After their brief vacation in Galen business continued as usual back in Corinth. One morning Bryant arrived at the house conveniently just in time for breakfast with Roedin and the alpha primes.
"Have you heard about the troubles in Hadisota? Three colonies were burned to the ground. Decimated," he reported between bites. His Ursid appetite had him eating almost constantly throughout the day.
"Yes, Roedin told me." Hayden sipped his coffee pensively. "I've sent a group to investigate, but I'm not expecting them to find much."
"We're unsure if the anymles were present when the villages were burned, or if they were on their annual migration," Roedin added.
Bryant took another bite and considered this. "I ran into a friend in town the other day. He deserted from the training camp you set up in the Sawtooth Mountains. Something about the Prime Jaret pushing them too hard."
This also wasn't news to Hayden; he knew Jaret was an arrogant prick. But the prime trained strong warriors, and the Corinthian territorial forces were better for it. Hayden tolerated quite a bit of attitude from the primes who were stationed in the field camps. They were a key part of the city's defensive strategy and he couldn't afford to alienate them.
"This deserter also said Jaret hasn't been training the females. When they come into camp to sign up he assigns them menial tasks and treats them like servants," Bryant added.
Adelyn scowled. "His mistake. Those Tigris females are some of the most vicious fighters I've ever seen. You know they do most of the hunting for their herd? The males just sit around and tend the house."
Bryant nodded in agreement. "I can pay them a visit. See for myself what's going on."
"I'll meet with the primes and discuss it," Hayden concluded.
Avery wandered into the dining room at this moment, yawning and rubbing her eyes. Her clothes were wrinkled from being slept in and her hair exploded in all directions. "Discuss what?" she mumbled.
Hayden chuckled at the sight of her. "Discuss renting out your room to Tobias for his visits to Corinth, since you don't seem to be interested in using it."
Avery collapsed into a chair blinking the sleep from her eyes. "Well if you think you need the money..." She shrugged and reached for the coffee pot.
Sari let out a bark of laughter. "Did you sleep in your workshop again? You have ink stains on the side of your face."
"Sleep would be a generous classification," Avery clarified with a mouth full of toast. "But I think I finally figured out how to make a more durable transmission wire, that would reduce heat loss when moving electricity over long distances. Requires a special alloy..." She dove into some eggs, not even looking up at the others.
Sari looked to Hayden with shining eyes, grinning at Avery's tenacity. Each problem they hand presented she embraced with genuine enthusiasm. She was fully committed to her role at the alchemist of Corinth and sapiens regularly knocked on their door looking for her services. She thrived on the challenge and would have to be reminded to eat or sleep while she was engrossed in a puzzle. The pack was somewhere between exasperated and amazed with her work ethic.
Roedin's protective instincts, however, left him more often concerned. He tried to let it slide like the others did but he couldn't help worry she wasn't eating enough or sleeping well. Every part of him cried out to protect her and keep her healthy. He shifted in his seat uncomfortably and looked down the table again. Avery had her head propped up on her hand with her eyes closed and her fork loaded. He started to rise and usher her to bed when Adelyn noticed and quickly stepped in.
"Avery? Hey, Avery?" she said gently. "Maybe you should think about getting a few hours of sleep. Petra mentioned something like eight hours or so?"
"Huh?" Avery's eyes flew open. "Can't right now. I need to head to the school. I promised the headmistress I'd help with their bridge building contest." She took another bite and grabbed an apple while she got up from the table. Just as quickly as she arrived she skipped out of the room.
"She's working too hard," Roedin stated through clenched teeth.
Hayden considered that. "Oh, I don't know. She is working hard but she loves it. We're not forcing her—she's passionate. I think she's brought a nice balance to the pack. She thinks analytically and doesn't react with an explosive temper like pretty much everyone else in this room." He looked around the table pointedly.
"I love that she doesn't put up with nonsense from anybody," added Adelyn.
"To a fault," Roedin said. "She has no fear response. She actually told the blacksmith that his steel was flawed because of a contaminant in the source ore."
