Vixen glanced up as the clock on the shelf chimed. Nearly time for dinner, and after spending the day methodically cataloguing Jared's library, getting cleaned up first seemed like a wise idea. She neatly stacked the current book and her sheets of notes in one corner of the desk, tidied up, and closed the door behind her on her way out.
Jared had told her to make a list of books she wanted for teaching Cole and the others, so he could forward it to Willem and have him find them. To do that properly, she first had to know what was on hand. It would also help to know what her intended students already knew and what most interested them, and that was the next part of her plan. She thought she could finish with the library tomorrow, so it might be a good idea to start arranging times to talk to each of the boys starting the day after. She knew Jared had already had Alys notify parents and anyone the boys normally worked under that they were to be freed from other responsibilities for the sake of learning, so with any luck, she'd encounter no obstacles there. The possibility, of course, did exist that they wouldn't all be pleased by having a woman as a teacher.
She knew Cole, at least, was looking forward to it. She'd spent the evening before last with mother and son, sharing a private dinner, and telling them stories about what she'd seen and done in the hills; she'd been impressed by some of Cole's insightful questions once he'd begun to feel safe enough to ask them.
Teaching, she thought, was going to prove very rewarding.
So was teaching shyani and weyre children.
She shoved that thought away. That was supposed to be a shaman responsibility, but all too often, Irisan did it instead, or one of the oldest shyani, since Willow River's human shaman sometimes knew no more than the children did. They'd be better off with a shaman who could do the job properly. The subjects here—math, literacy, science, history, and the like—she either knew very well or could readily refresh in her memory from Jared's books.
Unsurprisingly, she found Tylla in her room.
“There is no way there's that much in here that needs straightening, let alone cleaning,” Vixen pointed out. “How are you always finding something to fuss over?”
“There's always something,” Tylla said. “Even if it's only shaking out pillows or checking that nothing is running low.” She smiled. “And I expected you'd be back around now to get ready for dinner. His Grace sent you a gift, it's on the bed.”
“His Grace, apparently, can't go a week without doing so, even when asked not to,” Vixen said with a sigh. “As though being here has anything to do with gifts.”
Lying on the bed was a substantial bundle, wrapped neatly in tightly-woven undyed linen. She unfolded the note lying on top of it.
Today makes two weeks since you arrived at Hyalin's door, and one week since we had dinner alone together and more, so I hope you'll accept that as a good reason for wanting to give you something. Going shopping for things just for you will have to wait until we can plan a trip, but fortunately, Hyalin still has a great deal of treasure stored away I can use until then, and this seemed appropriate for you. Since this has been a cloudy and relatively cool day, perhaps after dinner it might be of use for a walk in the garden?
“It's a two-week anniversary present, specifically,” Vixen said, laying aside the note so she could unwrap the bundle. “And he expects it to be useful for a walk tonight, since it's cool today.”
“A cape then, maybe?” Tylla hazarded. “It looks about the right size.”
“That sounds probable.”
The first thing Vixen saw was creamy-coloured wool, the weave dense and complex and perfectly even, and it was very soft to the touch.
The second thing was icy-white fur that she identified immediately as rabbit.
The third was thicker fur of a very familiar deep russet-orange colour.
She dropped it and recoiled. Finding it crawling with insects would have been less of a shock.
“What is it?” Tylla came nearer, instantly concerned.
“That's fox fur.” That was the only thought that could register clearly at the moment. Fox fur. Foxes died for this.
Tylla picked it up and shook it out. It was indeed a cape, beautifully made, wool on one side and rabbit fur on the other, with that red fur all along the edges. “Yes,” she agreed quietly, and folded it so the red fur was largely hidden before setting it back on the linen wrappings. “And having heard you talk about the spirit-fox that saved you...” She trailed off, methodically re-wrapping the cape. Which meant the fox fur was at least no longer in sight. “I'll take it away. I'll be back in a moment.”
