning, that would help a great deal.”

Much later, Tylla recruited a couple more servants to help them carry everything to Karela's workroom.

Near the stairs, Vixen stopped, raising a hand to halt Karela's planning-out-loud. “Listen.”

In the sudden quiet, muffled sobs were clearly audible. Vixen turned slowly, wishing for Dayr's hearing, and decided that it was coming from a room to the right. Should she involve herself?

On a hunch, she strode towards the door. “Lyris, Karela, why don't you go on? Tylla can show me where.”

Karela looked disapproving, but held her tongue.

Lyris smiled. “You'll have every hurt in the house healed in no time, at this rate.” She gestured to the confused servants, who had paused at the stairs. “Karela's workroom isn't getting any closer.”

“Milady, perhaps...” Tylla began, and trailed off, visibly divided, as the others departed up the stairs.

“Perhaps what?”

“Perhaps there are some things you can't fix, milady.”

“You know who it is.”

Tylla looked down, biting her lip.

“Unless you can give me an excellent reason not to, I'm going to go in that room and do whatever I can to help. Is there something you'd like to tell me?”

“There's nothing you can do, milady.” Tylla tangled her hands in the folds of her blue skirt, eyes still low. “And Lady Alys, if she knew...”

“You let me take care of Lady Alys.”

Tylla sighed. “Ilsa's husband beats her. Calls her horrible names, too, all the house servants have overheard it now and then. She hides up here when she's supposed to be cleaning, sometimes, it's the only place she can cry that he won't catch her. He works in the stables, he has no business up here.”

“And according to law, he can do it,” Vixen said softly. “As long as he uses only his hand or his belt. And doesn't interfere with her ability to work, I suppose, because that would lose him her pay and might annoy Alys or Jared.” She leaned against the wall, scowling at the door across the hall, arms crossed. If she could rescue a cat from pain and abuse, surely she could find a way to rescue a woman.

Except that no one claimed the cat as property.

First aid immediately. Long-term solutions once you have the time and details.

“I'm going to see how badly she's hurt,” she said, keeping her voice much calmer than she actually felt. “She may feel safer if you're with me, since you're familiar to her.”

Tylla stifled a second sigh, and nodded in resignation. “Yes, milady. Will you let me go first?”

Vixen nodded, so Tylla moved over to the door, opened it, and slipped inside without closing it behind her. Vixen gave her long enough to speak to her friend—and gave herself time to master her anger—before joining them.

The room within was another storeroom, but this one held linens, as near as Vixen could tell by the light of a single lamp in the windowless space. Tylla sat on a large wooden chest, next to a woman in her late forties or so, in the same blue and white uniform. The older woman had her arms wrapped tightly around herself, still weeping, though she tried to stop when Vixen entered.

“It's all right,” Tylla said reassuringly. “Milady Vixen is the healer from the hills. She wants to help.”

Vixen knelt in front of Ilsa, the folds of her skirt cushioning the cold stone floor, but not much. “Tell me,” she said gently.

Ilsa shook her head mutely.

“Are you in pain right now?”

That got her a bitter laugh. “When not?”

“Give me your hands. I'll make it stop.” She offered her own, palm up.

The ache of bruises old and new, the anguish of helplessness and hopelessness, echoed through Vixen as Ilsa tentatively laid her hands over Vixen's. It made her want to turn the full force of her power in revenge against the one who had inflicted it, or cringe away from the rawness and let someone else deal with it. Instead, she took a deep breath, centring herself, and began to sing.

As she sang, she concentrated on healing and health, peace and painlessness, allowing nothing else into her thoughts—a hard-won discipline, that, for one with as active a mind as she. Her own strength flowed into Ilsa, aiding the servant woman's body in its own struggle against the damage, accelerating the process.

And, as she sang, she saw in her mind a long-legged graceful mare, her red bay coat glossy-sleek, her mane and tail flowing like midnight silk. The mare shied skittishly, but kept inching closer before dancing away again, ears flicking back against her skull, then forward again uncertainly. A red fox sat near her, white-tipped tail curled around his feet, watching the mare with his ears forward.

Come home, Vixen entreated, with her thoughts and her song. Come home.

The mare half-reared with a snort, but came down firmly on all four hooves, and paced delicately nearer, lowering her head to sniff at Red Fox, who raised his own narrow muzzle to touch noses. Vixen sang welcome to her, and a promise that she would do what she could to make things right, and the mare came closer yet and bowed her head, still now.

Interesting. Matilda at the farm was chosen by a hound I've never encountered, and I've never met a spirit-horse of any sort before either.

Vixen let the song end, and released Ilsa's hands.

Ilsa blinked dazedly at her. “What did you do? I feel...” She stopped, evaluating, and finished slowly, “I don't hurt, and something feels... right.”

“I called your spirit animal to you,” Vixen said, too weary to think about what the two servants might make of the explanation. “It isn't really so hard to do, a shaman does it for every shyani child. If you dream of a bay mare who tells you something, pay attention to her, you can trust her absolutely. And I healed your bruises.” She started to get to her feet, and stumbled, dropping to one knee painfully hard.

Tylla jumped up and leaned down to help Vixen rise, but steadied her only to her own abandoned seat. “Are you all right, milady?”

“Just tired. Help me get back to my room for a nap?”

“Of course.”

Ilsa stayed close on Vixen's other side, and shooed away any of the other household staff who came into sight. In her own room, Vixen collapsed gratefully across her huge soft bed.

“I'll tell milady Lyris and Karela that you won't be coming,” Tylla said softly, “and ask the kitchen to save you some lunch.” She deftly unlaced Vixen's boots and drew them off, and tucked a lightweight blanket of soft wool over the exhausted shaman. “There, that'll be more comfortable.”

“Thank you. Best tell Dayr, too.”

“I will, milady. You rest, I'll see to all that.”

Vixen let her eyes close, snuggled under the blanket, curled into a tight ball. Once she woke up, she would have to see what she could devise to protect Ilsa from any further beatings, but for right now, she was going to be no use to anyone until she rested.



Please let this not be a repetition of last night, Vixen prayed on her way to the dining room. I really don't have the resources to deal with this again, not right now.

A spirit-walk immediately after waking up had probably not been her wisest course of action, but she couldn't bear the thought of Ilsa having to face her husband again without some sort of protection set up. That had amounted to a conversation with and encouragement of the bay spirit-mare. Together, along with Red Fox, they'd tracked down Ilsa's husband so Vixen could weave a pattern around him that would give him some extremely educational dreams that night—dreams the bay spirit-mare could use as a foundation to give him second thoughts any time he raised a hand to strike Ilsa. If Ilsa grew stronger under her spirit-mare's guidance and the dream provided some level of inhibition against violence, it might be enough. It was, in any case, all Vixen could currently think of to do, and even that had cost her.

Which would be why she hadn't sent someone to fetch Dayr: he would have tried to talk her out of it. Tylla, surprisingly enough, had guarded her door without question. When Vixen finished, the maid had helped her to the table where the tray from lunch waited, then back to bed for another nap.

It had left her feeling drained and achy, with a pressure behind her eyes that threatened to become a headache. Sanovas could have done it without the side-effects, she was sure, but then, Sano had far more experience than his adopted human daughter.

Alys and Lyris were holding a low-voiced discussion near the windows; Alys' gestures were abrupt, agitated, and Lyris looked annoyed and impatient. Dayr was leaning against the wall, below an ornately-framed painting of the house itself, positioned so he could keep an eye on the door while deep in conversation with Mirain. As soon as she entered, he abandoned Mirain and came to her.

“That woman told me you were sleeping all afternoon,” he growled, low enough for only her to hear. “You look exhausted. What were you doing?”

“My job,” Vixen said shortly.

“But you won't let me do mine?”

“Not now, Dayr, please. It was something I had to do.”

He growled again, a soft wordless rumbling, but escorted her over to the table so she could sit down. She noticed only belatedly that he'd steered her towards the centre chair on one long side. He took one side himself, and Mirain the other.

“I hope you're feeling better, milady?” Mirain said.

“Somewhat. I'll be fine by tomorrow, I'm sure.”

He gave her an understanding smile. “It's a lady's privilege, to have an occasional day to rest alone.”

If he wants to believe I was in bed all afternoon thanks to menstrual problems, I'm not going to disillusion him. And if I were going to, it wouldn't be right now. I wish I'd thought of that before, maybe I could've had dinner in my room.

She simply murmured, “Thank you,” and glanced towards the door as Jared entered with the physician.

Her sigh she tried to keep to herself, but Mirain said quietly, “I think he'll be more respectful than he was last night, milady.”

Oh? I wonder what happened. I'll probably never find out. Maybe I'll just be quietly grateful.

Lyris and Alys ended their discussion, whether they'd resolved anything or not, and joined them at the table. Positions were certainly interesting, once everyone was seated: Alys at the foot, flanked by Mirain and Lyris; Jared at the head, flanked by Dayr and Balduin; herself in the middle. She'd have to reflect on what it meant. Some other time.

Luck was against her: dinner was well-spiced venison. She picked at it without appetite, and ate enough of the more vegetable-based dishes to quiet her stomach and replace some of the energy she'd used. Maybe Tylla could find her something later. Dayr wrinkled his nose once at the spices, but apparently they weren't too unpleasant to the feline palate, considering how much he ate.

The general atmosphere didn't help. Congenial company might have given her spirits and energy a boost, but she wasn't going to get it tonight. Balduin's silence might have had any number of causes, but he was clearly resentful. Alys' laughter was forced and her light tone brittle and cracked at the edges. Never one to talk while eating, Dayr left that to everyone else. Mirain and Lyris tried to find a subject for conversation, but their efforts fell flat. Jared, worn out after a day of Domain business—something to do with livestock, where to put it, and what to do with it—was scarcely more talkative than Vixen. All in all, Vixen was relieved when it ended, so she could retreat to her own room.

“If the present trend continues, these meals are going to have me too unbalanced to be any use,” she grumbled to Dayr, on their way upstairs.

“So why don't we stop going?” Dayr asked logically.

“I believe I'm going to mention something of the sort to Jared. My tolerance for this nonsense is dropping rapidly. The doctor thinks I'm a fraud, Alys is terrified, scandalized, or both by you and me... I'd be happier avoiding the pair of them altogether.”

“They're both scared. I can smell it. Can't tell what they're scared of, though.”

“I don't suppose you have something more to do with the doctor being afraid than simply what happened last night?”

“I haven't been near him, except at dinner.”

She didn't think he'd lie to her; weyres were typically too straightforward to bother, and they'd been friends too long. She wasn't convinced that he'd really had nothing at all to do with it, but she let it go.

“You aren't going to do any more shaman work tonight, are you?” he asked. “You're in no condition to.”

“I'm going to have a hot bath and get some sleep, no more work,” she promised. “I can't help Jared if I kill myself.”

“Irisan and Fero will turn me into a fur rug if anything happens to you. And I don't even want to think about your family.”

“Nothing is going to happen to me. You had fun with Mirain?”

“I couldn't stay in the stable very long, the horses all got nervous. Not used to my scent. We went for a ride, twice, so I could take both jennies out. They're happy, the kids like them. They've been sneaking treats to them. Could smell it. Mirain's not bad, for a human.”

“Good. Since I got distracted from fittings today, I'll probably be cornered into it tomorrow. I'd love to get out for a while, though, maybe we can go for a ride tomorrow afternoon.”

“As long as you don't tire yourself out again. Mirain showed me a trail that goes through the woods where they hunt.” He grinned. “At least, they call it hunting. I wouldn't.”

“I have no intentions of tiring myself out again.”

“You never do.” He sighed. “At least make sure I'm with you. Please?”

“All right,” she conceded. “Nothing else unless you're there, as long as you don't try to keep me from doing what I have to do.”

He considered that. “I'll try.”

“Near enough. I'll see you tomorrow.”

Tylla turned up before too much longer.

“Do you suppose you could find me a couple of those rolls from breakfast?” Vixen asked wistfully. “And maybe a little fruit? I just didn't have the stomach for venison tonight.”

“Easy enough,” Tylla assured her. “There are apples in the cellar still, or more of the berry preserves.”

“Just an apple would be wonderful. Thank you, I appreciate it.”

It took Tylla only minutes to return with the requested food, along with a ceramic pitcher that turned out to hold cool sweet mint-flavoured water.

Vixen took a bite of one of the rolls, and sighed in contentment. “That's much better. I'm not used to all this rich food anymore. Is Ilsa doing all right?”

“I'll let you know in the morning, milady, her husband hasn't come in from the stables yet.” She hesitated. “I've never seen anything like that. She says the bruises are all gone. I know you told me you're a healer, but I didn't know that was even possible.”

“I've lived with the shyani a long time,” Vixen reminded her. “I was taught by a shaman who chose not to leave a lost human to die. I'm purely average.”

Tylla shivered a little, but her expression held only fascination. “I thought it was all children's tales, just people being afraid.”

“Shyani power is very real. A few are born with a gift that lets them talk to animals, encourage plants to grow, influence the weather, call water from the ground, things of that sort. They're called witches, but that means something very different to a shyani than to a human. Shamans deal with the spirit world, and we're healers of bodies and minds. None of it is aggressive. It's all turned towards care of their people and their animals and the world around them. Shyani are at least as frightened of humans as humans are of them.”

“I hadn't thought of that.” She shook herself. “I'm sorry, milady, I shouldn't be asking you such impertinent questions, and least of all when you're so tired. Is there anything else I can do?”

“I don't mind questions, I promise. You're welcome to ask and I'll answer whatever I can. No, this is wonderful, I'm going to eat and go back to sleep, and by tomorrow I'll be fine. And being tired is well worth it for a good cause.”

“Yes, milady. Sleep well.”

“You, too.”



“Stand up straight, boy,” Lord Laures said irritably, giving Corin a cuff on the back of the head. It was halfhearted at best, more impatience than real anger. Waiting in the entrance hall of the Laures city house for Lady Laures and Corin's sisters could feel endless.

“Yessir.” Corin obediently tried to straighten up. Too many years hunched forward defensively, trying to keep his head down and his eyes on the floor, made it hard. Even the past couple of years, since the decision to send him to the University and the alteration of expectations with that in mind, hadn't really changed all that much in some ways.

But he had more books, a window into the world outside the Laures estate and the Laures city house, and had been commanded to study them so he wouldn't disgrace the family at the University. He had the promise of a way out, if he could just endure long enough.

And he was no longer a candidate at all for marriage with any but the most desperate girl—which would also mean impoverished, and his father wouldn't allow that despite the mutterings about a wife making a man of him. Laures had limited wealth or power to offer. His eldest brother Marco had a title to inherit and, when he chose to, a considerable command of social graces, which had won him a wife of moderate means and impeccable family. Middle brother Reimon lacked either and would probably make an appalling steward, a common job for second sons, but his brash uncouthness, the despair of their mother, had a certain appeal for some of the girls, if not their parents. Corin figured that sooner or later there'd be a short-notice wedding and an early-born child that was suspiciously well-developed.

Several years at the University in his future, added to the tendency for highborn girls to treat him either as a friend or with disdain, should thoroughly abolish the risk of finding himself betrothed. One thing less to dread about tonight's ball.

Marco and his wife were already out, having dinner with friends, and would join them later, but this sort of ball was mostly about unmarried highborn. In short, it was a marketplace.

“Where's Reimon gotten to, anyhow?” Lord Laures muttered.

“Wherever he can find a barrel of ale,” Corin said unwisely, and got another thump.

“Speak more respectfully of your brothers. I still need to find that one a wife.”

He'll find one, but you won't get any say, Corin thought, but kept his mouth shut. You can't afford to pay off the girl's outraged family for her sullied honour, and they'll insist on selling the poor girl into a life shackled to Reimon because she had one moment of poor judgement, and she'll come with no dowry which he'll resent, as though it isn't his own fault. It'll get especially interesting if there's more than one, simultaneously or sequentially, before or after he's married. And I pity the maids anywhere Reimon is.

As for Marco, Berenice is prettier and more gracious and kind and high-bred than he deserves, and he knows it. He's going to be certain that she's cheating on him, and that's going to make him miserable because he's never going to find any real proof of something that doesn't exist. She won't, unless he gets so obsessed that she gets unhappy enough to start looking for comfort elsewhere. If Marco decides it's Reimon she's cheating with, I'm going to end up the heir, so let's hope that doesn't happen.

Why can't any of you see any of this? It's right in front of you!

But he knew better than to say it. Instead, he rolled his shoulders carefully back a couple of times and stretched his neck, left and right and back, in hopes of loosening the constant tension enough to keep his parents from complaining.

Soon, very soon. This is the last social season I'll have to live through. No one expects students to make more than occasional appearances, if that. By the time I have my diploma, I won't have to do this if I don't want to.

And he very badly didn't want to.

Please. Make me clean the stables. Give me lashes. Feed me nothing but rye bread and water. Just please don't force me to go to this...

But there was no escape.

So, yet again, he shoved all his own feelings somewhere off to the side, and dredged up the mask he wore in public. It seemed to fit less well every year; he wondered what would happen when it deteriorated so badly it no longer fooled anyone. For the moment, it still deceived people into thinking he was cheerful and friendly.

Sound at the top of the stairs, feminine voices with an exaggerated melodic lilt, the rustling of fabric. Corin and his father were in the best Laures could afford, perfectly tailored though to Corin nothing ever felt like it fit properly. It was a given, however, that marriageable daughters had to show themselves off at such events.

Thus, the careful cosmetics, giving his sisters complexions of ivory, absolutely flawless, with outlined eyes and subtly enhanced lips—too dark would be inappropriate for unwed girls. Elaborately styled hair, with curls meant to give the appearance of choreographed casualness, winking with gold pins. The best jewellery of the house, heavy earrings and web necklaces, bracelets and rings. And gowns, Lavinia in violet and Olivia in rose.

Whatever they were wearing underneath that gave them those sleek smooth elongated curves, mere males were not supposed to know, but Corin wished he did, because those weren't the shapes nature had given them. Both gowns were of the latest styles, of course, flared skirts with a great deal of fabric to them, and something invisible that helped give those skirts even more volume and sweep, close-fitting in the torso with curving necklines low enough to tease, close-fitting sleeves down to the wrist. Yet the sleeves had also an outer layer that fell in a long loose cascade from just above elbow-level, and that layer was lace, and further lace filled in the neckline and fell from the waistline across both hips in ruffles. That the lace had been reclaimed from earlier gowns hardly mattered: his imperious sisters looked unspeakably, impossibly elegant.

Each of those dresses, not counting the jewellery and the rest, could buy me at least five good books. They'll wear them this year, hoping to finally snag husbands, but whether they do or not, they'll refuse to wear them next year because they'll be out of date. But books are always there. It's not fair. And getting to spend the same amount on clothes, that wouldn't help. Men's clothes are just... well... they just are. Marco will be lucky if there's anything left to inherit, after multiple years of this and their dowries as well. All-Father help any daughters Marco has, unless he comes up with a brilliant way to increase the Laures income dramatically. Two or three generations of living frugally and no dowries might give it a chance to build up a bit, a chance to invest it somewhere stable. Otherwise, Marco's sons or grandsons will be marrying the daughters of wealthy commoners so they can pay for upkeep on the houses and not sell off the land itself.

Why am I the only one who can see things?

Maybe because I don't feel like I'm part of it? I suppose it's easier to see when you're watching from outside than it is when you're in the middle of it.

It isn't much surprise they don't have suitors fighting over them. About all my sisters have to offer is a highborn name, half the Laures jewellery that doesn't go with the title of Lady Laures, a bit of money and a chest full of reasonable-quality household goods, their clothes, and themselves. They do look beautiful when they make an effort. Of course, most women do, especially when they can afford fancy clothes and a lady's maid. The problem is, they spend several hours a day making an effort. Which is why each has her own maid, and will expect to keep her even after marriage.

“I believe we're ready to go,” Lady Laures said brightly. “The carriage is waiting?”

“Of course it is,” Lord Laures said, and opened the front door. He wouldn't be so crude as to reprimand them for the delay, but he was certainly bored with standing around.

Corin, courteously, offered each of his sisters a hand into the carriage. Their relatively soft slippers had less traction, and their layers of skirts needed to be gathered out of the way to step up into it, further hampered by a lacy drawstring reticule and a folded fan in one hand. That was probably the main reason Lavinia didn't reject it, though Olivia gave him a fleeting smile of thanks.

Lord Laures handed his wife in, and joined her.

If he could have, Corin would have climbed up to sit with the driver, rather than sitting in the back, but he'd be scolded and ordered to be civilized.

His sisters were on the rear-facing seat, his parents on the other. Either was bad, but any chance of so much as a wrinkle in his sisters' gowns was asking for trouble, so he took the spot next to his mother.

She smiled at him and patted his hand, as the carriage rattled into motion. “Get as much as you can out of society this year, Corin. I'm sure you'll miss it terribly the next few years.”

“Yes'm,” he said dutifully. Carefully, he adjusted the dark brown folds of her soft wool skirt so they weren't being creased against his leg. Green-leaved white flowers were embroidered along the hem and in twisting chains down the bodice. There was no expensive lace on hers, and he recognized the fabric and material, though it had been through enough alterations to make it more stylish. Lady Laures had no intention of spending more on herself than the minimum necessary for appearances, not when she had two unwed daughters.

They're just lucky I wasn't born another daughter. I don't think Laures could afford three. At least one of us would have to find a job as a governess or a lady's companion or something instead of marrying.

That wouldn't be so bad, actually, as long as the master of the house wasn't another Reimon...

He shied away from the thought hastily. Ideas like that made something deep inside twist itself into uncomfortable knots, and this evening was going to be bad enough.

Even being somewhat thrifty, his mother was still splendidly regal. Whatever lay under that dress gave her smooth curves, even after five living children from seven pregnancies, and her posture remained straight, always confident and self-assured with every motion graceful. Her own family, Romild, was somewhat better off than Laures, but as the daughter of a cadet branch, marrying into a title at all was an unexpected boon.

How did she actually feel about his father? Corin wondered, not for the first time. She would never let even her own children see anything save support of her husband, but how did she feel about being more or less sold to him as chatelaine and brood mare?

Olivia snapped open her fan and fanned herself with quick small motions. “I hope Wallys Godwin is there tonight. He was quite friendly last year, and I'd like a chance to speak to him again.”

Corin listened distantly to his sisters chattering about people he was sure he'd met, or at least been introduced to, but for the most part couldn't remember. He had scant common interest with any of the males on the list, and to the females on it he was either safe and sympathetic, or beneath notice, or sometimes both.

They disembarked at Othmar Hall in a flurry of motion and greetings exchanged with others just arriving.

Inside, the great ballroom was ablaze with countless candles and lamps, all high on the walls or hanging from ornate chandeliers to keep them well out of the way of loose fabric and dramatic gestures. By their light, as least to Corin's eyes, the men were drab counterpoint to the women, in their bright colours and flowing gowns and shining jewellery. Even the ones that, under other circumstances, were plain or mousy became almost unbearably lovely when dressed to impress. Pale flawless skin with alluring darkened eyes and enticing tinted lips, sleekly curved figures that perfected whatever nature had in fact provided to each, glossy hair artfully styled to enhance faces, graceful practised gestures as a fan was snapped open and fluttered coyly or a hand was offered in greeting.

It was hard to look away and yet, looking at them, he felt cold and empty and sick, and dared not consider why.

He took a deep breath, and reminded himself yet again, Just this year. After this, I'll be at the University. Almost the whole University is male, only a few women, so there are no balls like this. Just this year, and I can escape...



The outfits they'd pulled out of the storerooms the day before looked all the more beautiful in the light of Karela's sun-bright workroom. Stored carefully, the colours hadn't faded, and they had a sweet scent from the herbs that had been packed with them to keep away vermin and mustiness. Vixen ran a hand admiringly over a gorgeous silver-and-sapphire brocade with a design of swans, enjoying the texture—she doubted it was entirely silk, that would have cost an exorbitant amount, but it had a richer sheen than cotton or linen or wool alone could have offered. Men's clothes could be elaborate and rich, but she was sure they'd never felt so soft.

“I think, milady, with Lady Riane's clothes to alter, we'll be able to keep you dressed as suits a lady from now on,” Karela said. “And there's plenty of fabric for new ones.”

“I thought we decided yesterday, no formality,” Vixen said with a smile. “After all, it's only the four of us again.” Her gesture included Lyris, who had settled herself in a carved wooden chair in a graceful sweep of poppy-red skirts, and Tylla, who was still on her feet and watching alertly.

“As you like.”

“I'm not likely to be here long enough for it to be worth making anything entirely new for my sake, but there are certainly some beautiful things that I'm expecting to very much enjoy, if they can be altered without too much effort.”

“It will be little effort, and worth that. Would the presence of my apprentice be acceptable?”

“Of course. How else does anyone learn anything? And your skills certainly need to be passed on.”

Lyris laughed. “You've hardly seen anything yet.”

Karela opened a door, and called through it, “Perla! Bring your work and come out here!” She left it open, and turned to survey Vixen, who shifted her weight a little, suddenly a trifle uncomfortable. Tylla had brought back the green wool dress which showed no sign of the incident around rescuing Anna, and had braided and coiled her hair again; she was rather pleased with the overall result. Besides, she was a shaman, there was far more to her than appearance, so why did it matter what anyone might be thinking?

“That style works well with minimal undergarments,” Karela said critically, “and is forgiving of alterations based on guesswork, and to some degree it suits your build. It is, however, somewhat old-fashioned these days, and I think we can do better for you. The colour of that one suits you very well. If I'd seen you beforehand, I'd have questioned Lady Alys when she brought me the other to alter. A lady's underclothes need to be fitted properly, not guessed at. I got some measurements from your own clothes, and from the few I took yesterday through your dress, but they're less reliable. Which means, milady, you'll need to remove your clothes.”

Tylla stepped in swiftly to help Vixen draw the green wool dress off over her head, shaking it smooth and hanging it over the back of a chair. Nervously, Vixen smoothed the hem of her loose linen shift, hoping she hadn't been deceiving herself and that the changes she'd created in herself were sufficient to prevent being called out.

“The shift too,” Karela said gently, glancing behind her only briefly as a younger woman, still in her teen years Vixen was certain, slipped through the doorway with an armload of fabric and a basket and arranged herself under one of the bright windows. “The door is locked, the other room is accessible only though this one and there is no one there, we won't be interrupted. It's worn over your shift, but I need to be sure the fit is right without it in the way.”

With a sigh that she kept strictly internal, certain that she was shaking with apprehension that she did her best to hide, Vixen untied the drawstring neck of the shift and let it slither entirely off her body to puddle around her feet, stepping carefully out of it when Tylla retrieved it. That left her in only her underpants. Not the looser knee-length style women wore in the lowlands; she'd tried them once and found them uncomfortable for her. Shyani underpants fit closely and were much shorter, held in place over hips by the elastic give of the knit and a ribbon threaded through and tied for extra security. Male anatomy she still had, though it no longer responded sexually and it was, in fact, perceptibly smaller than before she'd begun changing herself; with everything tucked back, the shyani-style underpants held it securely out of her way and out of sight. She hoped.

“Those are different,” Lyris commented. “That's what women wear in the hills?”

“Yes,” Vixen said. “One of the things the finest of the wool we get from the goat kids is used for is underclothes.”

“Don't they get, well, uncomfortable?”

“They're partially lined with linen, and the wool's very soft, so no, they don't itch.”

“I mean, they're... very tight.” Lyris shrugged. “But I suppose it's all what you're used to.”

“I suppose so. I prefer these.”

“No reason not,” Karela said briskly. “They'll do as well under anything as the regular type. Now. There's a new fashion for more rigid and shaped undergarments in the big cities, but they can be frightfully impractical unless they're custom-made by an expert, so outside the big cities, even ladies still use the older styles for underclothes.”

“Can I ask what that is on your upper arm?” Lyris asked. “Or would that be rude? And if so, please forgive all the questions, they aren't meant to be.”

Vixen glanced down at her upper left arm, and the dark osana tattoo halfway down, where the fringe of a shyani tunic would allow it to be visible just at the edge of her sleeve. “I really don't mind honest questions at all, I promise, I won't get offended. Shyani use tattoos, dyes injected into the skin between layers so they stay permanently, to mark major events and some aspects of self-identity. Part of a shyani marriage involves tattoos for both. Both parents will get a new tattoo when they have a child, whether it's by birth or adoption.” She held up her hands so they could see the eye and willow clearly. “These, only a shaman has. Every child goes through a ritual in which a shaman calls their spirit animal, which is a sort of guardian and guide throughout life, and every shyani has a tattoo of their spirit animal.” She turned around to show the tattoo of Red Fox on her upper back. “It's a way of reflecting physically what one has experienced and who one is.”

“Doesn't that hurt?”

Vixen smiled, turning back around. “Some. Not as much as you think. If you're prepared for it, and in the right state of mind, which you should be since they're always done as part of a ritual, then it really isn't so bad. And once they heal, it's easy to forget them.”

Not the ones on her palms, though, a constant reminder with every action that she was a shaman and had to act accordingly.

“Thank you for being patient,” Lyris said, smiling.

“Believe me, I understand being curious, and at one point, my adopted family and their community had to explain everything to me. What seems strange at first comes to seem ordinary very quickly when it's around you every day.”

Karela produced a ribbon that had regular markings on it, and Perla set aside her task to write down numbers as the seamstress said them.

After which, they got into trying things on.

There was more to female underclothes than she'd ever had the opportunity to discover in her previous life, Vixen discovered—but the main item in question currently was a bodice that went under clothes rather than outside. The correct term, she discovered, was 'stays.'

What an educational day this is turning out to be.

And what an enormous relief that they're not questioning! Maybe the distraction of the tattoos helped. At least no one asked what the osana one means, specifically...

The first set of stays were relatively flexible, multiple layers of tightly woven linen stiffened with glue and by many narrow channels with cord threaded through them. They extended down to her hips, with wide straps over her shoulders. Vixen winced a little as Karela worked her way up and down the back, tightening it. The compression of her abdomen wasn't all that much more than her leather bodice, though the pressure seemed to be angled differently. She decided she could get used to it if necessary, but she was unsure how she felt about it otherwise. Karela's deft hands adjusting the set of her breasts made her twitch, mostly in surprise, though shyani girls and women spent enough time helping each other with grooming that it didn't go past that.

“There,” Karela said finally. “That'll enhance your shape a bit more. There's a mirror there.”

Another sign of household extravagance, that even the seamstress had a large mirror of real silvered glass, when even one was a highly expensive purchase.

Warily, Vixen moved over to where she could see, and felt her eyes widen. The stays were quilted—especially at the top, where they added more than just support to her breasts. The tension below drew in her waist in a longer and smoother curve than her leather bodice.

“Very nice,” Lyris said. “Men complain about women using artifice, but I hardly think a bit of enhancement to bring out the best even really counts as artifice, hm?”

“Men are quick enough to appreciate the results,” Karela said. “And rant about women who no longer take any care for their appearance otherwise. They have their own forms of it. Everyone wants to look as good as possible. Everyone has a vain streak. That one fits, let's try the others.”

The second had cording again, and was much like the first, though the bottom was shaped differently—Karela said this set was meant to wear while riding. The third was stiffened not only with more glue but also with thin flexible lengths of layered horn, and once Karela had laced and tightened it, it had noticeably less give to it than the first two. The style forced her shoulders back and her chest out, compressing her waist more but still not enough to make it difficult to breathe, and creating the kind of erect and rather regal posture she remembered—and had secretly envied. It wouldn't be easy to do much activity in, she suspected, though it might actually provide some back and abdominal support in what activity it did allow.

On that one, Karela wanted to do a little more work, which was fine since it was more formal anyway, and the nearest to a formal occasion most days was dinner. But the other two she declared to fit properly, and she laced Vixen back into the first one before starting on fittings for the dresses they'd chosen as potentially flattering and amenable to change.

These dresses, one didn't simply pull on over one's head and straighten; these ones involved laces or buttons or both, usually down the back or along the sides where she was going to have no choice but to ask Tylla for help. In some cases they were separate pieces that were then laced or buttoned together to look like one, allowing the same skirt to have multiple styles of bodices or a bodice to have variable types of sleeves.

She felt more than a little guilty over how much she was beginning to enjoy herself—after all, she was a shaman, and something as superficial as clothing shouldn't matter to her.

