"I need the reserve forces to breakup the riots in the Silk Quarter, while the city guard focuses on stopping the other protests from getting out of control," Hayden said authoritatively.
The pack was standing around the breakfast table, their meal having been interrupted by Adelyn who arrived in a flurry reporting widespread chaos in the city, and requesting Bryant and Hayden mobilise their forces to restore order.
Sari and Adelyn headed for the door. "Shut down trade for the day. Keep the schools open but the younglings indoors until parents can retrieve them. We don't want anyone caught in the cross-fire."
"I'll have the city guards sweeping the streets," Bryant reported. "The districts further removed from the downtown core likely won't be affected, but I'd like to keep it that way. Peaceful protest is allowed, but the combination of alcohol and pheromones will compound this problem."
Bryant stormed out of the house, leaving just Hayden at the table as Cora raced in with his armour. He began strapping on the plates when he noticed Avery was in the dining room, watching the scene play out with wide eyes.
He looked at her pointedly. "You will stay indoors today, no walks in the city." It was not a request.
"I understand, I just need to go out for minute and I'll be back right away."
"That's really not what I just said." Hayden pointed out.
"I won't go far, I just need to go out."
"No!" he accentuated.
"But I have to!"
"I'm not used to giving an order twice. We have enough problems without you wandering the streets. If the wrong people find a human here it will compromise the work we've been doing not to mention your safety. I can't have a human get caught up in this mess. I'm not going to say it again."
Avery was backing out of the room nervously.
"You can't keep me here, " she said under her breath. She spun and made for the front door. Hayden locked up her leg muscles with half a thought while putting on the last of his armour. Avery crashed to the floor unable to move her legs and looked up at him in disbelief as he strode for the door.
"I don't have time to explain right now. Stay here and don't let anyone in. It's for your own safety." He wrenched open the door and slammed it behind him.
As the door locked the magic holding her legs was released and Avery scrambled to her feet. She rattled the door in desperation and banged on it with her fists.
"Don't trap me here!" she screamed. A light hand touched her shoulder and in one motion she spun and punched her attacker. Instead of it being a blonde haired monster it was Nicholas, the cook. He held a hand to his jaw in shock but wasn't hurt. Avery ran for the stairs without apologising.
Roedin stood with Hayden on a rooftop above the market surveying the scene below. The city guards and reservists were cleaning up the damage and throwing drunks in the back of wagons until they could sober up. There were still some shouts across the city but things were breaking up.
"I want to know how this started," Hayden said darkly. "This wasn't a protest. Half of these people don't even live here. There's something more going on, something deeper."
"Things like this don't start overnight," Roedin answered cryptically.
Cora then stepped up beside them on the rooftop, though neither male seemed surprised at her sudden appearance. She wrung her hands in concern and cleared her throat nervously.
"It's alright, Cora. The streets have quieted down. It'll be business as usual shortly," Hayden reassured her.
"It's not that. It's Avery. She was upset this morning when...she couldn't go out. Nick startled her and Avery...hit him." Hayden's eyebrows shot up. "He's fine, of course. More stunned than anything. So was Avery for that matter. She ran upstairs to her room and won't answer the door. That's all fine if she wants, except she hasn't made a sound either." Cora looked between Hayden and Roedin for some acknowledgment of the situation.
"Cora, this is not pressing information. What is it you've come to tell us?"
The female cringed and got to the point. "I didn't mean to invade her privacy but it was just so eerie so I...we...checked. She's gone."
Roedin's head snapped up to Hayden's face as he tensed his muscles to take to the sky. Hayden nodded once in permission then asked Cora to find the rest of the alpha pack and begin the search. They needed to find Avery before one of the so-called 'protesters' did. He glanced up at the sky watching Roedin fly away and when he looked back Cora was gone, using whatever mysterious power she had to move quickly.
Roedin immediately flew to any spot Avery had ever mentioned visiting. He checked the temple and the clocktower because of her fascination with the architecture and went down to the wharf where she would watch the sailors unload their goods. He landed and spoke to several of his spies. As the only human in the city it shouldn't be hard for someone to sniff her out.
Hayden had ordered her to stay in the house. Roedin doubted she had ever received an order before. But she overheard some of their discussions; she must have known it was for her own safety. Why did she need to go out so desperately? It was just one day. Just stay in the house. The house was safety, just like the cabin.
Just like the cabin. It was the order to stay-the lock on the door-that had pushed her over. Everyone left and she was forced to stay. Roedin roared at the clouds. They had done exactly what she feared the most: locked her away with no explanation.
