Vixen woke alone in her bed, briefly confused—Jared's scent lingered faintly, but it was Tethan's touch her body remembered.

Tethan. I hope it works out well for you with Nestra. She's wonderful, and you deserve someone wonderful.

I wonder how much of my being unable to see what I had in you was because I hadn't gotten over Jared and a relationship that only ever existed in my own mind?

Sometimes I really am stupid, no matter what Sano says.

Judging by the angle of the sunlight, she'd slept quite late. Not all that much of a surprise, given that she'd spent a great deal of the night struggling to untangle the chaos of her own thoughts and emotions.

Late in the night, she'd found a concrete way to reclaim her self within the context of everything that had happened.

Much of her internal world remained jumbled and disordered, but part of it she understood with absolute clarity. There were things she needed to do, and then she could go home and leave this behind her, only an experience in her past that had helped to clarify what really mattered to her.

She visited the bathroom, and returned to the main room where she'd left the night's work draped over the back of the chair.

Had Tylla been in? she wondered. If so, she must have found it a shock, what Vixen had done to a linen shift and to the green silk dress.

She retrieved her walnut-dyed leather shyani trousers from the wardrobe, and tightened the laces at her hips. Socks, and her boots, no more soft slippers that made running treacherous and offered no protection at all.

A shift that she'd used her knife to remove the bottom of, so it now reached only to her hips; she'd picked the seams out of the sleeves entirely to get rid of them.

Over which she pulled the heavily modified dress.

The sleeves had been ripped into wide strips, each with a tight knot at the top to secure it and another at the outer end, about elbow-length when her arm was straight down; the osana tattoo on her upper arm was clearly visible. The long skirt had been similarly treated, torn into wide strips up to halfway between hip and knee, one knot at the top of the tear, the second just below knee level, and the rest of the fabric removed. With the front slashed to the level of her solar plexus, she'd added holes on either side so she could use the white lacing from one of the sets of stays to crisscross it and draw it mostly together; on the back, which was supposed to be laced with edges that could meet only when she wore the most strict stays, she'd fed short strips of fabric through pairs of holes and tied them securely to keep it all in place.

Humming a shyani song to herself, she brushed her hair and braided it the way a shyani woman did: a narrow braid at each side, each with a thin strip of leftover green silk plaited into it, and each tied off with another strip leaving long green tails; the remaining half of her hair she left loose down her back, though she could have braided it as well or tied it into a tail.

Her favourite necklace, a broad choker of beads in countless shades of green and blue, had three copper pendants dangling from it, each with a design hammered into it: two thumbnail-sized oval discs, one with an eye and the other a willow, and between them, a larger round disc of copper with a fox face. Shyani women's tunics bared a lot of throat and chest, and elaborate necklaces were extremely common, often with a theme reflecting one's spirit animal.

One thing missing. She retrieved her silver osana rings and slipped them back into place on her way to the mirror.

It was, by human standards, absolutely barbaric, an outrageous waste of highly expensive silk to create something that was appallingly indecorous for any woman, let alone a highborn one.

She grinned at her own reflection, feeling more like herself than she had in days. “That,” she said, “is me. Highborn human remade into something functionally shyani in any way that matters. And if people are scandalized, that's their problem, not mine. Now, let's get on with this, so I don't get held up another day.” She crossed the room to the bell-rope, conscious of her own gait shifting instantly back to long confident strides instead of the shorter steps that were safer in slippers and more ladylike.

Tylla appeared with such alacrity that she must have been waiting for it.

She did a visible double-take when she took in how Vixen was dressed, but what she said was, “You look very cheerful.”

“I'm feeling very cheerful, for the most part, although I'm going to miss you a lot and I'm very sorry that I'm not going to be able to teach Cole and the others. I was rather looking forward to that. I now know exactly where I belong, and it isn't here. I need to do a few things today, and tomorrow I'm going home. Jared can just live with having me underfoot for that long, since he'd be dead if I hadn't come. I didn't say that.”

“I didn't hear a thing.”

“You don't look surprised.”

Tylla sighed, and regarded her with a smile that was, Vixen thought, mostly affection. “I'm not, not really. But I'd have liked it if you'd been happier here and chose to stay.”

Vixen closed the space between them and caught both of Tylla's hands in her own, Tylla's smaller and smoother. “If you ever need me, or just want to find me... go east until you reach any human village that's on the edge of the highlands. The nearest shyani hill will always visit now and then to trade, and the villagers will know how it works with that specific hill. I'll give you something that's unmistakably shyani, and if you show it to a shyani or a weyre and tell them that you're my friend, they'll help you. Probably the nearest shaman will get in contact with me, which we can do across any distance. Just remember, Vixen, the shaman of Willow River. And if you need me, I'll do what I can to help. I wish I could stay and be your friend. I wish I could help Cole learn how huge and amazing and complex the world is. I can't. I don't belong here. Not without becoming something I'm not.”

