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.
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