But she'd grown up seeing highborn women with their fine clothes and jewellery and styled hair, and trying to pretend to herself that she wasn't desperately jealous, that she wouldn't have gladly given anything to be like them. What she was seeing appear in Karela's mirror was what could have been, if she'd been born female in body as well as spirit, and it enchanted her.

Lyris and Tylla spoke quietly together for a moment, while Karela was helping Vixen change to a different dress to see how it fit; Tylla left, but returned with another woman, each carrying a well-filled tray. At Vixen's insistence Tylla and the quiet but attentive apprentice Perla shared in the light pleasant lunch.

“Milord Dayr and milord Mirain asked me to pass on an invitation to go riding this afternoon,” Tylla added.

“It would be wonderful to get outside and get a little exercise,” Vixen said. “Lyris?”

Lyris laughed and shook her head. “You'll be fine with Mirain. Yesterday and today have been fun, but I do have work to do that I should get back to. At least now you have some appropriate clothes for riding.”

“Thank you,” Vixen told her gratefully, and turned to be sure she included Karela and Tylla as well. “I genuinely appreciate it. It's not as though having a woman appear out of the hills with very little that's proper to wear is something you can plan for, and it can't be easy.”

“Well worth it, milady,” Karela said. “It's good to keep busy. Everyday clothes are little challenge, His Grace and milord Mirain prefer simple styles when they're at home, and I can only make so much for miladies Lyris and Alys. Perla and I will work on the rest of these, and we'll see to it from here on you can dress as befits a lady.”



A long afternoon ride, with Mirain as a friendly and knowledgeable guide on his tall liver chestnut gelding, was spoiled only briefly by the initial argument with the elderly stable-master over feminine modesty and sidesaddles. The situation had been solved more by Mirain's intervention than her own influence, although possibly the instant anxiety of every horse in range when Dayr came to see what was keeping them was a factor as well. The result was a man in his late forties, who looked oddly skittish, bringing out Dove in her own tack. Despite that beginning, it was pleasant and relaxing and did a lot to revive her spirits and energy. Mirain knew the terrain, could answer her inquisitive questions about the farmland they skirted, and took them on quite a pleasant woodland trail, along which Vixen automatically identified a number of the useful plants that were missing from the gardens.

With Dove back in the hands of the stablehands, she returned to her room to get ready for dinner. Tylla helped her out of the honey-brown divided riding skirt and jacket, tactfully left her to clean up by herself, but was immediately ready with something new to wear. The soft dark blue wool was drawn in close to her body by the laces at the back, showing off the shape created by the quilted cord-stiffened stays, and the skirt draped in loose folds almost to the floor; the square neck was low enough to provide a daring glimpse of enhanced cleavage without being indecent. The embroidery of butterflies in bright yellow and white and rose was cheery and made her smile while Tylla redid her hair after the wind's damage to the neat coiled plaits.

“You look absolutely beautiful, milady,” Tylla said in satisfaction. “Some jewellery would be a nice touch, but even without it, you're every inch a lady.”

“Thanks to you and Karela and Lyris,” Vixen said. “Otherwise, I'd be every inch a disgrace to Jared's house.” She got up, walked towards the mirror, absolutely delighted by the woman looking back. That woman could have stepped right out of long-ago shame-coloured fantasies.

Karela had even managed a pair of the soft slippers women typically wore indoors, in a blue only a little darker than the dress, with white ribbons to tie them. They felt, in fact, rather like being barefoot, with only a single thin layer of leather between her and the floor.

“My duty and my pleasure, milady.” Tylla gathered up Vixen's riding clothes, shaking them out to hang up, while Vixen tore herself away from the mirror and left for the dining room.

In the unaccustomed constriction of the stays, laced somewhat more snugly than the other during riding, and the very different feel of everything from dress to slippers, she found herself oddly self-conscious about every motion. Karela's skill might make sure the clothes fit, Tylla might make sure she was wearing them properly, but could she really act like a proper lady?

Dayr, there ahead of her, of course abandoned his conversation with Mirain and came to meet her. Green-gold eyes looked her over, and he frowned.

“Every time I see you, you're dressed different, and you look less like you.”

“While we're in human lands...”

“...we play by human rules. You said that before.”

As Jared stepped through the door, his gaze fell on her, and ran along the length of her body. She saw his expression shift to what she was certain was genuine appreciation, and he adjusted his path to come directly towards her. Dayr glanced at him, rolled his eyes with his back turned so Jared wouldn't see, and went back to Mirain.

“You look,” Jared said softly, “wonderful.”

“That would be Lyris and Karela and Tylla's doing.”


“My maid.”

“They may have had a hand in it, but they aren't the reason.” He ran a hand lightly down the side of her throat; something deep inside Vixen tightened and quivered, and she felt her heartbeat skip a little. “I think we need to find you some jewellery. Something green, I think. Jade or tourmaline or emeralds.”

“You're already being extremely generous.” Although that wasn't new at all: Jared's casual generosity towards his friends had been well-known at the University.

“In what offers itself, maybe, but no more than you deserve. And compared to the rewards, the cost is nothing.”

That was more than just aesthetic approval in his eyes, in his smile. She'd seen it before, but never turned in her direction, had tried not to admit to herself how much it had hurt every time to know that it never could be.

Jared was actually seeing her, not as the troubled young man he'd known, or as a visitor with an extraordinary mission, but as a woman who had his full interest.

Caught completely off-stride, she could only blush and look down, groping for something to say.

“Come sit down?” he suggested. “By me? I was unfortunately too tired to be much company last night, and you were rather quiet. But other than dinner, I haven't seen you at all yesterday or today, and I'd like to try to change that.” He offered a hand, and escorted her rather formally to the seat at his own right.

Dayr, cat-quick, claimed the one on her other side. Vixen glanced at him, found him glowering at Jared, and nudged him with one foot. Dayr turned his dark look on Balduin instead.

Well, once the food arrived, that should distract him—she could only hope tonight's meal was something he'd eat.

All through dinner, Jared paid only courtesy heed to the others at the table, all his attention on Vixen. He wanted to know what she'd been doing, how his household had been treating her, how Anna was; she dodged the whole issue of Ilsa simply by declaring that there was something private she'd needed to do that was part of being a shaman, and Jared let it go. At her urging, he explained the issues he'd been dealing with that day—a complex tangle of traditional land use and modern best practice. That drew low derisive noises from Dayr more than once that Vixen hoped only she heard. She'd have liked to offer a coherent discussion of it, but somehow every time he looked at her and smiled like that, her thoughts unravelled. He didn't seem to mind.

“Are you terribly tired?” Jared asked over dessert, which was something creamy with fruit in it, a trifle rich but not unbearably so.

“No, not really. Why?”

“You haven't seen my library yet. I thought you might like to.”

“Very much so.” Maybe, surrounded by books, she could be in Jared's presence and still keep some kind of grasp on her own thoughts, instead of having them scatter with no trace of proper shaman self-discipline. After all, much of their original friendship had been spent among books.


She could feel Dayr looking at her, but when she turned towards him, he was talking innocently to Mirain about a board game Mirain had promised to teach him.

Dayr's eyes weren't the only ones she could feel, and Alys made less effort to disguise it.

That was easy to dismiss as unimportant, though, with Jared pushing back his chair, offering her his hand again. With good-nights duly said, they left the others to make their own arrangements.



“With all Hyalin's resources yours,” Vixen said, “I can imagine the size of your library.”

“I haven't had all that long to work on it,” he pointed out. “And acquiring new books takes some effort without making frequent trips to the city personally, which I really don't have time for. Do you remember Willem?”

She frowned in thought for a moment, brought to mind a scrawny pale young man who could never quite sit still. “Stonemason's son? Sponsored by his lord because he was so intelligent?”

“That's him. He's still at the University, he's teaching now, but he's extremely junior and doesn't get many classes or much pay. We have an arrangement involving my paying him to watch for new books on subjects that interest me. He has the money to buy them, and when he runs through it, I send him more.”

“That's a good solution. It not only gets you books, but helps an old friend support himself. If I'd known that,” she added ruefully, “I could have spared myself an interview with Dean Hadley and asked Willem where you were. But I really didn't want to waste time looking at random for classmates who might or might not still be around after eight years.”

He opened a door, gestured invitingly, but as she stepped through his fingers brushed her cheek, and he asked softly, “Was he terribly rude?”

With her stomach all aflutter again, Vixen sighed. “Let's just say I have no trouble believing the rumours about him and women attending the University. He gave me the information I needed, and he kept his hands to himself, which I suppose is all I could ask.”

“I think if he saw you right now, and had something you needed, he'd be much less likely to behave so well. Thank you for facing that for my sake.”

“I... oh my.” She blinked, her scattered thoughts focusing on the wealth of books on the walls of the warmly oak-panelled room. “I don't think I've ever seen this many books in one place other than the University library.”

“Some, I admit, are outdated, or of limited interest,” Jared said, letting the door close. “Books my father or grandfather bought about old-fashioned advice on running a Domain. A few I imagine were my mother or aunt or grandmother, on etiquette and the like, and a few dreadful romances claiming to be history. There are some quite good real histories, however, and some excellent classics of philosophy and geography, and some newer works on land management.”

“Which never used to be an interest of yours.”

He shrugged, leaned against a heavy oak table, watching her investigate the shelves. “I had planned to stay at the University, you know that, but with the title dropped in my lap, what else was I supposed to do? If I can't spend all my time on studying, I can at least do my best by Hyalin. And, in ways, it can be fascinating and challenging.”

She ran a finger along the spine of a work on human anatomy she remembered very well indeed. “Changes happen,” she said quietly. “What happened to your father and brother?”

“My brother got himself killed hunting a boar. I got the news about that about two years after you disappeared. My father and I argued for the next year and a half about whether I was going to come back here so he could try to turn me into a copy of himself or whether I was going to stay at the University and turn my attention to researching land use and resource management. His heart failed.”

“I'm sorry.”

“Not much love lost between me and either. I was mostly annoyed that they'd managed to disrupt my plans after all.”

“Mm, yes, your plans.” Jared always had plans. Other classmates sometimes found them intriguing, but at other times considered them boringly abstract or impractically ambitious.

To Corin, still the misfit, the weird one to snicker about, nothing Jared found interesting could ever be dull or pointless—because, in all the world, Jared was the one person to find Corin interesting, the one person willing to defend him and listen to him seriously and encourage him.

She didn't need to wonder whether Jared had been aware of how intensely Corin had idolized him, or how completely he'd become the centre of her personal universe at the time, his approval the sun's light and warmth.

She already knew: he had no idea at all.

“But you couldn't possibly have planned for a wandering peddler to have a genuine shyani grimoire in his pack. One he stole when a small shyani hill offered him shelter and a meal, and that wasn't even missed for some time.”

“What happened to him?” Jared sounded only idly curious.

“He's dead. I hope before they discovered he no longer had it, but I doubt it.” This shelf was geography and maps and traveller's tales; she spotted one claiming to be a human's journey in the highlands. She made a mental note to take a look at it later to see how bad it was. “The tarika are in absolute grim earnest, they hate all humans passionately and want us exterminated on this continent so the shyani and weyres can have the lowlands back. Mostly what stops them is that they're a minority and there are quite a lot of humans and the other shyani and weyres don't want any more fighting. Humans very nearly destroyed the jaguars and the sea otters, they're so rare now that they might not ultimately survive the damage. The sea otters and seals and dolphins used to live with shyani along the coast, but now there are shyani coastal settlements only in the far north and far south. Only the wolves and pumas and bears and dolphins came through largely intact. The shyani population is lower than it once was, though they're at no risk of vanishing, but they've had to adapt to not having access to resources they used to have. Humans have hurt them very badly. They could have killed all the humans who first came here, but they welcomed them as friends. When humans started to get aggressive, they tried to draw back instead of fighting. That cost them a horrific number of lives. It's possible they still could kill us all, but they don't want to. Most are willing to just leave the past in the past and live with the present as it is. They're happy to offer hospitality to individual humans, including traders. They do interact with humans regularly, right along the boundary, and it's for the most part friendly. But even the friendlier ones usually resent humans trying to pry into matters that the shyani consider private.”

“You don't think we should know what they could do if they ever do decide to start a war?”

She turned away from a shelf of histories, leaned against the oak-panelled wall beside it, mirroring his position as she regarded him. “If they haven't by now, they never will. But that isn't why you wanted that book. You just want to know what they know, purely for itself.”

“Knowledge shouldn't be restricted.”

“No, but it should always be kept in context. And that book alone has no context. It could give you no more real understanding of the shyani than one of your books on land use would give a shyani of humans. After eight years living entirely with them, there are still times when we just can't entirely understand each other, but you can accept and respect even what you don't understand. Shyani and weyres don't always entirely understand each other, either, but nearly any shyani hill has a family of weyres living there anyway. My father and mother and sister, Vixen's, not Corin's, I love them very much and they've done their best by the cuckoo chick in their nest. They aren't alone in that. I've lived in two shyani communities and have met people from others. In spite of being human, I've had no more than a few questioning looks that pass before long. Here in Hyalin or at the University or anywhere else in the lowlands, you know the same wouldn't happen if people saw and understood these,” she touched one silver earring, “as meaning I'm osana. I'd be stoned in the street, more likely. To the shyani, the ultimate goal is for each individual to become completely and wonderfully and fully who they are, because that, in the end, makes the community stronger and brighter. To humans, it's mostly about fitting yourself into the place that society ordains for you, regardless of the personal cost. The differences just in the very fundamental premise of what life is for are immense.”

Jared crossed the room to her in a few long strides; it gave her a moment to appreciate the extra muscle he'd gained in the past few years, though the self-assurance of his bearing had been there long before. Directly in front of her, he cupped a gentle hand around her cheek and met her eyes. “Does that mean we can't all just be friendly?”

Suddenly stays and dress felt too tight, too warm, it was hard to catch her breath. She was grateful for the solidity of the wall behind her.

“That's what they want,” she managed to point out. “They just take exception to thieves.”

“And what do you want?”

“You.” She almost forgot to add the next word. “Safe. And the people who gave me a new life, safe.”

“I certainly owe them something, since without them, you wouldn't be here right now, much more confident and sure of yourself than I can ever remember.”

Right at that instant, she wasn't feeling at all sure of herself. She did, however, have a mission she could cling to. “Then for their sake and yours, give me that grimoire.” She smiled up at him. “I bet you can't read it anyway. They're usually in the old shyani language. They leave them that way for a reason.”

“I can read a little old shyani,” he conceded. “Not much. Can you?”

“I have no particular interest in it. I do know it's a syllabary with over a hundred characters, and the language we all use now is a mingling of the languages each side spoke when they came together so it has a lot of unfamiliar vocabulary and structures as well.” Misleading, but if she told him that she could both speak it and write it moderately well, all part of her shaman training, it would be contrary to her primary goal. “You could work on it until you're old and grey and not translate enough to grasp the meaning. How is that worth your life?”

“It isn't. But I don't regret it. It brought you here. How are they going to feel about you having it?”

“The tarika will tolerate me. Respect for shamans runs very deep in shyani culture—you've heard Dayr.” She held up her hands to show the tattooed palms. “While I suppose they could be faked, there is no power that would make a weyre confirm that they're real unless he's absolutely certain of that.”

He caught her hands in his, steadied them so he could look more closely. There wasn't the size difference between his hands and hers that there might have been, but he brushed his thumb over the eye, and she shivered. “Those must have hurt.”

What would he think of the others, that don't show under these clothes? “Less than you might think. Less than some of my training. I am not at all a natural at keeping my thoughts still, but it's essential for any shaman to be able to. As for the grimoire, I'm not keeping it anyway. I'm going to give it to Dayr to hold. Weyres often guard things for shyani.”

Jared freed her hands and backed up a step—she rather regretted the loss of the closeness, though it was also, confusingly, a relief. He crossed the room to a substantial desk, fishing a key on a leather thong from under his shirt. With the key, he unlocked one of the drawers of the desk and pulled it open.

The shyani grimoire was just a scroll, wound on a pair of rods with gracefully-shaped but otherwise unadorned finials, tied with a faded rose ribbon. A simple thing to have cost one life already and to potentially cost Jared his as well.

Not while I'm here. I won't allow that.

He presented it to her formally, with both hands. “Milady. The object of your journey.”

She accepted it, but smiled and shook her head. “The object was your safety. This is just the means for that. Thank you for being sensible about this.” She let her hands fall in front of her, both still around the grimoire. Well, it helped to hide that they were trembling. Were they? She was sure they were.

“You're quite right. It isn't worth it. And I very much don't want you and me at odds.”

“I don't want that either.”

She took a deep breath, quietly, as he turned away; he didn't go far, only seated himself on a couch so padded with creamy leather that the wood beneath was invisible. “Come talk to me? Anything. How hard it was to adjust to the hills, or what was really going on before that, that I didn't know? If I'd known you were so unhappy...” He trailed off. “I don't know what I would have done. Something, I hope.”

She joined him, left the grimoire on her far side. “I couldn't tell you. I couldn't even admit it to myself. It is, to say the least, not easy to acknowledge that you've spent your entire life living a lie not of your own making, one so pervasive that no one, even you, knows who you actually are beneath it. When I decided that death was the only way out... I was losing the battle to hide from myself, and it terrified me. I couldn't see any future that was worth enduring even one more day of all the lies, let alone years with no hope of anything else. Human culture isn't kind to anyone who doesn't fit within the neat and accepted categories. And I was certain I'd be entirely alone. How could I expect anyone to stand by me against what felt like the entire world? How could I risk doing harm to my only real friend? Or risk you rejecting me and hating me?”

Jared was silent a moment. “I honestly don't know how I would have reacted,” he said finally. “I'd rather think that I'm more loyal to my friends, but it would have been a shock.”

“Of course it would.” She shrugged. “Before that, it was only... knowing that something was very wrong, and guilty fantasies creeping in that horrified me, and a great deal of effort spent hiding from myself. It mattered more than anything to me that you never cared whether I was any good at fencing or sports, and you listened to me and made sure the others didn't forget I was there or twist everything I said to make fun of me.”

“You always had interesting ideas. More interesting than the ones who were just trying to say what they thought I wanted to hear.”

And you think I didn't figure out fast that what you wanted to hear was something you'd never heard before? “I don't know what I would've done without that. Possibly just quietly killed myself within a few months of getting to the University, and no one would've much cared if Lord Laures' misfit third son was no longer around to be a disgrace. I doubt there was that much fuss when I vanished.”

“I tried,” Jared said. “So did a few of the others. We turned the town upside down, and some way around the edges, but not far enough out, I suppose.” He sighed. “The University itself, though, once they'd contacted your father, they more or less washed their hands of it.”

“Mmhmm. Because they were reassured by Lord Laures that he wasn't going to hold them responsible, so why bother? Let it go. I think it worked out better all around this way, in the end. Could you imagine his reaction if he saw me now? I'm better off at Willow River where I'm not disappointing anyone or disgracing my name or making anyone uncomfortable. I have a job to do, one that matters, and if it involves more hard work at moments than a physician encounters, well, I don't mind. Copper Springs and Willow River both rather quickly got past being unsure how to live with a human, more quickly than the lowlands would get used to an osana. I have friends there, and a family that loves me. I know who I am and where I belong. What else do I really need?”



Corin's room in the boarding house was even plainer and smaller than his room at home. A narrow bed had hooks on the wall above it; it would be impossible to open the chest of drawers with anyone sitting on the single chair at the desk. Sturdy well-supported shelves had been anchored to the wall above the desk. A single window let in some light and air, though it looked onto the back area of the house, where he could see long rectangular pots of what were probably kitchen herbs to one side, a waste bin on the other, and an inverted tin tub that was probably for laundry; a similar yard backed onto that one, with its own building, quite possibly another boarding house. The walls of the room had been whitewashed at some point, but were now faintly grey; the curtains and the bedding were faded, but neatly mended and clean.

It didn't matter. He was away from his family, and in a place where curiosity about the world wouldn't be mocked. Finally, after what felt like a lifetime of waiting, he was at the University. He was officially registered as pursuing a diploma in medicine, and had a schedule of lectures to attend. After everything, he was here!

The schedule did, for no sensible reason he could think of, include a fencing lesson, but that was only once a week, and probably there'd be ways around that. If the idea was to encourage physical activity, he could find better ways.

He had some time now before dinner was served in the dining room downstairs, and he knew the University was supposed to have the largest library on the continent. People who wrote books sent copies to the University.

He locked the door behind him and dropped the cord with the key on it around his neck, tucking it under his shirt. If someone really wanted to steal most of his possessions, he didn't care, but he wanted his own books safe.

The rest of the boarding house was rather like his room: everything was carefully mended and meticulously clean but generally showed signs of wear and age. It was comfortable, though, and the widow who ran it was friendly and motherly.

The library was easy to find: it had a great portico with immense fluted columns, several steps up from the level of the street. The double doors to the interior were dwarfed by it, though they were tall enough Corin thought he might barely be able to touch the lintel if he stretched.

Just inside the doors was an entry hall. Painted on the white wall in neat precise black script was a list of rules: no roughhousing, no loud conversation, no food or drinks, no damage to the books of any sort, no removing books from the library, give books to the librarians to reshelve in the correct places.

There are enough books for putting them in the wrong place to be a real problem?

He pulled open the inner doors and went on in anticipation.

Nothing could have prepared him for what he saw.

He hadn't imagined that many books had ever been written, let alone all gathered into a single place. His own collection of twenty or so was, he knew, more than most people ever had, but compared to this, it was trivial.

There must be answers in here to everything!

“Hey, bumpkin, quit staring and get out of the way.”

“Sorry,” Corin said distractedly, too enchanted to bother taking offence.

Everything was going to be all right now, surely. For the next few years, he had his own room, and access to all these books, and lectures to feed that hunger to understand the world... and on the other end of it, instead of being Corin Laures, youngest son and perpetual misfit, he'd be Corin Laures, physician. Someone who'd have a future of helping people, could maybe make a difference the way one visit with another physician had saved him, and he'd be independent and respectable and able to do as he pleased.

Someone with a reason to live.

Someone new.

He spotted a large circular desk with two people behind it, and went in that direction. As he approached, the younger of the two looked up from writing something, and smiled. “Looking for something?”

“There has to be a system for organizing all this. How is it done?”

“You're new here this year.” It wasn't really a question, but it wasn't an accusation or an insult either, simply a statement of fact with, if anything, a faint tone of amusement. His accent sounded unlike what Corin was accustomed to, the vowels more rounded, which he realized must be the southerner accent Corin had read about; very dark hair contrasted with skin that probably wasn't exposed to the sun and wind all that much, and he was carrying more weight than Corin's father would have allowed as anything but muscle, but his smile was friendly. “It's all sorted by subject, and then alphabetically by the author's surname.”

“What if it can be in two different categories?”

“Give me an example?”

“The Plague of Mynatt. Would it be history, or would it be medicine? And is history organized by place or by time, and is medicine divided?” He heard himself starting to speed up, and bit his lower lip. “Sorry. I guess I should just go look.”

“It could take you forever to figure out the system empirically.” He glanced over his shoulder at his older companion. “I'm going to go give our new bookworm here the tour in advance.”

The older man nodded absently. “You can warm up for the group version.”

“I can wait,” Corin said quickly.

“It's all right.” The young man came around, through a break in the desk, and out to join him. “It's nice to get up from the desk and move around instead of just answering questions, and I haven't done a group tour in months. In a few days we'll be posting a schedule for regular tours, and it's recommended that everyone get into one so they have some idea what they're doing. The ones who don't, they expect us to find every bloody individual book for them, and we don't always have time. You're planning to spend the next couple of days until lectures officially start trying to read as much as you can, aren't you?”

“Um... probably. I wasn't expecting this many. I don't even know where to start yet.”

“Feast after the famine,” his guide chuckled. “It's pretty amazing, especially for those of us coming from households with only a few books around. There's a reason I work here around lectures, and it isn't just that I need the extra money. Take some advice from a fellow bookworm. Take breaks and get up to stretch, and don't skip meals. The books aren't going anywhere, and you really don't want to go to your first lecture absolutely exhausted with a pounding headache and sore eyes. Trust me in this. So. We're open every day...”



A lady with no knowledge of sewing or embroidery, Vixen reflected with a sigh, was certainly an odd beast in the lowlands.

Lyris and Karela were too courteous to comment on it, and she doubted she'd heard more than twenty words from Perla at all, and Tylla, she thought, was getting used to her peculiarities.

She could, however, entertain them with stories while they worked, and sing to them, and offer an unskilled pair of hands where useful.

“I do wish I were more use,” she sighed once, obligingly holding a hem taut while Karela delicately picked the existing stitches out of it. “Especially since these are for me.”

“Work goes much more quickly in company and with some amusement,” Lyris said. “It is appreciated, all the more so when you have no obligation to be here. Jared has made it very clear that Hyalin is yours.”

Though Alys would prefer to see the back of me forever. “And I'm sure you have other responsibilities.”

“I often help Karela, when I have time. I enjoy the company, and I rather enjoy sewing, when it's not endless pointless little decorative trifles. Nor is it unusual for Tylla to join us, when the house has no female guests of any rank. I don't keep her as busy as all that.”

“I have little skill with embroidery, milady,” Tylla said, “but I can sew a neat straight seam, and there's always a need for that.”

“Between the household proper,” Karela said, “the upper and lower house staff, the stable and grounds staff, and a few in the village itself, there's a great deal of clothing to make each year. I'm entitled to assistance from the maids, but some are of more help than others. This is a pleasant change.”

“I assume one doesn't run around naked in the hills,” Lyris said, which made Perla give her a wide-eyed look. “And that probably there's no single seamstress clothing everyone.”

“Leather is common,” Vixen said. “And fur from animals killed for other reasons, though not generally for the fur alone, rabbit most often. Wool from the goats and multiple kinds of plant fibres are spun to make yarn for knitting and thread for weaving and cord for fishing nets. Nettles, hemp, rushes, bark. Even hair, and the fur weyres shed in their other forms. There's less division between tasks for men and tasks for women, and less division between households. Someone very good at, oh, working with wood, can trade off doing more of that in return for someone else taking over her or his other jobs.” The thought of Tethan's clever hands shaping a reddish piece of wood into a vixen to be the decorative part of a comb, while she lay beside him under the late-afternoon autumn sun watching in fascination, made her smile, though it was a bittersweet sort of memory. “My adopted mother is a very talented weaver, so she's rarely expected to do anything else unless she chooses to. But most people grow up learning the basics of many skills. As often as possible, repetitive jobs are done communally, with a lot of singing and storytelling.”

For just a moment, she saw Willow River on a winter evening, the whole community of thirty-nine gathered in the six-sided space at the heart of the hill.

Buried under a thick layer of soil overgrown over many decades with grass and greenery, it truly did look like a simple mound, if a trifle more regular in shape. Two curtained doors granted access to the cold-trapping ditch just within, and a bridge crossed the latter at each. The great hexagonal building was home to six households on each of two floors, accessible from the walkway ringing the inner wall. Each floor had common space in the centre that was put to communal use as frequently as possible, and the upper floor, typically, was where everyone gathered.

It was so absolutely and impenetrably dark even the shyani couldn't see without artificial light, but it was warm in any weather and safe and welcoming. The ceilings were home to a thick layer of phosphorescent fungus that cast a thin glow over everything, not much more than starlight but enough that once Vixen got used to it she could keep from walking into things. The witches, long ago, had discovered a way to store energy inside quartz crystals, and a side effect was that they glowed, quite brightly to begin with but it gradually faded.

When the entire community gathered, they always had a few quartz crystals around, but they readily tolerated extra light close to Vixen so she could see to to read aloud or work on such small tasks as she had any skill with. Around her, some were sewing or embroidering, knitting or tablet-braiding, others working with leather or wood or horn, or cutting up foodstuffs for cooking or preserving. A four-year-old was being amused by her eight-year-old brother with a set of carved wooden animals. A girl nearly old enough for her coming-of-age was practising a more complex bit of knitting, with help from her father and grandmother. Linyel set her own mending aside to shift her tiny son, the newest addition to the community, in his sling so he could nurse. Elderly Kevar, whose hands shook too much for fine work despite Vixen and Irisan's best efforts, could still handle a tambourine to keep the beat of the round that spiralled and echoed from the stone around them. Dayr and Fero were a single heap of tawny fur, grooming each other; Fero had declined several other male pumas as mates, but her response to Dayr was distinctly more favourable.

The community that had, after a brief period of wariness about their human shaman, accepted her as one of them, and trusted her to look after them.


But it felt strangely far away and alien, here in Karela's sun-bright workroom, with only four other women.

She shook off the feeling. “They're used to my deficiencies,” she said lightly. “They work around them. Shyani culture puts heavy emphasis on inclusion and accommodation, and healers get a lot of respect.”

“Seems only right,” Karela said. “If you're working hard, only fair you get paid in some way.”

“Sometimes there are many days in a row when I have very little to do as shaman. It's a small community, around forty people, and major events fortunately tend to be rare, so I help out with other jobs. Not sewing...” She paused, head tilted to listen. Was that a scream?

Every instinct said that it was, and there was trouble, and she needed to be there right now.

“Did you just hear...?” Lyris began, and trailed off.

Rising voices reached them through the open window, in a confused and incoherent babble.

“Someone screamed,” Perla said, with no doubt in her voice.

Vixen caught the last only as she bolted out the door, cursing the hampering folds of layered slate-blue and white skirts—and, when she reached the stairs, cursing as well the soft slippers that forced her to slow down rather than risking a dangerous fall. They were on the side of the building that overlooked the stables, which was where Dayr and Mirain were supposed to be. The source of the disturbance might be something minor, though she doubted that; it might be something that was really none of her business. Or it might be something very bad.

One of the stable-hands caught her arm, jerking her to an unceremonious stop. “You can't go over there, milady!”

“Why not?”

“Because you'll be killed and that'll be worth our hides!”

“Killed by what?” People were fleeing, but not all that far; there was a distinct ring of stable-hands and groundskeepers focused on an area behind the stable that she couldn't see.

What she also couldn't see was Dayr.

But there was a faint greenish tang in the air that she recognized.

She dug the nails of her free hand into the underside of the stable-hand's wrist, aiming for nerve-points; in a combination of pain and shock, he let her go with an oath he shouldn't really have said in front of a lady. The dense-packed flagstones of the forecourt in front of the stable were annoyingly slippery, and she nearly fell. The first time she caught her balance. The second time, she was close enough to the ring of bodies to grab the nearest groundskeeper's tunic; that gave her leverage to both keep her feet and to use her own momentum to jerk him out of her way and dart through the ring before anyone could stop her again. She heard several male voices cry out in dismay, and dodged the attempt by someone to catch her from behind.

Atop a large heap of what must be aged manure, about ready to spread in the gardens, an opportunistic weed had taken hold and spread into a luxuriant mass. It figured, that even though it had uses for humans, catnip was ignored instead of harvested.

It was certainly not being ignored by the great tawny cat who was writhing blissfully in the middle of the patch.

“Milady!” Male hands tried yet again to seize her. Wishing for her boots, she stomped on the instep behind her, twisted away, and ran across the hard-packed dirt to the pile.

Dayr looked at her upside-down. His pupils were dilated, only a thin rim of golden-green remaining; enormous paws kneaded rhythmically at the air, spreading wide with deadly claws extending, then relaxing. He twisted to rub his cheek against one stalk that was only slightly askew, grabbing it with a forepaw when it inevitably bent under pressure that was strong enough to tear the leaves from the stem. He snapped up the leaves, chewing on them distractedly while watching her.

“Oh, Dayr,” she sighed. For a puma to resist the scent of catnip would be just too much to ask, and she couldn't even justify being angry at him. She should have checked for catnip patches to warn him away from them, but hadn't thought to.

Meanwhile, this was a problem.

She spun in a swirl of slate-blue and white, stopping the next attempt to drag her to safety with an icy glare. “Keep your hands off me. And leave him alone. He's not going to hurt anyone. Not unless you're stupid about it.”

“This is foolish!” a much older man snapped. He looked like he knew how to use that pitchfork uncomfortably well. “Get away!”

“That's a wild animal!” another said apprehensively, shifting a metal-headed hoe between his hands.

She heaved a deeper sigh. “Not most of the time.”

