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.


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Heads up: I do not plan to release any new fictions on RR, since it seems to be a poor fit - but I do plan to finish Transposition here. I'm not abandoning anything in mid-story! For other work (lots of it, ongoing), try Scribble Hub or my website.

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