Anger boiled up inside him. Anger at himself. He flew madly above the rooftops, looking but not really seeing. The setting sun was making strange shadows in every corner and he was about to land when movement caught the corner of his eye. Someone was climbing the exposed stairs to the mountain apartments. Relief washed through him as he changed course and landed on a platform three-quarters of the way up the cliff.
Avery was standing on the edge of the landing looking out over Corinth. The sun lit the red streaks in her brown hair and made the sweat shine on her brow. Roedin approached very slowly though he had no doubt she knew he was there.
"Avery," he said gently. "Avery, what are you doing here?"
Avery didn't sigh or turn her head; she didn't say anything at all. She just continued staring out at the city, her toes right at the edge.
"Everyone has been looking for you! You were supposed to stay in the house. Just one day."
"Do you think maybe someone has said that to me before? 'It's only for one day.' Maybe that's how it started...I don't know," she said, keeping her eyes on the horizon.
Roedin stilled trying to come up with a response, but she went on.
"I jumped once. I enjoyed the free fall. It was...liberating...for just one moment."
Roedin cocked his head as though he hadn't heard correctly. "You jumped? From..."
"That bluff behind the cabin. I calculated that if I could reach a high enough velocity and landed just right, my neck would break. I could finally be free."
Roedin held his breath. She was standing right at the edge, but a fall wasn't a problem. He could catch her in an instant. It was her confession that had him worried. His mouth went dry.
"I forgot that the laws of physics don't apply to magic. Silly me. So instead of freedom, I woke up with a broken wrist and a bad headache." Avery still hadn't turned away from the view.
"I'm telling you this not for pity, but so you know-so you remember-that there are fates worse than death."
"You're not trapped here," Roedin said firmly. "It was only for the day. Do you not trust us to keep you safe?"
Avery spun around so quickly one foot slipped off the edge. Roedin lunged to grab her arm but she snatched it back and shoved him away like she hadn't nearly fallen to her death.
"Trust you!?" she screamed. "Trust? Why would I trust you, I hardly know anything about you!" She was glaring at him furiously and clenched her fists like she would start throwing punches.
"I have seen this tiny sliver of your lives, whatever presents itself between the walls of house full of strangers. I hear whispers of fighting, of rebellions, of battles that I know nothing about. You can stand there and tell me you're on the good side, that you're doing it to protect this city and its people, but I don't know that! All I have done in this world is read about it. Read about its history, its wars, its politics, its inventions, and its failures. And you know what I learned in those books? History is written by the victors! But if you dig down you'll see there are always two sides to every story – sometimes even more!"
Avery was pacing on the landing as she screamed at Roedin. Any thought he had of interrupting was quickly cut short.
"What if you are the tyrants? You say you're the good guys, but every side thinks they are in the right. What if these invasions or uprisings you're quashing are the plucky rebels who are trying to overthrow the ruling elite and make a better world? I don't know! All I know is that it's really nice here and that you keep away people who disagree with you. So with no other information or experience, I'm supposed to blindly trust that this is the right way?"
She shook her head in disgust and stepped back, distancing herself from Roedin. "No. No, I will make my own decisions about where I place my trust. You will not tell—"
She fell off the edge.
Roedin pinned his wings back and dove off the cliff, wrapping his arms around the free falling human before opening a stream below them and slipping to the front step of Hayden's house.
The sun had set and the autumn chill was setting in, their panting breaths forming clouds in the cold air. Roedin let her go and stepped out of reach of her fury. Avery caught her breath after a moment, standing stock still on the doorstep.
"I wasn't going to jump," she said flatly, staring at the door. "I don't want to die anymore."
"Then what were you doing up there?"
"Hayden said the city wasn't safe because of...whatever. I panicked because I thought I was trapped again. But once I was outside, I panicked because the city was supposedly very unsafe. I made for your apartment. I figured it was a good compromise." She looked at Roedin then. "There are a lot of stairs."
A small smile came to Roedin's face.
"Do not laugh."
"I'm not laughing."
Roedin wasn't laughing but he was relieved beyond words. Avery's anger evaporated in the free fall and her dry sense of humour was creeping back. In truth he had been worried she would jump. Not because he couldn't catch her but because of what it would symbolize: that she was so unhappy here, with his family. He had been so busy with his duties that he hadn't been around much, and she was right, she didn't know anything about him. When he was at the cabin he kept his secrets close. Now in Corinth he hadn't spent much time with her. So she could be miserable and he would never have known.