The crowd parted enough to admit Mirain, with a longbow in one hand and a quiver at his side, arrow already on the string, and two men Vixen thought were manor guards, each with a spear. Behind them was Lyris, white-faced.

Mirain raised the bow and drew back the string. “Move, please, milady.” He sounded as courteous still as he might while offering her a seat, and as calm.

Vixen shook her head, spread her arms to either side to shelter Dayr with her own body as completely as she could—bringing the tattooed palms into plain sight, but she realized it only belatedly. “No. That's Dayr.”

Mirain did a visible double-take. “What?”

She gestured to the tumbled and rather scattered heap of clothes nearby, the same chestnut-and-sage Dayr had been wearing at breakfast. “He isn't a threat to anyone or to the livestock. He'll play in it a bit longer, then fall asleep, and when he wakes up he'll be clear-headed again. He didn't mean to frighten anyone. This much catnip would've been much too strong a lure.” She felt a paw bat inquisitively at the back of her dress. This would be the day her dress would have a decorative white rosette at the back, trailing broad white ribbons nearly to the hem of the skirt. She doubted the ribbons would survive the experience. Well, it could be a lot worse.

Slowly, Mirain lowered the bow. “Dayr is a weyre?”

“Yes,” she said patiently. “Now, would you please tell everyone to put down all the various implements being pointed at my best friend?”

A fist-sized rock skimmed past her and struck Dayr on the shoulder, hard enough to make him mrowl in outrage and squirm over onto his stomach, scanning for the source of the attack.

“I said, he isn't a threat!” Vixen shouted. Why were humans so stupid? “Unless, of course, you act like fools and provoke him into it while he's in a state that keeps him from judging consequences!” With a brief pang of regret for the gorgeous dress, she dropped to a crouch between Dayr and the uneasy crowd, one hand on his head. “Easy,” she crooned, reaching behind her for one length of ribbon and dangling that in front of him. He forgot the stone instantly, rolling back onto one side so he could swat at the ribbon. “No one's going to hurt you. Not without going through me.” It wasn't at all a comfortable position for her; these clothes were absolutely absurd for anything other than staying indoors and being relatively sedate and decorative! But if it kept Dayr distracted and therefore alive, she could live with it.

“Stand down,” Mirain said finally, easing the tension on the bow entirely and letting go of the string. “And I very much hope that you're right, milady.”

“Does he look like he's attacking me?” Vixen asked acidly. “I'm seeing a singular lack of bloodshed. And you were all just told to stand down, so do it!”

Reluctantly, spears and pitchforks and garden implements were lowered, and rocks were tossed aside, though not without some apprehensive looks and barely-audible muttering.

Vixen let herself take a deep breath finally.

“Thank you.”

“Are you staying here, milady?” Mirain asked.

“It would be just as well if I can get him out of the catnip. Could you find me, oh, a few feet of rope or leather strap? I can't promise it will be any use afterwards. And think of somewhere not far away that would be quieter? Even the corral the jennies are in would be fine, they're used to him, as long as there are no other animals nearby to be frightened.”

Mirain spoke quietly to the older man with the pitchfork, who looked rebellious but finally yielded and left, muttering under his breath.

“As for where... the threshing floor, perhaps? Not comfortable, but it's not used in this season and it will be at least somewhat private.”

“That will do. Where?”

Mirain gestured past her, in the direction of the other outbuildings. “I'll have to show you.”

The old man finally returned with a coil of something in one hand; Mirain accepted it and took a step towards Vixen, then hesitated. “Will he attack if I come nearer?”

“He likes you, so I doubt it, but go slowly.”

Dayr paused in his assault on the ribbon when Mirain came near, and watched him quizzically, but Vixen saw no signs of aggression. That could, of course, change very rapidly with catnip involved, but it was a good sign at least.

Mirain, catching on, uncoiled what he held—a harness rein, perhaps, since it didn't look like rope—and tossed the end in Dayr's direction. The great cat rolled to all fours and crouched, tail end wriggling, then pounced. With impressive courage, Mirain held his ground, though he did recoil perceptibly.

Vixen took pity on him and seized the leather strap herself. Even in this state, Dayr would never hurt her. Gratefully, Mirain moved back a few feet, but stayed near enough to guide her.

Dayr was quite willing to keep stalking the twitching end of the worn leather strap, jerking her repeatedly to a halt. Once, the strap broke, much closer to his end, and he worried and gnawed at the short piece for a moment before his attention came back to the moving end.

The threshing barn had huge sliding doors on two sides that could be opened both at once to allow a breeze through for separating the lighter chaff from the heavier grain. Mirain pushed one door open and stood well back so she could lead Dayr inside onto the well-worn wooden floor.

“I should stay with him,” Vixen said quietly. “I don't want any accidents to happen. I don't imagine we'll be there for lunch.”

“I'll explain,” Mirain said. “You're very brave, milady.”

She looked down at the cat who was batting at the leather strap to see if it would move again. “No, not really. He saved my life, a long time ago, and has been watching out for me ever since. And weyres aren't so hard to understand, on their own terms. They're usually less complicated and less contradictory than humans are.”

He gave her a thoughtful look. “Perhaps. I'll return in a moment.”

When he came back, it was with an armload of blankets or rugs, which he spread on the floor in front of one of the supporting pillars; the one on top looked finer and cleaner than the rest. “Scant comfort, milady, and I'm sure Jared will be displeased...”

“He has no call to be,” Vixen interrupted firmly. “I'm quite capable of sleeping outside on the ground to get here, so I'm sure I can endure having something softer than the bare wood to sit on. Thank you, I appreciate it. If it will make you feel better, you can leave the door open enough that you can check that I'm still safe.”

Mirain got the hint; he swept her a bow and retreated.

For a while, Dayr continued to play, kitten-like, chasing the leather strap around. Vixen paused to remove the soft slippers, down to her bare feet, and rather wished for Tylla's presence so she could get out of the heavy and rather constricting dress, which also grew excessively warm from even this much exertion.

With no more catnip in reach, though, Dayr wound down, and when Vixen seated herself on the bed of rugs, legs crossed and her back against the pillar, he sprawled with his head in her lap. The vibrant purr faded gradually down into silence as she sang shyani lullabies to him, stroking the soft fur of his face and head, throat and shoulders.

Vaguely, she was aware of low voices outside, but didn't care enough to bother looking in that direction.

Jared's voice she recognized, however, and Dayr's ears flicked, a growl rumbling low in his throat. Hoping Jared had more sense than to come nearer, she kept her attention on her feline friend, soothing him back to sleep.

“Milady?” That was Tylla, a distinct quaver in her voice; Vixen looked up quickly. The maid, with a well-filled tray, crossed the wooden floor towards her, though every line of her body spoke of understandable nervousness.

“Oh, please don't tell me someone ordered you to bring me lunch,” Vixen said in exasperation.

“No, milady, but it's well past, and you should eat.”

“You didn't need to, but thank you. It's all right, he won't hurt you, but I can't move. I'm afraid I've just made more laundry for someone to do. And probably repairs. With any luck, that's all. But we won't be able to check the damage until Dayr wakes up and I can get up. Which may have to wait until I can feel my legs again.” Tylla was clearly determined despite her fear, and Vixen's running chatter appeared to help reassure her. “Silly cat. Don't worry, weyres don't eat people, and this particular one once rescued a human who was lost and who would have died. He's the same person he has been since we got here. He just made a mistake and let a secret slip out that should have stayed a secret. In either form, he's still him. Although after a lot of catnip, well, the nearest parallel would be enough wine or ale to interfere with judgement. But he isn't like the kind who get aggressive.”

Tylla dropped to one knee to set the tray in easy reach. Dayr opened one eye to look at her sleepily, and yawned. Understandably, Tylla blanched and backed hastily away from the alarming display of teeth.

“That was just a yawn,” Vixen said. “Not an attack.”

Tylla edged back closer, and knelt. “Milady,” she said softly. “It's not my place to gossip, but I do think you need to know. Lady Alys is, well, hysterical, and claiming that you both are disruptive and dangerous. His Grace is currently refusing to see her.” Tylla hesitated. “Lady Alys has been asking me questions about you, milady. I'm refusing to answer. You're His Grace's guest and she has no right to ask me to break confidence that way. Leofric, who sees to milord,” she nodded towards Dayr, “is a good man and will also say nothing. Servants aren't supposed to gossip, but it does happen. We'll do what we can about that. But please be careful.”

Vixen sighed and closed her eyes, letting her head fall back against the pillar briefly. “Why under the sun does she dislike me so much? I haven't done anything to her, as far as I'm aware.”

“I couldn't say, milady, but I think Lady Lyris might be some help.”

“If she's still speaking to me.”

“I think that won't be a problem, milady.”

“Thank you. I'll try to stay out of trouble, although so far that hasn't been very effective. Maybe I should just stay quietly in my room.”

Tylla rose, watching Dayr warily. “I'll make certain there's something clean ready for you to put on when you come in, milady. And I'll bring something here for milord to put on.”

“I don't think I'm going to feel up to going to dinner. Something simple and comfortable, please?”

“Yes, milady.”

“You can leave Dayr's right inside the door, that's close enough for us to reach them once he wakes up.”

Alone again, Vixen looked down at the drowsy cat who was also her best friend, and sighed. “I have to admit, I'm rather enjoying the chance to be the lady I should have been, to whatever extent around the excitement, but for the sake of peace in Hyalin, I hope the tarika appear soon so we can go home and let things go back to normal here.”

Home to the more casual ebb and flow of time, punctuated by flurries of intensive activity and by the still times, without the formalities of status and convention.

Home to the community that she'd become a part of, despite the uncomfortable reminders now and then that she had grown up in a fundamentally different culture, and the necessary but inconvenient accommodation to a few aspects of her basic physiology.

Which was ridiculous. Shyani culture had accepted her, given her the freedom to be herself, given her an important job to do. Within human culture, she could only be a freak and an abomination, unless she denied and concealed a part of herself. She didn't belong here; she couldn't even be here for a few days without creating waves.

The contents of the tray were mostly light things: bread, fruit, thin-sliced cold meat. With it, though, was a covered bowl of thicker slices of what she decided was cold venison, roasted and lightly spiced. Whose idea had that been, to include something that would be to Dayr's tastes?

Between lullabies, she nibbled at her own, lost in thought.

Had she only been born right, was life here what could have been?

No, probably not. Lord Laures would never have sent a daughter to the University. If he had, though... as a younger son, Jared might have been able to get away with marrying the daughter of a Lord less wealthy and powerful. Then, when he inherited the title...

Regretfully, she banished the fantasy. There were just too many impossibilities in it, stacked on top of that initial inescapable one. Still, life could have involved a good marriage, if not as Lady, at least within a highborn household. Even with less formal education, she'd still have been literate, and one could learn a lot simply by reading.

Or it could have involved a marriage to a man who was physically abusive or unfaithful or simply treated her like a child, who placed little value on books or forbade her access to them. A highborn woman had little say in her own marriage. As daughter of a Lord, even a minor one, she'd certainly have been married off for the good of her father's house.

All in all, she would have been a very different person, walking a very different path.

Dayr stirred, yawned, and rolled to all fours for an enormous multi-stage stretch: tail up and chest down, then the reverse, then with his back arched upwards in the middle. He sat down with his tail around his feet and looked around, ears twitching.

“Well, good morning,” Vixen said drily.

Dayr blinked once, slowly, then the memory must have clicked into place: he shifted to human, entirely naked, still sitting on the wooden floor. “Uh-oh. How bad?”

“Aside from you nearly being killed? A lot of people have been badly frightened.”

“Sorry. I was waiting for Mirain, the horses mostly don't like me being inside, and I thought I smelled something, and...” He shrugged.

“I expected it was something like that. Get dressed, and let's go to our own rooms before we can cause any further trouble for today, shall we?”



“There, now, milady,” Tylla said, slipping a last hairpin in place. “All back to proper.”

“The same may not be true for that poor dress,” Vixen said ruefully. “I'm terribly hard on my clothes. I'd wear my shyani clothes, but I only brought one set and besides, I'm sure I'd horrify everyone. At least they normally manage to survive a day intact.”

“Not to worry, milady. The laundry room is very good with soil, and Karela can mend nearly anything. The damage is usually much less extreme than you believe it is.”

“I hope so.” She rather doubted any highborn woman in living memory had needed to call on those skills so frequently, however. “On a slightly different subject... you suggested that I talk to Lyris. Do you have any idea where I might be able to find her, and how busy she might be?”

“I can think of a few places, and a guest takes precedence over most tasks she could be doing. If you'd like to talk to her alone, milady, may I suggest that I take her a message asking her to join you here? There's still time before dinner. I did ask the cook to set aside something light you could eat here in your room. I believe milord Dayr also asked not to go to dinner.”

“That would probably be a good idea. The last thing we need is eavesdroppers. Could you please? And Dayr can eat with me, if he wants to.”

“Certainly, milady. Excuse me.” Tylla gathered up the slate-blue and white dress and the slippers, which Vixen figured were probably beyond hope, and left the room.

Vixen wandered restlessly while she waited. Muscles had cramped while sitting still for so long, and she was used to being far more active than ladylike behaviour or ladylike clothing allowed for. Irisan and the others would tease her about getting soft, if the tarika didn't show up soon.

At a tap on the door, she tried to compose herself, and called, “Come in.”

Lyris entered, her expression relaxed with a faint smile but Vixen saw uncertainty instead in the set of her shoulders and the way she moved. “You asked to talk about something?”

“I don't bite,” Vixen said. “Neither does Dayr, unless you're a deer or a rabbit. Please don't look so wary.”

“I'm sorry. We don't discover every day that we've been dining with a weyre.”

“He's just a person. He has some traits that are rather feline, some that are closer to human, and both are under the control of a very quick mind that, catnip aside, doesn't want trouble. He's been my dearest friend for years and he's never hurt me.”

“Even after being in the catnip.” Vixen saw some of the tension begin to loosen. “Mirain told me what he saw. I'd hesitate to get that close even to a small cat in that state. The cat I had as a girl gave me some fearsome scratches a time or two, even though the rest of the time she was very sweet and gentle. Speaking of cats, how's the one you rescued?”

That was a potentially safe subject to help Lyris feel more at ease. “The source of my own fearsome scratches, while she was in pain? I healed her broken hip as much as possible, and her body is finishing the last of the process quite smoothly, though it was a bad break left untreated a long time and she may have a bit of a weather-ache. I believe she's feeling a little less threatened. She's rather deep under the chair in the corner, but I doubt she'll allow any contact. Most of the time it takes me some coaxing, although she does enjoy the attention once she relaxes.”

“I wouldn't even try, but if you'll forgive a little eccentricity...” Effortlessly despite her fitted violet dress with its skirt that had far more fullness than it rightfully should on its own, Lyris settled herself on the floor a short way from the chair in question, with her back to the loveseat. Vixen doubted she could see Anna, or at least more than the tip of her tail, but Anna could certainly see her clearly.

Vixen had to smile. There was nothing contrived about it, no attempt to sympathize with a guest's odd fancies. She could easily imagine a much younger Lyris doing the same with her own cat. She was grateful to be back in the high-waisted green dress with no stays under it, having done more than enough fighting against the limitations of her own clothing for one day. She sat down on the rug, facing Lyris.

“I believe,” Lyris said, “you wanted to talk about something, and the impression I got from Tylla is that you aren't simply feeling lonely and looking for company, although obviously I'd be happy to stay and talk for no reason beyond that.”

Vixen sighed. “I'm hoping that you might be able to help me understand why Alys seems to hate me so much.”

“Ah.” Lyris echoed the sigh. “That has a very simple answer: she sees you as a threat to her house and to her own place.”

“That isn't an answer, it's a sign pointing at further questions. I don't want Alys to hate me. I have no intention of doing any harm to her or anyone here—exactly the opposite. I'm hoping that if I understand, I can do something about it.”

“Alys isn't always like she has been the past few days. I was hired when she outgrew having a governess, in part to give her a companion in a household with no other highborn women, and that was several years ago. For the most part, we're friends, and she can usually be quite thoughtful. I've never seen her fail to offer perfect hospitality and perfect courtesy.”

“So I bring out the worst in her. That isn't very reassuring. Why?”

“She isn't talking to me, not really, but I would say that she doesn't hate you. She resents and fears you. That's different. And it's a long story.”

“I have nowhere to be until dinner. And I'm not asking you to break the confidences of a friend. Anything is more than I know right now. Tell me this story. Please. I need to know.”

Lyris mostly managed to hide a sigh, and paused to think. Vixen waited.

“It's a story that has happened to other houses, and sometimes ends well, sometimes not: a series of tragic deaths leading to a rather precarious position. The previous Lord Hyalin and a single sister were Lady Riane's only children to live to adulthood—there were more, but an epidemic claimed them, and Lady Riane's husband as well. Jared's mother bore two sons before she died, and Jared's father declined to marry again. Evert and Jared, both healthy sons, I'm sure seemed sufficient, and we all know the complications of too many children. His sister married a good man of a good house, Romild... are you all right?”

“Oh, yes. Sorry. I have a distant family connection to Romild myself, in a cadet branch. But then, isn't every family related to every other, if you go back a little? It just startled me. Please don't ask—my family would prefer not to know I'm still alive, believe me, so I'd rather not say.” I suppose you can consider my mother distant in some sense, at least.

“You're entitled to that, and yes, there seem to be blood and marriage connections everywhere. So, she married into Romild, a second son but of the direct line and there were important trade connections involved, and the two were already acquainted and quite amenable to the match. She bore Mirain and Alys, of course, and died trying to give birth to a third child, a son who also died.”

“Oh dear.” Human women died of childbirth complications more often than shyani women did, as a result of factors ranging from too many pregnancies too quickly to poor prenatal care to the way the birth itself was approached; she'd forgotten about that. “But why do Mirain and Alys consider themselves Hyalin after their mother, and not Romild after their father?”

“Romild has an abundance of sons and daughters, direct and cadet. Their parents chose to live here, to support the old Lord, and when Jared's mother died, their mother took over as chatelaine. This has always been home to Mirain and Alys. Romild certainly acknowledges them, but they tend to use the Hyalin name. Since Jared's brother Evert died, I think they've become even more determined that they are Hyalin. There really are only the three of them. No cadet lines within any reasonable distance. I believe the next after them would be Lord Godwin, who's never been here and the Godwin estates are at least two hundred miles from here.”

“Not a good situation, granted. As you said, it has happened before, and resolves itself in different ways. But why is Alys not married, or at least surrounded by ardent suitors? At this point, if anything were to happen to Jared and Mirain, her husband would inherit Hyalin, lands and title and all, with no contest.”

At the mention of harm coming to Jared and Mirain, Lyris flinched visibly. “Alys was engaged when Evert died. She went into deep mourning, for long enough that several people tried to coax her into ending it but she refused. She had no interest in anything and had to be reminded to eat. The physician said it was melancholy. Her fiance grew tired of waiting, and the old Lord could only delay for so long. He finally had to ask Alys to choose, though she was still not well.”

“And she couldn't face it,” Vixen said softly. “And that sort of thing tends to have long-term effects on marriage prospects.”

Lyris nodded. “With Hyalin's wealth providing a dowry and the possibility, All-Father forbid, of inheriting Hyalin itself, she could find a husband anyway. But she doesn't want to marry someone who wants her only for her dowry. One, who shall remain nameless out of respect for his family, courted her quite diligently for some time after she recovered, and she warmed to him and believed it was her he wanted. When she found out it was otherwise, she was devastated.”

“Quite understandably.”

“If a situation arises in which her marriage can help Hyalin, she'll go to it willingly. Otherwise, she prefers to stay here.” Lyris smiled. “She feels Jared needs someone practical to oversee the day-to-day running of the house.”

“She's right, I would say.”

“I agree. She's absolutely loyal to Hyalin, and wants Jared to find the sort of wife who will bring Hyalin what it badly needs right now: support among the other highborn, who are rather sceptical about Jared's suitability, and children. With any luck, many children.”

“Hm, and a scandal could damage those chances. That makes sense. But I'm no threat to her position.”

Lyris paused delicately. “Do you think it's common for Jared to welcome a guest by throwing open storerooms and putting everything at her disposal? Or, for that matter, accepting being reprimanded without there being repercussions? I think Alys fears that she's about to be displaced from the position she has built her life around.”

“I... oh. I don't even know what to say to that. Jared and I are old friends, that's all. I can't stay here, I have responsibilities elsewhere.” And I wouldn't have the faintest idea how to keep this place running smoothly. She groped for a way to get off that particular line of thought. “What about Mirain marrying?”

Lyris blushed and looked down. “Jared wants the option of Mirain marrying for the good of the house.”

“And Mirain wants to marry you. And it's mutual.”

“You're very observant.”

“So I've been told,” Vixen said dryly. “What's the problem? You're a Somarl, correct? That's certainly a good family.”

“A good family that had a long run of daughters before finally having a son. My father can't afford dowries for all of us. I'm fortunate enough to have a talent for music. Thus, the musician and companion of a house with the opposite problem.”

“But Somarl has ties to any number of important families, including the royal family. Hyalin doesn't need a dowry, but support from your family could be very useful.”

“Mirain has made it quite clear that he doesn't care whether I have a dowry or not. I think Jared, however, is keeping options open, hoping for something better.”

“That is so like him,” Vixen sighed. “Don't commit to any path until you've assessed all the possibilities. Meanwhile, time passes, and one would think this house had had enough reminders of how uncertain life can be. If I get a chance to, subtly and without making it look like you asked me to, because of course you haven't, I'll bring it up and try to make him see reason. A love match that would also do well by both houses is a very hard thing to better.”

“Thank you,” Lyris said quietly. “So. Alys does not hate you, but I do think that she may do things in fear that she would otherwise not do. I feel bad saying this about a friend, but I do not believe you can trust her at this point.”

“And that's a sad thing indeed. Thank you for telling me the truth. I'll do my best not to make things worse for her, but it seems that the harder I try to be quiet and decorous and invisible, the more things happen that I react to and so the more I fail. Dayr and I will both be out of here as soon as we can. I can't tell you what we're here for, I'm sorry, but Jared knows. Dayr wants to go home as badly as Alys wants us out of her house.”

“A loyal friend, to stay with you anyway. But then, anyone who thinks cats can't be loyal has never befriended one.”

Vixen blinked. “Anna is...”

Lyris smiled, carefully not looking down at her lap and the long-haired tortoiseshell cat lying on it, equally carefully keeping her hands off to the sides and still. “Cats like me.”

“I think cats know you understand them. I've been worrying about what will happen to her once I leave. I don't think it would be good for her to go back to living the way she was, and taking her with me would be difficult. Would you consider taking her?”

“Will I make room in my life for a cat who has been hurt and is fearful of people, and try to help her see that not all people are like that? Yes, of course. She's beautiful, and I've felt bad for her since I heard what happened. I'm glad you found her and helped her.”

“Oh, good. One less thing to worry about a solution to. I'd rather keep an eye on her a bit longer, but I won't be able to do much more for her.”

“I'm not going anywhere,” Lyris said lightly, and smiled. “Especially right at the moment.”

A door closing elsewhere in the corridor spooked Anna into bolting back under the chair.

“Nice timing,” Vixen muttered.

“That may be Leofric looking for Dayr to find out whether he's joining us for dinner,” Lyris pointed out. “It is getting on towards time.”

“Dayr's not coming to dinner,” Vixen said. “Neither am I. I just cannot deal with the atmosphere right now.”

“Quite understandable. I, however, have to be there. It's part of my job. Enjoy your dinner, and I'm sure I'll see you tomorrow. Good evening, lovely Anna, and I hope we can become good friends.”

Tylla came in as Lyris was on the way out, with a tray of food, and Dayr not far behind her, carrying his own. Lyris greeted each with a nod and a smile.

“I won't need any help getting out of my clothes tonight,” Vixen said. “I'm planning on a quiet meal and a quiet evening and some sleep. You can consider your job done for today, as far as I'm concerned. Dishes can wait until morning, I'm sure.”

“If you're certain you won't need anything else, milady, I'll be sure not to disturb you.”

“I'll be fine. And thank you.”

Tylla curtsied and left.

Once the door closed, Dayr said, “Shaman work?”

“Yes. I had a talk with Lyris about the situation with Alys. I think in a way she isn't so different from Anna. We're intruders in her territory and we're potentially threatening.”

Dayr considered that, draping himself into one of the chairs at the table. “I can see it. I didn't think humans did that, but it makes sense. She's been hurt?”


“You can't help her unless she lets you.”

“I know, and I doubt she will, which is sad because I suspect that simply calling her spirit animal could do a great deal. I want to check on the wards I set, and I want to do a little prowling.”

“Listening to people?” Dayr didn't look particularly concerned.

“Well... yes. It's a bit invasive, but I need to know what's happening, especially after today.”

“At least you're telling me so I can be here to guard the door. Are you going to eat afterwards?”

“Yes. I'm sure nothing will turn dangerous before I get back.” She freed her hair and stripped down to her shift before going in search of her shaman tools.

The soft whispery song of the bone egg, and her own will, took her along a familiar route, under the waterfall and out.

Dayr had moved to sit leaning against the door, though he took his own dinner to eat there.

First she tested the circle, and found it bright and clean, ready to warn her immediately if any shyani or weyre but Dayr crossed it. She roamed around at random, listening to people talking—and much of it was about Dayr and the catnip. Some of the stories were exaggerated, to say the least, but none actually claimed Dayr had hurt anyone. That was better than she'd feared. Of course, in an environment like the estate, reports of injuries could be easily disproved, but panic and logic seldom kept company. She did catch “Milord Mirain says,” and “Milady Lyris says,” and even, “Tylla says,” prefacing more rational refutation several times, which was interesting. She decided that it was probably safe to let the issue lie, but perhaps she could find a place where she could do a storytelling session or two, open to anyone interested, and spin them a few stories about shyani and weyres and humans interacting in beneficial ways.

Her single specific target, of course, was Alys.

Since dinner was over, it took a bit of looking around to find her.

Vixen finally located her in the sitting room of a rich-looking suite that looked like it belonged to a man.

Given the number of books in evidence as well, this was most likely to be Jared's own suite.

Alys was alone, pacing restlessly. Vixen studied her. Not a great beauty, but fairly pretty; a genuine smile would have done her as much good as the elegant dress and elaborately-styled hair. It was a shame she'd been hurt, and that her recovery had been incomplete and left her with so much lingering anxiety around her place. The shadowing of spirit that physicians called melancholy was a state Vixen had a great deal of sympathy for, and wished lowland medicine had better responses to—and wished equally that she could personally use other methods to start it healing properly.

Jared came in, saw Alys, and heaved a sigh; he nodded to the liveried valet who had followed him in, and the servant went on to one of the inner rooms of the suite. Jared dropped into a chair, stretched his legs out in front of him, and let his arms fall along the padded arms of the chair.

“No, I am not forcing them out of Hyalin.”

“He's a weyre!” Alys' voice cracked on the final word.

“A weyre who has slept four nights in this house. If anyone has been attacked or devoured or gone missing, no one has seen fit to bring it to my attention. He is here with Vixen...”

“She's hardly any better!”


“You say she's highborn, but she certainly didn't get a name like that in a highborn house, and neither of you will say what family she's from! She certainly doesn't behave like a lady. Just to begin with, no lady spends that much time alone behind closed doors with a man who isn't a relative!”

Oh dear. I completely forgot about that particular type of modesty.

“Her family has... problems, and that includes her upbringing.” Well that was a neatly vague, if accurate, way to put it. “Leave her alone. She's here for my sake, and she will be welcome here for as long as she stays.”

“Which is how long?”

“As long as I can persuade her to do so.”


“That's ridiculous! You need to be thinking about how to make a proper marriage! Having that... that...”

“Alys.” There was warning in his voice.

“Having her around is hardly going to help with that. What about her is so appealing, anyway? She showed up here dressed like a commoner...”

“Which you were in scant hurry to rectify. Lyris had to bring it to my attention.”

“... makes demands, behaves abominably and with no modesty to speak of, all over this mysterious message or mission or whatever it is...”

“That's enough. The appeal is that she is very good company. You're exaggerating about her manners to the point of absurdity. After several years living with the shyani, one would expect her to have forgotten a few details.”

“All-Father only knows what she was up to with them, and what kind of family allows a daughter of the house to live like that? Or what kind of woman chooses that over her house, and why?”

Jared waited barely long enough for her to finish before continuing, and Vixen thought it was less that he was listening, more just wanting to be sure she heard him. “Unlike the overwhelming majority of highborn women, she has not spent her life turning herself into the perfect vapid doll who can make polite non-controversial conversation that will entertain others and always knows every nuance of etiquette and this season's fashions while never allowing an original thought to penetrate her delicate head. For the good of Hyalin, I'll find an appropriate wife, although I positively dread the idea of marrying someone who has strong feelings only about the superficial and trivial and who is going to regard a marital bed as a distasteful but necessary duty. However, anyone I can find that I can actually have an interesting conversation with, I will continue to treasure.”

Yes, of course... that's Jared. He must be bored out of his mind with no one to talk to.

Jared regarded his cousin with a frown. “And so much the better if the source of that interesting conversation happens to be an attractive, if somewhat unconventional, woman who cares passionately about, and for, things other than herself and appearances.”


“And you will treat her as an honoured guest of this house, and her companion and protector as well, and you will not make a single hostile move against either. A competent housekeeper can do much of your job, and I imagine Lyris could take over the rest entirely.”

Alys paled. “You wouldn't!”

Oh, Jared, don't be so heavy-handed! A little reassurance would go a long way! You're just going to make her more anxious!

“I don't believe it would be in Hyalin's best interests to replace you—until you decide that it's acceptable to disobey direct and explicit orders. Marriage alliances don't need to be my own to be beneficial for Hyalin, but a defiant chatelaine would be detrimental to the house. Don't cross me in this, Alys. Balduin thought he could get away with making inappropriate remarks at dinner while Vixen was absent, and has discovered that he is no longer welcome at my table. The same is true for anyone in this household. I want Vixen to feel welcome here for as long as she's willing to stay. Lyris has been effectively doing your job as hostess, which is fine. She's sincere, and I don't believe those false smiles of yours fool Vixen for a heartbeat. Let Lyris continue to. But you will stay out of her way so she can do so properly, and you will not undermine either of them or Dayr. Is that absolutely clear?”

“Yes, Your Grace,” Alys said resentfully. “I'll do nothing to preserve house dignity or safety, as long as you can be amused.”

“Get out.”

Vixen fled back to her body.

Dayr waited until she had her bearings and was comfortable before giving her a questioning look.

“Alys wants us out of here,” Vixen said. “Jared just ordered her not to do anything that would make us feel unwelcome.”

“He won't live past the tarika coming here, if we leave,” Dayr pointed out reasonably.

“I think... I think it's more than that.” She shook her head. “You slept part of the day, but I didn't. Shoo, I'm going to eat and then I need some sleep.”

“I'll see you in the morning.”

Vixen automatically ate, replenishing herself and helping to ground herself as well, though she tasted little of the now-cool soup, the soft white bread and spiced butter, pale cheese and fresh fruit and vegetables cut into bites. Then she curled up in her welcoming bed, mind spinning.

In a class where marriages were typically for the sake of wealth or politics or other advantages, it wasn't uncommon for men to have a mistress—though there was a double standard there, forbidding women the equivalent. The role that would belong to a single woman in a commoner household could be split into two or even three separate roles: a household manager, a companion and lover, a wife and mother.

Some men went through lovers like candy, but others had a single mistress who stayed with them for years or decades, filling a need that could never be met by a marriage of convenience. It was a marginal role, socially, but acknowledged; a mistress might well even accompany her lover to city or Court, especially if the wife disliked travelling or was of frail health or busy with her children. There were households in which wife and mistress were friendly, even. She'd studied enough history to know that, commonly, those lifelong companions were not considered notable beauties; they had something less transitory to offer.

Anyone I can find that I can actually have an interesting conversation with, I will continue to treasure.

And if the source of that interesting conversation happens to be an attractive, if somewhat unconventional, woman...

As long as I can persuade her to stay.

Jared wanted her here.

Enough so that he was prepared to threaten his cousin, rather than simply assuring her that Vixen would be gone in a few days.

Jared wasn't seeing her as Corin wearing different clothes, he was seeing her as a woman.