Vixen nodded, and sank down on the edge of one of the chairs. She might have preferred to curl herself into the corner of the loveseat with her arms wrapped around her knees, but that was absolutely impossible in her grey-and-blue swan-brocaded gown. About the best she could do was wrap both arms around herself and breathe as deeply as the tightly-laced stays and snug bodice of heavy brocade would allow.
All of which suddenly felt much less elegant and satisfying, and much more restrictive and awkward.
He knows I have an intense spiritual connection to a guardian animal that saved my life and watches over me and helps me! He knows that animal is Red Fox! He's heard me talk about spirit animals any number of times! How could he possibly think that giving me fox fur could be any less appalling than... than using Anna's fur? Or something made of human skin?
She looked up as Tylla returned.
“I'm not going to be at dinner tonight,” Vixen said quietly. “If the kitchen did anything special because of this two week anniversary thing, please apologize to them for me. I need to be alone. Completely, with no interruptions.”
Tylla nodded, forehead furrowed with concern. “Of course. I'll make sure of it.”
“Thank you. One more thing. Help me out of this damned dress.”
She'd hardly noticed, that morning, the weight of the wool brocade with just a hint of silk adding to the lustre of it, of the petticoat giving the skirt a fuller shape, or the pressure of the stays. Now, being out of it felt like being suddenly free. Tylla lingered only long enough to put it all away.
“There's nothing else? Should I bring you something to eat later?”
Vixen started to refuse, then hesitated. “Extremely simple, just bread and fruit, before you go to bed?”
Tylla nodded. “And I'll see you aren't disturbed.” She closed the wardrobe doors. “Ring if you need me sooner, of course.” At the door, she paused, took a breath as though about to say something, but left without anything further.
Alone, Vixen methodically stripped away necklace and earrings, the pins in her hair, everything, until she was down to nothing on her person save her shift and her underpants.
She settled herself in the middle of the bed, with the black wool bag that held her hard-earned tools. She toyed with the runestones, spilling them back and forth between her hands, but not really looking at them.
She'd completely missed the significance of the reading she'd done just after arriving. The task at hand was Thorn, for protection and defence; past was the Hourglass of change and time; appearances of the present was the Fish-hook of necessity and need that might be difficult; the root of the matter was memory and the past, the Trilithon, inverted; the future showed the Paths, a decision to come.
What could they tell her now that this most recent gift hadn't?
Jared didn't understand.
Most things she could have smiled and shrugged off and perhaps tactfully explained why it was a mistake. But how could he hear her talk about the spirit-fox who had given her everything, who had saved her on a level far deeper than simply keeping her body moving and breathing, and believe that she could possibly want to even see, let alone wear, anything made of fox fur?
Spirit animals talk to us in dreams.
I've been dreaming of my own past ever since I got to Hyalin.
Dreaming of all the things I've tried to forget, or have remembered only through the perspective of my feelings at the time, and of my earliest training that I don't often think of anymore. What I should have been doing is looking at those memories with the perspective of a fully-trained shaman.
And the most significant part of that right now is... Jared. Have I ever really let myself look at him?
While the twilight deepened around her, she went back through the memories roused by her dreams. Sanovas had taught her how to step aside and study something, including her own emotional reactions to it, from a place that allowed her to see the entire picture without being trapped within it. And being just a little outside offered some protection from her own feelings about what she saw.
This is wrong. It's all wrong. In the past two weeks, Jared has built up a mental image of the ideal lover. He's never believed a woman could be an intellectual equal, not by birth but by social conditioning and education. Yet he knows that I'm at least his equal. He's willing to see me as a woman, and in the lowlands that's a wonderful gift in itself that shouldn't be dismissed, but I'm also one lacking all the lifelong training of a highborn woman to become what he thinks so little of, and with several other bonuses besides, like knowing about shyani culture.
Has he ever actually seen me? Or just what he wants me to be? His reaction to me got stronger the more I looked like a highborn human woman. The more I fit within his image of what a woman should look like, the more he's been treating me as one.
And the more I've been acting like one, as far as lowlands convention goes. Because it got me what I wanted, I went along with it. Just like I've always gone along with anything that would gain and keep Jared's approval. But this time, it's been more than Jared's approval alone. While he accepts me, I've also been accepted by Lyris and Karela and, well, everyone except maybe Alys, as a woman, in the sort of environment I grew up in.
