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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?”

“Yes.”

“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!”

“Alys...”

“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.”

What?

“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.”

WHAT?

“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.

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Prysmcat

Bio: Discord: https://discord.gg/2HWQwG2GEj
Scribble Hub: https://www.scribblehub.com/profile/57217/prysmcat/

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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