Marriage was out of the question. She had no family connections or wealth to bring Hyalin, and Hyalin particularly needed the former right now. Besides, Jared needed heirs, and that, she certainly couldn't give.

But a mistress was another matter.

Vixen was no threat to Alys: she completely lacked the early training of a highborn woman in the many skills necessary in order to keep a large and complex household running, and she could certainly never replace her and felt no desire to try. What she could be to Jared, in turn, Alys never could—nor could any woman who lacked at the very least his intellectual leanings. There was no need for the two of them to be at odds.

Would even the family of her birth recognize her? It seemed highly improbable that they'd ever see the youngest brother they believed dead in a woman.

She drifted off lost in fantasies of the colour and glitter and music of a ball—but instead of looking at the ladies in their elegant finery and trying to pretend she didn't have that sick hopeless empty feeling she dared not even acknowledge, she was one of them.



Corin waited quietly at the table with the four other young male students who lived in Bruna's boarding house. If he ignored their presence, all of them intensely discussing the results of a ball game between the medical students and the math and engineering students, they equally ignored his.

Who cares who made what move and scored what points? It's only a stupid game. Most of the people you're praising so much are in the bottom half of their classes, and the rest of them are obnoxious asses who have listened too long to people like you turning them into heroes. They can play that game, but I wouldn't want to go to any of them if I were sick, or cross a bridge they designed.

Nothing ever changes. Not really.

Bruna bustled out from the kitchen with the usual great pottery bowl of thick stew; it might typically be heavier on vegetables than meat, but Corin had concluded that it was fundamentally healthy and nourishing, and it was certainly filling. Most days it was stew, with occasional roasts or the like, the leftovers of which went into further stews. Thrifty, but they never got sick from it, the way the students lodging in a couple of even cheaper houses had a time or two. Every meal must be an adventure in apprehension for them, a gastric gamble.

“There we are. Corin, I believe it's your turn to serve. I'll be back with the bread.”

“Yes, mistress Bruna,” Corin murmured, rising to start filling the stack of sturdy bowls and pass them down the table.

Vido, who had been last to the table with nowhere to sit except beside Corin, made much of avoiding direct contact while accepting each bowl to pass on—but he did it quietly, without drawing Bruna's attention. Overtly unpleasant behaviour at Bruna's table meant being banished from it for the remainder of that meal, and since she cared nothing at all for who had begun it, both instigator and victim suffered.

Corin had missed a number of meals that way.

“Should we be talking about something you can understand?” Vido said mockingly, his voice low. “The sexual behaviour of bighorn sheep and why that means that only men who bend over are real men?”

Bruna returned from the kitchen with a platter of bread. “I'm sorry, Vido? I missed that.”

“It was to me, mistress Bruna,” Corin said, favouring her with his most disarming smile. “He's concerned I feel left out of the conversation.” I'm hungry, I'm not missing dinner because you can't understand a simple argument. The instructor made a statement, I have information that conflicts with it, I brought it up. As usual that was a mistake, but that doesn't make it invalid!

“That's nice,” Bruna said. “You're about the quietest lad I've ever had here. It would be good for you to get more involved.”

“My mother has often told me the same, and despairs of its success,” Corin said lightly, passing a bowl to the opposite side for Bruna at the head of the table and filling a final one for himself.

He ate quickly, paying no attention to the debate over which of two players was responsible for their team's victory. He wasn't even sure which team had actually won, and didn't particularly care.

“Mistress Bruna, may I be excused? I'd like to do some reading in the library.”

“It's a shame they won't let you have a bed in the attic there,” she chuckled. “Off with you.”

“Thank you.”

Outside, he took a deep breath and released it, relieved to be out of the house. It wasn't so bad that on its own he couldn't tolerate it, but it was wearing. Worse, it was part of a general pattern.

Even at the University, he didn't fit in.

Many students were here not at their own request but because their families needed something to do with them, or because it was a family tradition, or in hopes they'd mature somewhat. Some were here because they'd chosen it as the least of several evils, generally younger sons from cadet branches. Genuine hunger to learn and understand seemed to be the rarest reason for being at the University.

And challenging instructors with questions they didn't expect and for which they had no ready answer, well, that set him apart even from the others who wanted to learn.

It was possible to find friendly company, though, if you looked in the right place. Not the library.

The University had not been founded in the middle of nowhere: it lay along one side of a substantial town. While the town grew in other directions, the University campus expanded outwards on its own, spotted with businesses that catered to the students of the university.

Inevitably, public houses were a profitable venture in a location that thronged with highborn younger sons away from their families—often with a generous allowance to help them keep up appearances for the sake of the family name.

He stopped in one such, ignored by fellow students as he sought out an empty table and sat down.

“Corin!” The serving girl stopped by the table and leaned down to give him an enthusiastic kiss that earned him a few jealous looks. “I'll be right back with a drink for you. The usual?”


“Don't go anywhere.”

Edwena, every time he saw her, was bubbling over with energy, rather like a puppy though he never made that comparison to her face. He didn't mean it as an insult anyway: he rather liked being on the edges of it.

She returned with a mug of ale and accepted the small coin he handed her.

“Are you here for the evening, or on your way to the library?” she asked.

“Oh, that depends on whether I can find anyone to keep me company or not.” He smiled at her. “I was feeling a bit lonely and I realized I hadn't been here in a while.”

“Much too long,” she agreed, with a teasing pout that vanished under a grin. “Drink your ale, and we'll see what comes up when I get a chance to take my break, hm?”

“That's the best reason I can think of to stay.”

He sipped his ale, watching the currents and tides of the taproom. Edwena and two others moved through it with impressive efficiency, trading drinks for coins, dodging excessively familiar hands and unwelcome invitations adroitly. In skirt and blouse and tightly-laced bodice, hair in a single braid, completely devoid of cosmetics and with scant jewellery beyond an occasional trinket, hands roughened by hard work and complexion by sun and wind, he nonetheless found them enthralling.

More difficult for them to avoid were the unpleasant names they were sometimes called and the crudely explicit comments flung in their direction.

It was interesting, as an outsider, watching the way people moved around, fellow students changing tables and forming new patterns, some leaving and some arriving.

Edwena slid her arms around Corin's shoulders from behind and nipped his ear. “Done your ale, sweetheart?”

“It would be worth abandoning for you anyway.”

“You say the nicest things.” She twined a hand into his and urged him to his feet.

The pub's owner and his wife lived upstairs, but so did the serving girls and the boy who did anything they didn't. Officially, upstairs was off-limits to customers.

Edwena led him up the steep stairs to her room. It was even smaller and plainer than his, but the bed was a bit wider.

With a contented sigh, she linked her arms around the back of his neck, and he wrapped both arms around her waist. “It always makes my night better when you're around. You're the only true gentleman of the lot, and money and bloodlines have nothing to do with it. The bunch of them, treating us like our bodies are public property or something they buy access to with their ale. And saying things they'd never dare say under their mother's roof, like serving ale means we have no right to expect any kind of courtesy or decency...”

“It's not fair,” he agreed sympathetically. “You work hard, and it's an honest job, which is more than most of them can claim. They shouldn't behave like that.”

“Having lovers does not make us common whores to be bought, either.”

“Of course not. You deserve nice presents. I wish I could afford to buy them for you.”

Just about any young commoner female in regular contact with students, he'd discovered, had one or more lovers at any given point in time. That they expected gifts from those lovers, who were usually highborn, seemed quite pragmatic to Corin. Their lives were less stable and less secure in many ways, and they were risking pregnancy with all its physical and social dangers, a threat not hanging over their lovers. If they could collect a little extra to set aside for the future or a crisis, or to use as a dowry for a better marriage down the road, or pay for something in the present that was otherwise out of reach, well, they were using what they had to survive as best they could.

It didn't matter whether trading sexual favours for gifts technically fell within the definition of prostitution. Any of them would be appalled by the offer of coin outright. They were not selling their bodies; they had friends who were generous. Several shops in the town did a brisk trade, buying trinkets from the girls, keeping them out of sight long enough to avoid drama, and then selling them again; Corin was sure some of those gilt pendants and silver-plated brooches and gold pins had probably gone through the cycle repeatedly. The girls never got as much as the original purchase price, but that mattered less than something intangible.

Self-definition was everything. As long as the girls never took actual coin, their self-image and sense of personal identity and integrity remained intact.

Edwena was unusual in choosing to stay friendly with Corin despite his limited funds and inability to buy her gifts. He wasn't foolish enough to think that she loved him or anything like it, or that she really wanted to hear him talk about his own tangled feelings, but being respectful and sensitive went a long way.

Edwena kissed him. “I know, sweetheart. But boys with money are everywhere. Boys who are actually good in bed, that's another matter.”

It didn't take long to get out of clothes and onto the bed, even hampered by eager kisses and hands beginning to seek out known territory. He quite enjoyed her obvious pleasure along with the chance to become intimately familiar with a healthy and highly responsive female body.

His own sexual satisfaction was another issue entirely. It hadn't really come as much of a surprise to discover that, given the opportunity, he preferred simply to make his partner feel as good as possible. The vague sense of his own body as being ill-fitting, his own disconnection from it, had always meant he had no interest in the self-pleasure in which he knew his brothers had begun to indulge around the time their voices broke. The sense of poor fit and distance only seemed to get stronger as he grew older, and sexual contact didn't help as he'd hoped it might.

That was part of the reason why he read things that made his fellow students mock him, looking for answers that he was increasingly sure weren't there even in the University's immense library. The kindly physician had missed something, and there was something wrong with Corin, he was sure of it. It wasn't normal for men to see sex the way he did, as something to take or leave, a way to give someone else a good time in trade for exploring and for not being alone. It wasn't normal to have no sense of identity with his own body.

Edwena gave him a last lingering kiss. “Someday, sweetheart, you're going to make your wife a very happy woman, and the rest of us should grieve.” She wriggled out of bed and reached for her shift.

“Maybe I'll marry you,” he said teasingly.

“Oh, I'm sure your father would be all in favour of that. Silly boy. Up you get. You know I have to get back to work, even if all I want to do after you've been here is lie around and not move for a while. I think I've learned more about my own body with you than all the time before.”

Corin obediently pulled his pants on. “Maybe that's my true calling. Helping women learn about themselves.”

“What the world needs is a way for that lot downstairs to learn, even just for one day, what it feels like to be a woman. You, somehow, don't seem to need to.” Busy running a comb through her hair and beginning to rebraid it, she missed his instinctive flinch. “Don't wait so long to come around, hm? I'll always make time for you.”

“I've been busy with homework, but I'll make sure it's not as long next time.”

“Good. Another ale, on the house, before you wander back to studying?”



These evenings with Jared more than compensated for any parts of the day that made her wish for Willow River, Vixen decided, opening the door to her own room.

Oddly, there was no sign of Tylla; only a single lamp glowed, but after so long with the shyani, dim light was an old friend. She left the door ajar and settled herself in the nearest chair, closing her eyes and focusing on her breathing. It felt like there was always someone around. A moment of peace was no bad thing.

“I'm so sorry, milady...” Tylla slipped in the open door, headed straight for the single lamp.

“It's all right. It's late, we lost track of time. If I'd had the foresight to wear something I could get out of alone, I'd be just as happy if you were asleep in your own bed.” She frowned. “You're shaking. What's wrong?”

Tylla paused with a spill in one hand, not yet lit, that would allow her to light more lamps. “Milady, I...” She sounded badly torn, and something in it only increased Vixen's certainty that something was going on.

“Tylla. Please. Don't tell me it's improper or not relevant. I'm not going to get angry or get you into any trouble over it. I don't think you're just tired. What is it?”

Tylla sighed. “It's my son.” Her voice caught on the last word, and she sank down on the edge of the bed.

“I didn't know you had a family.” Of course, she hadn't thought to ask, either. It was too easy to drop back into old habits of class.

“My husband was the steward. He died some years ago when Cole was small. His Grace's father, bless him, let my son and me stay in our quarters, and my son's learning what he would've if his father were here. His Grace says my son's a bright boy.”

“From Jared, that's high praise. What's wrong right now?”

“He has these... spells. He gets terribly sick, then it goes away again. The physician has seen him, more than once—I'm upper house staff, I'm entitled to that. He doesn't know what it is. He's tried purgatives and bleeding and tonics and none of it does any good. He won't even see him any more, he says there's no point and it's a waste of his time.”

“And he's sick right now?”

“Yes, milady. I went to check on him, that's why I wasn't here.”

“And knowing I'm a healer, you didn't think to ask?” Vixen chided gently, standing up. “Where is he?”

“Milady, it's...”

“Improper, and probably grounds for losing your job, to inconvenience a guest with your own petty concerns? Like the well-being of your son? I'll take care of it. After all, what are you going to do, upset the guest you're responsible for by flatly refusing to cooperate with her mad ideas? Alys will be quite happy to believe the worst of me. Now, are you going to take me yourself, or do I go ask the first servant I can find where you live?”

Tylla gazed at her for a couple of heartbeats, eyes wide, then a tentative smile flickered across her face. “Of course, milady.”

Servants had their own hierarchy: lower servants slept in shared rooms, upper servants had private ones. Lower servants who married generally got a room to themselves, but upper servants who married, in a generous household, might do better. And Hyalin appeared to treat its people well, so Vixen doubted Tylla was sharing a single sparse room with her son.

“Sick how?” Vixen asked, as they wove their way through the maze of corridors.

“He gets terrible headaches, bad enough sometimes to make him cry. Sometimes he vomits, but he always feels nauseous, and his bowels are loose for the next few days. And his mood changes. Often for several days he's intensely melancholy and hopeless and has trouble concentrating on anything. He's tried twice to harm himself, after the headache has faded.”

“How long has this been going on?”

“Some two years. He's fourteen now. The first bout was very bad, then it was less severe for a while, but it's gradually getting worse. Stronger and more frequent, but not so regular that we can predict it. Sometimes a new one strikes before he's entirely over the last. Sometimes there's space between.”

“Headaches and nausea are bad enough, but the rest could have severe consequences as far as working later. If he can be kept alive that long.”

Tylla gave her a grateful look. “Yes, milady. That's what frightens me most. It hurts to see him hurt, but to not know whether he can have a future...”

“I'll do my best. I work in a completely different way than a physician does, maybe I'll have more luck.” Repeated attacks in a pattern like that, for this long, didn't sound to her like it was caused by any disease, though she didn't know them all and could be wrong. Something systemic that was out of balance, maybe? Triggered by the physical changes of puberty?

Tylla led her to a wing some distance off, though on the same floor, and opened a door midway along it.

The sitting room beyond wasn't large, but it felt cozy and friendly to Vixen. The furniture was rather worn, probably discards from highborn or guest suites, but in good repair and it looked comfortable. Two mid-sized windows, made up of small diamond panes that let light in without allowing any real view, flanked a small cast iron stove, enough to heat the space and allow some very basic food preparation without going to the kitchen.

Each side wall had two doors; one was open, allowing a glimpse of a bathroom, and the other was closed but Vixen's guess was that it was a small room for storage. The outer pair would be bedrooms.

An actual suite like this put Tylla well into the aristocracy of the household servants, but then, it would be appropriate for a married house steward, and Tylla was certainly not just a common housemaid.

Tylla crossed the room to one of the farther doors, and opened it quietly. “Cole, sweetheart,” she said softly. “It's just me. Milady Vixen wants to see if she can help you. Trust her. It's going to be all right.” She beckoned Vixen over.

The room was very dim, only a single lamp with a horn shade over it to mute it—light sensitive, Vixen noted, and probably sound sensitive as well, given how quiet Tylla was being.

The small room held a narrow bed, and in it someone lay, blankets thick over him muffling his shape. Tylla perched on the edge of a nearby chest, hands in her lap with her fingers twined tightly together.

The boy in the bed, lying on his back with his eyes closed, resembled his mother in ways, though Vixen thought he must have his father's nose and jaw structure and his hair was several shades darker.

“Cole?” she said gently. “Just lie still. This may feel strange, and you may see odd things, but nothing will hurt you.” She knelt beside the bed in a sweep of long skirts, briefly cursing the restrictions of her beautiful dress. As much as she loved what she saw in Hyalin's many mirrors, she was habitually too active for these clothes to be at all practical. Wearing stays and long skirts for more than a few days would definitely require a significant change in her behaviour.

He mumbled something she couldn't entirely make out; he flinched from her hand on his forehead, but didn't try to move away. His temperature was elevated. Could it be disease after all?

Well, no point in trying to figure it out from the available information, it didn't match anything she could think of even remotely, and obviously matched nothing the physician knew of either.

She began to sing.

This was more complex than simply healing Ilsa's bruises, and there were going to be multiple stages involved. To start with, because the assistance of someone's spirit animal was a necessary part of how a shaman worked, she sent out a call for his—he was a little older than shyani children typically were for that, but not much.

It came without hesitation, needing no coaxing by Vixen or encouragement by Red Fox: a yellow and white and dark brown snake, though much larger than its vermin-eating brethren who lived in the garden. It coiled itself protectively around the boy, resting its head on his abdomen.

Cole sighed deeply, and some of the tension faded.

What's the source of the problem? Vixen asked it, Old Tongue words a part of her song, but it didn't answer, didn't move.

Sometimes spirit animals could be contrary, but not usually when it came to the safety of their chosen.

Or was it already telling her?

She flipped back the blankets, still singing, and laid her other hand over, or rather through, the spirit-snake's head. What was right there? His diaphragm, but this wasn't a breathing issue. His stomach?

Nausea, vomiting, loose bowels.

His body struggling to clear itself of something?

She searched deeper, testing the flows of energy through his body and with them the flow of blood and all the complexities that kept countless systems functioning in precarious balance. Abdominal gas, more of it than there should be, and chronic irritation of the lining of his stomach and small intestine. That supported the idea that he was ingesting something his body couldn't process. Not necessarily something normally toxic: she knew one shyani who developed fearful hives from even brief contact with eggs, and she'd heard that the results of eating even a bite were dangerous. But what could have changed to cause these outright attacks to begin?

What is it he's reacting to? she sang to the snake. It's something he eats. What is it? Why does it make him so sick?

Hassss outgrown it, the snake said.

What food could you outgrow?


No creature in the world save humans and shyani and weyres continued to consume it past weaning. The majority of the milk from shyani goats became cheese, and a little went to the very young or very old or to nursing mothers. Human diet, though, included butter and cheese and cream and milk as ingredients in many foods.

Milk? she asked the snake. He ingests milk or things made from it, and his body rejects it and that makes him sick?

The snake didn't answer, but she didn't really expect it to. Not talkative, snakes, unlike her own fox.

That gave her a long-term plan, and some idea of what to do now: sing his body into clearing the toxins, or what it perceived as toxins, more effectively; reduce the inflammation that was causing the nausea and the headaches. Which, she hoped, would mitigate the after-effects as well as making this particular bout pass quickly.

Aware that her own strength was beginning to flag, she let her song wind down and moved her hands away.

“He's asleep,” Tylla whispered. “Peacefully, not restless.”

Vixen nodded wearily. “Help me up? Let's let him sleep.”

Tylla immediately came nearer, sliding an arm around Vixen's waist to support her to her feet. That worked to reach the sitting room, at least, so Tylla could close the door to Cole's room.

“Milady, what can I do?”

Vixen shook her head. “Not much. I'm just tired. There was a lot to fight, some of it old. Keep him from eating anything that has even tiny amounts of milk or cheese or butter in any form in it. His body sees it as a poison now that he's nearly an adult. Nothing I can do will convince it of anything else. Stay alert and I think he'll have no more attacks like this. I think he'll heal quickly now, if there's no more. Possibly not everything, there were a lot of parts of his body affected, but mostly.”

“Milk? That's all? Something so ordinary?”

“Yes.” Her own room felt like a very long way from here. She sighed to herself. A few days in Hyalin, and she'd exhausted herself on shamanic work more than she normally did in a month in Willow River. “I truly don't think I'm going to make it back to my room without resting, so I'm afraid I'm going to have to have a nap on your sofa.”

“Milady, my bed is...” Tylla hesitated.

“I'm not putting you out of your own bed.”

“Looking after you is my job, and you just tired yourself this much to help my son. Come on, now.”

Vixen surrendered, let Tylla steady her to the other bedroom. The maid unlaced her dress with quick deft hands and helped her out of it, then the stays beneath. She flipped back the blankets so Vixen could sink down on the edge at an angle, and briskly unpinned the braids of her hair. Not as thickly padded as Vixen's own bed, but she'd slept in worse places.

“You need sleep too,” Vixen pointed out, the words a bit slurred. “It's a big bed.” It wasn't unheard-of for a maid to share her mistress' bed while travelling, though the length of the house was less distance than normally was involved.

She fell asleep before she found out whether Tylla was going to be sensible or not.



Corin slouched in his seat in the lecture hall, taking perfunctory notes more for the sake of looking like he was paying attention than from any real sense of needing to.

Calling this an exploration of the human mind and behaviour is like calling a walk through my mother's day garden an exploration of botany. I even know exactly which three books he's using as source material. Everything so far comes from one or more of the three, and sometimes he quotes them verbatim.

I'm probably going to regret this, but what's a day without annoying someone? They'd all think I was ill.

Corin raised his hand, and the instructor paused; when he saw who it was, he made no effort to conceal his sigh.

“Yes, Laures? And is this going to be relevant?”

“You said that the only natural form of family is a man, a woman, and their offspring. What's that statement based on?”

“I beg your pardon?”

“It isn't very common in nature, outside of a few birds. Most hoofed creatures have a system with a very few males monopolizing access to multiple females, with most males excluded. In a lot of carnivores, the male and female keep company only during a brief period, and he has no part in their offspring's care or the female's during pregnancy. In both of those, it isn't necessarily the same male and female each year.”

“And which would you recommend we adopt as a model?” the instructor asked dryly, drawing a laugh from most of the room.

“I only mean, sir, that the statement that a fixed pair is natural needs some sort of evidence, doesn't it?”

“It is natural for humans.”

“Then why don't we pair off for life at around sexual maturity, with no adultery or promisc...”

“It is natural for humans, and that is sufficient. If you wish to remain in this course, you will restrict questions to the subject at hand. Now...”

“But I was,” Corin muttered sullenly, slouching further.

The rest of the lecture dragged along, and when it ended, Corin fled in relief. He was sure this would be another one that would be repeated back at him, out of context and inaccurately, as proof that there was something wrong with him. He was not sure he cared much anymore.

“Hey, Laures, wait up.”

Startled, Corin stopped in his tracks. Nothing in that tone sounded like an invitation to be assaulted verbally or physically. He stepped over to the wall, rather than stand in the middle of the flow of students—some of whom, he knew, would be perfectly willing to knock him down and claim it as an accident—and turned to look.

The young man accepted everyone edging out of his way with casual disregard. Around Corin's height, he had little visible flesh on his bones, but gave no impression of fragility; sandy-brown hair needed to be cut, but it didn't look deliberate, more like it just hadn't been attended to yet. Those clothes he was wearing so carelessly, slightly dishevelled, were worth two or three times Corin's. At least.

His smile was friendly, though, and that didn't make sense.

“That was a good point. They can't insist that every statement has to be based on observable fact and then decide that some things are exceptions just because they don't want to look any more closely at it.”

“Thanks,” Corin said warily.

“And it livens up an extremely dull course, watching the instructor stumble and try to come up with answers and pretend he isn't at a complete loss.”

“Oh. I'm glad you're entertained. For the next act, keep coming to class, or drop by my history lecture this afternoon, I'm sure something will come up. Excuse me.” He shifted the leather satchel of books on his shoulder, and turned away.

“It would almost be worth taking that history course again to see that, but that isn't what I meant. You're asking questions that are so blindingly obvious that it doesn't seem to occur to anyone that they actually do need to be asked. And answered, for that matter.”

Cautiously, Corin looked back. “That's not what I'm usually told.”

“Most people are idiots who are happy to swallow the mush they're fed and regurgitate it on command without digesting it at all. That's a stupid approach to the University. There are a few who actually want to learn this or that, which is better. But you're different. There's this passion there to question and understand everything and that's fascinating. You don't accept anything on faith. In the last lecture, when he said that two accounts of the same events that differ means one is lying, you were absolutely right to call him on it. That isn't even just a flaw in theory, it's a dangerous misconception to give a room full of highborn who are going to be in positions of authority. And being able to pull that quote from Camys about the fallibility of memory out of thin air was brilliant.”

“He cut me off before I could finish.”

“What else were you going to say?”

“He left out perception bias. A man and a woman will experience identical events in a different way. A child, an adult, and an elder will. Highborn and commoners will. Farmers and townsmen will. Even northerners and southerners will. There's a substantial body of evidence supporting it, and it makes perfect sense that what we perceive is coloured by our own experiences. Also, if we're expecting to see something, or want badly enough to see something, we'll usually see it, even if that isn't what's actually there. The human mind seems to be very good at projecting internal expectations onto external events and interpreting them in that light.” He bit his lower lip, dropped his eyes.

The brief pause felt long. “I hadn't thought of that. Is that from Camys too?”

“Partly. And Klovec, which is also one of the books he's using for this whole course so he should have come across the idea.”

“Klovec? Is that the source for the material that isn't from either Camys or Erabal?”

Corin blinked. “You caught that? I didn't think anyone else had figured that out. Although I suppose I did assume that on not much evidence.”

“You're probably right about most. I could only identify two, though. I knew there had to be a third source, but I couldn't find it. I can now sleep easier tonight. Do you have anything else before that history lecture?”


“Let's go get something to eat, shall we? My treat, as long as you tell me more about what Klovec actually says, and as long as we can talk more about perception and expectations. And maybe you can tell me what the real story is behind the bighorn sheep.”

Corin groaned. “Can we make the explanation about the sheep a short one on the way, and then not talk about it anymore?”

“I think I can live with that.” He gestured invitingly. Interestingly, there was always a reasonably clear path in front of him—which was just as well, since all his attention was on Corin.

“The instructor said that it was a natural universal, that two males or two females in sexual contact is an aberration. That's ridiculous. If you read around the prejudices, or even just open your eyes and look around without making assumptions, there are lots of examples otherwise. I brought up observations that Arminus made about bighorn sheep about fifty years ago when he was doing a detailed survey of fauna and flora in the highlands. Most of the year the males and females live in separate herds. The females refuse sexual contact unless they're in season. The rest of the year, the males mount each other, and it isn't a few dominant individuals, it's all or most of them taking both roles. There are a few males he noticed that lived with the female herds all year, and who made no attempt to mate even when the females did come into season, and who refused to have anything to do with the other males. They even arch so they urinate the way females do.”

“So the only males who don't have sexual contact with other males are the ones who act feminine, and the properly manly males spend much of the year with each other?” Corin's companion laughed out loud, drawing looks from several people nearby, which he ignored. “Oh, that is too funny. It explains a lot of the nonsense I've been hearing about the subject, people taking it out of context and not understanding half of it and usually getting it from someone who heard it from someone else.”

“I didn't suggest that it applied specifically to human behaviour. It was just a way to refute an absurdly broad and completely false generalization.”

“Of course you didn't. All right, now I understand, and we never have to discuss sheep again. How about we speculate instead about history from the perspective of perception bias and how the shyani might have seen early contact in a different way than our ancestors did?”

“That's interesting,” Corin said thoughtfully. “If age and sex and class make a difference, how much more would being not human and from another culture make? Who are you, anyway?”

“Hm? Oh, sorry, I got carried away. I'm Jared Hyalin. And I know a great place for lunch.”



Vixen nudged Anna's sandbox out of the bathroom, closed the door, and drew her shift off over her head with relief, following it with her shyani underpants. She stepped into the hot bath with only a twinge of guilt for the sheer luxuriousness of it—she didn't really need one, washing up in the basin would have been adequate, but the chance to relax had proven to be irresistible temptation.

She'd checked in with Tylla's son Cole after waking. He'd been still asleep, but she rather expected that after the strain on his body; the spirit-snake, to her eyes, still coiled around him protectively, but it showed no sign of alarm, nor had it asked her for further help.

After breakfast, she'd rather belatedly tracked down Ilsa, with Tylla's help. Ilsa reported that her husband had woken in the night crying out in fear, dissolved into sobs, and had pleaded with Ilsa to forgive him. Both Tylla and Ilsa herself were unconvinced that it would lead to any permanent change, but Ilsa was at least enjoying the respite for the moment. Vixen hoped that Ilsa's spirit-mare would be able to help further—dreams were easy for spirit animals to manipulate, much more than the material world. At the very least, Ilsa now had someone watching over her who meant her only good and could offer her sound advice.

The search for the necessary ingredients for a tea she thought might help Cole recover more quickly had meant visiting not only the kitchen garden but the pleasure garden and several other locations; she'd then had to demand kitchen space and equipment to actually prepare several cups' worth, and had taken Cole a steeped and sweetened cup herself, leaving the rest of the mixture with Tylla with instructions. Doing it with fresh herbs wasn't ideal, but most of what she needed wasn't to be found anywhere in dried form, so she made do. Spending some time with Anna, including bringing her some of the surviving catnip from behind the stable, and music with Lyris, around lunch and dinner, had swallowed up the rest of her day. Alys had excused herself from both meals, which might be a bad sign or might simply mean she needed a day to herself; that was something to watch, but she felt rather guilty about being relieved and enjoying the meals more. After dinner, of course, had been spent with Jared.

With all the shamanic work she'd been doing recently, she really didn't have the energy for any of it; in Willow River, in her current state, she'd have declared that she needed time in solitude to rest and recover, and it would have been respected without question or judgement. She didn't currently have that option.

At least being able to relax thoroughly, allowing the heat of the water to soak right down to her bones, should help to some degree.

She made sure her braided hair was outside the tub and let herself lean back, eyes closing. She felt guilty about the extra work involved, but oh, she needed this...

More than half asleep, she heard the tap on the door from far away. There was a reason she should be worried about that, she was sure, she really should wake up and deal with it.

Quietly, the door opened. “Milady, are you all right? You've been a long time, and the water must...” Tylla stopped mid-sentence.

Oh no.

The sudden rush of instinctive fear jolted Vixen back to wakefulness with uncomfortable sharpness, in time to see Tylla, wide-eyed, retreat hastily.

Vixen couldn't think of any profanity that came close to covering this situation. She scrambled out of the cool water of the tub and snatched up the nearest of Hyalin's large soft towels to wrap around herself before following.

Tylla was still in her room, at least, though near the door. Visibly, she was trying to figure out what she wanted to say and what she could get away with saying that wouldn't cost her the job she and Cole depended on. She settled for, “You're lying to everyone.”

With a lot of highborn, even that could have meant being fired. Under the circumstances, it was a lot milder than Vixen had expected.

“No. Yes. What's a lie is complicated. I'm not in any sense lying to Jared, I promise. Will you let me explain? Please?”

“That's hardly my place.” Taking refuge in the rules—but without the honorific. That couldn't be a good sign about what Tylla was feeling. Though her hands were clasped in front of her, properly, her fingers were twined together so tightly her knuckles were white, and Vixen could see the stiffness of her upper spine and her shoulders. Her expression, however, was more absolutely neutral than Vixen had ever seen it.

“Please, Tylla. You've been wonderful since I got here. I would really rather that you not think I mean... I don't even know what. That I have some ulterior motive, maybe? Let me explain?”

For a long moment, Tylla didn't move.

“What are you?” she asked finally.

Vixen sighed. “Human. And what the shyani call osana. Born with a male body, but an absolute and unshakable sense of being a woman. Come sit down?” She gestured to the table and its two accompanying chairs, not the most comfortable seating in the room but she thought Tylla might feel better with something between them.

Warily, Tylla conceded that far, perching on the edge of one chair.

Vixen held up a hand, and ducked back into the bathroom to grab her shift and pull it back on, then her underpants. Her being naked except the towel wasn't going to help either of them relax. It clung to her damply, small breasts and narrow hips and lean curves, but it was better than nothing, and Tylla had seen her several times in only her underpants anyway. She returned to sit in the other chair, and took a deep breath.