“And that would be a sad day for the world.” Tylla stepped closer and hugged her tightly, and Vixen returned it. Anything like proper roles had been gradually crumbling with every day that passed, and that was only a relief. “Wild things die when they're caged. For you this is a cage.”

“Well, before I can escape from it, I need to make certain there are no loose ends.”

Tylla drew back. “His Grace has asked about you several times, once in person. I've been as vague as possible, but I did have to suggest that it was something shamanic that you hadn't bothered to explain beyond that. I've lost count of how often I've repeated that you specifically told me not to interrupt and not to allow anyone else to. When I came last night with food, you said not to come until you rang.”

“Did I? I don't remember that. Given how late I slept, after being up thinking all night, not much surprise, I suppose. Talking to Jared is one thing I need to do, but I'd rather not make it the first thing. I have no intention of being trapped in the middle of an argument or of listening to him try to convince me to stay.”

Tylla nodded. “We can work around that. What do you need to do?”

“Talk to Ilsa, though I don't expect that to take long, just to make sure she's going to be all right. Talk to Lyris, to thank her for everything, and see Anna once more. Talk to Alys, I think, although I'm not sure what to say except that I'm sorry for having upset her. I'll talk to Cole personally and explain, if that's all right with you. I want to do something rather intensely shamanic, but later would be better, since I'll be very tired afterwards. I can bless the entire house and everyone in it. That will, I hope, last long enough for Lyris and Mirain to marry, and generally bring some good fortune to everyone who's open to it. And if you'll let me, I'd like to call your spirit animal for you. It will be less of a direct influence on you and on Cole than it would be for a shyani, but having something looking out for you and slipping a bit of good advice into your dreams now and then and possibly even letting me know if anything unexpected happens that I might be some help with...”

“That sounds like something that can only be good,” Tylla said firmly. “There's packing, as well.”

Vixen heaved a sigh. “That too. It looks like I'm walking home. Well, a long time ago, I walked from the University to Copper Springs, and I was less fit and knew less about how to survive and had no idea what I was doing. I lived through that, I can live through another long walk, for a good reason. But I'm not going to want to carry anything more than absolutely necessary. The clothes I brought with me, my shaman tools, not much else.”

“First, however, I think I should go find you something to eat.”

“Lady Practicality,” Vixen laughed, as her stomach rumbled in response. “You're right. But simple, please.”

Tylla nodded briskly. “I'll be back with it in a moment. If you pile what you want packed on the bed, I'll take care of it.”

* * *

Dinner, part of the straightforward stew that the upper staff had tonight, smelled tastier than the more elaborate meal that was being served in the dining room for the household proper. Resting on the small stove in Tylla's sitting room, it would still be warm when they got to it, and the bread in its covered bowl resting nearby would likewise be warm and fresh.

Though technically it didn't matter whether Tylla fasted or not, only that Vixen could work more easily without a stomach weighed down with a heavy meal, the maid had declined to eat until afterwards; Cole had seconded it.

Properly speaking, a calling should involve several days of preparation, guiding the subject into a receptive state that would make it easy for the newly-called spirit animal to make itself heard. But Tylla lacked the foundation of a dozen or more years of upbringing in expectation of the moment, and they didn't have several days.

Since Tylla wasn't in need of healing, calling her spirit animal was really not all that tiring. A sleek tabby cat prowled out of nowhere before Vixen had even finished and simply sat to watch her, in a position eerily like Red Fox's common pose, tail around his feet.

I've been waiting, he said to her. She has been a sister to you. I thought you would do this. She is a good woman. I will watch over her.

Thank you, Vixen said. “Tylla?”

“Hm?” Tylla opened her eyes, her smile dreamy. “I just saw a cat that promised to guide and guard me.”

Vixen nodded. “If you dream about him telling you something, you should listen. It will probably be good advice, and you can trust that he has no motives other than your well-being. Now...” She took a deep breath, held it, and released it. “Blessing the entire house.”

She drew out her bone egg, and shifted her position on the cushion beneath her to be sure she wouldn't have muscles cramp or stiffen on her.

Slow shaking to begin with, while she deliberately slowed her breathing and bade each muscle in turn relax. Gradually, she increased the tempo, and began to sing. Within her mind a waterfall forever tumbled, one she'd created long ago based on smaller ones she'd seen, one that had shifted in a number of details after a visit to the hill Shabra now cared for, which lay near a high waterfall. She followed the narrow ledge along one side and braced herself as she stepped through the cold pounding water. She followed the familiar round tunnel on the other side, by the light of the glowing egg, and stepped through a smooth wall.

