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Under the Never Sky
Under the Never Sky 21
“Good. That’s right. ” The blackberry, a lucky find buried in a patch of brambles, smelled sweet and ripe. Perry could scent it perfectly. This close, he also caught Aria’s scent again. Violets. A scent he could never get enough of. And then there was her temper, clear and strong. For the first time today, it wasn’t full of anger or repulsion. The tone that came off of her was bright and alert, like mint.
“Look at the color next. If the berry’s white or has white inside, it’s safer to toss it. ”
She examined the berry. He could see her mind working, memorizing the information. “This looks dark red. ”
“Yeah. So far, it’s looking good. Next you’d want to rub it on your skin. Tender skin is best. ” He went to take her hand and remembered how she hated being touched. “The inside of your arm. Right here. ” He showed her where on his own arm.
She drew the berry over the inside of her wrist. It left a smooth line of juice on her skin. Perry frowned at the stumble in his heartbeat, then made himself not frown.
“So, you’d want to wait a while. If you didn’t see a rash creeping on, you’d put a bit on your lip. ”
He watched as she pressed the berry to her lower lip. He kept looking at her mouth after she’d done it. He knew he should look away, but he couldn’t. “Right. Good. If there’s no stinging, you’d put it to your tongue. ”
Perry shot to his feet before he finished the words, nearly tripping over himself. He ran a hand over his head, feeling skitty, like he needed to laugh or run or do something. He picked up a stone and tossed it into the creek, trying to get the image of her tasting the berry out of his mind. Trying to keep from pumping her scent into his nose like he wanted to.
“Is that it?” she asked.
“What? No. ” All he could think about was the way she’d looked the night of the Aether storm. The curves of her bare skin, pressed at his side. “You’d swallow a small amount and wait a few hours, see how it sits. Now you know how to find berries. We need to pull foot. ”
He crossed his arms and stood there, still unsure what to do. He knew he was giving her a strange look. He felt strange. He felt a lot of strange. He hadn’t seen her as a girl before now. He’d seen her as a Mole. Now he couldn’t stop seeing all the girl about her.
Aria gave him the same look right back—eyebrows drawn down, mouth twisted to the side, a mixy, strained look—mocking him.
Perry laughed. A ripple ran through his shoulders at the feeling of laughing. When was the last time someone had joked with him? The answer came easily. He’d been with Talon.
“So is this one good?” she asked, holding up the berry.
“Yeah. It’s good. ”
She popped it into her mouth and swallowed. Then she smiled, extending the branch out to him.
“Go ahead,” he said, and set to tightening the string on his bow.
When she was finished, she looked over and smiled. “Seems easier if I just find them and ask you whether they’re edible or not. Faster than the rubbing and tasting process. ”
“Sure,” he said, feeling like a fool. “That would work too. ”
They decided to take turns sleeping, right there by the creek. She was supposed to take her turn first, but when she lay down, she couldn’t keep her eyes closed. Dreams were unsettling things, and she wasn’t up for another one just yet. So she sat, shivering despite her thick coat and the blue blanket wrapped around her. The Aether moved in thin sheets, slow and wispy as the clouds. Gusts rustled through the pine needles, setting branches swaying around her. There were people who lived in trees and cannibals who dressed as crows out here.
Yesterday she’d seen them both.
“How far away is Marron’s?” she asked.
“Three days or so,” Peregrine said. He held the small knife with the carved feathers, twirling it absently. Spinning it once. Catching the handle. Spinning it. Catching it.
Peregrine or Perry? She didn’t know what to call him. Perry made her shoes from book covers and taught her how to find berries. Peregrine had tattoos and flashing green eyes. He twirled a knife without fear of cutting himself and put arrows through people’s necks. She’d seen him decapitate a man. But then, the man had been a cannibal who’d been after her. Aria sighed, her breath fogging lightly in the cool air. She wasn’t sure what she thought of him anymore.
“Will we get there in time?” she asked.
His lips turned up like he’d been expecting the question. “The Croven aren’t close, as far as I can tell. ”
It wasn’t the exact answer she’d wanted, but good to hear nonetheless. “Who is he—Marron?”
“A friend. A trader. A ruler. A bit of everything. ” His eyes dropped to her shaking shoulders. “Can’t have a fire. ”
“Because someone would see the smoke?”
He nodded. “Or scent it. ”
She looked at his restless hands. “You don’t sit still much, do you?”
He slid the knife through a leather strap at his boot. “Being still makes me tired. ”
That made no sense, but she wasn’t going to ask and risk upsetting what felt like a fragile truce.
He crossed his arms and then uncrossed them. “How do you feel?”
A tingle ran down her back. This was so strange. Him, asking her this. Far more intimate than it should have felt. Because she knew he wanted to know. He didn’t ask empty questions or waste words.