“A long time ago, with a different name, I was a younger son of a minor highborn family. I knew Jared at the University, and he knows who I used to be. I was miserable. Imagine being you, just as you are, and having everyone around you treat you like a man, and expect you to act like one and learn all the things men are supposed to learn, and force you to dress like one, and you don't dare tell anyone that they've made a mistake. Sometimes people are born blind or with mis-formed limbs or a thousand other things. I was certain I'd been born wrong somehow, but I didn't dare admit even to myself that the wrongness was having a male body. It was just too terrifying. I tried very hard, for a long time, to pretend. For a while I told myself that I just didn't choose to fit in, or that I had more important things to do. I wanted to be a physician, so why should I need fencing or hunting or anything beyond basic riding skills? Finally, at the University, when some part of me began to understand and couldn't hide anymore, I tried to end my own life. I hated myself and I couldn't see anything ever getting better, and I was desperate to escape from all the lies and the masks and the hurting. My spirit animal, the red fox I named myself for, intervened at the last instant. He led me into the highlands. I nearly died on that walk, but what it ultimately did was force me to look at myself and my life with no more lies.” She stopped, trying to gather her thoughts. “Is this making any sense at all?”

“Maybe,” Tylla said cautiously. “You're alive, though.”

Vixen smiled. “Dayr found me. I'd been outside alone for days, and I knew absolutely nothing about how to survive in the wilderness. Instead of leaving me to die, he went to the nearest hill to get help, which was Copper Springs. To the shyani, the world isn't rigidly divided into men and women. They recognize osana, women born male, and umana, men born female, and etana, whose body or self or both aren't clearly one or the other. We aren't freaks there. We're a little bit special, and some become shamans. Sanovas, the shaman at Copper Springs, he healed me and he listened to me while I was crying and insisting that Dayr should have left me there or killed me. Because he's possibly the most compassionate and least prejudiced person I've ever met, he offered me a life without lies, and somehow convinced the rest of Copper Springs to go along with it. He and his wife Aerfen adopted me as their daughter. So, Corin died, but Vixen was born instead. And Vixen is more alive than Corin ever was.” She paused to lick dry lips. Trying to explain the events that had made her who she was, twice in a week, to two very different audiences, was rather nerve-wracking. Facing the tarika would probably be easier.

“As for... physically... I'm a healer. I made a few adjustments to some of the things that are in blood that tell your body what to do and be, and they gradually made changes, closer to what I should have been all along. There are limits, though. In the highlands, I could stand naked in front of the whole community I look after, and they'd still see only a woman and a shaman, so it doesn't matter much anyway.”

“You aren't in the highlands.”

“I found out something very important and I had to get to Jared. I'm sorry, I really can't tell you more than that. Jared knows all of it. I didn't plan this, but I couldn't just ignore it, so I came looking for him. Dayr wouldn't let me go alone. He stayed with me through my training, and stayed with me when I took over as shaman of a shyani community called Willow River, and he wouldn't even consider not coming with me. I came expecting to be here only a few days or a fortnight at most, and I've been trying hard not to cause too much disruption.”

Tylla blinked.

Then she began to giggle, though she did her best to smother it behind her hand.

“I know,” Vixen said ruefully. “Dayr and I have probably caused more disruption in the past week than Hyalin normally sees in a decade. I can't seem to stop doing and saying the wrong things. It doesn't help that my memories of life in a highborn house are slanted the wrong way. I can only hope that the one thing I have to do is more of a success. Tylla, I didn't lie to you. I am what I am. There's no category for osana here, or at least not one I'm at all willing to accept being put into. Most of this is extremely personal and I'm not about to discuss it with all of Hyalin—half of whom would rather stone me than listen to any of it. To me, I'm a woman. To Dayr, to any shyani or weyre, I'm a woman. Human culture tends not to be able to get past an accident of birth to see everything else. Please say something.”

Despite that, Tylla didn't answer immediately. Vixen forced her breathing to stay slow, forced her muscles not to answer emotional tension with physical, but it wasn't easy and it felt like a long time.

“Well, you're more a lady than some ladies I've dealt with,” Tylla said finally, briskly. “And you're very definitely not a man.” She smiled. “I think the world would be a poorer place if you'd managed to die, milady.” The smile quirked a bit. “Certainly a more boring one.”

“I told you, I'm trying. Failing, but trying. Thank you.”

“It's a sad thing, to think of anyone wanting to die because things look so bleak just over not being what others want. Worse for anyone so determined to help other people. So. You fell asleep in the bath, I think. You must be exhausted, and no surprise. Sleeping's better done in bed.”

Vixen submitted meekly to Tylla brushing and re-braiding her hair, since it was rather the worse for the day and the steam of the bath, and to a clean and entirely dry shift. She changed to clean underpants while Tylla went to hang up the damp towel.

This could have gone very badly, and I'm so very very grateful it didn't... I still don't know everything she's really thinking, but maybe she'll have the sense to ask if she needs to know something. I think I'm becoming more than a little fond of this woman.

She fell asleep listening to the soft sounds of Tylla releasing the water to drain and cleaning up the bathroom.



Laures being what it was, Corin's allowance wasn't greatly higher than that of the occasional tradesman's son sponsored by his lord in recognition of extraordinary talents.

It didn't matter. If necessary, he'd have skipped eating rather than miss the gatherings most evenings in one of the pubs that catered to students.

“But that's exactly the opposite of what I'm saying,” Jared argued, reaching for the nearest pitcher of beer. Only a sad trickle dripped into his cup. “Okay, who finished the beer without saying anything?” He sighed. “Corin, get one of the girls to bring us a couple more pitchers, would you? Here.” Absently, he fished the coins out of the pouch at his belt and handed them to Corin, who nodded and went in search of one of the serving girls. Behind him, he heard Jared pick up the thread of his argument without missing a beat despite the brief distraction. He had no fear his seat at the table would disappear—acknowledged as Jared's shadow, he always had the spot beside Jared, and anyone who wanted to challenge that risked Jared's... not anger, but annoyance, and no one wanted to annoy Jared.

He waited while Nora finished with another table; she turned around, saw him, and smiled. Curious about the gossip that apparently spread among the girls in multiple pubs, she'd propositioned him once, and he must have lived up to it since there'd been a second invitation. As usual and understandably, she'd turned her attention to someone who could give her pretty gifts once the option existed. The story, in variations, had replayed over and over with different girls. Somehow, he stayed on friendly terms with the majority of them. Especially since he'd lost any real interest in sex with them, all of his own attention elsewhere.

“More for his lordship, hon?”

“Please? He said two, but there's enough there for three, and it's not all that late.” He handed her the coins.

“I'll be right there with it.”

“Thanks.” He flashed her a quick smile, and went back to the table.

“How do we even know that weyres look like animals called wolves and bears?” Jared was saying. “We've never seen any of these creatures for ourselves. There are none anywhere on this continent. We have reports from our ancestors who came here of two types of weyre that are similar to the large cats they knew from back home, though emphatically not identical. That we have names for them that don't appear in the early records suggests that we're actually using shyani terms for pumas and jaguars because we didn't have our own, but they're recognizably felines. The early reports say that bears here are a smaller version of the great brown bears they knew from back home, and the sea otters are a much larger version of ones they knew of as living in rivers and lakes. And that live in ours, for that matter. Even that much resemblance is highly improbable, and the wolves seem to be nearly identical in both locations. Did some ancient shyani find a way to crossbreed with a true wolf of some sort?”

“It wouldn't surprise me much,” Harald muttered.

“The answer to how the weyres are even able to change shape, let alone how they resemble real animals, could tell us so much about the world! And without it, how are we ever going to be able to have any certainty that any theory is correct, if we don't know whether it allows for that?”

“If they even change shape,” Willem said. The son of a stonemason, he was here because of his quick mind, his tuition and expenses paid by his lord; until Jared had recognized him as being interesting and had begun to listen to him, most of the highborn had snubbed and ignored him. “Evidence is rather thin on that, for good reason. I read a rather good treatise not long ago that suggested that they don't actually change shape at all, since that would be a physical and biological impossibility. Instead, they belong to tribes with specific totem animals and use the skins of those animals at certain times, including in battle. Possibly involving ritual or drugs or both to put them into a mental state of strong identification with their tribal animal and somewhere beyond feeling fear or pain. That's why they all have large fierce carnivores. One or two tame animals fighting at their sides, and it would be very easy, especially at night, for our ancestors to mistake what they were seeing. Which would also account for the postmortem dissections that demonstrate no significant deviation from true felines and canines.”

Jared considered that thoughtfully for a moment. “That's a rather intriguing approach. If you can remember where it was, I think I'd like to read that.”

“There were differences,” Corin said. “Most of them were within an expected range for a different species of feline or canine, but there were some brain structures that were never adequately explained.”

“We don't have adequate explanations for most human brain structures,” Wystan, the one other physician student, pointed out.

“No, but we know how to recognize a human brain. The brains of the human-form weyres had what were called anomalies, but they all had them and they were the same and they were all different from human. The animal-form brains had similar ones. That doesn't sound like an anomaly. And there's one report of a particularly minute examination of the body of a human-form weyre that showed some subtle oddities that would be very easy to overlook. He thought that if he had a way to compare the essential tissues of bones and organs that it would be highly illuminating, but they didn't have our level of chemistry or optics then and he couldn't. No one has tried, since we have better tools now but don't generally have weyre bodies available.”

“And most people, even scientifically-minded ones, have probably never even heard that there might be something worth investigating,” Jared said.

“Most people who have,” Wystan said, “point out that it's a single report and that no one else said anything about anomalous physical traits, so either that specific weyre was unusual, or the author was seeing things that weren't there or inventing things in an attempt to get attention.” His covert glare at Corin suggested that not only ancient authors were prone to that last crime.

“Or maybe,” Jared said, “that particular author was more open-minded and observant and made fewer assumptions. Seeing what you expect to see works both ways. Unfortunately, we don't have a way to test it, really. Drawings show only what the artist perceived, so we can't depend on those. About the only way to confirm it would be to dissect a weyre, or better still several, but that's not really a feasible option these days. Too bad they didn't have someone like you around, Corin, we'd probably have a lot more information.”

Corin smiled, eyes low. He never knew how to answer when Jared said things like that, but he was absolutely certain that he wanted him to, as often as possible.

“I still say shapechanging is impossible,” Willem argued. “If there were anomalies, well, fair enough. Shyani anatomy, as I recall, is rather peculiar, too, including some weird brain structures in a few that were believed responsible for so-called 'magic'. Wild animals attacking, weather effects, water rising suddenly, vegetation growing abruptly and in strange ways, et cetera et cetera, we've all heard the stories. The weyres having anomalies, and for that matter animals killed with them having a few, doesn't prove that shapechanging exists.”

“True,” Jared said judiciously. “And I do think the tribal totem theory should be considered, although it doesn't actually rule out shapechanging, either. That they're all fierce sorts of creatures is a valid point. Unless there were other kinds, weaker ones that didn't survive... hm, no, they seem to cooperate with each other, from what we know, so it would be unlikely for, say, wolves to prey on deer if both were weyres. There is the question of a sustainable population, too. How many kinds could there be and still have a viable population? Although that might be less of an issue if fewer of them were high-level predators and more were browsers or grazers...” His forehead furrowed, eyes unfocusing as he tracked the concept wherever it led him.

Nora leaned between Jared and Corin to set two of the three pitchers on the table, and moved around beside Willem to deliver the third. She was gone again in a heartbeat.

“Somehow we get better service when Corin charms the girls,” Harald muttered.

“Must be those big hazel eyes,” Geoffrey snickered. “And that reputation for being a real man in bed, if nowhere else.”

Corin flushed, but ignored it as normal background noise. It didn't matter what his so-called friends thought.

Jared shot the insulting pair down the table a look, the one that was reserved for the sin of mundane interruptions to something he found interesting, and both fell silent instantly.

“What if,” Corin said slowly, “the reason they're all large carnivores is because those are the animals most like human and shyani in many ways?”

Jared's attention went to him immediately. “How so?” Absently, he filled his own cup and Corin's from the nearest pitcher.

“Shapechanging is improbable, but what if you break it into two aspects: changing shape, and changing size? Changing to, say, a horse would involve a drastic change in size along with a drastic change in anatomy, and I think that would be even less probable. But wolves and pumas and jaguars are all supposed to be around the same size as humans, right? At least one account that I read observed that the bears here are much smaller and that in human form they tend to be rather large and muscular. The giant otters are generally described as being on the small side as humans. What if that isn't some sort of symbolic resonance, but is actually keeping the same size?”

“But why carnivores?” Willem asked. “Why not, oh, goats or roe deer or, for that matter, enormous birds? No, I suppose any bird would be too heavy to get into the air. Fish, then, or those big fierce lizard things from the southern swamplands?”

“Because the anatomy is more different,” Corin said. “Fish and lizards don't regulate their own body temperature or nurse young, we know they're very different from more advanced creatures. Birds have hollow bones and a huge number of anatomical differences. Even goats and deer have hooves instead of separate digits and a digestive tract with multiple stomachs. But canines are typically able to eat both flesh and vegetable matter to some degree, and there was a mention in an old book about the bears from the other continent eating, well, anything. That makes it likely they have a digestive tract similar to human, and they at least have paws, not hooves. Felines only eat flesh, so I don't know, but they don't have multiple stomachs, at least. Reports suggest that the otters eat only fish, so again...”

“But one carnivore stomach is still less of a change than four herbivore stomachs,” Jared reflected.

“Corin, I don't know about your family,” Geoffrey said, “but mine doesn't have tails or enough teats for a litter of young or fur all over.”

“My aunt Hulda might,” Conrad mused. “Maybe that's why her husband divorced her. Or maybe just that she's a bad-tempered bitch who insisted on having opinions different from his. But a few animal traits wouldn't surprise me much.”

“Humans are occasionally born with vestigial tails,” Jared said impatiently. “Or with more than two nipples. That it has anything to do with what the mother looked at while pregnant has been thoroughly dismissed as superstition. So it isn't impossible, only unlikely, and it's a smaller difference than a fish's gills and scales or a bird's feathers and hollow bones. Corin, what about the dolphins and seals?”

“Oh. I forgot about them.” Corin sighed and looked down. “Maybe it doesn't work after all.”

“Dolphins breathe air,” Geoffrey said.

“They do not!” Conrad said sceptically.

“They definitely do. I'm from the coast, remember? They come to the surface to breathe. There are some kinds of dolphins that aren't weyres, and they're pretty friendly. They've even helped humans stay afloat after going overboard or in shipwrecks, now and then. Why would they do that unless they recognize another air-breather?”

“Why would they do that at all? Are you sure these aren't weyres?”

“We know the difference between the ones that are weyres and the ones that aren't! And why would a weyre ever save a human?”

The discussion wandered off onto the subject of non-weyre dolphins.

“That's worth thinking about more,” Jared said quietly. “Changing shape and size as separate things, I mean. I don't think the dolphins and seals are necessarily a fatal flaw. I wonder whether there's anything in the library. Comparing whatever we can actually find on their anatomy to human, maybe, and you know anatomy better than anyone at this table right now.”

Corin smiled to himself. “I'll see what I can find.”

“I'll meet you at the library after your lecture tomorrow morning?”

“I'll be there.”

So what if he had homework to do, and had planned to do it between his lecture and the afternoon class it was due for? He could stay up tonight once they finished here, since no one really expected him to attend his scheduled morning fencing class—why did a physician really need to know fencing, anyway? The choice between sleep and the library with Jared was no choice at all.



Dayr invited himself in while Vixen was eating breakfast, not bothering to knock. He draped himself into the chair across from her.

Tylla, across the room at Vixen's wardrobe, murmured something about needing to fetch something, and tactfully withdrew.

“I didn't see you yesterday except at lunch and dinner,” he said. “And it's not like there's much we can talk about with half the building in and out of the room.”

“It's at least more peaceful without Alys and Balduin glaring at us and making snide comments,” Vixen pointed out. “I was busy.”

“More clothes?”

“Healing, mostly, and music.”

“That's a change. I've never seen anyone spend so much of their time on clothes. It's like small children dressing dolls over and over.”

At moments I feel like a doll being dressed. “Are you doing all right?”

He shrugged. “Before, people didn't talk to me much because I was a stranger. Now they don't talk to me much and edge away smelling like fear. Why would I bother attacking them? If I wanted to, I would have before they knew I could. It would be stupid to wait until after prey knows you're there to pounce. And what would be the point? They wouldn't taste good, they wouldn't be any fun at all to chase, and I'd just end up with everyone else wanting to kill me. I'm not that stupid.”

“They aren't used to dealing with anyone who isn't human, and definitely not with anyone who can be a very large and dangerous animal.”

“I'm more dangerous than Mirain with a longbow? Have you seen him shoot? Oh wait, you've been indoors being a lady.” He shrugged. “So, if people want to avoid me, I don't care. There are sunny places to sleep in, and Mirain and I went for a ride yesterday. He doesn't act like I'm about to eat him. Anything planned for today?”

Well, that was consistent with what she saw at meals: Mirain seemed quite willing to remain friendly, and Lyris, while a little nervous, made a distinct effort to remain courteous and did seem to be relaxing again, especially when Mirain was also present.

“Jared sent me a message inviting me to have dinner with him alone on the balcony. There's an interesting planetary conjunction not long after full dark.”

“A what?”

“Three of the wandering stars are going to line up.”

“Oh. Whatever. Alone will make it easier for you to keep showing off for Jared.” He snorted. “Leave it to humans to get things completely backwards. Males are supposed to be the ones trying to prove to females that they're worthy for mating, not females trying to prove themselves to males.”

“I am not!”

“You're doing everything short of spraying and howling with your tail in the air. And he's just short of grabbing you by the scruff of the neck. Which is pretty stupid, when he's the one encouraging everyone else to encourage you to become someone you aren't, so who exactly is it he wants, anyway?”


“I thought you weren't going to lie to yourself anymore.” Another shrug. “There's probably more new clothes involved before dinner, too. Whatever. I hope the tarika get here soon. I don't care where we are, but I don't like what this place does to you.” He heaved an enormous sigh and left her to her breakfast.

Left her wondering why she'd been completely at a loss for a way to refute anything he'd said.

Well, he was right about the new clothes: the note had included a reference to Karela having something for her that would need to be properly fitted.

Tylla returned before long, and went back to sorting through the contents of the wardrobe smoothly and silently.

Vixen looked down wearily into her tea, and finished the last of it with a single gulp before setting it on the empty tray. “Doesn't it get maddening, leaving the room so diplomatically?”

“Everyone needs their privacy, milady. The trick is knowing when to leave and when to stay.” Tylla shook out the dark blue dress with the butterflies. “This one, milady? It's not so complex to get out of or back into, that might he easier so Karela can do fittings.”

“That's fine. I trust you.” She got up and moved out into the middle of the room, where there was enough space for Tylla to help her into the cord-stiffened stays and then the blue dress. “I'm getting spoiled. How's Cole feeling?”

“Much better. He's back on his feet like he'd never had a bad spell. Most of the time it's taken at least three or four days before he's been able to function at all. And none of those frightening mood changes. I can't ever thank you enough for that.”

“Good, I'm glad it helped. It's going to be frustrating sometimes, I imagine, and I suppose the occasional mistake might happen, but it should be possible to almost entirely avoid it.”

“I've already spoken to the head cook. She's watched Cole grow up, a lot of the staff have, and she wants him safe. She knows everything that happens in her kitchen and everything that goes into every dish. She'll make certain he always has something to eat that won't make him ill.”


“I think so. Will you sit down, and I'll do your hair? With a little time later, I can do something fancier with your hair for dinner tonight, if you like.”

“That would be wonderful.”

Karela was waiting for them, and she was smiling.

“His Grace sent me another of Lady Riane's dresses, milady, but this one is different. Special. I'm glad we finished adjusting the more formal stays, you'll need them with this one.”

“I will?” Vixen wasn't at all sure whether to be excited or apprehensive.

Tylla deftly helped her out of the blue dress and the lighter stays, and into the new set.

This was the one with thin strips of horn stiffening it. She took a deep breath while Tylla was doing up the laces, as the whole thing tightened around her abdomen and diaphragm and ribcage, pushing her breasts up with the quilting beneath enhancing their size. And this was less constricting and confining than the ones currently popular in the high circles of fashion. Even if they were made perfectly, how could one do anything? Except look impossibly curvy and sleek and lovely...

Karela, grinning, brought out a roll of drab fabric, and with a flourish, unrolled it.

Against the unbleached off-white, the intense emerald green almost glowed. The fabric of the dress had a subtle shimmer as the sunlight danced across it.

“That can't be all silk,” Vixen said in disbelief.

Karela nodded. “It is. That's why it wasn't with the rest. I'm told this was Her Ladyship's dress when the King and Queen called on Hyalin. It's beautiful, isn't it? Perhaps not the current fashion, but in this case, I'd have to call it classical rather than out of date.”

“It's worth a fortune!” The house of Laures would be in debt for five years to buy that much silk.

“Then best we make certain you'll do it justice, milady. The skirt falls differently and has less material in it, so you'll need a petticoat to help it create the right shape.”

The petticoat turned out to be a skirt of lightweight linen with gathered flounces added in graduated and overlapped tiers.

Karela picked up the dress and shook it out, and handed it to Tylla, who took it respectfully.

Inevitably, it fastened down the back, not with buttons, but with more lacing, which was meant to meet precisely along her spine. The fabric was wonderfully soft and flowing. Around the edges subtle embroidery showed in darker green and sapphire and black.

It didn't fit exactly, a bit too loose in one spot, too tight in another, but that was a given. Karela deftly let out seams and pinned in others, then had Vixen take off the dress—with Tylla's help.

“If you've the time to stay, milady, I don't believe this will take long and we can make certain it's right.”

“I have time. I really have no useful responsibilities, after all.”

“You're a guest,” Tylla said. “Of course you haven't. And you keep finding ways to help anyway.”

Vixen wandered idly around the sunny room, trying to get used to the tighter and firmer stays, the additional fabric around her legs. It wasn't uncomfortable, really, though she might have felt otherwise without the chance to adapt to the other stays. She was quite sure, however, that any attempt to rescue a cat from the garden or harvest herbs or kneel beside a bed would be problematic.

Of course, what was one supposed to do when wearing a fortune in silk except look pretty and not damage it?

Any reservations vanished once the altered dress was back on and laced properly.

With her hair done, with jewellery other than her plain silver rings in her ears... she was sure she could walk into any gathering and draw only positive attention. The stays did dramatic things to her silhouette, and the petticoat made the green skirt flare out perfectly; over those unseen foundations, the vivid green of the silk shone, and it brought out the subtle hints of red in her dark hair.

“You look absolutely beautiful,” Tylla said in delight.

“Unquestionably,” Karela said in satisfaction. “Fit for a ball in the city, not just dinner with His Grace.” She grinned again. “He'll be at your feet. Any man would.”

Yes, she was probably right. And many women would be jealous.

“This is magnificent,” Vixen said. “Thank you.”

“Not my gift or my making,” Karela said. “Just a few alterations.”

“And the things to wear under it.”

Karela waved that away. “My pleasure, milady. Wear it well and have a wonderful evening.”



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.

Who cares?

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.”

“Such as?”

“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.”

“Close enough.”

At least Jared's private rooms were close.



Jared had, not a room in a boarding house, but more spacious and private accommodations. On one side of High Street, an entire block was nothing but conjoined three-storey buildings; they held single-storey suites that extended from the street, each with a street door, through to the alley that ran down the back of the block.

Jared's ground-floor apartment was a fairly high-traffic area, but Corin was there so often that several people had made rude comments—out of Jared's hearing—that he might as well live there. Depending on the speaker, it included an insinuation about Corin in Jared's bed, or a suggestion that Corin would be fine sleeping across the door like a dog.

It was true that Corin did have his own key, for a number of practical reasons.

It should be late enough for Jared to be up. They'd been at the pub late last night, but Corin had been to his first lecture of the day already.

He thumped on the door, and waited.

After a moment, Jared answered it. Given that he was wearing yesterday's trousers and a shirt from the day before, neither of them on straight, Corin figured he'd grabbed whatever was closest.

“Good morning,” Jared said, with a yawn. “Why didn't you just come in?” He stepped back and gestured, and with another yawn headed for his favourite chair.

“Because I know Edwena doesn't work today and that she left with you last night.” Corin came all the way in and closed the door behind him.


“I don't mind,” Edwena giggled, from the doorway to the bedroom. She was wearing even less, only wrapped in a linen sheet, her unbound hair tousled. She would never have allowed any other visitor to see her that way, but Corin was the exception. “Good morning, Corin.” She invited herself onto Jared's lap, and he obligingly wrapped an arm around her.

“It's afternoon, actually,” Corin said, leaning against Jared's desk. “I've already been to one lecture.”

“It's a good thing I didn't have any today,” Jared reflected. “So, how did you horrify them this time?”

“He was talking about class as though it were an absolute. I pointed out to him that there's less intrinsic difference between highborn and commoners than there is between a racehorse and a plough horse or a child's pony.”

“Oh, I'm sure that went over well.” Jared nuzzled Edwena's shoulder. “So which are you, darling? A pretty palfrey for young ladies?”

Edwena laughed. “A stubborn mule, according to my mother.”

“Aren't mothers supposed to say that? Corin, there's a brown bag in the drawer to your left, think you could grab it, since I can't currently stand up?”

Corin glanced down and slid the drawer open. The bag was the sort jewellery often came in; beside it was a book. He tossed the bag to Jared, who caught it neatly and presented it to Edwena.

“I saw it and thought of you.”

Edwena eagerly untied the drawstring and opened the little bag up into a full flat circle on her palm. In the centre, bright against the brown, was a slender gold chain with a pendant on it; when she held it up, smiling, Corin could see that it was a flower, with chips of colour set into the five petals and two leaves. Knowing Jared, it was real gold, though probably not of high purity, and the colour might be glass or might be inexpensive stones. Jared didn't give gilded trash.

“That's beautiful!”

“Then it suits you.” He took it from her and carefully fastened it around her throat for her, straightening the pendant and letting a finger trail a line down between her breasts. She twisted in place to kiss him enthusiastically.

Corin had introduced Edwena to Jared for reasons, after all. He was fond of her, and liked the idea of her getting the sorts of gifts Jared could and did give. Her exuberant approach to most things appealed to Jared, and he'd kept her around for some time, longer than usual for him.

I wish that was me, though.

He shunted that thought aside, unwilling to consider it any more closely. Instead, he picked up the book that was in the drawer.

“Why do you have a copy of Ogden's encyclopedia of symptoms and conditions? That's an expensive book, even used, and it's pretty specialized. And this is either new, or hardly used at all.”

“Oh, really?” Jared said, wrapping both arms around Edwena. “You mean I bought a copy of a book that all physicians are expected to have as a reference? My mistake, since that'll be no use to me. You being a physician in progress and all, I suppose you'd better take it.”

That made Edwena giggle again.

“Jared, this is...”

“Say thank you nicely, Corin,” Edwena said severely. “What's wrong with getting presents?”

“Probably best not to say thank you the way Edwena does,” Jared said in amusement.

“Thank you,” Corin said softly. Would he ever get used to Jared's open-handed liberality? Refusing to accept the things Jared bought for him, often things Corin needed and would have to stretch to pay for himself, was problematic on many levels. This, though, was probably the single most expensive since the gold-chased silver watch that kept superbly accurate time, as ideal for measuring heart-rate and breathing as for knowing when he needed to be somewhere.

Jared bought things for other people, too. Corin thought that to Jared, it was a sort of casual trade: those who gave Jared what he needed or wanted benefited in turn from Jared's generosity, in proportion to what he gained from them. It was like an extended version of the arrangements made with the local girls, really, and that idea made him more uncomfortable than it really should.

Especially since most people got sporadic situational gifts and Jared's current lover always received frequent presents while she was around, but it was Corin he consistently favoured with his largesse. The majority of the necessary and desirable—and often expensive—equipment gradually collecting in the sturdy leather bag in Corin's room had come from Jared.

“You're welcome, of course. I'm starving. You're already dressed. Would you run down the street and pick up something for breakfast, lunch, whatever? For all three of us? Money's in the usual place.”

“Sure.” Corin set the book down on the desk. Another drawer had, among other things, a round-bottomed dish that generally held a liberal handful of small and medium coins. He scooped out enough to cover a good lunch for three. “I'll be right back.”

“You can do the serving,” Edwena said impishly. “It's my day off.”

“Don't make me get up this time,” Jared said. “Just come in. We'll be here.”



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.”

“My pleasure.”

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.



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...



Corin wove his way through the crowded tavern at positively reckless speed, making for the back corner.

Jared looked up from the book open in front of him when Corin dropped into the seat across from him. There was a pitcher of ale and two cups, one clearly not used yet; that Jared wasn't sufficiently impatient to have ordered his own meal was a good sign. Jared didn't bother stating the obvious fact that Corin was late, just gave him an expectant look while laying a scrap of paper into place to mark his page and closing the book.

“I'm sorry. Medical stuff. I was busy putting Harald's latest conquest back together. Physically, at least.”

That gave Jared pause. “That's pretty strong phrasing.”

“Yards of bandages and a dozen stitches and a bucketful of witch hazel-based lotion deserve strong phrasing. The poor girl's black and blue.”

“So she came to you.”

“A mutual friend asked me to come see her. She's going to lose wages from being unable to work. She can't afford to pay for care, too. And it would come with a lecture about how she asked for it, which would only make her feel worse. She doesn't deserve that.”

What she does deserve is justice, and there's absolutely nothing I can do about that. One question, “Did you go with him willingly?” and it'll be turned into her own fault. Even though no one should reasonably expect consenting to sex to include consenting to being beaten and verbally abused.

“I suppose hands-on practice is always good,” Jared reflected. “Harald is an idiot. It's not a difficult arrangement to grasp, after all. We're nice to the girls, the girls are nice to us, no complications, no fuss, everyone is happy. Hey,” he leaned to one side to lay a hand on the arm of the girl working here tonight—Corin recognized her as Molly, a friend of Edwena's. “Bring us two of whatever the special is, hm?”

Her gaze flickered to Corin, and she nodded. “As soon as I get these delivered, I'll be back with it.”

“Anyway,” Corin said, “I am sorry I'm late.”

Jared shrugged. “The risks of physician friends, I suppose. And you're here now, so no harm done. Have a drink and relax. You've done your charitable act for the day.”

Well, no, there's one left to do. Although I'd be happier not doing it.

He did fill the other cup with ale, though, and take a healthy swallow.

“If I let you,” Jared said with a sigh, “you're going to end up setting up the world's most shabby practice here in town, and looking after tavern girls for free most of the time. Paying for rent or food, let alone medical supplies? Mere practicality doesn't stand a chance against your sense of compassion.” He leaned back to fish out a handful of coins, and left enough lying on the table to cover two meals with a moderate tip. “Just as well I have no intention of going back to Hyalin and leaving you here alone.”

Terrifying thought, Jared not being there. That would be like the sun not rising.

“I'd probably get into a major mess,” Corin conceded. “Other than making the collective faculty certain that I'm a deliberate troublemaker.”

“Instead of something much more dangerous: an intelligent and educated freethinker.” Jared pushed the book off to one side and refilled his own cup before raising it.

“Before Nora came to find me,” Corin said casually, “I ran into Geoffrey.”

“You do have a class together.” A faint edge crept into Jared's tone.

“He said you're refusing to say anything to him beyond bare basic courtesy. Refusing to acknowledge his presence last night was rather harsh, wasn't it?”

“Then maybe he should think next time before he makes promises he has no intention of keeping. If you're going to brag about being related to the expert on coastal ecosystems, and promise an introduction after his big guest lecture, then you should probably expect some consequences if you fail to deliver.”

Corin heaved a sigh. “Look, I can live with or without Geoffrey around. All-Father knows, he doesn't think much of me, and it's mutual. But he does have a point. There's no way he could have known that his uncle would only be here for two nights and would spend all his time around the lecture with his own old friends in places we'd be thrown out of. It sounds like Geoffrey only managed a very brief greeting, himself.”

“Then don't promise without having all the information.”

This was delicate ground. He had no intention of getting Jared annoyed with him, especially over someone he knew made nasty comments about him behind his back, but his sense of fair play meant he had to at least give it a genuine try. “Even if he'd found away to do an introduction, there is absolutely no guarantee that you'd have gotten more than a short polite greeting yourself. Geoffrey couldn't have forced his uncle to actually have a conversation with you about the questions you have. If he spent his whole time here wining and dining with his own old friends, well, that doesn't sound like someone much in the mood for intellectual debate. I know you always are, but not everyone is.”

