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Under the Never Sky
Under the Never Sky 28
“Tread carefully, Aria. And try to stay off your feet. ”
Aria stepped into the hallway, Rose’s words still echoing in her mind. Tapestries hung on smooth turquoise walls, the color picking up the rich threads that wove an ancient battle scene. A lighted alcove to one end housed a life-size marble statue of a man and woman locked in either a fierce struggle or a passionate embrace. It was hard to tell. To the other end of the hall, stairs with a gilt-leafed banister swept downward. Aria smiled. Everything in Delphi came from a different time and place. Marron’s home felt like being in a dozen Realms at once.
Perry’s voice drifted up the stairs. For a moment, she closed her eyes and listened to his deep drawl. Even among Outsiders, he had a distinctive, unhurried way of talking. He spoke of his home, the Tide Valley. Of his worries about Aether storms and raids by other tribes. For someone who hardly said anything, he was a compelling speaker. Concise but sure. After a few minutes, she shook her head at her own shameless eavesdropping.
The stairs took her back down to the room with the couches. Roar sat on one, Perry sprawled across another. Marron perched by Roar, one rounded leg bouncing over the other. She didn’t see Cinder but that didn’t surprise her. Perry stopped speaking and sat up when he saw her. She tried not to think of what that meant, that he didn’t want to continue in her presence.
He wore new clothes like she did. A shirt the color of sand. Leather pants that were closer to black than brown and weren’t patched and re-patched. His hair had been pulled back and it gleamed under the lights. He was drumming the fingers of his good hand against his cast. He was also pointedly not looking her way.
Marron came over and took her hands into his, the action so full of affection Aria couldn’t bring herself to pull away. He wore what Aria could only call a smoking jacket, a ridiculous burgundy velvet affair, trimmed and belted with black satin sashes.
“Ah,” he said, his cheeks plumping with a smile. “You received them. Not a bad fit, I see. I have other clothes being readied for you, my dear. But this will do fine for now. How are you, darling?”
“Good. Thank you for these. And for the rose,” she added, realizing it had come from Marron, along with the clothes.
Marron leaned in, giving her hands a squeeze. “A small gift for a great beauty. ”
Aria laughed nervously. In Reverie, she wasn’t anything unusual. Only her voice set her apart from other people. To be praised for something she’d had no say in seemed odd, but it also felt nice.
“Shall we eat?” Marron asked. “We have much to discuss and might as well fill our stomachs as we do it. I’m sure you’re all quite hungry. ”
They followed him into a dining room as lavishly decorated as the rest of Delphi. The walls were covered in crimson and gold fabric and hung floor to ceiling with oil portraits. Candlelight caught on crystal and silver, filling the room with sparkling light. The opulence sent a pang of sorrow through her. It reminded her of the Opera House.
“I’ve traded over my lifetime for these treasures,” Marron said at her side. “But meals should be revered, don’t you think?”
Roar pulled out a chair for her as Perry headed to the far side of the rectangular table. They’d hardly sat down when people arrived to pour them water and wine. They were well-dressed and fastidiously groomed. Aria was beginning to see what Marron had done in his compound. Work in exchange for safety. But the people who served him didn’t appear distressed. Everyone she had seen within Marron’s walls seemed healthy and content. And loyal, like Rose.
Marron lifted his glass, his soft bejeweled fingers fanning like a peacock’s feathers. Aria locked onto a flash of blue. Marron was wearing the ring with the blue stone that Perry had stashed away. Aria smiled to herself. She should stop making assumptions about roses and rings.
“To the return of old friends and to an unexpected but most welcome new one. ”
Soup was brought out, the smell stirring her appetite to life. The others began to eat, but she set down her spoon. It was dizzying, going from the harsh outside world, from the sprint for their lives, to this sparkling feast. She should have adjusted faster, having fractioned through Realms her entire life. But she savored the moment, despite its strangeness, appreciating all that she saw before her.
They were safe. They were warm. They had food.
She picked up the spoon again, welcoming the weight of it in her hand. When she took her first sip, tastes burst like tiny fireworks over her tongue. It had been so long since she’d eaten anything rich. The soup, a creamy mushroom concoction, was delicious.
She glanced at Perry. He sat at the head of the table, opposite Marron. She’d expected to find him out of place. He belonged in the woods; she knew that with every certainty. But he looked comfortable. Clean-shaven, the angles of his jaw and nose seemed sharper, his green eyes brighter, catching as much candlelight as the chandelier above.
He motioned for one of the servants. “Where did you find morels this time of year?”
“We grow them here,” said the young man.
“They’re very good. ”
Aria’s gaze fell to the soup. He knew there were morels in it. She’d tasted mushroom but he identified them exactly. Smell and taste were related senses. She remembered Lumina telling her that once. They were the last senses to be incorporated into the Realms after sight, sound, and touch. Smell was the hardest sense to replicate virtually.
