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Under the Never Sky
Under the Never Sky 43
“You’re weak. ”
He was wrong. Perry wasn’t weak. That had never been the problem. The problem was that he couldn’t help them all. No matter what he did, people he loved would still suffer and die and leave. But Perry couldn’t do it. He couldn’t stay down. He didn’t know how to give up.
He swept his legs beneath him and sprang to his feet. Braids leaped back at his sudden movement, jumping out of the way, but Perry caught him by the collar. He yanked Braids toward him, the movement whipping his head backward. Perry jammed his elbow into his nose. Blood burst from his nostrils. Perry twisted the blade from Braids’s grip, dodging a punch and driving a fist into his stomach. Braids folded, dropping onto one knee. Perry wrapped an arm around his neck and wrestled him to the dirt.
Perry snatched up the serrated blade from the ground and laid it against the man’s throat. Braids stared up at him, blood pouring from his nose. Perry knew this was the moment he should demand an oath. Pledge to me or die.
He inhaled deeply. Braids’s temper was red fury, all directed at Perry. He’d never submit. Braids would choose death, just as he’d have done.
“You owe me a bottle of Luster,” Perry said.
Then he stood, reeling. The other men had gathered around. He breathed in their tempers, the scents both right and wrong. He looked for the next man who might challenge him. No one came forward.
A sudden twist in his gut had him vomiting right there in front of them. He held on to the knife in case any of them wanted to take a shot while he was heaving, like Braids had. They didn’t. Everything came up at once. He straightened.
“Probably don’t need any more Luster. ”
He tossed the knife aside and stumbled into the darkness. He didn’t know where he was going. It didn’t matter.
He wanted to hear her voice. He wanted to hear her tell him he was good. All he heard was the sound of his feet chasing the dark.
Morning came. His head felt like a door slammed closed on it, over and over. His body felt worse. Perry peeled off the shoddy dressing he’d tied around his arm. The cut was jagged and deep. Perry washed it, growing light-headed as it bled freshly.
He ripped a strip off his shirt and tried to bandage it again. His fingers were too shaky. Still too clumsy with drink. He lay back on the gravel and closed his eyes because it was too bright. Because darkness was better.
He woke to a tugging on his arm and shot upright. Braids crouched beside him. His nose was swollen, his eyes red with bruising. The other men stood behind him.
Perry looked down at his arm. The wound was well bandaged, tied off neatly.
“You didn’t ask me to pledge to you,” Braids said.
“You’d have said no. ”
Braids nodded once. “I would have. ” He took Talon’s knife from his belt and held it out. “I’m guessing you want this back. ”
Aria pulled her knees up. She’d woken hours ago in a cramped chamber, an acrid taste coating her tongue. A glove lay discarded in the corner. She’d watched the smudges of blood on the fingers fade from red to rust.
Her eye socket throbbed. They had taken her Smarteye while she was unconscious.
Aria didn’t care.
The wall in front of her had a thick black screen nearly as wide as the room itself. Aria waited for it to open. She knew who she’d see on the other side when it did, but she wasn’t afraid.
She’d survived the outside. She’d survived the Aether and cannibals and wolves. She knew how to love now, and how to let go. Whatever came next, she would survive it, too.
A soft crackling sound broke the room’s silence. Small speakers by the black screen buzzed softly. Aria shot to her feet, her hand aching for the weight of Talon’s knife. The screen parted, revealing a room behind thick glass. There were two men on the other side.
“Hello, Aria,” Consul Hess said, his small eyes pinching in amusement. “You can’t imagine how surprised I am to see you. ” He dwarfed the chair on which he sat. Ward stood quiet and serious at his side, his brow wrinkled.
“I’m sorry for your loss,” said Consul Hess.
His words carried no tone of sympathy. She would never believe him anyway. He’d put her out to die.
“We viewed the ‘Songbird’ message from your mother,” he continued. He held her Smarteye in his palm. “You know, I was unaware of your unique genetic makeup when I put you outside? Lumina kept that hidden from all of us. ”
Aria’s gaze snapped to the glass. She understood. They saw her as a diseased Savage. They didn’t want to breathe the same air she did.
“You have the Smarteye,” she said. “What do you want from me?”
Hess smiled. “I’ll get to that. You know what happened here in Bliss, don’t you? You saw it in your mother’s file. ” He paused. “You had a taste of it yourself in Ag 6. ”
She saw no point in lying. “An Aether strike and DLS,” she said.
“Yes, that’s right. A dual attack. External first. A storm weakens the Pod. Then internal, as the disease manifests. Your mother was among the first to study DLS. She was working toward a cure, along with many other scientists. But as you can see by what happened here, we don’t have an answer. And we may run out of time before we do. ”
He glanced at Ward, sending an obvious cue. The doctor spoke immediately, his voice carrying more passion than Hess.
