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Under the Never Sky
Under the Never Sky 20
“What you said about my Markings . . . my tattoos,” he continued. “You were on the right track. ” He looked up, meeting her eyes. “I’m called Peregrine. Like the falcon. People call me Perry. ”
He had a name. Peregrine. Perry. New information to consider. Did it suit him? Did it mean something? But Aria found she couldn’t even look at him. A Savage had needed to explain to her that she was menstruating. She bit into her raw inner lip and tasted blood. Her eyes blurred. She had never thought so much about blood before. Now she couldn’t get away from it.
“Why did you do this?” she asked. “Find all this stuff for me?” Pity. It had to be out of pity that he’d gathered all of this and told her his name.
“You needed it. ” He rubbed a hand over the back of his head. Then he sat down, propping his long arms over his knees and lacing his fingers together. “You thought you were dying this morning. But you brought me the eyepiece anyway. You were going to give it to me of your own will. ”
Aria picked up a rock. She’d developed a habit of lining them up. By color. By size. By shape. Making sense of the randomness she’d admired at first. Now she just looked at the conglomerate chunk in her hand, wondering why she’d ever bothered pocketing such an ugly mixed-up thing.
She didn’t know if she’d brought the Smarteye back to be noble, exactly. Maybe so. But maybe she’d done it because she knew he’d been right about the cannibals. And she owed him for saving her life. Three times.
“Thank you. ” She didn’t sound very grateful and wished she had. She knew she needed these things, and needed his help. But she didn’t want to need anything.
He nodded, accepting her thanks.
They fell into silence. The Aether light seeped down into the decrepit house, washing away the shadows. As tired as she was, her senses filled with the chill of the air against her face. With the weight of the rock resting in her hand and the dusty smell he’d brought in with him. Aria heard her own breathing and felt the quiet power of his attention. She felt completely where she was. There with him. With herself.
She’d never felt anything like it.
“My people celebrate the first blood,” he said after a moment, his voice soft and deep. “The women in the tribe prepare a feast. They bring gifts to the girl—woman. They stay with her that night, all the women in one house. And . . . I don’t know what happens after that. My sister says they tell stories, but I don’t know what they are. I think they explain the meaning of it . . . of the change you’re going through. ”
Aria’s cheeks went hot. She didn’t want to change. She wanted to go home perfectly preserved. “What meaning can there be? Seems like a horrible thing no matter how you look at it. ”
“You can bear children now. ”
“That’s completely primitive! Children are special where I come from. They’re created carefully, each one. It’s not a random experiment. There’s so much thought that goes into every person. You have no idea. ”
Too late, she remembered that he was trying to rescue a boy. Making her shoes. Murdering three men. Saving her life. The Outsider had done it all for the boy. Obviously children were cherished here as well, but she couldn’t take the words back.
She wasn’t sure why she cared. He was a killer. Scarred. Covered with signs of violence. What did it matter that she’d been insensitive to a murderer?
“You’ve killed before, haven’t you?” She already knew the answer. Still, she wanted to hear him tell her no. Tell her something that would take away the queasy feeling she got every time she remembered what he’d done to those three men.
He didn’t answer. He never answered, and she was tired of it. Sick of his quiet, watchful eyes. “How many men have you killed? Ten? Twenty? Do you keep some sort of count?” Aria had raised her voice to let some of the poison out. He rose and moved to the threshold, but she didn’t stop. She couldn’t stop.
“If you do, you shouldn’t add Soren. You didn’t kill him, though I know you tried. You shattered his jaw. Shattered it! But maybe Bane and Echo and Paisley brought your numbers up. ”
He spoke through a clenched jaw. “Do you have any idea what would’ve happened if I hadn’t been there that night? And yesterday?”
She did. And here it was. The fear she’d pressed back. Of those men, who’d seemed friendly but who ate human flesh. Of the terrible hours she’d spent running alone, searching for glimpses of Mount Arrow, hoping she was headed the right way in the dark. She was lashing out recklessly but she knew the true source of her anger. She didn’t trust her own judgment anymore. What did she know out here? Even berries might kill her.
“So what!” she yelled, scrambling to her feet. “So what if you saved my life! You left! And do you really think it makes you a good person? Saving one person when you kill three others? And bringing these things for me? Saying things, like it’s an honor what’s happening to me? It’s not an honor! This shouldn’t happen. I’m not an animal! I haven’t forgotten what you did to those men. I won’t forget. ”
He laughed bitterly. “If it makes you feel better, I won’t forget either. ”
“You have a conscience? That’s touching. My mistake. I had you figured wrong. ”
He crossed the distance between them in a flash. Aria found herself looking up, right into furious green eyes. “You know nothing about me. ”
She knew his hand was on the knife at his hip. Aria’s heart pounded so hard she could hear it drumming in her ears. “You would’ve already done it. You don’t hurt women. ”
“You’re wrong there, Mole. I have killed a woman before. Keep talking. You might be the second. ”
A choked sob burst through her lips. He was telling the truth.
