flashfic

The Youngest Fox

Once in a wood by a great city there lived a family of foxes. The head of the family, who wore the guise of lady or gentleman or other as the whim took them, had a splendid collection of jewels given to them by any number of human lovers. The younger foxes of the family studied this art of seduction diligently, not because foxes have any use for human baubles, but because the baubles they received from their lovers were an essential component in the game known as “human-fishing.” Any number of humans could be lured into the wood for further pranks by the strategic placement of necklaces, rings, crowns; and from that point on they could be entangled in fox spells and fox riddles for endless hours of entertainment.

The very youngest fox, however, had no interest in any of this, to the despair of her family. Rather, her interest was in science. This in itself wasn’t entirely dishonorable (from a fox viewpoint, anyway). After all, her sire said, with a certain determination to make the best of the situation, one of their ancestors had been the lover of a court alchemist, which was almost like science. And if it made her happy, it made her happy.

The real problem was that her family had no idea how to accommodate the youngest fox’s hunger for knowledge. It would have been one thing if she had a foxish interest in ethology or ecology, which could at least be related to the practical business of hunting. Even foxes who spend their spare time discussing trends in hair ornaments and the proper length of hems need to eat. No: the youngest fox showed distressingly little concern for the ways of the woods, and instead spent her time on boulders peering at the sky, or muttering to herself as she sketched diagrams, or keeping notes in a ledger book that her puzzled but kindly oldest sibling had stolen from an accountant lover. “Accountants are the hardest to steal from,” they had remarked, hoping to slip in some proper education. “They always keep everything organized.” The youngest fox had merely nodded distractedly, but at least she showed up for lessons long enough to practice shapeshifting so that she could use her human form to record her mysterious experiments.

One evening, while the youngest fox was investigating an ornamented spyglass that she had cajoled the head of the family to giving to her, the rest of the family met to discuss her future. “We can’t send her to the city to make her fortune,” said the head of the family, and there was general agreement. “She’s a disaster at seduction and she’ll undoubtedly use her teeth to get herself out of any trouble. But it’s clear that the woods are not the right place for her either.” Indeed, they had often caught the youngest fox pining over mysterious human implements like calipers, pendulums, and prisms.

“Well,” said one of the siblings, “even if we can’t teach her what she wants to learn, surely we can find her someone who can.”

The youngest fox was bemused, then outraged, when over the course of the next month she found any number of measuring instruments and lenses scattered in the woods, instead of the more usual baubles. She spent her time gathering up the instruments and hoarding them, then, without telling anyone, slipped into the city in search of the objects’ owner. (Another disadvantage, to her family’s additional despair: she was that rarity, an honest fox.)

The youngest fox had not been neglecting her lessons quite so much as her family supposed, even if she rarely made use of the skills that they strove to impart to her. In this case, she tracked the instruments’ owner, following their scent in the city’s dreams. This person thought in great wheeling orbits and precessions and cycles, in measurements and the limitations of precision, and the youngest fox trembled with excitement at the wisdom in their mind.

So it was that a very surprised scholar, who had without success hired investigators to locate her stolen instruments, opened the door that night and saw a modestly beautiful youth with a bundle wrapped up in silk. “I must apologize for my relatives,” the youth said, “but I believe these belong to you?” And, as the scholar unwrapped the bundle, the youth said, rather breathlessly, “You may have them back, but perhaps you have need of someone who can protect your belongings from importunate foxes?”

The scholar, who was not only wise in the ways of astronomy and geometry but had also noted the youth’s amber eyes and the telltale russet sheen of their hair, only smiled. “Come in,” she said, “and I will teach you what I know.”

Naturally, the youngest fox’s family had been watching. “That was the fastest seduction I ever saw,” the oldest of the siblings said, “and it didn’t even involve taking off her clothes. I would never have thought it of her.”

“Maybe science is good for something after all?” said the second-oldest.

The head of the family merely licked a paw in satisfaction. Perhaps it wasn’t how they had intended things to go, but a happy ending was as happy ending.

For ahasvers. Prompt: SCIENCE!