Avery perched on the ridge overlooking a small town, carefully observing the comings and goings of its occupants. It was a far cry from the bustling activity of Corinth, smaller even than the military training camp in the Sawtooth Mountains. She remained hidden in the trees assessing the risks for a human entering a sapien town.
The village was clearly an outpost used as a trading centre for the surrounding area. There were a few houses and apartments scattered about in loose formation, and on the outskirts some tents were spread about in the trees where faunids had set up camp. Clearly their goods and business were welcomed in the town, but they weren't allowed to stay. So how welcome would a human be?
Since leaving Terraly Avery had avoided any contact with people—sapien or faunid—until she was able to put some distance between her and her crime. She had murdered the son of an alpha prime. A cruel, disturbed, sick male who had tortured her for years and was about go free and she couldn't let that happen.
She regretted nothing.
She replayed the sight of the slimy smile falling from his face as her dagger found its mark. Her second blow.
But killing the son of a ruler did not come without consequences, regardless of how justified she was. Alpha Prime Caiaphas would be looking for her to avenge his son and she couldn't bring that threat to the innocent people of Corinth. The people who had saved her from her prison in the woods, shown her life and laughter, and taught her to love.
Her mind immediately latched on to the image of a winged warrior kneeling on a dark balcony gently accepting her offering of food. She instinctively looked to the sky as though he would be soaring overhead at that moment.
"Stop it, Avery," she chided herself. "He's not there."
She shook her head to the clear the thought though it did nothing to lift the crushing weight on her chest. Roedin wouldn't be there until she left him a clue. A whisper that only he would hear so that he could find her. She pictured him walking the halls of the Spark, when out of the shadows a spy tells him where he might find a human girl with auburn hair and golden-brown eyes.
He takes to the skies immediately.
The image gives her courage to enter the town below.
Avery held the horse to a causal walk and stared straight ahead, like the town was just another stop for an experienced traveller. But her eyes darted around quickly, noting the stores and warehouses, the sapiens strolling along the wooden sidewalks and the faunids kept to the muddy street. It was a rough outpost with aspirations of something more. The random collection of farmers, trappers, faunids, and merchants resulted in a bizarre dress code ranging from rough spun tunics to fine cut dresses and suit jackets. Regardless of the eclectic collection of inhabitants Avery stood out like a sheep in a pack of wolves.
However, she wasn't bombarded with aggressive stares as she had been expecting. There were a few curious glances her way but most sapiens continued on their business without pause. Perhaps there was a preserve nearby and these people were accustomed to seeing humans in their presence?
Avery dismounted in front of a supply store, hissing quietly as her wounded leg took her weight. The gash was ten days old and she had been unable to keep the infection at bay. She was still angry at herself for trying to cross that river even though it was in flood. Her penalty: the loss of half her provisions and a nasty cut on her thigh, compliments of a rogue tree being washed downstream. Foolish.
She hitched the horse to the pole and then casually strolled up the steps to the store's entrance, taking care to hide her limp.
A few lumenstones hung from the ceiling illuminating the room crammed with an assortment of supplies. Sapiens wouldn't need much more to see, but it took a moment for Avery's human eyes to adjust. She scanned the room quickly noting three other customers, the shopkeeper, and his assistant behind the counter. Keeping her eye on the door she began to peruse the aisles picking up the supplies she needed to restock from losing her saddlebag.
She stepped around a stack of crates to find a young sapien clinging precariously to a shelf, reaching for a trinket above her head. As the youngling made a grab for the object her foot slipped and Avery caught her before she hit the ground.
"Easy there!" Avery laughed. "You seem to have left your wings at home!"
She placed the youngling on the ground and reached up for the trinket, handing it over with a smile. The young female smiled shyly up at the human.
"I don't have wings," she giggled.
"Oh no? Well perhaps you were going to use magic to fly then?" Avery teased. The youngling giggled again.
"Sasha!" her mother cried out. She marched over and snatched the youngling's hand, pulling her away from Avery. "How many times have I told you to stay away from humans?" She glanced up at Avery in disgust and yanked the trinket out of the youngling's hand before dragging her out of the shop. "They have all sorts of diseases…"
Avery flushed in embarrassment at the insult but bit her tongue and watched them go. She collected the last of her supplies and approached the counter.
"I'd like two loaves of hardbread and a pound of cheese as well, please," she asked.
The shopkeeper didn't move to gather the items but instead crossed his arms menacingly.
"You have papers?" he asked.
Avery kept her face blank and didn't flinch under his glare, but her heart rate accelerated as alarm bells sounded in her mind. Though every muscle was coiled in preparation to flee, she managed to keep her hand steady as she placed her money on the counter.