Jared made a noncommittal noise, simply acknowledgement that he was still listening, without any actual agreement. At least he was still listening, though. That meant he was open to being convinced. It was only when he turned his attention elsewhere, writing further discussion out of his personal universe entirely, that it became hopeless—and he almost never did that to Corin, though it wasn't uncommon for others.

Molly delivered two well-filled plates, scooped up the coins, and swirled away.

“Jared, think about it. He came to me for help. How desperate do you figure that makes him? He made a mistake. He promised more than he could deliver because he was hoping to give you something that you'd value and enjoy. It didn't work out. Sometimes things don't. But you liked having him around when he was talking about engineering tests involving different building materials and how to measure their strength and durability and ability to retain heat, right?”

“That's true,” Jared conceded. “He did have some excellent new ideas about it.”

There must be something else. Jared wouldn't have continued associating with Geoffrey unless he had something to offer. He searched his memories for anything else he could bring to mind. “And when you were trying to figure out the most efficient possible layout for a minimal residence that would be warm and well-lit on limited resources and compact but comfortable?”

“Probably not viable, but stripping down basic assumptions did turn out to be rather interesting.” Jared regarded Corin for a moment, then shrugged. “Oh, all right. I'll let it go. He still owes me one, but I'll stop ignoring him.”

Geoffrey wouldn't be in line for displays of generosity any time soon, but Corin figured he'd settle for being admitted back to Jared's table.

“Fair enough,” Corin said.

“Unless he annoys me again. But he has a second chance. It's up to him what he does with it. Don't ask me to give him a third one.”

“I won't. Anyone who gets a second chance should be grateful and not repeat the mistake.” Conscience clear, he dug hungrily into the plate of food. No elaborate highborn dinners here, but the mixture of vegetables and sausage and noodles was filling and reasonably healthy and surprisingly tasty.

“You missed lunch,” Jared said. It wasn't a question.

“I expected a late lunch, after a lecture on respiratory conditions. Then Geoffrey found me, and then Nora did, and since then I've been busy. Somehow lunch didn't happen.”

“You're really upset, aren't you? About this girl that got hurt.” Jared speared a bite of sausage and chewed it, watching him intently.

“That Harald deliberately hurt. And she has a name, Freda. I'm going to have a tough time being civil to Harald the next time I bump into him. This wasn't something that can be excused as an accident. He had sex with her, rather roughly, and then hit her repeatedly and called her a variety of degrading names. I don't know that I particularly like sharing a continent, let alone a classroom, with someone who does that. You know there's no point to her charging him with assault. With a highborn woman, it only ever sticks because it's an insult to her husband or her family, and not because anyone cares what she went through. For a commoner? She couldn't make it work even if she was a verifiable virgin, instead of finding friends like every other young woman in this town for generations. He got whatever he gets out of it, and she's going to be paying the full price. How is that fair?”

“It runs counter to any impartial definition of justice,” Jared admitted. “But then, how often is justice really impartial, instead of serving the status quo? There's a school of thought that that's the true purpose of any judicial system, rather than any abstract ideals of disinterested equality. On the other hand, her being punished for being friendly and accommodating is going in a direction I don't care for. Life's better all around when the girls feel safe enough to be at least obliging, or better still enthusiastic. You keep looking after her, and I'll cover whatever supplies you need, within reason. And, within reason, take her a few extra treats. Fresh fruit, that sort of thing, so you can be sure she's getting a decent diet for at least the first few days while she heals.”

“I imagine she'll be extremely grateful, but I doubt she'll be inclined to find any friends in the near future. If ever.”

“I didn't suggest it with that in mind, but I like that idea even less.” Jared frowned, said nothing for a couple of bites; Corin was perfectly willing to let him reflect on whatever was in his thoughts, since it allowed Corin a chance to eat a bit more without talking. “Will it make you happy,” Jared said finally, “if I have a word with Harald and point out that breaking some of the girls and making the rest of them nervous as rabbits, which is sure to happen if he keeps this up, is not going to make him any friends when it starts interfering with the rest of us having fun?”

Corin stopped mid-bite. “Would you? He might actually listen to you.” And to that sort of motivation.

“If I don't, you're probably going to work yourself up into going after him yourself and telling him what you think of him. Then he'll challenge you and while he's not exactly a great fencer, there is no one who can't beat you. Then I'll have to go after him myself anyway for taking advantage of your idealism, although it won't help you much since you'll probably be missing useful anatomy by that point. Knowing Harald, he'd go right for where it would hurt the most, although I suppose it might make men more comfortable with you treating their wives and daughters. And I'm used to having you around, and I'd like to keep it that way.”

Well, it might make for a more successful practice that way, and I never did consider it an essential part of me... But Harald with a rapier? Ouch. “Thank you. And yes, that would make me very happy. The girls are going to start spreading the word about avoiding him, since Freda's the third and he's getting worse with each, but I'm not sure how he'll react to that.”

“Probably not well, but at least there's marginally more hope for legal help if they're not going with him willingly. I'll see what I can do. As far as I know, he's not a threat to men, but I'll admit, I wouldn't envy any woman around him.” Jared shrugged. “Anyway, you might like this one when I finish it.” He tapped the book with a finger. “It's extremely outdated, but it's interesting to read about the ideas they used to have about influences on fetal development at various stages and individual traits after birth. Lunar phases, eclipses, planetary conjunctions, sounds and smells and sights the mother is exposed to, whether she has sex after conception and how long it goes on, what the father does for a living, what they both eat...”

“Some of those might be relevant in a medical sense,” Corin said, just as happy to leave this whole sensitive area. “Diet means nutrition, which is obviously important, and the father's occupation and for that matter things in the mother's environment could relate to toxic substances that could be transmitted to the fetus. But astrological events? I'd need some very solid evidence.”

“You won't get it in this book. But the attempt at logic, given relatively primitive knowledge and not much hard evidence available, is worth looking at, if only to be grateful that we've moved past it.”

This was much more comfortable ground.

Because when Jared said things that Corin knew were affectionate in his way, when he offered to do things that would help or please Corin though Corin knew they didn't particularly interest him for themselves, when he acted protective and concerned about his loyal shadow's well-being... it stirred up those other feelings, the ones that terrified him, the ones he dared not look at too closely.

The ones that gave birth to those unbearable fantasies that crept in, more and more, on the edge of sleep when it was all but impossible to keep them away.



“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.

“This way.”

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.

“Was that...?”

“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...”



Corin sat cross-legged on his bed, cradling a glass flask in both hands.

A physician student learned about poisons, and had access to things that most people didn't.

All it would take to end the hurting and the emptiness forever would be to drink the few ounces of liquid in that flask. Even if someone found him, which was unlikely in the brief window before it did its work, they'd have to know what he'd used before they could find an antidote, and the flask held a combination of three poisons. There was no reason to think that any would counter any of the others; he'd looked into it at length. He wasn't risking having to face anyone tomorrow with that huge and unanswerable question of why.

No more feeling like every day was a lie. No more watching Jared and knowing that while Jared was fond of him, it couldn't approach Corin's own feelings. No more knowing that nothing could ever be any better than it was, and that it could only get worse.

No more of the constant exhausting struggle to block out his own thoughts, to hide from his own fantasies, to distance himself from his own feelings.

No more denying what he'd always known, deep down under everything: he wasn't a man in anything but the most superficial anatomical sense, which was the only sense that the culture around him recognized. And so, that culture would accept nothing else.

He'd written no note to leave behind. It wouldn't change anything, and would only shame his family. He'd done that enough already. His death would do so further: poison was a woman's death of choice, not a man's, but it was the one that drew him with a siren song of peace. Fall asleep one last time, without another day of misery to face on the other side.

Could he do it?

Could he face life anymore?

Any living thing will react to escape from pain. The greater the pain, the more extreme its response, and the more extreme the lengths it will go to in order to avoid the stimulus for it. Anything to make it end and not begin again.

I'm so tired of lying to myself and smiling when I want to cry. I'm so tired of hurting. Make it stop.

He worked the glass and cork and wax stopper out of the flask, and raised it to his lips.

Before he even tasted it, motion caught his eye; startled, he lowered the flask to look.

Sitting on the floor, directly in front of the door, was a red fox, tail curled neatly around its feet. It regarded him with luminous green eyes, which a fox really shouldn't have.

“Hello,” Corin said, oddly certain that the fox was able to understand. “Whatever you want, I can't help. If you're here as a guide for my soul, you're a few minutes early. But I'd really rather my soul didn't go anywhere else. That would probably just mean more hurting.”

The fox tilted its head—his head, though he had no idea why he was so sure it was male. He got up and turned to face the door, tail waving high in the air, but looked back over his shoulder.

“I can't follow you. I have something I have to do.”

The fox stepped through the door as though it weren't there, vanishing out of sight.

Then his head reappeared through it, eyes fixed on Corin.

Corin looked at the flask in his hand, puzzled. One of them could be a hallucinogen at the correct dosage, but he hadn't actually drunk it yet, had he? At least, he didn't remember drinking it.

That was the most reasonable explanation: he'd already swallowed the contents and was hallucinating while his hated body began to shut down.

Well, it was probably the last thing he'd ever do, in any sense, so why not? Three years of training made him reflexively put the cork back in the flask, hardly aware he'd done so, or that it was still in his hand as he got up. The fox disappeared again, but when he opened the door of his room, he found him sitting there waiting.

It seemed pointless to lock the door. He followed the fox though the sleeping boarding house down to the back door. He couldn't lock that, but he could hope that no one would have any reason to try it before Bruna got up to start breakfast.

What difference did it make? This was a hallucination anyway.

The fox led him through the streets, surreally quiet well past midnight but before anyone woke to begin the new day. They saw no one. A couple of blocks away, Corin realized he was holding the flask; he emptied it into a gutter and dropped it. The sound of the glass shattering seemed unnaturally loud in the silence.

To the edge of the city, and out further, along one of the deserted roads—the one that led to the east. There was nothing in that direction except fields and pastures and maybe a small village or two before the highlands.

Time stretched and compressed weirdly. Had he been walking, following the white flag of the tip of the fox's tail, forever? For only minutes? The sky grew lighter, and he saw wagons pass him along the road, in both directions, and riders on horses, and pedestrians. He ignored them. He had no intention of putting that mask on, ever again, and interacting with anyone would force him to do so. If they could even see him, they gave no indication of it.

Somewhere far off, he realized that his feet hurt, his whole body hurt, but so what? If his body had turned out the way it should have, his entire life wouldn't have been one long excruciating lie. It deserved to suffer. Or maybe it wasn't the walking. Maybe it was pain as the poison worked, and his mind was trying to put it into a context that made sense. He wished it good luck, because in this dreamlike reality, nothing really made sense, or everything did equally, he wasn't sure which was true, or whether both might be.

It didn't matter. All that mattered was that waving tail. His stomach growled at him, or was it only that he thought it should do so, as the sun moved across the sky and began to descend?

Walking, and more walking, and there was nothing for his mind to focus on, no distraction of books or questions to answer, no escape from the memories that tumbled one over another. Things that had happened, and with all his defences stripped away, there was nothing for it but to admit to himself what he'd really been feeling, what he'd really wanted to do. People who had been part of his life, and what he really wished he could say to them, but had never been able to do so.

He must be dying, he decided, and this was either some spiritual road for making peace with his life before going on, or some mad activity of his mind triggered by the poison. Either way, he'd have preferred to avoid it but he couldn't, so he accepted it.

Real or not, rather annoyingly he was growing tired, and it was harder and harder to force his body to keep moving. The white at the tip of the fox's tail showed clearly even in the darkness under bright stars that had never before looked so clear or so close, as though he could stretch just a bit higher and touch them.

The fox led him off the road for the first time, over a rise to a hollow under a cluster of trees, and there was a spring of water there. Not caring about the risks of contaminated or soiled water, he drank thirstily. Utterly exhausted, his body simply refused to get up. With a vague idea of avoiding wildlife coming to drink, he crawled a short way from the spring, and everything greyed out.

If he was dying, if this was the true sleep that wouldn't end, he welcomed it.

Somehow, though, it did end.

Disoriented and ravenous, the only thought that remained clear was that he'd been following the fox, for some reason he could no longer remember but it must be important. He emptied his bladder, wishing vaguely that there was a way to rip away his own flesh and rebuild it, and drank again, and stumbled to his feet. The fox expected him to keep up, though he had no idea why. He'd let everyone else down, all his life, and even with his death. He could at least try to get one thing right.

Because he could remember far too many times he'd failed, and the memories wouldn't stop coming...

* * *

The sounds of something large moving nearby made Corin open his eyes.

That was about all he had the strength left to do. The tall grass bent over beneath him, the soil under that, was a more comfortable bed than some he thought he'd had in the past several nights. He'd decided, delirious with hunger and exhaustion, that this mad trek was his punishment for taking his own life, and it would actually never end, but could it continue if he simply couldn't get up? A thin thread of hope remained that this was all happening in the space of an hour, with the distorted time of a dream, and that he was actually very close to the final systems of his body shutting down forever.

Greenish-gold eyes in a tawny-furred face, and behind it, a sleek lithe body with great paws on long legs. The big cat sniffed at him curiously.

Corin just sighed and closed his eyes, past caring.

Somewhere far away, he heard a puzzled voice with an unfamiliar accent. “We're nowhere near a human settlement, so what are you doing here?”

But the answer was too long, too complicated, and how could he expect a weyre to care any more than anyone else he'd ever known? He licked dry, cracked lips, and tried to whisper, “Let me die,” but his voice, unused for what felt like an eternity, failed him.

Distantly, he was aware of hands tucking a blanket or a cloak or something of the sort over him, and of the wind no longer reaching him. Hands steadied a smooth wooden cup that had cool water in it, and supported him so he could sit up enough to sip at it—that was pleasant relief from the dryness. When the hands went away, he lost track of time again, just existing.

More hands, and multiple voices, one of them female. “Definitely odd. The nearest human settlement would take the better part of a day on two feet from here, most of it cross-country, and he isn't dressed the same. But Sano says to bring him back, so that's what we'll do.” And the hands moved him, still with the blanket or cloak, onto something else, and the something else rose and moved and swayed alarmingly, and he passed out.

* * *

Where am I?

Something soft under me, but it doesn't feel right for my bed. Warm blankets over me. I think I'm dressed, at least partly, but it doesn't feel quite right. Something against me, something big and heavy and warm... and purring?

I wasn't supposed to survive that poison. Maybe I'm still hallucinating. I must be, because otherwise, where could I possibly be?

He felt too dissociated still for fear, but he did open his eyes.

Twilight, dim but with a soft illumination from somewhere above, faintly yellow-green in tone. He could make out only vague shadows, nothing that made any sense.

Rolling over took an extraordinary amount of effort.

Lying beside him was a cat the size of a human, who opened eyes that caught and reflected the light. It yawned, and the white teeth showed quite clearly enough.

Probably he should be terrified, but what could it do except kill him?

Then it wasn't a cat, it was a naked human man.

“Oh, good, you're awake.” He sounded pleased. “We weren't entirely certain you would wake up. You came very close to dying.”

“Then why did you stop me?” Corin asked bitterly. It felt like he hadn't spoken in an eternity; his voice was harsh, hurt his throat.

Luminous eyes blinked. “You wanted to die?” The pleased tone became deep perplexity. “Why? You aren't sick with something painful and incurable or anything like that, so nothing's that bad.”

“You wouldn't understand.”

“Dayr might or might not,” another voice said softly, one that was also male but lighter, with that same unfamiliar accent. “Weyres find unpredictable things utterly baffling, but other things they grasp with surprising speed. Odds are quite good that I will understand, however.”

Corin forced his rebellious, aching body to sit up, but gathered the blankets around him as much as possible with another body—the weyre? Dayr?—pinning one side. He'd been right, he was wearing a clean pale shirt, he couldn't tell the length of it. “Why should I tell you?”

“Wouldn't it feel good to make sure that someone knows, even if those you've left behind never do?”

More light, as the newcomer uncovered a palm-sized hemisphere resting on a small table; it might be wood or dull metal or thin pottery, Corin couldn't tell, but it was pierced with many holes in a regular pattern, and clear white light escaped through them, brightening the room enough that Corin could see. The newcomer must be shyani, humans didn't have skin so pale or hair that was golden or large bright sea-blue eyes. Small silver rings showed, high in the cartilage of each ear, one on each side.

Which all meant that somehow, impossibly, he must be in a shyani hill.

Jared would be so jealous.

That thought was just too much: tears gathered, and wouldn't be stopped.

The shyani simply handed Corin a square of soft thin fabric and seated himself on a stool next to the bed.

A warm furry body curled around his back, purring reassuringly.

Had he ever really cried before, for all the times he'd smiled while weeping inside, all the countless tiny cuts inflicted day after day with each bleeding away a bit more of his will to live, for everything it had cost him to lie to himself so that he could tell everyone else the lie they demanded to hear?

Exhausted and abused, his body couldn't sustain the aching sobs for long, before he wound down to sniffles and catches in his breath and a throbbing headache.

“Be still a moment.” The shyani began to sing softly, he couldn't understand the words and yet somehow they sounded right. He reached out and laid one palm against Corin's forehead.

The headache faded away.

Corin stared at him, certain he looked shocked. “How did you do that?”

The shyani smiled. “I'm a shaman. In human terms, that is partly a spiritual calling and partly a healer and a few other things as well. I've spent quite a lot of time and effort repairing the damage done to your body by lack of water and food and proper sleep and too much exertion. If I should not have done that and you intend to make it pointless as soon as you leave here, would you be willing to tell me why?”

The puma curled around him, a great living purring backrest, swiped his leg with one cheek.

Corin looked down, twisting the rather soggy handkerchief in both hands. “Because there's nothing to live for. I can't be what everyone says I have to be. No one will let me be what I am. I've gotten very good at lying to myself so that I'm better at lying to everyone else. But it's killing me a little at a time, and I'd rather just die so it won't hurt any more.”

“What are you that no one wants you to be?”

There, Corin balked. Even dying was easier than saying those words out loud.

“Hm. Will you tell us, then, how you came to be alone in the highlands and nearly dead?”

“I... I was at the University. It's a place humans go to learn more advanced sorts of things. I'm a student there, I've been studying medicine, mostly. I had... I had poison, it would have been fast. Before I could drink it, but I thought I had drunk it and was hallucinating, there was a red fox in my room. He walked through the door and wanted me to follow him.” The cat behind him made a low chuffing noise, ears perking forward. “And I did. I suppose he must have led me to where you found me. I don't know what he wanted.” He shook his head quickly. “That sounds insane. I must have imagined him, or it was some self-preservation instinct trying to keep me from doing it.”

“Or there was actually something there,” the shyani said. “A part of the shaman's calling involves communicating with the spirit world. When each shyani child reaches the appropriate age, a shaman sings his or her spirit animal into coming forward to be guardian and guide for the rest of that shyani's life. Often the spirit animal gives us a clue about that child's future or inner nature. I would have had to call yours in order to heal you, but he was already with you. Red Fox most often chooses witches and those called to be shamans, though occasionally someone with another notable gift instead. And he chooses only women and osana, never men.”

Heart thumping hard, Corin looked down, drawing in closer on himself. Belatedly, the unfamiliar term registered. “What's an... osana?”

“To us, one is born with a body that is male or female or otherwise, and an inner self which can be masculine or feminine or otherwise. When the body is male and the inner self masculine, or the body is female and the inner self feminine, the result is man or woman. Much less often, one can be born with a body that is male and an inner self which is feminine, and that is what we call osana, or a body that is female and an inner self which is masculine, which we call umana. There are those who do not fit either category on one level or both, and they are called etana. Many, but not all, osana and umana and etana become shamans. Whether we do or not, we are acknowledged as what we are.” His tone turned very gentle. “We are not driven into being something else, or forced to lie to ourselves and others. I think many lives must be lost that way, that otherwise could make the world a more wonderful place. I think that you were very nearly one of them, but when you stood at the doorway between life and death, it gave Red Fox a way in and he led you here.”

The cat behind him made a low chuffing noise that sounded rather like a greeting. Corin rubbed his eyes with one hand, but he could still see glowing green eyes and a narrow russet face in the corner, watching him, white-tipped tail coiled around small paws.

The shaman glanced in that direction, and inclined his head respectfully.

“You see him too?”

“Indeed. That is one thing shamans do. We see what is there. And weyres often perceive things of spirit, some more clearly than others. Your guide is here to observe the results of his efforts.”

Well, that more or less ruled out his hallucinating only the fox, though it left other possibilities. “So now I know it isn't the same everywhere,” Corin said wearily. “Now I can feel terrible about being born human instead of shyani along with...” He swallowed hard, forced the words out. “Along with being born wrong. Oh, that helps.”

The shyani shook his head. “Your old life is gone,” he said, still gently. “You decided to end it, quite definitively. But perhaps you can find a new one, one that will allow you to learn who you truly are, and to be that. Endings can become beginnings, as well.”

“You're asking me to live.”

“I'm suggesting that we find you a way to live without pain or lies.”

The hope being offered was terrifying, far more so than the thought of escape.

“You said we. Not just now. A minute ago.”

The shaman nodded. “I knew when I was very young that I was umana. I knew when my spirit animal came that I would be a shaman. Beaver builds dams that create ponds that help all things in their community to thrive, and a dam can also serve as a bridge. I've never been in a position of anyone condemning me for being what I am. Exactly the opposite. That doesn't mean I can't see the hurting in you and want it to heal. That's what I do, after all: I make things right, as much as I possibly can. You said you were studying medicine—that's the human system of healing, hm? So I think you must understand.”

“I'm human. Why would you care?”

“Is it any less painful than it would be for a shyani or a weyre? Is a wound any less for being on my wife or a stranger, one of our donkeys or a wild animal? It's all pain, physical or otherwise. Every life is priceless, and every life deserves to be lived with as little suffering as possible. Would you allow a shyani or a weyre to bleed to death at your door?”

Corin's eyes dropped to his hands.

“Do you have any idea what you're asking me to admit? How much contempt my own people, my own family and friends, would have for me if they knew? And... I chose to die. I tried to die. I didn't ask for any intervention, I tried to make sure there couldn't be any. You're telling me to do the opposite.”

“I doubt I do know, though the fact that you consider death more welcoming tells me a great deal. Is it that you wanted to die, though, or that you wanted to not live as you were and could find no other way out? You chose to follow Red Fox. Knowing that things are different here, that you can be accepted as you are and you can very probably find an important and valued place with us... do you still want to die more than anything else?”

“No,” Corin said softly. “I can't. Not knowing that.” And that was both a terrible grief in itself, that it wasn't yet over, and a vast relief, that it wasn't yet over. “I can't be who I was, but I'm still here.”

“Then who do you want to become?”

For a very long moment, Corin was silent.

“I want to help people,” he said finally. “That part was always real.”

“And may be why Red Fox took an interest in you. As I said, he comes to shamans and to witches, and you are not a witch. That is a gift some shyani are born with.”

“And,” he took a deep breath and closed his eyes. “I should not have been born male.”

The red fox in the corner stood up and stretched, then strolled across the room.

The shaman tilted his head to look at Corin. “Hm, that isn't what we would say, but then, there is infinite difference between seeing all variations as valid and valuable in their own right, and seeing everything in terms of two absolute labels. What does your own inner self say that you are, rather than what you are not?”

Heart pounding, Corin said, very quietly, “A woman.”

The shaman smiled and held out a hand, palm-up. There was a tattoo on the centre of his palm. “I'm Sanovas, shaman of Copper Springs. That is Dayr behind you—not of anywhere, he's been wandering, as young weyres often do. You are?”

Not Corin. Corin is dead.

Possibly it would be terribly offensive by shyani standards, or to the spirit-fox, but one name was there and waiting, right at the edge of consciousness.

“I'm Vixen.”

The red fox vanished, but it wasn't in anger, she was sure. No longer visible, maybe, to his human charge who had chosen to step out of the space between life and death. Not visible for the moment, at least. It felt rather pleasant, that someone had wanted her to live so badly.

That several someones had, really.

“Welcome to Copper Springs, Vixen. And if you're to live long enough to learn anything more about us, you badly need to eat.” Sanovas raised his voice. “Aerfen, my love, could you fill a bowl with that soup? And then come meet our new daughter.”



Vixen woke when Jared left, with a last kiss, but there was no need to get up yet. She let herself drift between waking and sleeping, replaying the dream she'd been having. That death and rebirth had been harrowing and difficult, but from the perspective of eight years, she knew it had been necessary. Death could come gently; birth never did.

Dayr had stayed to watch over her, and had decided that she needed him, and had never left to go back to wandering. Copper Springs, a community of fifty shyani of all ages along with a mated pair of wolves and their two cubs, had accepted their presence with equanimity.

In any sense that really mattered, Sanovas and Aerfen were her parents, the ones who had given her life, and their daughter Shabra was her sister, younger in years but always ready to help her human sister who had so often been confused at first.

Everywhere she'd looked, she'd encountered the adamant shyani belief that no combination of body and self meant being born wrong. Lowland culture said that being anything other than absolutely male or absolutely female was unnatural; shyani culture said that trying to be anything other than one's true self was unnatural.

Sano, true to his word, had helped her find a life without the lies and the pain and the self-contempt.

And now she was back in the lowlands. Red Fox had chosen to save her for a reason, out of everyone. Had it been, perhaps, with the hope that she'd come back here some day, strong and healed and able to act as a bridge between the two cultures? Doing anything, ever, that could harm the shyani was unthinkable, but it could only be positive if more humans knew more about the shyani and weyres, couldn't it? Understanding undermined fear and prejudice.

She heard Tylla come in, quiet as ever, and rolled over. “I'm awake,” she said. “You don't need to pretend you're a cat stalking a mouse.”

Tylla chuckled. “Good morning. His Grace sent you a gift.”

“Another one? I told him to stop doing that.” She yawned and stretched, and got out of bed. Tylla, ever-efficient, handed her a clean white shift, and Vixen pulled it over her head, then drew on a fresh pair of underpants. Breakfast first, before anything else, but on the tray was a note and a small drawstring bag, the same poppy-red as the one that had held the necklace he'd given her a couple of days before.

I won't forget, but you deserve something for you. I hope you'll consider wearing these, since they go with the necklace. And, so you don't believe I was only hoping you'd stay until last night, please know that I'd still very much like you to stay.

She opened the bag curiously.

Within was a pair of earrings, ornate dangly ones that were unmistakably meant to be worn with the onyx necklace.

Automatically, she raised a hand to one ear, and the small silver ring through the lobe. She hadn't taken them out since Sano had put them in for her, during a ritual celebration recognizing her as Sano and Aerfen's daughter and as osana and as on the path of a shaman, with all of Copper Springs in respectful and enthusiastic attendance. Not a mark of shame, but acknowledgement and acceptance—theirs of her, and hers of herself.

Take them out?

She could add a second set of holes, but that would take a little time, especially to heal them enough to be able to wear something heavy. Jared would believe she was refusing the gift before then. But... take out her rings?

She ate absently, and let Tylla help her into her clothes. The slate-blue and white dress with the rosette and ribbons had been cleaned and mended so well that no trace lingered of its adventures with Dayr in the catnip patch... nearly a week ago, she realized, startled. Longer than the time between arriving here and the accident with the catnip, even. It had been a very eventful week.

Tylla did her hair, and fastened the necklace for her. “All done.”

“One thing left.” I am what I am, and symbols are only symbols. Suddenly decisive, she reached up to unfasten one silver ring, then the other.

The heavy swinging weight of the onyx earrings was unfamiliar but interesting, and in a peculiar sort of way, felt good. She turned her head, and felt them bump against her jaw gently.

“They look lovely with the necklace.”

“Yes, they do, don't they?” In comparison, the silver rings she picked up from the vanity looked tiny and plain. “These ones are important, though, I don't want to lose them.”

“The top left drawer of the vanity is lined with wool velvet, and has a key. I believe it's inside.”

She investigated, and found that there was indeed a small brass key inside, resting on a plushy near-black lining. She dropped the earrings in, closed it, and locked it, though she only set the key in the centre drawer, not terribly worried about anyone stealing them.

“Where would I be likely to find Alys this morning, do you think?”

“Her room is in the same corridor as His Grace's, but I think it's very likely that she's up and busy. I could ask a few questions of the house staff, and I'm sure we'll find her. Is there a message you'd like passed on?”

“Hm, yes, she might be better able to find me. Just that I'm hoping for a chance to talk to her. Between you and I, I'm very glad she's decided to join us for meals again, but she seems very stressed and on edge, and I'm worried about her.”

“Is there anyone you don't worry about and want to make well?” The tone was rather affectionate, certainly more familiar than Vixen recalled Olivia and Lavinia tolerating from their maids, but at this point, Tylla was as much friend and ally as maid.

“That is my job.”

“So you'll fix as much as you can while you're here?”

“Yes, that.” Vixen turned in place on the vanity bench to face her. “Entirely between us, Jared asked me to stay here, officially as a teacher for Cole and a few others.”

Tylla's smile was all delight. “That would be wonderful.”

“I haven't decided yet what to do. Being able to teach is rather appealing, and being able to stay with Jared, but I did make promises elsewhere, and there's the whole issue of Jared marrying, so it's complicated. I really don't know yet. But if I do stay, I'm going to be lost unless I get to keep you.”

“I imagine His Grace and milady Lyris would both be amenable to that.”

“What about you? And don't tell me it's not your place to have an opinion.”

“I'd be very happy with that.”

“I can't imagine why, but thank you.” Vixen sighed. “I'm not sure anything would make Alys happy about it, but I do need to make peace there. So...”

“I'll see if I can find her, or pass on word that you're hoping to. If you aren't here...”

“Karela's workroom, most likely.”

Tylla nodded. “Excuse me, milady.”

In no immediate hurry to leave, Vixen rose and went back to the full-length mirror. Even without cosmetics of any sort, that reflection pleased and satisfied her. Right down to her bones she knew: that was right. And Jared certainly seemed equally pleased and satisfied with her.

Today, maybe at lunch, he'd tell Mirain and Lyris that they could have what they most wanted.

If she decided to stay, she'd have to look for a way to reconcile with Balduin the physician, but if she were here only another day or two, that wouldn't be necessary. His pride was bruised, no more.

Alys, however, concerned her more.

She heard the door, and smiled welcome at Dayr in the mirror. “Good morning.”

He closed the door. “So, have you talked to him about...” About three steps into the room, he stopped in his tracks, eyes wide. “What did you do?”



“Oh. I changed them for a little while.” And, when he simply continued to look appalled, apparently at a loss for words, she frowned. “It doesn't mean anything. Earrings or not, I'm still osana.”

“But you're trying not to be. Aren't you?” He shook his head. “You haven't really heard anything we've said for years, you're back to thinking of what could have been and what should have been instead of just being you.”

“Why should I be happy being me? Do you know what I dreamed last night? Trying to kill myself. Reliving all the feelings I had at the time. I've been having dreams ever since we came here, of life with my birth family and life at the University, and they were bad enough, but last night... why should I be so happy and proud of being what I am when that means that for over two thirds of my life I hated myself so badly I finally decided to die?”

“That isn't being osana, that's the horrible things humans say about being osana!”

I'm human! I grew up in a house like this! Maybe I don't belong in a hill, where everyone has to compensate for my needing more sunlight and not being able to see in low light and not always knowing shyani ways!”

“Of course you belong with us! That's why Red Fox went to get you. Are you seriously saying Sano was wrong and shouldn't have adopted you? Or that I should've left you to die?”

“No, but maybe what I'm supposed to do is come back here. Humans don't understand shyani and weyres. Having a human who can try to fix that...”

“A human who's a woman, so they won't respect you for that, and worse when they find out you're osana? How will that help us at all? This isn't about that! You just want to stay here with him, even though he doesn't understand you and doesn't want you to be you, he wants you to be what he thinks you should be and you're going along with it! Staying was his idea, wasn't it? Wasn't it?”

“Yes,” she admitted. “But...”

“No wonder he gave up that grimoire so easily. He thinks he has a living grimoire. One who'll betray everything that you said gave you a reason to live, in order to make him happy.”

“I would never betray the hills!”

“A fortnight ago, you would've said you'd never consider staying here longer than necessary. A month ago, you would've said you'd never consider coming to the lowlands at all. So what's that worth when he starts asking you questions and you have to choose between him being unhappy or giving away things that aren't human business?”

