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.

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