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.

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