“I'm human!” she shouted.

He shook his head again, and the dismay and disappointment in his expression hurt worse than anything in a very long time. “Maybe the tarika were right about some of what they said. So what do you want? Are you staying here, or are you coming back to Willow River? I'm not staying here to watch any more of this. I'd protect you from anything but there's nothing I can do about this.”

“Fine! Go! How are you acting any differently than you're accusing Jared of? If I don't behave the way you expect, suddenly I'm not trustworthy anymore? If you're in too much of a hurry to wait a day or two while I think things through without having to worry about the tarika showing up, then take the damned donkeys and go!”

He retreated a step, wordlessly, then turned around and left the room.

Vixen sank down on the vanity bench, wrapping her arms around herself tightly, shaking and fighting tears.

“I found... All-Father, what's wrong?” Tylla crossed the room at something perilously close to a run to slide an arm around her shoulders.

“I think I'm staying,” Vixen whispered, and buried her face in her hands.



Carefully, Vixen stretched, and winced. Sanovas had, she had to admit, saved her life and done a literally incredible amount of healing on her abused body, but some aches remained. Worse was the weakness: she kept falling asleep, and it took about all she had to make it the short distance from her bed to the shyani version of a bathroom—which was far more advanced than she would have believed, and in fact far more advanced than human systems, even the most modern ones at the University.

But then, everything around her was completely opposite to the stories humans told about shyani hills. There were no invisible servants or furnishings of precious metals with clothing all of silk. She found it impossible to imagine Sanovas tolerating the keeping of humans as slaves or livestock. And while there was one weyre in near-constant attendance, he tended to act like an overgrown housecat, cuddling warmly close to her while she slept, purring reassuringly when she wept into his fur after waking from bad dreams. Even the most overgrown housecat, however, didn't change into a naked man and support her to the bathroom, or take up quite so much of the bed.

The ceiling did glow softly, and there were those palm-sized hemispheres that could be uncovered for brighter light, though she was unsure how it was generated. This 'room' wasn't exactly a room, since it was separated from the main living space only by a curtain, but it was some privacy, and the whole place seemed to stay at a stable and moderate temperature. All the textiles were soft and smoothly woven, always dyed in colours so vivid that lowlands women would instantly covet them, but the bedding was warm and comfortably soft, and the clothing felt good against her skin. The food she vaguely remembered was strange to her, but not unpleasant, and hadn't given her any adverse reactions. Alien, and yet, the same basic needs were met.

Alien enough to accept a man as the woman she was certain she was.

“Vixen?” Motion just outside the room, and a slender hand drawing back the curtain. “I thought I heard you moving. I brought you more soup.”

Vixen blinked, forehead furrowing. “I'm sorry... Shabra, right?”

“Yes.” With a soft clattering of the beads on the long fringe of her rose-pink tunic, Shabra let the curtain fall behind her. “Everyone else is out in the heart of the hill. I stayed in case you woke.”

“Thank you.” With some effort, Vixen sat up; her furry bedwarmer yawned and rearranged himself as a backrest. Shabra set the tray across her lap, and perched on the stool nearby. “What's the heart of the hill?”

“A hill has six sides and two floors, normally. On each floor, there are six separate homes around the outside, and a space in the centre. The one below is usually used for storing foods and such. The one above is where everyone spends as much time as possible. When you're working on something, it's good to have company, unless it's something that needs a lot of concentration with no distractions. Humans don't do that?”

“Not often, no, and definitely not men and women and children all together.”

“Maybe that's part of the problem. Or a result of it. Thinking that people only come in limited kinds. How are you feeling?”

“Tired. Disoriented. I have no idea how long I've been here or whether it's day or night outside.”

“Right now, it's well into the night, and it's the third night since you first woke up, although you've not always been very alert even when you've been awake since then. I think I've introduced myself to you three times, maybe?” She smiled. “That you remember my name is probably a good sign.”

“I'm sorry.” The bowl on the tray was pottery, surprisingly thin-walled and gracefully-shaped, glazed on the outside and around the inner rim with bright patterns, and the spoon was delicately carved wood; the soup inside was heavy on vegetable matter, and the little meat was, she thought, poultry of some sort. The flavours were unfamiliar, but it tasted good to her anyway. “Sanovas' daughter, right?”

“Yes.” Vixen thought she looked to be in her late teens. Golden hair was braided back neatly. No skirts: she was wearing trousers, and over them a tunic that would have made a human prostitute blush. It ended halfway between hip and knee, but from there down to her knees, it was split into a heavy fringe of threads tied into bundles, once up close to the fabric, then again farther down, with a large red-stained wooden bead strung onto each. The sleeves similarly ended a third of the way from shoulder to elbow, with the same sort of fringe to just above her elbows, though no beads. The neck was a deep slit with lacing holding it more or less closed, but that slit extended down to her solar plexus, and there was nothing beneath it. A wide choker of delicate beads circled her throat, soft greys and deep browns, but with two green eyes that might have been feline on either side of centre front.

“Um... is it rude to ask how you can be his daughter?”

Shabra giggled. “Not much is rude between sisters, and this sister understands that you don't know about us but you need to, so you can ask anything you like. Do humans control the number of children born, and the timing?”

“Not much, no. Often they just try to have as many as possible and hope they're born alive and live to adulthood. If too many do, or not enough, things get complicated.”

“Oh. That seems... wasteful. Each hill's surroundings can only support a limited number of people without being depleted and damaged, so we make certain that the total population never gets too high. There are ways women keep from conceiving children, and all women use them. Most women have two or three, all carefully spaced out so it isn't dangerous for her and the child will have the best chance. Since a child is a responsibility of the entire community, it's usually discussed first. Her shaman and witch will keep watch very closely. Sometimes a woman has twins, though, and it's nearly impossible to convince her body to reject one without harming the other. So as soon as they know, they send out word to other hills to see if someone is able to accept and raise one of the twins.” She laughed. “Since some animals just leave extra offspring to die, I'm rather grateful to be safely here. Ama—Aerfen—nursed me almost from my first day, and this is my home. Ada and the other shaman involved both did runestone readings, and that suggested that I should be the one sent here. The runes were right. I've been learning from Ada all my life about herbalism and the sort of healing done with hands and tools, but I've been properly learning to be a shaman since Ada called my spirit animal. Which is Lynx, before you ask, the cat that sees everything.”

Dayr yawned, clearly unimpressed by spirit cats.

“That sounds... in a way, by human standards, a bit cold and calculating, but it was as much for your well-being as anyone else's, wasn't it?”

“Yes. Twins are hard on the mother and it's hard for the twins. This way, my birth sibling and I each had a whole hill to ourselves to care for us. I don't feel rejected, I feel loved. I think it was probably hard for my birth-mother to let me go, but she did what was best for everyone including me.”

Something to think about there, as far as priorities. “What are runestones?”

“Humans don't do runestones? No, there are no shamans, so of course not. Wait, I'll get mine and show you.”

Shabra returned with a tightly-woven basket that had a black stylized eye, like the tattoo on one of Sanovas' hands, painted or maybe stitched on the top. She rummaged in it until she found a small black bag that rattled. “There they are. They don't see the future, exactly. They give us insight and information about the present situation, and which way it's likely to go if events continue on the current path. Please don't touch them.” She reached into the bag and pulled out a handful of small oval disks, made of pale creamy clay, and each had a different simple, highly stylized symbol etched into it and coloured. “Every shaman makes their own. I haven't done all of them yet, so I can't offer to do a reading for you. There are sets that look much the same but not made by a shaman, and they're used for gaming, but they're never kept in a black bag. Never touch anything in black, because they're a shaman's tools and only their owner should handle them. Unless you're their owner, of course. You'll have your own eventually. Ada says you're going to be a shaman.”

“He thinks I can be one. I'm less sure.”

“A big part of being a shaman is being able to see things from half a step outside, or from both sides at once. Osana and umana and etana have an advantage in that. Probably that's why so many become shamans. I almost wish I was.”

Vixen stopped, mid-bite. “What?”

“I know, it makes no sense, after what Ada told Ama and me about humans and what they think, but for a shaman, it's a good thing. And you'll be able to see things from two other sides at once, human and shyani, eventually, so that'll be even better. And Ada said you already know a lot about healing, including things we don't know, and that you've always wanted to help people. I think you're going to be a wonderful shaman. I know Ada's already proud of you for choosing to live after hurting so much. Imagine how proud of you we'll be when you get your shaman tattoos.”

A wet drop splashed into Vixen's soup, then another, and then the tears wouldn't stop.

“Vixen?” Shabra sounded alarmed. The tray was hastily removed, and Shabra sat beside her on the bed, wrapping both arms around her. “It's all right. I'm sorry. I didn't mean to make you cry again.”

On Vixen's other side, a large furry body sat up, pressing against her, purring reassuringly, and a broad rough tongue licked away the tears.

“I'm sorry,” Vixen sobbed. “I just... everything feels raw, and people always act like I can't do anything right...”

“Then they're too stupid to see,” Shabra said firmly. “If I wanted one of the goats to go hunt game, of course it wouldn't do it right, no matter how often I scolded it or worse. That isn't in it's nature. If you want anyone or anything to succeed, then you let them do what it's in their nature to do, and then they'll do it well. Part of a shaman's job is to see what's in anyone's or anything's nature, and help it fulfil that. I'm not a full shaman yet, but I think Ada and Red Fox are right: what's in your nature is being osana and shaman, so now, you'll be able to do things right. You'll see.”

* * *

Vixen knelt, head bowed, her hair parted with Shabra's help into two neat braids that fell forward on either side to leave her upper back bare.

After a full day and night of fasting and meditating, being here in the twilit central hexagonal room of Copper Springs felt vaguely dreamlike—not with the kind of remoteness she'd experienced on her journey here, but peaceful. The tattoo hurt, but it was only physical pain, and it stood in direct opposition to the deeper pain that had driven her to seek another kind of peace. Her earlobes still itched and burned slightly, since Sano had pierced them for a pair of small silver rings before starting on the red fox tattoo in the middle of her upper back.

Every shyani had a tattoo of their spirit animal. There were tattoos for marriage, for the birth or adoption of a child, for other major life events—always done ceremonially and communally. Sano and Aerfen both had new ones, official declaration that they'd adopted a second daughter. There was an osana glyph, too, which should properly go on her upper arm, but Sano had warned her that he'd stop before that one and do it later if he had any reason for concern about her strength. As it was, he'd delayed this until he was confident she was sufficiently recovered.

She didn't think he'd have any such reason. She felt wonderful. Fifty shyani and five weyres surrounded her, quiet and respectful, waiting for the ritual aspect to end so they could get to the celebration, with music and a special meal and gifts for her.

Among them were her adopted mother and sister, and Dayr who was only now willing to leave her side for more than brief moments. The wolves, Chira and his mate Ellai, who had helped Dayr bring her here when she was near death, and their two normally hyperactive cubs, who had caught the mood and were chewing contentedly on the toys of fresh soft hide their parents had made. The Copper Springs witch, Nuriel, who had added his own gifts to help Sano heal her. Currently the wolves were the smallest children, but one shyani was visibly pregnant. Otherwise, ages ran from maybe eight or so up to elderly shyani—who were healthier than humans of similar age, she was sure. And they'd all accepted their adopted human's presence with humbling equanimity.

What the earrings meant contradicted everything she'd been raised to believe and everything that had led her to hate herself. They didn't mark her as a freak. Vixen could strip naked, with her depressingly and unequivocally male body, but with those silver rings in place any shyani or weyre would, in any sense that really mattered to their culture, consider her a woman and a little more than that. The rings much higher on Sanovas' ears similarly announced to all and sundry that he was umana, a man and a bit beyond.

Sano, with a combination of shaman healing and herbal skill, had made certain she no longer needed to shave, and her hair was growing rapidly enough that she suspected he hadn't so much stopped it as diverted it. Anything more, he told her she could do for herself once she learned enough, if she felt any need to. Strong motivation to learn, and to earn another set of tattoos: the eye and willow palm tattoos of a shaman.

Three years of physician training and a decade before that of endless curiosity both helped and hindered, since the approach was so different. She was older than shaman training normally started, but Sano had assured her that starting as an adult did happen and could bring its own benefits. Complete ignorance of shyani culture was problematic, but Copper Springs seemed collectively determined to help her catch up as rapidly as possible.

Which meant... Corin was dead, as he'd so desperately wanted, but Vixen was very much alive and looking forward to the future.



Vixen glanced up as the clock on the shelf chimed. Nearly time for dinner, and after spending the day methodically cataloguing Jared's library, getting cleaned up first seemed like a wise idea. She neatly stacked the current book and her sheets of notes in one corner of the desk, tidied up, and closed the door behind her on her way out.

Jared had told her to make a list of books she wanted for teaching Cole and the others, so he could forward it to Willem and have him find them. To do that properly, she first had to know what was on hand. It would also help to know what her intended students already knew and what most interested them, and that was the next part of her plan. She thought she could finish with the library tomorrow, so it might be a good idea to start arranging times to talk to each of the boys starting the day after. She knew Jared had already had Alys notify parents and anyone the boys normally worked under that they were to be freed from other responsibilities for the sake of learning, so with any luck, she'd encounter no obstacles there. The possibility, of course, did exist that they wouldn't all be pleased by having a woman as a teacher.

She knew Cole, at least, was looking forward to it. She'd spent the evening before last with mother and son, sharing a private dinner, and telling them stories about what she'd seen and done in the hills; she'd been impressed by some of Cole's insightful questions once he'd begun to feel safe enough to ask them.

Teaching, she thought, was going to prove very rewarding.

So was teaching shyani and weyre children.

She shoved that thought away. That was supposed to be a shaman responsibility, but all too often, Irisan did it instead, or one of the oldest shyani, since Willow River's human shaman sometimes knew no more than the children did. They'd be better off with a shaman who could do the job properly. The subjects here—math, literacy, science, history, and the like—she either knew very well or could readily refresh in her memory from Jared's books.

Unsurprisingly, she found Tylla in her room.

“There is no way there's that much in here that needs straightening, let alone cleaning,” Vixen pointed out. “How are you always finding something to fuss over?”

“There's always something,” Tylla said. “Even if it's only shaking out pillows or checking that nothing is running low.” She smiled. “And I expected you'd be back around now to get ready for dinner. His Grace sent you a gift, it's on the bed.”

“His Grace, apparently, can't go a week without doing so, even when asked not to,” Vixen said with a sigh. “As though being here has anything to do with gifts.”

Lying on the bed was a substantial bundle, wrapped neatly in tightly-woven undyed linen. She unfolded the note lying on top of it.

Today makes two weeks since you arrived at Hyalin's door, and one week since we had dinner alone together and more, so I hope you'll accept that as a good reason for wanting to give you something. Going shopping for things just for you will have to wait until we can plan a trip, but fortunately, Hyalin still has a great deal of treasure stored away I can use until then, and this seemed appropriate for you. Since this has been a cloudy and relatively cool day, perhaps after dinner it might be of use for a walk in the garden?

“It's a two-week anniversary present, specifically,” Vixen said, laying aside the note so she could unwrap the bundle. “And he expects it to be useful for a walk tonight, since it's cool today.”

“A cape then, maybe?” Tylla hazarded. “It looks about the right size.”

“That sounds probable.”

The first thing Vixen saw was creamy-coloured wool, the weave dense and complex and perfectly even, and it was very soft to the touch.

The second thing was icy-white fur that she identified immediately as rabbit.

The third was thicker fur of a very familiar deep russet-orange colour.

She dropped it and recoiled. Finding it crawling with insects would have been less of a shock.

“What is it?” Tylla came nearer, instantly concerned.

“That's fox fur.” That was the only thought that could register clearly at the moment. Fox fur. Foxes died for this.

Tylla picked it up and shook it out. It was indeed a cape, beautifully made, wool on one side and rabbit fur on the other, with that red fur all along the edges. “Yes,” she agreed quietly, and folded it so the red fur was largely hidden before setting it back on the linen wrappings. “And having heard you talk about the spirit-fox that saved you...” She trailed off, methodically re-wrapping the cape. Which meant the fox fur was at least no longer in sight. “I'll take it away. I'll be back in a moment.”

Vixen nodded, and sank down on the edge of one of the chairs. She might have preferred to curl herself into the corner of the loveseat with her arms wrapped around her knees, but that was absolutely impossible in her grey-and-blue swan-brocaded gown. About the best she could do was wrap both arms around herself and breathe as deeply as the tightly-laced stays and snug bodice of heavy brocade would allow.

All of which suddenly felt much less elegant and satisfying, and much more restrictive and awkward.

He knows I have an intense spiritual connection to a guardian animal that saved my life and watches over me and helps me! He knows that animal is Red Fox! He's heard me talk about spirit animals any number of times! How could he possibly think that giving me fox fur could be any less appalling than... than using Anna's fur? Or something made of human skin?

She looked up as Tylla returned.

“I'm not going to be at dinner tonight,” Vixen said quietly. “If the kitchen did anything special because of this two week anniversary thing, please apologize to them for me. I need to be alone. Completely, with no interruptions.”

Tylla nodded, forehead furrowed with concern. “Of course. I'll make sure of it.”

“Thank you. One more thing. Help me out of this damned dress.”

She'd hardly noticed, that morning, the weight of the wool brocade with just a hint of silk adding to the lustre of it, of the petticoat giving the skirt a fuller shape, or the pressure of the stays. Now, being out of it felt like being suddenly free. Tylla lingered only long enough to put it all away.

“There's nothing else? Should I bring you something to eat later?”

Vixen started to refuse, then hesitated. “Extremely simple, just bread and fruit, before you go to bed?”

Tylla nodded. “And I'll see you aren't disturbed.” She closed the wardrobe doors. “Ring if you need me sooner, of course.” At the door, she paused, took a breath as though about to say something, but left without anything further.

Alone, Vixen methodically stripped away necklace and earrings, the pins in her hair, everything, until she was down to nothing on her person save her shift and her underpants.

She settled herself in the middle of the bed, with the black wool bag that held her hard-earned tools. She toyed with the runestones, spilling them back and forth between her hands, but not really looking at them.

She'd completely missed the significance of the reading she'd done just after arriving. The task at hand was Thorn, for protection and defence; past was the Hourglass of change and time; appearances of the present was the Fish-hook of necessity and need that might be difficult; the root of the matter was memory and the past, the Trilithon, inverted; the future showed the Paths, a decision to come.

What could they tell her now that this most recent gift hadn't?

Jared didn't understand.

Most things she could have smiled and shrugged off and perhaps tactfully explained why it was a mistake. But how could he hear her talk about the spirit-fox who had given her everything, who had saved her on a level far deeper than simply keeping her body moving and breathing, and believe that she could possibly want to even see, let alone wear, anything made of fox fur?

Spirit animals talk to us in dreams.

I've been dreaming of my own past ever since I got to Hyalin.

Dreaming of all the things I've tried to forget, or have remembered only through the perspective of my feelings at the time, and of my earliest training that I don't often think of anymore. What I should have been doing is looking at those memories with the perspective of a fully-trained shaman.

And the most significant part of that right now is... Jared. Have I ever really let myself look at him?

While the twilight deepened around her, she went back through the memories roused by her dreams. Sanovas had taught her how to step aside and study something, including her own emotional reactions to it, from a place that allowed her to see the entire picture without being trapped within it. And being just a little outside offered some protection from her own feelings about what she saw.

This is wrong. It's all wrong. In the past two weeks, Jared has built up a mental image of the ideal lover. He's never believed a woman could be an intellectual equal, not by birth but by social conditioning and education. Yet he knows that I'm at least his equal. He's willing to see me as a woman, and in the lowlands that's a wonderful gift in itself that shouldn't be dismissed, but I'm also one lacking all the lifelong training of a highborn woman to become what he thinks so little of, and with several other bonuses besides, like knowing about shyani culture.

Has he ever actually seen me? Or just what he wants me to be? His reaction to me got stronger the more I looked like a highborn human woman. The more I fit within his image of what a woman should look like, the more he's been treating me as one.

And the more I've been acting like one, as far as lowlands convention goes. Because it got me what I wanted, I went along with it. Just like I've always gone along with anything that would gain and keep Jared's approval. But this time, it's been more than Jared's approval alone. While he accepts me, I've also been accepted by Lyris and Karela and, well, everyone except maybe Alys, as a woman, in the sort of environment I grew up in.

If Jared has never really seen me...

Have I ever really let myself see him?

As much as it hurts to say it... I don't think I'm any better.

We see what we expect to see, not what's really there.

I had him on a pedestal, somewhere in my mind. No one can ever live up to that. He's a good man, but he's a man, not a hero from a tale, not a god, not my fantasies given flesh.

I need help.

The bone egg's whisper helped her go inside and then outside, but this time, not back to Hyalin. One place was safe, had sheltered her once before when she'd lost herself, and was still open to her.

If it wasn't, then everything had gone too wrong to be put right again.

Without her body, Copper Springs was only a thought away.

Sanovas and Aerfen were alone in their own apartment, just finishing a meal of meat and vegetables and wild rice and herbs all cooked together, talking about Aerfen's current weaving project that was near completion and what she intended to begin next.

Sano broke off, holding up a hand to pause Aerfen as he scanned the room, and spotted Vixen effortlessly.

“Vixen? You look troubled. What is it?”

Though Aerfen couldn't see her adopted daughter, her forehead furrowed in immediate concern.

Vixen dropped to her knees next to the low table. “I've been very foolish, and I don't know what to do now.”

“Less is unforgivably foolish than you tend to believe, daughter,” Sano said. “As for what to do now, suppose you tell me what was so foolish and we'll see if we can find the best path, hm?”

“And rather than my hearing one side, or Sano trying to repeat everything,” Aerfen said, “I'm going to leave you to talk alone, but only for that reason. Whatever it is, we're here and we love you and we'll do what we can. I'll make sure you aren't interrupted.” She gathered up the empty bowls and the larger pot with the leftovers, got to her feet, and left the main room of their household in the direction of the kitchen area.

“Tell me,” Sano said.

Vixen poured out the whole chaotic mess: her mission to Hyalin, the journey there, and everything since then. Early on, she heard Aerfen at the door out to the heart of Copper Springs.

“I sent Dayr away,” she said miserably. “He was trying to tell me what I should have seen for myself, but I didn't want to see it. I was having too much fun playing with the clothes I spent two-thirds of my life wishing I could have, and enjoying being accepted as a woman among women, the way I used to wish I could be. And I had Jared's attention, completely, the way I wished I could have it when we were at the University. But I started not being me. I started acting the way everyone expects. And if Jared can give me... that thing... then it's all been hollow anyway. But what can I do now? Dayr's must be halfway to Willow River, and I'm here, and I don't know if Willow River or any other hill would want me after whatever Dayr tells them, and I wouldn't blame them, I'm a very poor excuse for a shaman...”

“Slow down,” Sano said. “One thing at a time. My beloved daughter, at what point have I ever said to you that a shaman is to be perfect? There is a reason why we ask a shaman from another hill to help when our own emotions are deeply involved. To see a situation from multiple angles and from a little outside is essential, but it is not always possible when you are within it. You were offered nearly everything that, had it been offered before, would have meant you would never have reached a point of seeking death. Of course you responded to that.”

“But it's so... so shallow!”

“Yes, but then, I don't believe anything deeper, anything in conflict with the things that matter the most to you, could have reached you successfully. In fact, it failed to. You immediately rejected a beautiful gift that violates what is truly important to you. It stopped being shallow.”

“I... suppose so.” That was a way to look at it that hadn't occurred to her.

“In and of themselves, clothes are only clothes. If you had decided that you preferred to dress like a lowlands woman every day, Copper Springs would not have cared. Nor would Willow River, I suspect. If dressing in any given way gives you pleasure, how is that a bad thing in itself? Everyone enjoys feeling attractive. You grew up there, and the images in your mind of what a woman should look like are those of your earliest years. You chose to move beyond that, but those images remain, and they are not innately good or bad. Playing with that when you were given the opportunity, and when it did no harm to your ultimate goal, doesn't make you any the less. What's life without play?”

“They're incredibly impractical clothes that make it impossible to do anything useful. No one would put up with them in a hill.”

“Not in that form, then, but it would not be about the clothes as such, only about perhaps the timing of them, or the specifics, as it applies to your responsibilities. As for that attraction to Jared and being willing to change yourself to gain his attention...” Sanovas laughed, which made Vixen start. “Oh, dear one, you and countless other creatures of all kinds.”

“What?” She was feeling mortified, and he was laughing?

“Desire and reason rarely coexist, and the number of times I have had shyani of all ages weeping on my shoulder because they did something foolish to gain the attention of someone they desired or admired... it's beyond any counting. And some of those have been shamans. That is an old, old story, one that I haven't the slightest doubt shyani and humans have in common despite cultural differences. Shall I go ask Aerfen to tell you about my courting her and my frequent despair that I'd embarrassed myself beyond redemption? My great good fortune is that she is patient and forgiving, but some of my behaviour was, by any standards, ridiculous. Now you know how it feels, and you know how it feels when the frenzy breaks and you have to look at what you've been doing. When you have a young shyani in tears before you, certain that they are the most stupid person ever to live because of what they did while infatuated, you can sympathize.”

“I... oh.” Vixen bit her lower lip, turning that over in her mind. “There are lots of mad things creatures do in mating season, or to attract a mate, aren't there?”

Sanovas nodded. “Countless, from a great stag to a tiny bird. To lose some perspective under those circumstances, especially with other factors involved and reinforcing it, means only that you're alive.”

“I think I need to think about that. But... even if that part was forgivable... what do I do now? I drove my best friend away because he was worried about me and I didn't want to listen. I'm not sure I still have a home to go to.”

“You always have a home right here. But I know that Dayr loves you very much. He chose to stop wandering and stay with you. He decided that you need him.”

“He was right. I do.” Several days without him, and the expectation of an entire future without him, had left her with an emptiness she'd been trying her best not to dwell upon.

“Any love that deep doesn't break easily, and don't underestimate the vast healing power of an apology. I think he is very unlikely to say hurtful things about you. I think it's more likely he'll simply tell them that you made a choice about where you'd be happiest. And I think the odds of Willow River replacing you before you can get there are very low. I've heard nothing to suggest that they've been displeased with how you've been doing your job, so I imagine they'll be perfectly happy to welcome you home. Shall I ask Nuriel to send Irisan a message that you're coming home? That should reach them before Dayr, or at around the same time at the latest.”

Vixen bowed her head, mind spinning.

Who, exactly, are your people, shaman?

Where lies your heart, fox-daughter?

In Copper Springs where I was born, and in Willow River, and in Rainbow Falls with Shabra, and in any other shyani hill.

“Please,” she whispered.

Sano nodded. “That is a small thing, and he'll do it happily to bring you some peace of mind. So, night falls, not the best time for you to travel. What will you do?”

“Stay where I am overnight,” Vixen said slowly. “I'm going to have to sleep after this, and I need to do more thinking, and I need to tie off a few loose ends here. I may not make it out on the road until the day after.”

Sano smiled. “And that, love, is why you are an excellent shaman. You will not drop everything and run for home, no matter how badly you want to catch up with Dayr, because you will not simply walk away from people whose lives you have touched until you are sure nothing is left unfinished.”

“I can't finish entirely,” Vixen said sadly. “There's a woman here with pain in her past and a shadow across her spirit. I think her spirit animal could help her, given enough time, but she doesn't trust me and there's no way she'd let me do a calling and healing for her.”

“We can't fix everything. It is her choice to make, whether to accept help or not. You can, however, bless the entire household, as you bless Willow River each year. Perhaps that can lead some good into her path. You know from your own experience that sometimes spirit animals find their own way in. Do what you can, and keep yourself safe doing so, and then come home. We'll make plans to come visit you soon. We haven't seen you in some time and Aerfen is starting to grumble about it. Now, back to your body. Try to keep this in perspective, as a mistake of judgement that has no catastrophic consequences and has taught you something and has brought good to some others. And never forget that we love you.”



Vixen knew she wasn't particularly fast at tying net, not compared to shyani who had learned young and practised all their lives, but then, that was true about a long list of skills, and the collective response of Copper Springs was simply to teach her and encourage her.

Since a shyani hill was always built near a river or lake with abundant fish, the primary source of protein other than eggs, nets were always useful to have. The same technique created bags of varying size and purpose, and other items as well, so it was one she was working diligently to master. Shuttle wound with cord she'd spun the previous day, spacer to use in keeping the size regular, needle and scissors, and in the basket by her side was a spool of further cord along with the materials for other things she was currently working on.

Half of her attention, however, stayed always on Chira and Ellai's cubs. Brother and sister were romping in the autumn leaves, squabbling over a couple of large bones, ambushing each other, and in general enjoying playing in the sunshine. Within a very few more years, they'd begin to join their parents on multi-day hunting trips like the one the two adults and Dayr were currently on, rather than shorter hunts closer to home, but for now, their lives were still all about play.

She glanced up as a shadow fell across her, and smiled in greeting, though he might not have seen it. “The sun's still high, Tethan, you'll hurt your eyes.” Tethan was around her own age, or a few years older, and not long after she'd gained her fox and osana tattoos, he'd begun to make a determined effort to help her feel at home. It was an effort for which she was genuinely grateful.

“Then I'll keep them mostly closed,” he said lightly, settling himself beside her. “Uncomfortably bright though it may be, it does feel wonderfully warm. In another two months, we'll be wishing for bright days again.”

Actually, the temperature varied little inside a hill. So much earth was piled over it that it did resemble a true hill, overgrown with grass and wild plants. Only two external doors allowed chilly air inside. In the space between the outer and inner stone walls was a ditch, which collected the heavy cool air and was, incidentally, quite effective storage for some foods. The doors in the inner wall sealed quite well, and the mostly-ceramic stoves were efficient not only at food preparation but at heating. No one would suffer much inside from the depths of winter.

Of course, going outside was another matter.

“True,” she admitted. “And I do find it hard over the winter, having so little sunlight. It's distinctly inconvenient, needing sunlight more consistently.”

“Weyres always have erratic schedules,” he pointed out. “We're all used to that. Sometimes, even with all a shaman and a witch can do, someone is born lacking, or later loses, sight or hearing or mobility or other things, and we make accommodations for that because they're family. So are you. And there are things you can do that no shyani can. Your ability to see colours below the threshold where they all become grey to us, for example, and there are advantages to being able to see well in the middle of the day. Differences are a strength for the hill. Needing some sunlight even in midwinter is something we can work around.”

She smiled. “I hope whatever hill I go to once Sano decides I'm ready has the same sort of philosophy.”

“You aren't planning on leaving us already.”

“No, I think it'll be years yet, if not an entire lifetime. A shaman is supposed to understand traditions, and I'm not sure I ever will.”

“I think you're worrying too much. Even Sano checks with the grandparents about traditions. A shaman is supposed to understand them, but that isn't the part of a shaman's role that no one else can do. You'll get it eventually. No one expects you to completely understand every unwritten aspect of shyani culture after only a couple of years. Except maybe you.”

“Mm. It's frustrating sometimes, feeling like I'm finally home and yet tripping over things that any child knows.”

“You are home. Not knowing things doesn't change that. It just means that those of us who understand will try not to make assumptions and will try to be clear about meaning and intention.” He leaned back, hands flattened on the ground to either side for support, turning his face toward the sun with his eyes closed. Though shyani did prefer dawn and dusk, they also enjoyed sunbathing on spring and autumn days when the sun was less fierce and less likely to turn that fair skin to an angry red. “As much as those of us who care about you might wish you'd never been anywhere else, you wouldn't be you otherwise, and some of us would consider that a sad thing.”

“You wouldn't know,” she pointed out. “There'd be no me as I am for you to regret not meeting. And me as I might have been if I'd been born here would probably be an improvement.”

“There, we'll have to disagree.”

She muttered a curse under her breath, her attention shifting entirely to the net in her hands. “This isn't that complicated, how did I manage to mess it up?”

“Did you just start a new row?”


“Then that's probably where.” He sat forward and moved around so he was facing her, his shadow falling across her hands and the net. “There. And it's not so hard to fix. Hold the shuttle, but let me have the needle?” One work-roughened pale-skinned hand made more contact with hers than strictly necessary, taking the needle; Vixen glanced up in surprise, but Tethan had his gaze on the net, intent on undoing the last few knots. Since she had the shuttle still, and had to pass it back through each time, it did take some coordination, but it didn't take long at all to have the mistake repaired.