"Thank you," she said after a while. "For catching me."
He nodded and opened the door.
Hayden flipped through the pages of the notebook Niamh had found. There were drawings of the bridges and buildings of Corinth, presented in surprising detail and accuracy. There were sketches of weaponry and machines he had never seen before and calculations, recipes, and formulas for mixtures of minerals and elements. Here and there were single sentences that felt like reminders for a later to-do list. The back page had a list of book titles with Bryant's name at the top. It was messy and incoherent but the level of detail and references to the pack made him uneasy.
"Where did you get this?" he asked his daughter.
"I found it in her room," she said defiantly. Hayden raised his eyebrows at her. "I have no regrets. I was looking for a clue as to where she might have run off. I'm glad I did, as I found she's been spying on us."
Sari was looking down at the fire watching it flare up to match her daughter's outrage. "That's a bit of a leap, don't you think? It's just a bunch of jibberish, random musings. I'd hate to know what anyone thought if they saw my own journals."
"I don't like it," Bryant added. "Why is she writing all this stuff down? What's she going to do with it? There are weapons and notes about the city's defenses. It certainly does look like she was planning on giving it to someone."
"Giving it to whom?" asked Adelyn. "She doesn't know anyone else."
Niamh let out a huff. "Does it matter? Maybe she'll sell it to the highest bidder. Typical."
The group fell silent again, lost in their own musings. They were exhausted after a long day of restoring order in the city and the added stress of chasing after a rogue human. Hayden knew Niamh's suspicions were not unfounded but had a hard time believing that the little mortal posed much of a threat to them.
The sound of the front door opening and footsteps entering the sitting room brought him out of his musings. Avery stepped into the room and glanced at them individually, taking stock of the mood. Roedin stood behind her somewhat nervously.
Bryant broke first. "Where the hell have you been? You were told to stay indoors!"
Avery's eyes flared at the Ursid. "I don't recall signing up for an army where I need to follow orders."
"So you're not even going to apologise?"
"Apologise for what?" Avery had a lethal calm to her but she wasn't about to lay down. She stared down the bear, unwilling to be intimidated. "I was left behind with no information or idea of what was going on. I was locked in! Trapped! And you want me to apologise for thinking I had a say in what I do? For behaving as if I was a person and not just a pet to be ordered about? No, I will not apologise." Avery's voice shook as she spoke but her words were firm.
Sari moved from the fireplace. "What was so important that you had to leave the house this morning? Where do you go everyday?" Hayden could feel the defensiveness for her mate's earlier actions through the bond. Avery's resolve faltered a bit as she looked at Sari and then away.
"Nowhere," Avery said flatly. "And everywhere."
Roedin stepped in. "I know exactly where she goes, why is it a concern?" Hayden didn't doubt that Roedin had his spies reporting on the movements of a lonely human wandering the streets of Corinth.
Avery mumbled down to the floor. "I walk to a different place everyday. I just step outside and see where my feet take me. Never the same place. I...I need to prove that I can. That if I wanted to leave, I could. Sometimes I wake in the night and I can't figure out if this is a dream or reality. I can't breathe, I can't think. So everyday I step out of the house to remind myself that this isn't the same prison, with different bars." She looked at Hayden and Adelyn. "I am sorry that I caused so much disruption."
Sari looked annoyed but Hayden couldn't tell if it was at Avery's answer or at herself. Niamh, however, was still unsatisfied. She snatched the book from Hayden's hand and waved it in the air.
"That doesn't explain this! What is this about, Avery? Were you taking notes about us?"
Avery cringed as she saw the book. "That's nothing. It's – it's just thoughts. Just ideas I have or things I notice. It doesn't mean anything, I just wrote them down because I could. And because I never could before."
Roedin raised his hands as if to push Niamh's rage away. "Niamh, you were going through her things? What did you think you were going to find?"
"I had no idea what I was going to find, because I don't know anything about this person who lives in my house. We've welcomed her into our pack, treated her kindly and given her everything, only to find she's been secretly spying on us and writing notes! There's a recipe with oxytropis in here!"
Bryant shifted uncertainly and Sari twisted to look at Avery. Adelyn's head jerked up and then she quickly glanced at Hayden. They had seen the effects of oxytropis poison before. It nullified the magical powers of sapiens, slowly draining their energy as they tried to overcome its effects.