She emerged, not back into Tylla's sitting room, but into the dining room.

Jared and Alys were at head and foot, of course; Lyris and Mirain were side by side. There was little conversation, the atmosphere tense and uneasy.

Sitting in the middle of the table was Red Fox, his tail neatly around his feet. He laughed his high-pitched yapping laugh.

“Three know that you are leaving tomorrow, and each fears to be the the one to tell the fourth. The fourth, though, cannot help but know that something is afoot. So, what will you do?”

“I'll talk to Jared in the morning,” Vixen said, letting the rattle and song fall still. “If I'd done so today, it would have left me too exhausted for what I'm doing now.”

“It will not be exhausting tomorrow?”

“It's going to be hard. I'm not looking forward to it at all. But I know I have to. It wouldn't be fair to leave without saying good-bye. And then I can start walking. Again. Maybe I'll have some new insights while I'm walking back into the highlands.”

Red Fox laughed again. “I think you've already had a bellyful of those.”

“Yes. It's been... educational.” She studied Jared, the lines of face and body that her hands had explored intimately so recently, and never would again. “I let myself see what I wanted to see instead of what was real.”

Red Fox got up and stretched. “Seeing what's really there instead of what one wishes to see doesn't come naturally, fox-daughter. It's a skill easily lost in strong emotions by even the most wise and sensible and experienced of shamans. What do you now?”

“I want to bless all of Hyalin. Many people here have been good to Dayr and me. I'd like to give them that last gift to thank them, even if most of them will never know.”

“Walk your circle. I walk with you.”

She left the dining room and went outside, choosing a place to start that would give her a loop large enough to enclose as much of the grounds as possible. While there might be some people not yet gone inside to dinner, everyone should be at least close, back from fields and pastures by now. Even if some weren't, the blessing would linger in the land itself, though she was unsure how long it would do so here.

In a hill, she would be walking this circle with the spirit animal of each shyani within—not those of the weyres, though. Weyres were their own spirit animals. She'd have their power bolstering her own. That was, after all, how a shaman worked best: in concert with the spirit animal or animals involved in any endeavour.

Ilsa's bay mare joined them, and Cole's garter snake at a normal size rather than greatly enlarged, and Tylla's tabby tomcat, as she began her long circuit.

A shimmering line of countless colours marked their trail. This was no less wearying than it had been to create the alarm boundary, and she was enclosing a larger area, but the presence of allies helped. The tabby padded along ahead of her, rather like breaking a trail in the snow, and there was less resistance in his wake. The snake asked to be picked up, and when Vixen complied, she felt its strength flowing into her. The mare moved in close beside her, so Vixen could drape an arm on her back and hold her mane.

Distantly, Vixen felt the attention of many others—the spirit animals who would be watching over the rest of Hyalin, she thought, if they were only invited in. If the spirit world was so conscious of humans, or at least could be drawn so readily into consciousness of them, and were so amenable to acting as guides and guardians, maybe someday in the future things could be different. Maybe the differences really weren't so deep.

The beginning of the line came into sight, and she stopped just before touching it.

“Good fortune and health and happiness to all within this boundary,” she said softly, and knelt to draw the Hill rune across the gap: a simple six-sided shape, which to shyani spoke of the hill as a whole and the six-sided heart of the hill that was the centre of the community.

The colours of the line flickered and flared, and then settled down as a warm golden glow.

“It is done, daughter,” Red Fox said. “A step closer to home, ah?”

“Yes,” Vixen agreed. “And I thank all of you for helping me. Maintaining it is, I fear, up to you, since I won't be here to do so. But I hope it will do your chosen and others some good while it lasts.”

“You need to get back to your body now,” the tabby said, sitting down to wash his face. “How will you have the strength to leave tomorrow if you exhaust yourself now?”

“Too late,” Vixen said, with a weary smile. “But it needed to be done.”

She began to shake the egg again, at the precise speed of earlier, and gradually slowing down. Back along her route, through the now-vacant dining room, along the tunnel, under the waterfall, back to Tylla's sitting room and her own body.

Her hand was trembling as she slipped the egg back into its protective bag.

“I'm back,” she said. “And I badly need something to drink.”

Tylla rose swiftly to fill a cup from the pitcher of water on the windowsill, and steadied her while she drank.

The stew tasted wonderful.

There'd been no real expectation that Vixen would make it to her own room, and she was actually just as happy not to risk Jared appearing in the night. She slept much more soundly on one side of Tylla's bed.

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