“Thank you,” she said. “I know the occasional flaw doesn't keep it from working, but I'd rather not get in the habit of making things poorly.”

“That's unlikely for you.”

“I think it might be time to take a break before I do any more.” She wrapped it up neatly and tucked it into the basket at her side to join the wheel-discs and small frames used for elaborate multi-strand braids, her current braiding project and bundles of dyed cord, the drop-spindle that worked best for some sorts of fibres and bundles of several sorts of plant and animal fibre that needed proper spinning.

“Am I distracting you?” he teased.

“Either I'll make more mistakes, or I'll end up ignoring either you or the cubs, and I'd rather not do any of those things.”

“Hm, probably best if I don't make you ignore the cubs. Ellai being angry at me is a terrifying thought. And they're having far too much fun to make them go indoors yet.” He returned to his spot beside her, no longer blocking her view, though the cubs were making enough noise in the fallen leaves that she could keep track of them as much by sound as sight.

“I'm hoping they'll eat and then fall asleep early and soundly.”

“And meanwhile, they get a treat while their parents are away, since no shyani would bring two very active cubs out in the middle of a clear day, even at this time of year. Something they're enjoying and wouldn't have if you weren't you, hm?”

“True,” she admitted. “There are moments, occasionally, when it's actually helpful, being different.”

They watched the cubs in companionable quiet for a moment, as they worried at a turtle they pulled out of the stream that the donkeys drank from. It was unlikely they could injure it, so she didn't intervene.

Tethan chuckled. “The first time they saw a turtle was hilarious. They simply could not figure out why a rock was moving.”

“I wish I'd seen it.” She had no trouble imagining it, though.

“You don't laugh often enough, but that would've done it.” A brief pause. “What are you planning to do after the cubs are tired?”

“Turn them over to Nuriel so he can feed them, and get some sleep. Shabra and I went through the medicines that should be on hand, and several are lower than they really should be. Sano just doesn't have quite enough time to keep up, between two students with very different histories, one pregnant woman and one heavily pregnant donkey, one upcoming calling ritual to prepare for, and all the regular day to day responsibilities, and Nuriel was distracted all summer by that blight attacking the oaks. Some of them, Shabra and I can make alone, and most of the rest we'll be able to do the majority of the work on. One less thing for Sano to worry about, and Nuriel needs the rest. We'll have to do some gathering, but I promised Dayr I wouldn't go far without him. I'm not sure what trouble he expects me to get into, but I'm not sure he'd ever let me out of his sight if I didn't promise.”

“Hm, yes, your loyal protector, and pity any lover you find that he disapproves of.” He sounded like he was joking, but something in the tone didn't entirely fit.

“Not currently a concern, since no one has shown any particular interest in the job.”

“Are you hoping someone will?”

She watched the cubs in silence for a moment. “I don't know. Sex before was never very satisfying, and my reasons were mostly not what they should have been, although I did do my best to make sure they never had reason to regret it. It's the one situation that forces me to be the most aware of my own body and that it isn't what my mind says it should be. Now, though, and with the right person... it might be different.”

“Have you had any thoughts about who the right person might be?”

Startled, Vixen twisted in place to look at him, and found herself gazing directly into blue shyani eyes—just a fraction larger than human, the iris dominating the white just a little more, the currently almost-invisible pupil able to expand just a bit wider to capture dimmer light. Some were more of a deep blue, like Tethan's, or a brighter blue like Sano's, or soft grey, like Shabra's, but she had yet to meet a shyani with eyes not some shade of blue or grey. With hair in varying shades of blonde and skin typically light from avoiding the midday sun and those eyes, it was no wonder tanned humans, with hair and eyes of predominantly brown shades, saw them as exotic and alien. She no longer saw them as either.

“I... no, I haven't been thinking about it. A good friend. Someone I know understands, or at least tries to, since I'm not entirely sure I understand either. Someone I know cares.”

“In the interests of being clear... you know shyani usually choose a partner for life, and separation is unusual. It would be absurd to make a commitment like that without knowing one's partner and oneself very well first and both being very certain that it's what they want. And the only way to do that is to try.” He laid a hand over hers without looking away. “Am I a good enough friend?”

Vixen dropped her own gaze, down to their overlapped hands. Much the same size, though hers was darker; his was rough from woodworking, something he had an acknowledged talent for, and the never-ending less-specialized tasks of net-fishing and harvesting what came into season; hers was much less soft than it had been when she'd first come here, though shamans and witches were typically not expected to contribute to heavier labour.

What did she want?

She trusted Tethan, cared about him and knew he cared about her, a connection built over a couple of years of her work on rebuilding her self-identity and his willingness to offer whatever help he could. Had she actually been considering the whole idea, she would without hesitation have put him at the top of the list. The shyani concept of love was different from the human one, recognizing sexual desire and passion without equating it to love; marriages were based on a complex braid of close friendship, sexual compatibility, shared goals, and a variety of other factors rather than on 'falling in love' or on more mercenary or political motivations. In the shyani sense, she certainly loved Tethan, and the possibility of a long future together had its appeal.

But what did she want? Would it be only an exercise in frustration, another reminder of the mismatch between body and mind? Would that ultimately damage a friendship she valued?

“I'm not a woman,” she said quietly.

A pause for a couple of heartbeats. “You're you,” he said, and he sounded perplexed. “What else would you be?”

It might not be so easily damaged.

She reversed her hand under his and laced her fingers through his. “I couldn't ask for a better friend.” She smiled, finally meeting his eyes again. “But I'm not going anywhere at the moment until the cubs are tired.”

“Responsibility first,” he agreed, but he did raise her hand and turn his own so he could kiss her palm. “There's no hurry. I'm not going anywhere either.”



Vixen woke alone in her bed, briefly confused—Jared's scent lingered faintly, but it was Tethan's touch her body remembered.

Tethan. I hope it works out well for you with Nestra. She's wonderful, and you deserve someone wonderful.

I wonder how much of my being unable to see what I had in you was because I hadn't gotten over Jared and a relationship that only ever existed in my own mind?

Sometimes I really am stupid, no matter what Sano says.

Judging by the angle of the sunlight, she'd slept quite late. Not all that much of a surprise, given that she'd spent a great deal of the night struggling to untangle the chaos of her own thoughts and emotions.

Late in the night, she'd found a concrete way to reclaim her self within the context of everything that had happened.

Much of her internal world remained jumbled and disordered, but part of it she understood with absolute clarity. There were things she needed to do, and then she could go home and leave this behind her, only an experience in her past that had helped to clarify what really mattered to her.

She visited the bathroom, and returned to the main room where she'd left the night's work draped over the back of the chair.

Had Tylla been in? she wondered. If so, she must have found it a shock, what Vixen had done to a linen shift and to the green silk dress.

She retrieved her walnut-dyed leather shyani trousers from the wardrobe, and tightened the laces at her hips. Socks, and her boots, no more soft slippers that made running treacherous and offered no protection at all.

A shift that she'd used her knife to remove the bottom of, so it now reached only to her hips; she'd picked the seams out of the sleeves entirely to get rid of them.

Over which she pulled the heavily modified dress.

The sleeves had been ripped into wide strips, each with a tight knot at the top to secure it and another at the outer end, about elbow-length when her arm was straight down; the osana tattoo on her upper arm was clearly visible. The long skirt had been similarly treated, torn into wide strips up to halfway between hip and knee, one knot at the top of the tear, the second just below knee level, and the rest of the fabric removed. With the front slashed to the level of her solar plexus, she'd added holes on either side so she could use the white lacing from one of the sets of stays to crisscross it and draw it mostly together; on the back, which was supposed to be laced with edges that could meet only when she wore the most strict stays, she'd fed short strips of fabric through pairs of holes and tied them securely to keep it all in place.

Humming a shyani song to herself, she brushed her hair and braided it the way a shyani woman did: a narrow braid at each side, each with a thin strip of leftover green silk plaited into it, and each tied off with another strip leaving long green tails; the remaining half of her hair she left loose down her back, though she could have braided it as well or tied it into a tail.

Her favourite necklace, a broad choker of beads in countless shades of green and blue, had three copper pendants dangling from it, each with a design hammered into it: two thumbnail-sized oval discs, one with an eye and the other a willow, and between them, a larger round disc of copper with a fox face. Shyani women's tunics bared a lot of throat and chest, and elaborate necklaces were extremely common, often with a theme reflecting one's spirit animal.

One thing missing. She retrieved her silver osana rings and slipped them back into place on her way to the mirror.

It was, by human standards, absolutely barbaric, an outrageous waste of highly expensive silk to create something that was appallingly indecorous for any woman, let alone a highborn one.

She grinned at her own reflection, feeling more like herself than she had in days. “That,” she said, “is me. Highborn human remade into something functionally shyani in any way that matters. And if people are scandalized, that's their problem, not mine. Now, let's get on with this, so I don't get held up another day.” She crossed the room to the bell-rope, conscious of her own gait shifting instantly back to long confident strides instead of the shorter steps that were safer in slippers and more ladylike.

Tylla appeared with such alacrity that she must have been waiting for it.

She did a visible double-take when she took in how Vixen was dressed, but what she said was, “You look very cheerful.”

“I'm feeling very cheerful, for the most part, although I'm going to miss you a lot and I'm very sorry that I'm not going to be able to teach Cole and the others. I was rather looking forward to that. I now know exactly where I belong, and it isn't here. I need to do a few things today, and tomorrow I'm going home. Jared can just live with having me underfoot for that long, since he'd be dead if I hadn't come. I didn't say that.”

“I didn't hear a thing.”

“You don't look surprised.”

Tylla sighed, and regarded her with a smile that was, Vixen thought, mostly affection. “I'm not, not really. But I'd have liked it if you'd been happier here and chose to stay.”

Vixen closed the space between them and caught both of Tylla's hands in her own, Tylla's smaller and smoother. “If you ever need me, or just want to find me... go east until you reach any human village that's on the edge of the highlands. The nearest shyani hill will always visit now and then to trade, and the villagers will know how it works with that specific hill. I'll give you something that's unmistakably shyani, and if you show it to a shyani or a weyre and tell them that you're my friend, they'll help you. Probably the nearest shaman will get in contact with me, which we can do across any distance. Just remember, Vixen, the shaman of Willow River. And if you need me, I'll do what I can to help. I wish I could stay and be your friend. I wish I could help Cole learn how huge and amazing and complex the world is. I can't. I don't belong here. Not without becoming something I'm not.”

“And that would be a sad day for the world.” Tylla stepped closer and hugged her tightly, and Vixen returned it. Anything like proper roles had been gradually crumbling with every day that passed, and that was only a relief. “Wild things die when they're caged. For you this is a cage.”

“Well, before I can escape from it, I need to make certain there are no loose ends.”

Tylla drew back. “His Grace has asked about you several times, once in person. I've been as vague as possible, but I did have to suggest that it was something shamanic that you hadn't bothered to explain beyond that. I've lost count of how often I've repeated that you specifically told me not to interrupt and not to allow anyone else to. When I came last night with food, you said not to come until you rang.”

“Did I? I don't remember that. Given how late I slept, after being up thinking all night, not much surprise, I suppose. Talking to Jared is one thing I need to do, but I'd rather not make it the first thing. I have no intention of being trapped in the middle of an argument or of listening to him try to convince me to stay.”

Tylla nodded. “We can work around that. What do you need to do?”

“Talk to Ilsa, though I don't expect that to take long, just to make sure she's going to be all right. Talk to Lyris, to thank her for everything, and see Anna once more. Talk to Alys, I think, although I'm not sure what to say except that I'm sorry for having upset her. I'll talk to Cole personally and explain, if that's all right with you. I want to do something rather intensely shamanic, but later would be better, since I'll be very tired afterwards. I can bless the entire house and everyone in it. That will, I hope, last long enough for Lyris and Mirain to marry, and generally bring some good fortune to everyone who's open to it. And if you'll let me, I'd like to call your spirit animal for you. It will be less of a direct influence on you and on Cole than it would be for a shyani, but having something looking out for you and slipping a bit of good advice into your dreams now and then and possibly even letting me know if anything unexpected happens that I might be some help with...”

“That sounds like something that can only be good,” Tylla said firmly. “There's packing, as well.”

Vixen heaved a sigh. “That too. It looks like I'm walking home. Well, a long time ago, I walked from the University to Copper Springs, and I was less fit and knew less about how to survive and had no idea what I was doing. I lived through that, I can live through another long walk, for a good reason. But I'm not going to want to carry anything more than absolutely necessary. The clothes I brought with me, my shaman tools, not much else.”

“First, however, I think I should go find you something to eat.”

“Lady Practicality,” Vixen laughed, as her stomach rumbled in response. “You're right. But simple, please.”

Tylla nodded briskly. “I'll be back with it in a moment. If you pile what you want packed on the bed, I'll take care of it.”

* * *

Dinner, part of the straightforward stew that the upper staff had tonight, smelled tastier than the more elaborate meal that was being served in the dining room for the household proper. Resting on the small stove in Tylla's sitting room, it would still be warm when they got to it, and the bread in its covered bowl resting nearby would likewise be warm and fresh.

Though technically it didn't matter whether Tylla fasted or not, only that Vixen could work more easily without a stomach weighed down with a heavy meal, the maid had declined to eat until afterwards; Cole had seconded it.

Properly speaking, a calling should involve several days of preparation, guiding the subject into a receptive state that would make it easy for the newly-called spirit animal to make itself heard. But Tylla lacked the foundation of a dozen or more years of upbringing in expectation of the moment, and they didn't have several days.

Since Tylla wasn't in need of healing, calling her spirit animal was really not all that tiring. A sleek tabby cat prowled out of nowhere before Vixen had even finished and simply sat to watch her, in a position eerily like Red Fox's common pose, tail around his feet.

I've been waiting, he said to her. She has been a sister to you. I thought you would do this. She is a good woman. I will watch over her.

Thank you, Vixen said. “Tylla?”

“Hm?” Tylla opened her eyes, her smile dreamy. “I just saw a cat that promised to guide and guard me.”

Vixen nodded. “If you dream about him telling you something, you should listen. It will probably be good advice, and you can trust that he has no motives other than your well-being. Now...” She took a deep breath, held it, and released it. “Blessing the entire house.”

She drew out her bone egg, and shifted her position on the cushion beneath her to be sure she wouldn't have muscles cramp or stiffen on her.

Slow shaking to begin with, while she deliberately slowed her breathing and bade each muscle in turn relax. Gradually, she increased the tempo, and began to sing. Within her mind a waterfall forever tumbled, one she'd created long ago based on smaller ones she'd seen, one that had shifted in a number of details after a visit to the hill Shabra now cared for, which lay near a high waterfall. She followed the narrow ledge along one side and braced herself as she stepped through the cold pounding water. She followed the familiar round tunnel on the other side, by the light of the glowing egg, and stepped through a smooth wall.

She emerged, not back into Tylla's sitting room, but into the dining room.

Jared and Alys were at head and foot, of course; Lyris and Mirain were side by side. There was little conversation, the atmosphere tense and uneasy.

Sitting in the middle of the table was Red Fox, his tail neatly around his feet. He laughed his high-pitched yapping laugh.

“Three know that you are leaving tomorrow, and each fears to be the the one to tell the fourth. The fourth, though, cannot help but know that something is afoot. So, what will you do?”

“I'll talk to Jared in the morning,” Vixen said, letting the rattle and song fall still. “If I'd done so today, it would have left me too exhausted for what I'm doing now.”

“It will not be exhausting tomorrow?”

“It's going to be hard. I'm not looking forward to it at all. But I know I have to. It wouldn't be fair to leave without saying good-bye. And then I can start walking. Again. Maybe I'll have some new insights while I'm walking back into the highlands.”

Red Fox laughed again. “I think you've already had a bellyful of those.”

“Yes. It's been... educational.” She studied Jared, the lines of face and body that her hands had explored intimately so recently, and never would again. “I let myself see what I wanted to see instead of what was real.”

Red Fox got up and stretched. “Seeing what's really there instead of what one wishes to see doesn't come naturally, fox-daughter. It's a skill easily lost in strong emotions by even the most wise and sensible and experienced of shamans. What do you now?”

“I want to bless all of Hyalin. Many people here have been good to Dayr and me. I'd like to give them that last gift to thank them, even if most of them will never know.”

“Walk your circle. I walk with you.”

She left the dining room and went outside, choosing a place to start that would give her a loop large enough to enclose as much of the grounds as possible. While there might be some people not yet gone inside to dinner, everyone should be at least close, back from fields and pastures by now. Even if some weren't, the blessing would linger in the land itself, though she was unsure how long it would do so here.

In a hill, she would be walking this circle with the spirit animal of each shyani within—not those of the weyres, though. Weyres were their own spirit animals. She'd have their power bolstering her own. That was, after all, how a shaman worked best: in concert with the spirit animal or animals involved in any endeavour.

Ilsa's bay mare joined them, and Cole's garter snake at a normal size rather than greatly enlarged, and Tylla's tabby tomcat, as she began her long circuit.

A shimmering line of countless colours marked their trail. This was no less wearying than it had been to create the alarm boundary, and she was enclosing a larger area, but the presence of allies helped. The tabby padded along ahead of her, rather like breaking a trail in the snow, and there was less resistance in his wake. The snake asked to be picked up, and when Vixen complied, she felt its strength flowing into her. The mare moved in close beside her, so Vixen could drape an arm on her back and hold her mane.

Distantly, Vixen felt the attention of many others—the spirit animals who would be watching over the rest of Hyalin, she thought, if they were only invited in. If the spirit world was so conscious of humans, or at least could be drawn so readily into consciousness of them, and were so amenable to acting as guides and guardians, maybe someday in the future things could be different. Maybe the differences really weren't so deep.

The beginning of the line came into sight, and she stopped just before touching it.

“Good fortune and health and happiness to all within this boundary,” she said softly, and knelt to draw the Hill rune across the gap: a simple six-sided shape, which to shyani spoke of the hill as a whole and the six-sided heart of the hill that was the centre of the community.

The colours of the line flickered and flared, and then settled down as a warm golden glow.

“It is done, daughter,” Red Fox said. “A step closer to home, ah?”

“Yes,” Vixen agreed. “And I thank all of you for helping me. Maintaining it is, I fear, up to you, since I won't be here to do so. But I hope it will do your chosen and others some good while it lasts.”

“You need to get back to your body now,” the tabby said, sitting down to wash his face. “How will you have the strength to leave tomorrow if you exhaust yourself now?”

“Too late,” Vixen said, with a weary smile. “But it needed to be done.”

She began to shake the egg again, at the precise speed of earlier, and gradually slowing down. Back along her route, through the now-vacant dining room, along the tunnel, under the waterfall, back to Tylla's sitting room and her own body.

Her hand was trembling as she slipped the egg back into its protective bag.

“I'm back,” she said. “And I badly need something to drink.”

Tylla rose swiftly to fill a cup from the pitcher of water on the windowsill, and steadied her while she drank.

The stew tasted wonderful.

There'd been no real expectation that Vixen would make it to her own room, and she was actually just as happy not to risk Jared appearing in the night. She slept much more soundly on one side of Tylla's bed.



Vixen tucked her black wool bag with her most essential shaman tools into the larger basket that already held her hand-craft tools, and paused to rub the new tattoos on her palms. No matter how much effort and energy she put into healing them more rapidly, they still itched.

“Stop scratching them, love,” Aerfen said calmly, without even looking up from neatly folding Vixen's tunics and undershirts into a compact pile that could join two sweaters, light and heavy, and two pairs of trousers, one leather and one woven for warm weather, in a sturdy leather pack.

“I have too much stuff,” Vixen sighed. “I think part of me thought I'd never leave here. Part of me wishes that I wasn't.”

“Willow River's only a few days away. We can visit you there. And I think you'd best expect to visit here, where you'll be much missed, hm?”

“Of course I will. But this is the first place I've ever really felt like I have a home. How can I go somewhere else? Asking a hill that's never met me to accept a human shaman is a lot.”

Aerfen brushed back the one tendril of pale blonde hair that she somehow never managed to catch while braiding it, and sat on the edge of Vixen's bed to look at her. Her favourite necklace, one Shabra had made her years ago, wwas vivid against her pale skin in the brighter light of Vixen's room: multiple strands, the beads of the longest red and those of the shortest violet. “Shamans have a responsibility to go where they're needed. There are never so many that each one isn't important. There are small hills out there without their own shaman, who have to rely on the nearest larger hill. If you stayed here, there'd be one more community without a shaman.”

“How can I even call myself a shaman? I'm good at healing, and I do well enough at dealing with the spirit world, but I can't teach history and traditions when I still have huge holes in what I know.”

“Then for that, you rely on the elders of the community, who do know it,” Aerfen said patiently. “No shaman knows everything. The parts that only a shaman can do, you do very well, otherwise you wouldn't have those tattoos. The rest, others can and will do, while you continue to learn. You wanted a life you could live as yourself, and for you, that includes helping others. Which you will do, more than you can see right now.”

Vixen sat down beside her, and Aerfen slid an arm around her waist. “There are a number of old human stories about the dangers of getting exactly what you wish for.”

“Mad humans, then. Could you have asked for anything else, and still be here?”

“No,” Vixen said quietly. “I couldn't have.”

“But what we gain, we repay. That keeps the world in balance. Willow River needs a shaman. You need a community to be shaman to. Do you think Sano and Nuriel would simply send you off to the first hill they heard of that needs a shaman? They chose Willow River because they are certain it will be a good place for you and that you will be good for them. Communities that might be less open-minded about your history are typically farther into the highlands. The ones nearer the edge, who trade with humans regularly, are more practical and less prejudiced. Willow River's witch has talked to her community and they've decided to give you the same chance any shaman has.” She chuckled. “And you can get that mad cat of yours out of here. Ellai's in absolute despair as far as teaching the cubs to hunt like wolves, instead of in a hybrid version of wolf and puma styles. I gather she found one of them up a tree a few days ago, waiting for the other to chase game underneath, the way Dayr and the wolves hunt deer together.”

Vixen couldn't help laughing at the image that created. The adult wolves and Dayr had found ways to integrate their varied strengths into a single lethal and efficient whole. The cubs imitated everything, not only their parents, and Dayr played with them often—which mostly meant roughhousing and hunting games. “That would've been so funny to see.”

“I'm sure it was.”

“Maybe Dayr and the puma at Willow River will turn out to like each other. If they don't, I'm not sure I'll be able to stay. A male puma around would reduce her odds of finding a mate she considers acceptable, and Dayr would be stuck in one place with no hope of a mate. I couldn't do that to them. I know Dayr won't leave me and go somewhere else. I don't know what I did, but I don't think I could get rid of him if I tried.”

“I agree, you couldn't. From what I've heard from Nuriel, the puma at Willow River has been extremely fussy and has yet to encounter a male who meets her standards, but she's quite intrigued by the idea of one who went out of his way to save a lost human and stayed to watch over you. An open mind is as much as one can ask. Just as well, however, if Dayr isn't expecting anything.”

“I won't tell him.” Vixen heaved a sigh. “I suppose I should get back to packing. I was hoping that it would be just me and Dayr with no more than we could carry, but I think that's hopeless and it's going to take donkey strength for all this. Which means Chira coming along so he can bring the donkeys back here.”

“He doesn't mind. And did you truly believe we'd allow you to leave here with so little? What will I have to do with my time but weave more, with both my daughters having flown the nest, hm?”

Vixen gave her a one-armed hug. “I'm going to miss you. I can't even begin to tell you how much you've given me.”

“I know, love,” Aerfen said gently. “But that goes both ways. Now, up you get, or we'll never get finished.”

* * *

Copper Springs' pair of sturdy strong donkeys found the weight of clothes, bedding, camping gear, extra food, and miscellaneous other possessions negligible. It would have been quite possible to load it all on one, and for Vixen to ride the other, but six years of learning to watch the world around her meant frequent pauses to gather these leaves or that root for later use, edible or medicinal. The donkeys used those pauses to snatch a few bites of food, being far more flexible in their tastes than horses and equally amenable to browsing on bushes or grazing on grass. Dayr and Chira spent much of their time four-footed, wandering off to investigate this scent or that sound.

All being accustomed to the shyani pattern of sleeping twice but shorter periods, at noon and midnight, and since allowing the donkeys a break was good anyway, they travelled in the morning and the evening, pausing for a simple camp in between. At least one of the two weyres was always near Vixen and the donkeys.

A few times, they didn't need to camp, but were able to stay as guests of another hill. Only the nearest had heard about Sanovas' human adopted daughter and student; Chira responded to Vixen's surprise with a shrug.

“The tarika will do you no harm now, not with those tattoos on your palms. Had they heard about you too soon, there could have been trouble. It has been difficult for Sano not to sing your praises all over the highlands, but we all wanted you safe.”

“Oh.” Yet again, Copper Springs had been protecting her, and this time, she hadn't even known—early on she hadn't known about the existence of the tarika or the threat they could have been to her, and more recently, she simply hadn't thought about it, too used to her new life as it was. She'd been outside Copper Springs with her immediate family, visiting Aerfen's parents in one hill, Sano's in another, Shabra in Rainbow Falls once she'd settled in there, but those were safe places where people had seen her as family first, human only somewhere after that. “Thank you.”

Chira shrugged and smiled. “It was well worth it.”

“Likely just as well,” the elderly female shaman of this hill said briskly. “If Red Fox and Sanovas are certain you can do the job, then we need you, and who cares where you were born? You can stay with me tonight, my children are long since out on their own and my mate died a few years ago.” The hill's much younger male witch had been quietly unstrapping the packs from the donkeys during the discussion; he laid a hand on the forehead of each, and they followed him eagerly around the side of the hill to join the two resident donkeys, one of them with a small foal.

That sort of welcome went a long way towards easing Vixen's fears, but there was a very large difference between offering hospitality to a human, which hills had been known to do even if that human wasn't travelling with two weyres and shaman tattoos, and accepting a human in a key role within the community.

She knew rationally that there was always a period of mutual assessment, not unlike a courting couple—which was an analogy that made her think sadly of Tethan, and wonder whether she'd done the right thing. But though she loved him dearly, and wanted him to be happy, something in her simply refused to acknowledge settling down with him for life as the correct path. He'd accepted that better than she'd feared, though with sorrow that had made her ache.

What if Willow River similarly felt that it wasn't quite right? It did no good for anyone if a community felt uncomfortable confiding in their shaman, or if the mutual respect and trust necessary between witch and shaman was lacking, and it was better for the shaman to simply try another community.

It didn't help, telling herself over and over that it happened and that it was a mismatch rather than a failure and that she could simply go back to Copper Springs until another possibility turned up. It would feel like she'd failed and disgraced herself and all the endless patient teaching by Sano and Copper Springs collectively.

Chira trotted back into sight, while Vixen was on one knee collecting sprigs of a low-growing plant, and changed to human. “We're close, we're finding signs of the woodland being managed. Coppiced trees, a hill of blueberries with stone paths through it to make them easier to reach, that sort of thing. We'll be there today.” He grinned. “And the scent of Willow River's lone weyre certainly got Dayr's full attention in a hurry.”

Vixen smiled. “Even weyres create expectations that can keep them from taking things as they are, so I was asked not to mention that.” She stood up and stowed her newest finds in a basket, pausing to stroke the neck of the smaller donkey, trying not to show her own nervousness. All efforts not to speculate about what this first meeting would be like had been in vain, and she'd played through it so many times in her own mind that it was going to be a relief when it was over—but she was still apprehensive.

Dayr bounded into sight and skidded to a halt, tail high and ears perked forward. He changed to human, slightly out of breath from running.

“You'll be able to see the hill once you come around the next curve in the track. And there's someone waiting for us, a shyani and a weyre, both female, between here and the hill. I don't think they saw me. And the weyre's a puma! You didn't tell me that!”

“Does it matter?”

Dayr tilted his head to one side, considering that. “No, I suppose not. But if they're waiting for us, maybe we can not stop to pick flowers on the way?”

Vixen nodded. “No more stops.” She took a deep breath, held it, and let it out slowly. There was nothing to fear, right? She was who and what she was, and Willow River would see her as nothing else. She had Dayr with her always, and Chira was here for the next few days, until he and the donkeys retraced their route back to Copper Springs. Willow River knew what they were getting, there'd be no surprises.

Both weyres went back to four feet, that being easier than bare skin and bare feet, but they stayed close. The donkeys were too accustomed to weyres to care about the wolf and the puma padding along next to them.

As Dayr had said, they came around a curve in the track, past a particularly large oak, and she could then see the top of the regularly-shaped mound some way ahead.

Dayr looped back to rub the full length of his body along her leg, purring reassuringly. Always alert to her moods, he must be picking up on her tangled emotions. She ran a hand over his head and along his back. That loyalty was something she found inexplicable and invaluable to roughly equal degree, and she was profoundly grateful for it.

I hope I never start to take him for granted. What would I do without Dayr?

Please, please, let him be happy at Willow River too. I'd rather leave than stay anywhere he won't be happy.

A splash of colour between the trees, deep rose pink, a colour readily available from local materials in and popular with shyani, who found it pleasant and easy to see. Before they'd gone much farther, the pink resolved itself into the tunic of a shyani woman perched on an outcropping of rock. Her hair was a deeper gold than average, edging into amber, and matching rose ribbons were woven into the two long narrow front braids in cheerful contrast. The wide-spread wings of a bird with a great deal of blue in its colouring, rendered in intricate beadwork, rested against her bare upper chest. If that was the Willow River witch Irisan, which seemed likely, then she was no more than a decade Vixen's senior.

Typically and ideally, shaman and witch in a community were of quite different ages, staggering experience and transitions, fostering continuity. Though simply an accident of timing, an otherwise promising hill having lost a shaman earlier than expected, Vixen suspected that Sano also believed her more likely to be comfortable and confident working with a peer rather than someone old enough to be one of her parents.

That, and Willow River being near enough to a thriving human village that they traded regularly and were on good terms with their human neighbours, and the presence of a female puma who was of an age to start a family but had no mate yet, must have made Willow River look like a perfect place for Sano to send his human daughter and her inseparable feline shadow.

She hoped he was right.

Less visible was the lithe naked woman sitting on the ground at the rose-clad witch's feet, her thick tawny hair shoulder-length and tousled.

Then it wasn't a woman, it was a puma, who took a few steps toward them, all her attention focused on Dayr.

The cat at Vixen's side hesitated, though she could feel muscles tense in his shoulders under her hand. Torn between conflicting impulses, she thought.

“I'm all right,” she murmured. “Go meet her.”

He rubbed his cheek against her hand, and trotted forward, slowing to a walk when he was a couple of body-lengths away, and within a few more steps they were close enough to sniff at each other inquisitively.

The shyani woman left her rock and circled around the two pumas.

“Best to leave them to it,” she said, and her tone and her smile both were affectionate with perhaps traces of indulgence and amusement. “Vixen? I'm Irisan. That's Fero. Welcome to Willow River. I hope the journey here wasn't too terrible.”

“No,” Vixen said. “There are advantages to travelling with weyres. That's Dayr, and the wolf is Chira.”

Irisan laughed. “Unquestionably there are. We've been looking forward to your arrival and to meeting you. We'll wait until you have a chance to rest and clean up and all first, before inflicting forty new names and faces on you. Your apartment is waiting for you, and everyone is making something for a common evening meal that I'm sure will be more than we can all eat. But after days of road food, I'm sure a proper meal will taste good, and a chance to eat without further travel to look forward to.”

“That sounds wonderful.” Vixen took a deep breath. “Well, I do want to meet everyone, but I'm certainly not going to make the best impression after days on the road, no matter how welcoming the hills between there and here have been, without a little time.”

Irisan rubbed the larger donkey's forelock, and the donkey leaned into it happily. “Then let's get home, shall we?”



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.”

“Which is?”

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.


About the Author

Steph Shangraw lives in southeastern Ontario, Canada, with three rescued cats and their other human minion. In the limited time spent not writing fantasy, she irregularly makes handmade cat toys, runs a lolanimals website for her friends to play on, tries in vain to keep up with a writing blog, and of course serves her feline overlords. She started writing over 25 years ago, offered several novels on her website for her friends, and more recently has ventured into "real" self-publishing.

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