“I want to go home. ”
It was a weak answer and she knew it, but how could she explain? Her body was changing, and it wasn’t just that she was menstruating. Her senses were filled with the trickle of the creek and the smell of pine in the air. Her whole awareness was shifting. Like every cell in her body was stretching its arms and yawning off sleep. Sure, she ached in her feet. And she still had the headaches and a dull pain low in her stomach. Yet in spite of all her ailments, she didn’t feel like a girl whose life was slipping away.
Perry stood. Perry, she realized. Not Peregrine. It seemed her subconscious had decided what to make of him. She unwrapped herself from the blanket, her muscles aching and reluctant to move again. They might as well walk, she supposed, if they weren’t going to sleep. Then she noticed the way Perry stared into the darkness.
“What is it?” she asked, shooting to her feet. “Is it the Croven?”
He shook his head, still gazing into the woods. Perry cupped his hands around his mouth. “Roar!”
The sound of his raised voice made her heart stop.
“Roar, you rancy bastard! I know you’re out there! I can smell you from here!”
A moment later, a whistle broke into the air, echoing through the mountain pass.
Perry looked down at her, a striking grin on his face. “Our luck just turned. ”
He devoured the hillside in big, loping strides. Aria ran to keep up, her heart racing faster than her feet. At the top, they reached an outcropping of boulders that looked blue in the failing light, like whales breeching from the sea. A dark figure stood there, his arms crossed over his chest as though he’d been waiting. Perry tore over to him. Aria watched as they locked into a fierce embrace, then began to shove at each other playfully.
She picked her way closer, taking in this new Outsider. Everything about him looked refined under the cool light. His lean build and sharp features. The cut of his dark hair. He wore fitted clothes. Black from head to toe, with no frayed edges or holes that she could see. This was someone she could easily see in the Realms. Polished and too handsome to be real.
“Who’s this?” he asked, seeing her.
“I’m Aria,” she answered. “Who are you?”
“Hello, Aria. I’m Roar. Do you sing?”
It was a surprising question, but she answered on reflex. “Yes, I do. ”
“Excellent. ” Up close, she saw the gleam in Roar’s gaze. He had a prince’s looks but a pirate’s eyes. Roar smile
d, an appealing, clever flash. Aria laughed. Definitely more pirate. Roar laughed at her laugh, and she decided on the spot she liked him.
He looked back at Perry. “Have I gone dull, Per, or is she a Dweller?”
“Long story. ”
“Perfect. ” Roar rubbed his palms together. “We’ll settle into a few bottles of Luster. Long stories are the best sort for cold nights. ”
“How’d you come up with Luster out here?” Perry asked.
“Swoggled a bottle a couple of days ago, along with enough bread and cheese to keep us from starving. Let’s celebrate. With you here, it won’t be long before we find Liv. ”
Perry’s smile vanished. “Find Liv? She’s not with the Horns?”
Roar cursed. “Perry, I thought you knew. She ran! I sent word to Vale. I thought you’d come to help find her. ”
“No. ” Perry closed his eyes and tipped his head up, the muscles in his neck tight with anger. “We never got word. You stayed with her, right?”
“Of course I did, but you know Liv. She does what she wants. ”
“She can’t,” Perry said. “Liv can’t do what she wants. How will the Tides survive the winter?”
“I don’t know. I’ve got my own reasons for being streaked about what she’s done. ”
A dozen different questions cropped up in Aria’s mind. Who was Liv? What was she running from? She remembered the gold ring with the blue stone that Perry had stashed away. Was the ring for her? She was curious, but it seemed too personal to pry.
Roar and Perry set to work building a screen with leafy branches to form a bulwark against the wind. Whatever had happened with the girl, Liv, had left them quiet. They worked quickly together despite their silence, like they’d done this sort of thing a hundred times. Aria copied the way they wove the branches together and found that for her first-ever screen, she did a respectable job.
They couldn’t have a fire, but Roar produced a candle that gave them a flickering light to gather around. Aria had just begun devouring the bread and cheese Roar brought out when she heard the snap of a twig. It sounded close in the quiet. She turned, seeing only the screen of pine branches as she heard footsteps scuttling off in retreat.
“What was that?” She’d just started to relax. Now her heart was pounding again.
Perry bit into a piece of hard bread. “Your friend have a name, Roar?”
Aria scowled at him. How could he dismiss this lurking stranger after what they’d been through with the cannibals?
Roar didn’t answer right away. He stared off like he was still listening for movement. Then he unstopped a black bottle and took a long drink, settling back against his bag. “It’s a kid, and he’s more a pest than a friend. His name is Cinder. I found him sleeping right in the middle of the woods about a week ago. No thought to being seen or sniffed out by wolves. I should’ve let him be, but he’s young . . . thirteen maybe . . . and he’s in bad shape. I gave him some food and he’s been trailing me since. ”
Aria peered at the pine screen again. She’d gotten a taste of being alone out there the night Perry had left her behind. Those hours had been filled with nothing but fear. She couldn’t imagine a boy living like that.