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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.

 
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About the author

Prysmcat

Bio: Discord: https://discord.gg/2HWQwG2GEj
Scribble Hub: https://www.scribblehub.com/profile/57217/prysmcat/

Heads up: I do not plan to release any new fictions on RR, since it seems to be a poor fit - but I do plan to finish Transposition here. I'm not abandoning anything in mid-story! For other work (lots of it, ongoing), try Scribble Hub or my website.

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