Bryant started laughing at the memory. "She just walked right up to him and pointed it out. I thought he was going to explode in the shop, but she just shrugged and offered to correct it, chewing on an apple the whole time."
"I would have paid money to see that!" Adelyn laughed.
"It's not funny," Roedin said tersely. "The blacksmith wouldn't have thought twice about killing a human."
Hayden sighed, rising from the table. "We'll watch out for her, Roedin. You know we do. But I won't risk the wrath of the headmistress by keeping her from...whatever bridges they're building."
Bryant returned from his inspection of the Corinthian training camp a few days later. He arrived at the house to meet with Hayden and bumped into Roedin and Avery heading out. Roedin was clean-shaven and dressed in fresh shirt with a new jacket designed to fit closely around his wings. Avery wore a long, warm coat over a winter dress, her eyes sparkling with excitement. He recognised Cora's taste in Avery's carefully styled hair.
"Hi Bryant! We're going to a concert! Maestro Tulrik has written a new symphony and it includes a brilliant cello solo or so I hear and they needed to bring in seven trumpets for the second movement because he made it so complicated but that's not as crazy as the piano part that can only be played by Hisperia anymles because it requires at least thirteen digits and-"
"And we are going to be late if we stand here all night giving Bryant the playbill," Roedin cut in. Avery immediately stopped talking and rushed out the door waving her goodbye over her shoulder.
Bryant could have laughed out loud as he watched the Whisperer escort a positively ecstatic mortal down the street. To his astonishment, Roedin offered the crook of his arm and after only the briefest of hesitations Avery reached up and took it with her own. The gesture wasn't intimate but conveyed a sense of respect and trust between the pair. He closed the door behind him and found Hayden leaning on the frame to the sitting room with a grin on his face.
"Never thought I'd see the day," Bryant said as he walked past Hayden into the sitting room and helped himself to a drink. Hayden sighed and followed him in.
"Mating bonds can make you into a different person. That happiness is contagious. You can feel her emotion like it's your own and suddenly it's the most important thing in the world. I'm pretty sure Roedin would learn the cello and play in the orchestra himself, if it made her happy." Hayden took a gulp of the liquor and stared at the fire in reflection.
"She's been as good for him as he for her. I just don't know…" He glanced up a Bryant knowingly. "I don't know how this story ends. I have trouble seeing anything but our brother in pieces for centuries after she's gone."
"Would you have pursued Sari if she had been consumed by that darkness and couldn't keep the madness of the dreams at bay? If she stayed broken?"
"I thank the Ancestors everyday that I never have to find out."
Bryant nodded and sipped on his drink.
"So are the females training?" Hayden asked, getting straight to business.
"Hard to say really. They have progressed through combat exercises but who knows how they'll react in a real battle. The camp has grown though, pulling in families and packs from the countryside. They say it's not safe on their own, and they're willing to tolerate sharing habitat with other species for the protection of living in camp. It's quite a little town now."
Hayden pursed his lips and nodded. "Might be worth a visit myself."
"There's something else. While I was...investigating...I found an ancient female Papilio anymle on the edge of camp. She had to be a thousand years old. The rest of the camp had shunned her, saying that her mind was gone. She rambled about nonsense when I tried to ask her about the females training. But I didn't ask about females. I don't know if it's hanging around Avery or what, but I said, 'girls' and it triggered something in her."
"Triggered?" asked Hayden.
"She got this glint in her eye like she knew a vicious secret. Then she said that 'they stole the girl away to stop the cycle' and 'kept her safe from prying eyes' whatever that means. When I asked, she told me not to worry, and that 'the world would be safe with her there'." Bryant sat back and watched for Hayden's reaction. The alpha prime was stone-faced, running a finger over his chin as he stared into space.
Bryant went on. "I don't want to read into the ramblings of a crone too much. But I couldn't help but wonder…"
"If it's worth a visit from all of us," Hayden finished.
Hayden announced their trip to the military training camp after supper the next night. He couched it as an inspection visit. With all the skirmishes and tensions between species, they needed to ensure that things were still in line. They had gathered in the sitting room, Adelyn arriving after dinner with a friend and Bryant and Roedin joining them for dessert.