“The Aether storms are striking with intensity not seen since the Unity. Bliss isn’t the only Pod that has fallen. If the storms continue, they will all fall. Reverie will fall, Aria. Our only hope of surviving is to escape the Aether. ”
She almost laughed at him. “Then there is no hope. You can’t escape it. It’s everywhere. ”
“Outsiders speak of a place that’s free of it. ”
Aria tensed. Ward knew about the Still Blue? How could he know that? But of course he would. He studied Outsiders, like her mother did. Like her mother had.
“They’re only rumors,” Aria said. Even as she spoke the words, she knew they might be true. Hadn’t the rumor of Bliss proved to be?
Hess was watching her closely. “So you’ve heard of it. ”
“Then you’re already on your way. ”
Aria’s stomach twisted as she realized what he wanted. “You want me to find it?” She shook her head. “I’m not doing anything for you. ”
“Six thousand people died here,” Ward said urgently. “Six thousand. Your mother among them. You have to understand. It’s our only option. ”
Grief moved through Aria, pressing down on her. She thought of the bodies on the black cart and the people on the cots in the triage room. Bane and Echo had died because of DLS. And Paisley. Would Caleb and the rest of her friends be next?
Her heart pounded as she considered returning to the outside. Was it the thought of seeing Perry that made her pulse hammer? Or maybe she felt she owed it to Lumina to carry on her quest. But she couldn’t just let the Pods crumble.
“You can’t return to Reverie,” Hess said. “You’ve seen too much. ”
Aria glared at him. “So you’ll kill me if I don’t agree? You’ve already tried that. You’ll have to do better. ”
Hess studied her for a moment. “I thought you might say that. I think I’ve found another way to persuade you. ”
A blue square faded on the glass. An image of Perry appeared on a small screen, floating between them. He was in the room with the painted boats and hawks. The room where he’d seen Talon in the Realms.
“Aria . . . what’s happening?” he said frantically. “Aria, why doesn’t he know me?”
The image faded, changing to Perry as he hugged Talon. “I love you, Talon,” he said. “I love you. ” And then the image froze.
For an instant, the echo of his voice hung in the tiny chamber. Then Aria flew toward the glass, slamming her hands against it. “Don’t you dare touch
Hess stiffened, startled by her outburst. Then his lips turned up in a satisfied smile. “If you bring me the information on the Still Blue, I won’t have to. ”
Aria put her hand on Perry’s image, aching for him. For the real him. Her gaze drifted to Talon. She’d never met him, but it didn’t matter. He was part of Perry. She’d do anything to protect him.
She looked at Hess. “I won’t give you anything if you hurt either of them. ”
Hess smiled. “Good,” he said and stood. “I think we understand each other. ” The door slid open and he left.
Ward followed but hesitated by the door. “Aria, your mother did leave us with an answer. She left us you. ”
It was night as she stepped into the Dragonwing with six Guardians. Aria wore her clothes—the ones she’d retrieved from beneath the black cart—and she had a new Smarteye slipped into her satchel.
In the dim glow of the cabin, she buckled herself into the seat. The Guardians peered at her through their visors with a mixture of fear and repulsion.
Aria met their stares and then told them exactly where to drop her in the Death Shop.
Braids’s name was Reef.
Perry sat with him and his men that night around a fire, a jug of water in his hand instead of Luster. He told them about what he’d done. How he’d gotten into the Dweller fortress. How Talon and Vale had been taken. He told them about Aria in brief words, the pain of losing her too fresh, and explained that he was going home to claim Blood Lord of the Tides.
He talked until he grew hoarse and then some as the questions came. It was nearly morning when the last man fell asleep. Perry lay back and crossed his arms behind his head.
He’d won them all, not just Reef. All six men in the small band. He had inhaled and known the scent of their loyalty. Maybe he’d earned a chance with his fists, but he’d won them with his words.
Perry watched the Aether sky, thinking of a girl who would have been proud of him.
The storms came in force over the coming days, slowing their progress toward the coast. Funnels wheeled above constantly. The glare of the sky brightened nights and stole the warmth from the light of day. Winter had begun.
They traveled when they could, veering around burning fields. At night they found shelter and gathered around a fire, the men telling the story of his fight with Reef over and over. They embellished it, playing out their parts. Embarrassing Perry by slurring the things he’d said. They howled every time the story came to Perry vomiting with his knife held at guard. Reef earned Perry’s respect again by accepting his defeat at the end of the story with good humor. He claimed he’d need his nose broken half a dozen more times before it looked like Perry’s.
Perry had only known Scires among his family. Liv. Vale. Talon. Reef changed what he knew about his Sense. They spoke little but understood each other perfectly. He tried not to think of what this sort of bond would feel like with a girl. Whenever his mind tended that way, it felt like a betrayal.
One night Reef turned to him as they stood under a stand of trees waiting out a pelting rain. “It’d be a different life without the Aether. ”