He turned his back on her and stood there a moment. “The Croven will retaliate,” he said. “If you’re coming, we travel now. In the dark. ”
After he left, she stood breathing hard for a few moments, absorbing what had just happened. What she’d said, and what he’d admitted to. She didn’t want to think of what cannibals did to retaliate, or of the Outsider taking a woman’s life.
Aria looked down at the navy blanket. She stared at it as her breath calmed and the urge to scream and cry receded.
Boots. At least she had boots now.
They kept a good pace despite traveling at night. They needed to. Three slain Croven would bring out their tribesmen in search of revenge. The Croven would surely have a Scire among them who’d latch on to Perry’s scent. It was only a matter of time before they came after him in their black cloaks and masks.
Perry had committed the greatest possible wrong against the Croven, who believed they brought the spirits of the dead into themselves by eating flesh. By leaving those three men out for scavenging animals, he would be seen as a murderer not of men but of eternal souls. The Croven wouldn’t stop in their quest for vengeance until they found him. He should have burned the bodies or buried them, both of which could’ve bought him time. He glanced at Aria, walking ten paces away from him. He should have done a few things differently.
She met his eyes for an instant before looking away. Beast, she’d called him. Monster. Her temper told him she felt the same way toward him now. He’d lost his mind, hearing those things. Scenting her reaction to what he’d done. To what he’d had to do, because of her. He didn’t need anyone telling him what he was. He knew. He’d known what he was since the day he was born.
The air became cool and sharp as they climbed into the mountain. As the pine forest grew thicker, Perry saw the power of his Sense diminish. Pine blasted his nose, shrouding subtler scents and stunting his range. He knew he’d adapt in time but it worried him, not having his ability at its strongest. They were well into the borderlands now. He needed both his Senses at their best to steer clear of the Croven and other dispersed who hid out in these woods.
Perry spent the morning adjusting to the change and
searching for game trails. He’d shared a lean little rabbit he had caught with Aria yesterday, along with some more roots he’d dug up, but his stomach still growled. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d filled it.
Thoughts of Talon grabbed hold of him. What was his nephew doing now? Were his legs bothering him? Did he hate Perry for what had happened? He knew he was avoiding tougher questions. Things too painful to even consider. That maybe Talon hadn’t survived. To think that way would’ve laid him out for good. Nothing would matter if that were so.
They took a short rest at midday. Aria leaned against a tree. She looked drawn, the skin beneath her eyes pale purple. Even tired she had a face made to be looked at. Finespun. Delicate. Beautiful. Perry shook his head, surprised by his own thoughts.
Late in the afternoon, they stopped for a drink by a creek that cut a lazy, winding path through a ravine. Perry washed his face and hands, then drank deeply from the icy water. Aria stayed where she’d dropped along the bank.
“Is it your feet?”
Her eyes turned to him. “I’m hungry. ”
He nodded. He was hungry too. “I’ll find us something. ”
“I don’t want your food. I don’t want anything else from you. ”
Bitter words but her temper, sluggish and dank, spoke of deep despair. Perry watched her for a moment. He understood. This, at least, wasn’t about him. He wouldn’t want to ask to eat every time his stomach felt empty either.
They walked on, following the creek up the mountain. This was decent land, kept green by snowmelt. Too hilly for farming, but the hunting would be better than at home. He searched for animal scents, hoping to find anything but the musk of wolves. With night a few hours off, he knew they’d have to rest soon and eat, too. Just as he was growing frustrated with his pine-fettered nose, he crossed a sweet scent that set his mouth watering.
“Rest for a bit. ” He jogged off a couple of paces. “I’ll be right back. ”
Aria sat right away and shrugged. He waited, expecting her to say something. Wanting her to, but she didn’t say a word.
He came back a few moments later and knelt in front of her on the gravelly bank. With the pine trees towering over them, it was growing dark already, though night was still a good hour off. Behind him the creek gurgled softly. Her eyes narrowed when she saw the leafy branch in his hand, spotted with dark red berries.
“What are you doing?”
“Teaching you so you can find your own food,” he said, looking down at the branch, wondering if she’d laugh at him in the next moment and call him a Savage. “Soon you’ll recognize what’s safe to eat by knowing where things grow, and recognizing the shapes of the leaves. Until then, the first thing is to crush a small piece and smell it. ”
He peered at her. She sat up, looking more alert. Relieved, he plucked a berry and handed it to her. “If it smells nutty and bitter, don’t eat it. ”
Aria broke it open, dipped her head to sniff it. “It doesn’t smell like either. ”