Adelyn made a face and imitated a gagging motion. "Ugh. I hate that place. It's so full of... feral males."
"Hey, those are my people," Bryant said defensively.
"Exactly," Adelyn replied gaving Avery a knowing look. Avery just giggled and continued to doodle in her sketchbook.
"But it's extremely important for you to be seen in the camp," explained Hayden. "You are females who demonstrate power and strength and set a strong example."
"I think I will recommend Niamh in my place. She's more of the fighter anyway, and it'll be a better show," Sari said with an edge in her voice.
Hayden scowled. "It's not a show. Just be the strong, capable, intelligent females you always are," he clarified. "Speaking of which, not all strength comes from muscles. I was hoping that Avery would be interested in joining us." He looked pointedly across the room at Avery who glanced up from her sketchbook and blinked.
Roedin leapt to his feet. "Are you out of your mind? Absolutely not!"
Hayden had the sense to stay seated while the large Myotes sputtered above him. He noticed Bryant casually move between Avery and Roedin, and Adelyn was suddenly very interested in seeing what Avery had been drawing.
"Go where?" she asked.
"There is no way we are taking a human woman to a military training camp full of wild anymles! Jaret will shit a brick at the trouble it will cause!" Roedin practically screamed.
"Sorry Avery, but I'm going to side with Roedin on this one. Hayden, you know what it's like for anymles in late-winter. All they want to do is fight and-" Bryant cut himself off and quickly glanced to see if Avery had figured out he was about to say "-do other vigorous activity."
"Why are you apologising to me? Hayden seems to be one advocating for this trip," Avery pointed out.
"Does anyone here remember that I'm actually an alpha prime and commander of these armies?" Hayden asked the space around him.
Sari patted him on the leg and gave him a sad look. "It's alright darling, we let you pretend most of the time." Hayden flicked her nose playfully and looked back at the others.
"I would like to show Avery some of the progress that has been made in building the trebuchet and shield modifications she designed. She put a lot of effort into it and it seems only right. Plus...they broke it," he explained with a grimace.
"Broke what?" she asked.
"The trebuchet. They busted one of the rungs putting it together and can't figure out how to fix it."
"They what?! I wrote out very detailed and specific instructions! A pup could have assembled it! Or, Ancestors forbid, a mere human! And they broke it?" Avery, normally calm and easy-going, was practically shooting steam out her ears. Adelyn clamped a hand over her mouth to keep from exploding into laughter.
"Okay, I'm putting a vote in for Avery to join us and I'm selling tickets for those wanting to witness a human show those arrogant pricks how to fix their own war machines! A female, nonetheless!" Adelyn dissolved into hysterics. Bryant was trying not to smile but was enjoying the thought of it too.
"That is my point exactly!" Roedin said above Adelyn's giggles. "Do you think they're just going to listen to her and fix it, then she'll walk away like their egos weren't shredded by a mortal? No, they're going to-"
"Do whatever it is I tell them," Hayden cut in with a dark tone. "Things may be a little lax around here but Adelyn and I will not tolerate disobedience from the anymles or any other residents of this territory. We do not make unreasonable demands and have been more than patient with their progress. But citizens of Corinth are still under our protection and our rule. They will follow those rules or they will feel the consequences we have prescribed. It might be time for a few reminders of my - and Adelyn's - authority in this territory." He looked around the room pointedly. Everyone was serious now.
Avery looked at each of them, perfectly aware of the tension that had blossomed suddenly. Breaking tension was her specialty.
"Well, if the theme of the trip is girl-power then it sounds like we should be presenting a united front. So I'm right behind you. Just a little further back. Like in the middle of the group. Surrounded by the aforementioned really strong, powerful females."
Sari chuckled and shook her head. Adelyn smiled sheepishly and looked up at her human friend with affection. Even Bryant rolled his shoulders and cracked his neck as if to say, 'bring it on'. Roedin stalked out of the room.
Avery watched him go with raised eyebrows. "It is that bad?"