She looked back at Perry, watching as his lips closed over the spoon. If his sense of smell was so strong, was his sense of taste heightened too? For some reason, the thought made her blush. Aria took a few sips of water, hiding her face with the crystal.
“Marron has been working on your Smarteye,” Perry said. He was calling it a Smarteye. Not a device. Not the eyepiece.
“Since the minute Perry gave it to me. It’s largely undamaged, from what we can tell so far. We’re working on restoring power to it, touchy without setting off a locating signal, but we’ll get it. I’ll know how long that should take soon. ”
“There should be two files,” Aria said. “A recording and a message from my mother. ”
“If they can be found, we’ll find them. ”
For the first time, Aria felt hope. Real hope that she’d reach Lumina. That Perry would find Talon. Perry met her eyes and smiled. He felt it too.
“I don’t know how I can thank you,” she said to Marron.
“I’m afraid it’s not all good news. Restoring power will be the easy part. Linking the eye to the Realms to contact your mother will be far more difficult. ” Marron cast an apologetic look her way. “I’ve tried to breach the security protocols for the Realms before. I’ve never managed it, but I’ve never tried with a Smarteye or with a Dweller before. ”
Aria had worried about this. Hess had surely blocked her access into the Realms, but she hoped the “Songbird” file might help them reach Lumina.
Marron asked questions about the Pod as they moved from soup to beef stewed in rich wine sauce. Aria explained how most everything, from the production of food to the recycling of their air and water, was automated.
“People don’t work?” Roar asked.
“Only the minority do in the real. ” Aria glanced at Perry, looking for signs of disgust, but he was tucked into his food. A meal like this had to be a rarity for him, not just something he’d missed on their journey.
She told them about the pseudo-economy, where people amassed virtual wealth, but that there were black markets and hackers. “None of it changes what happens in the real. Aside from the Consuls, everyone is entitled to the same living quarters and clothes and diet. ”
Roar leaned across the table and smiled at her seductively, his dark hair falling into his eyes. “When you say everything happens in the Realms, do you mean everything?”
Aria laughed nervously. “Yes. Especially that. There are no risks in the Realms.
Roar’s smile widened. “You simply think it and it happens? And it actually feels real?”
“Why are we talking about this?”
“I need a Smarteye,” he said.
Perry rolled his eyes. “There’s no way it’s the same. ”
Marron cleared his throat. He’d gone a little red in the face. Aria knew she had too. She didn’t know if it was the same, real or Realms, but she wasn’t about to tell them that.
“What happened with the Croven?” she asked, anxious to change the subject. Surely by now they had disappeared.
She looked around the table. No one answered. Finally Marron wiped his mouth neatly with a napkin and spoke. “They’re still gathered in the plateau, from what we can tell. Slaying a Blood Lord is a grave offense, Aria. They will stay as long as they can. ”
“We slew a Blood Lord?” she asked, hardly believing she’d just used the word slew.
Perry’s green eyes flicked up. “It’s the only way to explain their numbers. And I did it, Aria. Not you. ”
Because of what she did. Because she’d left the rotten cave and gone searching for berries. “So they’re waiting?”
Perry sat back in his chair, his jaw tight. “Yes. ”
“We’re safe here, I assure you,” Marron said. “The wall is fifty feet at the lowest point, and we have archers posted day and night. They’ll keep the Croven from coming too close. And soon the weather will turn. With the cold and the Aether storms, the Croven will leave in search of shelter. Let’s hope that happens before they do something rash. ”
“How many are there?” she asked.
“Near forty,” Perry said.
“Forty?” She couldn’t believe it. Forty cannibals were after him? For days, she’d imagined reaching her mother in Bliss. She imagined Lumina sending a Hover for her. With the footage of Soren, she’d clear her name of any wrongdoing and start over in Bliss. But what about Perry? Would he ever be able to leave Marron’s? If he did, would he always have to run from the Croven?
Marron shook his head at his wine. “In these harsh times, the Croven fare well. ”
Roar nodded. “They destroyed the Blackfins a few months ago. They’re a tribe west of here. They’d suffered a few lean years, like most. Then the Aether storms came and hit their compound directly. ”
“We were there,” Perry said, glancing at her. “It was the place with the broken roof. ”
Aria swallowed through a thick throat, imagining the power of the storm that had leveled that place. Perry had found her boots and coat there. She’d worn the Blackfins clothes for days.
“They took a cruel hit,” Perry said.
“They did,” Roar agreed. “They lost half of their number to the storms in one day. Lodan, their Blood Lord, sent word to Vale, offering to pledge what was left of his tribe to the Tides. This is the highest form of shame to a Blood Lord, Aria. ” He paused, his dark eyes darting to Perry. “Vale refused the offer. He claimed he couldn’t take on any more hungry mouths. ”
Perry looked stung. “Vale didn’t tell me. ”