If Jared has never really seen me...
Have I ever really let myself see him?
As much as it hurts to say it... I don't think I'm any better.
We see what we expect to see, not what's really there.
I had him on a pedestal, somewhere in my mind. No one can ever live up to that. He's a good man, but he's a man, not a hero from a tale, not a god, not my fantasies given flesh.
I need help.
The bone egg's whisper helped her go inside and then outside, but this time, not back to Hyalin. One place was safe, had sheltered her once before when she'd lost herself, and was still open to her.
If it wasn't, then everything had gone too wrong to be put right again.
Without her body, Copper Springs was only a thought away.
Sanovas and Aerfen were alone in their own apartment, just finishing a meal of meat and vegetables and wild rice and herbs all cooked together, talking about Aerfen's current weaving project that was near completion and what she intended to begin next.
Sano broke off, holding up a hand to pause Aerfen as he scanned the room, and spotted Vixen effortlessly.
“Vixen? You look troubled. What is it?”
Though Aerfen couldn't see her adopted daughter, her forehead furrowed in immediate concern.
Vixen dropped to her knees next to the low table. “I've been very foolish, and I don't know what to do now.”
“Less is unforgivably foolish than you tend to believe, daughter,” Sano said. “As for what to do now, suppose you tell me what was so foolish and we'll see if we can find the best path, hm?”
“And rather than my hearing one side, or Sano trying to repeat everything,” Aerfen said, “I'm going to leave you to talk alone, but only for that reason. Whatever it is, we're here and we love you and we'll do what we can. I'll make sure you aren't interrupted.” She gathered up the empty bowls and the larger pot with the leftovers, got to her feet, and left the main room of their household in the direction of the kitchen area.
“Tell me,” Sano said.
Vixen poured out the whole chaotic mess: her mission to Hyalin, the journey there, and everything since then. Early on, she heard Aerfen at the door out to the heart of Copper Springs.
“I sent Dayr away,” she said miserably. “He was trying to tell me what I should have seen for myself, but I didn't want to see it. I was having too much fun playing with the clothes I spent two-thirds of my life wishing I could have, and enjoying being accepted as a woman among women, the way I used to wish I could be. And I had Jared's attention, completely, the way I wished I could have it when we were at the University. But I started not being me. I started acting the way everyone expects. And if Jared can give me... that thing... then it's all been hollow anyway. But what can I do now? Dayr's must be halfway to Willow River, and I'm here, and I don't know if Willow River or any other hill would want me after whatever Dayr tells them, and I wouldn't blame them, I'm a very poor excuse for a shaman...”
“Slow down,” Sano said. “One thing at a time. My beloved daughter, at what point have I ever said to you that a shaman is to be perfect? There is a reason why we ask a shaman from another hill to help when our own emotions are deeply involved. To see a situation from multiple angles and from a little outside is essential, but it is not always possible when you are within it. You were offered nearly everything that, had it been offered before, would have meant you would never have reached a point of seeking death. Of course you responded to that.”
“But it's so... so shallow!”
“Yes, but then, I don't believe anything deeper, anything in conflict with the things that matter the most to you, could have reached you successfully. In fact, it failed to. You immediately rejected a beautiful gift that violates what is truly important to you. It stopped being shallow.”
“I... suppose so.” That was a way to look at it that hadn't occurred to her.
“In and of themselves, clothes are only clothes. If you had decided that you preferred to dress like a lowlands woman every day, Copper Springs would not have cared. Nor would Willow River, I suspect. If dressing in any given way gives you pleasure, how is that a bad thing in itself? Everyone enjoys feeling attractive. You grew up there, and the images in your mind of what a woman should look like are those of your earliest years. You chose to move beyond that, but those images remain, and they are not innately good or bad. Playing with that when you were given the opportunity, and when it did no harm to your ultimate goal, doesn't make you any the less. What's life without play?”