"That's right, oxytropis! A recipe to mix it with a hand cream or something! She could be wearing it right now and slowly poisoning us all by touching everything in this house." She glared straight Avery. "Why would you know anything about oxytropis?"
Instead of rising up to meet Niamh's rage, Avery seemed to shrink into herself. Her previous defiance dried up and she shook her head sadly. "You wouldn't understand. You're strong and powerful and you have no idea what it's like to be the weakest person in the room. A victim waiting to happen. To have no control."
"Answer the question, girl," Bryant said with deadly calm.
Avery choked back a sob and Roedin reached out to touch her arm reassuringly but she pulled away and fled the room.
"Hey, what the hell?" Bryant exclaimed but Roedin stopped him from following. "Don't you start with me! I'm sick of dancing around this issue just because you feel indebted to her or something."
Hayden stood up behind them. "Bry-"
"No, I think we deserve some answers. Weapons? Oxytropis? What the hell could a person need oxytropis in a hand cream for?"
Hayden sighed warily. "I can think of a reason."
Roedin shook his head and pleaded to Hayden with his eyes.
"What aren't you telling us?" Bryant asked impatiently.
The Myotes sank onto the sofa, resting his elbows on his knees in defeat. He put his face in his palms and took a ragged breath. Niamh's rage waned as she watched him warily. Sari picked up on the change of emotion in the room and gently took her mate's hand.
Then Roedin told them what happened at the cabin. He told them of the monster that haunted Avery's steps, and of the fear that dogged his own. A fear of weakness, of inadequacy, of failure as a warrior.
They listened silently. No one asked for clarification or offered commentary.
"The scars...the wariness around males…" Adelyn mumbled. Then she simply got up and left. She paused at the door as if she might say something, but then shook head and walked out.
Bryant started pacing in front of the fire. He clenched and unclenched his fists and matched the motion with a mashing of teeth.
"That's not...it wasn't…I thought humans were just scared of everything," he huffed. Finally he came to a stop. "Why didn't you tell me sooner?"
Roedin shook his head slowly. His eyes pleaded with Bryant to understand his pain. "What would you have done?"
"We would have been able to help you heal, Roedin," Sari said gently. "We would have been able to help both of you."
"I will heal when I find that bastard and rip him limb from limb," Roedin said with careful precision.
"But that won't fix the feelings that you have about failure. It won't change what happened to her and how you felt," Hayden prodded. Roedin just shrugged like he didn't know what else to do.
"I'm sorry you went through that, Roe," Niamh said as she rose from her seat. She looked up at the ceiling as though she could see into the bedrooms on the second story. "But there's someone to whom I owe a bigger apology."
Avery sat on the floor in front of the fireplace in her bedroom with several other journals around her. She was ripping out pages and throwing them in the fire. Niamh stepped up quietly and clutched Avery's wrist to stop the destruction.
Avery didn't flinch but looked up at Niamh with red eyes. "I never should have written this down. I didn't before, why did I need to start now?"
Niamh gently pulled the sheet from Avery's fist as she crouched down and flattened it back into the book. She looked up at the human and brushed away a loose strand of hair.
"I'm sorry," Niamh said. "I'm sorry about what I said earlier. And how I've been…cold."
"You don't owe me anything. I never expected anyone's pity," Avery said bitterly. Niamh was a little hurt but figured she deserved that.
"I owe you the simple kindness of a friend. You have done nothing to earn my distrust and I so easily leapt to conclusions. I have dishonoured Tao's memory…I am ashamed," she said with finality. Avery nodded and looked down at her journals.
"I'm ashamed because I do know what it's like to feel like a victim and to be the bully. When Tao was killed I lost my mind. I took it out on anyone and everyone in my way. I went to that village and burned it to ground. Most of the humans fled into the mountains but some were trapped. I can hear their children screaming everywhere I go and it's my curse for what I did. I'm not as invincible as you give me credit for."
Avery looked up at her in horror.
"But I've gotten better. I have more control. And so can you."
"I'll never be as strong as a sapien," Avery reminded her.
"No, but solutions like the oxytropis cream and other things in your books can help."
Avery brushed her hands over the rumpled pages of her journal. Niamh leaned over and flipped through one. She wasn't sure how to help Avery build her machines or mix her potions, but she did think she could help her be confident in a cruel world.
"Tell me what I can do to make up for how awful I've been," she asked.
Avery blushed and looked down at her hands. She bit her lower lip shyly.
"What is it?" urged Niamh.
"I want to cut my hair."