"I have coin. Is that not the currency of business around here?" she answered with cocky ease.
She held the shopkeeper's eyes with her own, refusing to back down. He broke first, turning to pull the loaves off the rack and wrap the cheese in cloth. Before handing over the coins Avery dared another request.
"I'm looking for a particular book: Animal husbandry and medicinal care. Do you happen to carry it?" She knew the shop didn't have any such books and watched the keeper's reaction carefully.
He curled his lip up. "Can you even read?"
Avery swallowed down her retort and restated her request through clenched teeth. "Do you carry the book or not?"
The sapien huffed. "No, this isn't a library."
Avery simply relinquished the coins and collected her purchases. "Thank you, anyway."
She deliberately kept her pace slow and calm as she exited the shop, demonstrating a confidence she did not feel. A shop like this would never carry such an obscure book, or any book for that matter, but she hoped the whisper of a human in a remote town, looking for a book on animal husbandry would find its way back to the spymaster of Corinth.
She attached her new bag to the saddle and unhitched the horse, leading it down the street to a sleepy looking saloon. She took a deep breath and braced for similarly chilly service as she entered the drinking establishment.
Conversation came to abrupt halt when she walked in the door as both male and female sapiens peered over their mugs of ale at the visitor. Once again it took a moment for Avery's eyes to adjust to the dim lighting but she kept her senses on high alert for the first sign of trouble. No one moved as she stepped up to the bar counter but she could feel their eyes boring into her back.
"We don't serve your kind here," the bartender growled from down the counter.
Avery restrained herself from rolling her eyes. The line was so cliché, she felt she was playing a role on stage.
"I'm not looking for a drink, just a bottle of Cupressa gin, then I'll be on my way."
The bartender played out the scene perfectly, even walking over whilst wiping out a glass with a dirty towel. If she wasn't so terrified of being surrounded by drunk sapiens she might have laughed out loud.
"You humans are practically deaf. I said, we don't serve your kind."
Avery glanced around the room, anticipating audience participation. "I'm not looking for service, I'm looking for a bottle of Cupressa gin."
She placed the coins on the counter, twice as much as the gin was worth, and tried to look bored with the whole conversation. The bartender's eyes widened at the sight the coins and he quickly replaced them with the gin.
"Just make sure you keep your drunk human friends away from town after they've downed this cheap shit," he hissed.
Avery sighed and snatched the bottle, turning abruptly and stalking out of the bar. Still concealing her limp, she glanced up and down the street as she made her way back to the horse but hesitated when she saw two male sapiens leaning on the boardwalk railing, watching her with interest. She ignored them as she stuffed the liquor bottle in the remaining saddlebag but discreetly ensured the sword she had stolen from Khalil was easily accessible.
"Hey girl, let's see your papers," one of them called out.
The weight of the dagger in her boot gave her courage to ignore the request as she stepped up into the stirrup and swung her leg over, pulling the horse away in one motion. She forced the horse to a walk though every muscle in her body screamed at her to flee the town. She had no idea what papers they were asking about, but her lack of said papers didn't seem to stop business.
As she passed the buildings on the outskirts of town she dared a glance over her shoulder before nudging the horse into an easy trot. After a time, she broke off the road and headed north once again, picking her way carefully through the woods until she came upon a clear stream. It wasn't until she dismounted and her legs gave out beneath her that she realised every muscled had been tensed under the stress. She lay back on the cool ground catching her breath and feeling the adrenaline drain away, leaving her shaky and weak on the forest floor.
She had never felt such outward animosity from sapiens before. She expected some prejudice and disdain but the blatant disgust for humans had been difficult to withstand. They had assumed she was an illiterate drunk. What kind of humans had they met before?
But she had planted the whisper and could only hope it was a trail Roedin could follow.
As the royal horse drank from the stream, Avery got to her feet and pulled out the liquor and a needle and thread. She hobbled over to a boulder and propped up her leg, pulling the dirty cloth off her wound. She cringed when she saw how the surrounding tissue was red and inflamed, but cleaned away the dirt with as best she could.
Then she pulled the cork out of the bottle and poured the alcohol over the gash. She gasped as the liquid burned her flesh and squeezed her eyes shut as though blocking the sight could block the pain. She tried to imagine the liquor burning away the infection and resigned herself to accruing yet another scar. She inhaled through her nose and blew the air out sharply between her lips. The burning subsided and she took a final breath before opening her eyes again.
In front of her stood the male sapien from outside the saloon. She yelped and cringed back only to find the other male behind her, both having snuck up without a sound.
"No papers?" the male said with mock concern.
A sweet-smelling cloth was clamped over her nose and mouth and she inhaled deeply in surprise. The potion took effect before her second breath and her limbs went numb as the world turned to black.