“They're incredibly impractical clothes that make it impossible to do anything useful. No one would put up with them in a hill.”
“Not in that form, then, but it would not be about the clothes as such, only about perhaps the timing of them, or the specifics, as it applies to your responsibilities. As for that attraction to Jared and being willing to change yourself to gain his attention...” Sanovas laughed, which made Vixen start. “Oh, dear one, you and countless other creatures of all kinds.”
“What?” She was feeling mortified, and he was laughing?
“Desire and reason rarely coexist, and the number of times I have had shyani of all ages weeping on my shoulder because they did something foolish to gain the attention of someone they desired or admired... it's beyond any counting. And some of those have been shamans. That is an old, old story, one that I haven't the slightest doubt shyani and humans have in common despite cultural differences. Shall I go ask Aerfen to tell you about my courting her and my frequent despair that I'd embarrassed myself beyond redemption? My great good fortune is that she is patient and forgiving, but some of my behaviour was, by any standards, ridiculous. Now you know how it feels, and you know how it feels when the frenzy breaks and you have to look at what you've been doing. When you have a young shyani in tears before you, certain that they are the most stupid person ever to live because of what they did while infatuated, you can sympathize.”
“I... oh.” Vixen bit her lower lip, turning that over in her mind. “There are lots of mad things creatures do in mating season, or to attract a mate, aren't there?”
Sanovas nodded. “Countless, from a great stag to a tiny bird. To lose some perspective under those circumstances, especially with other factors involved and reinforcing it, means only that you're alive.”
“I think I need to think about that. But... even if that part was forgivable... what do I do now? I drove my best friend away because he was worried about me and I didn't want to listen. I'm not sure I still have a home to go to.”
“You always have a home right here. But I know that Dayr loves you very much. He chose to stop wandering and stay with you. He decided that you need him.”
“He was right. I do.” Several days without him, and the expectation of an entire future without him, had left her with an emptiness she'd been trying her best not to dwell upon.
“Any love that deep doesn't break easily, and don't underestimate the vast healing power of an apology. I think he is very unlikely to say hurtful things about you. I think it's more likely he'll simply tell them that you made a choice about where you'd be happiest. And I think the odds of Willow River replacing you before you can get there are very low. I've heard nothing to suggest that they've been displeased with how you've been doing your job, so I imagine they'll be perfectly happy to welcome you home. Shall I ask Nuriel to send Irisan a message that you're coming home? That should reach them before Dayr, or at around the same time at the latest.”
Vixen bowed her head, mind spinning.
Who, exactly, are your people, shaman?
Where lies your heart, fox-daughter?
In Copper Springs where I was born, and in Willow River, and in Rainbow Falls with Shabra, and in any other shyani hill.
“Please,” she whispered.
Sano nodded. “That is a small thing, and he'll do it happily to bring you some peace of mind. So, night falls, not the best time for you to travel. What will you do?”
“Stay where I am overnight,” Vixen said slowly. “I'm going to have to sleep after this, and I need to do more thinking, and I need to tie off a few loose ends here. I may not make it out on the road until the day after.”
Sano smiled. “And that, love, is why you are an excellent shaman. You will not drop everything and run for home, no matter how badly you want to catch up with Dayr, because you will not simply walk away from people whose lives you have touched until you are sure nothing is left unfinished.”
“I can't finish entirely,” Vixen said sadly. “There's a woman here with pain in her past and a shadow across her spirit. I think her spirit animal could help her, given enough time, but she doesn't trust me and there's no way she'd let me do a calling and healing for her.”
“We can't fix everything. It is her choice to make, whether to accept help or not. You can, however, bless the entire household, as you bless Willow River each year. Perhaps that can lead some good into her path. You know from your own experience that sometimes spirit animals find their own way in. Do what you can, and keep yourself safe doing so, and then come home. We'll make plans to come visit you soon. We haven't seen you in some time and Aerfen is starting to grumble about it. Now, back to your body. Try to keep this in perspective, as a mistake of judgement that has no catastrophic consequences and has taught you something and has brought good to some others. And never forget that we love you.”
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