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Under the Never Sky
Under the Never Sky 5
For a moment, he let himself imagine how it would be, challenging Vale for Blood Lord. Acting on a need as real as thirst. He’d make changes if he led the Tides. Take the risks his brother avoided. The tribe couldn’t go on cowering in place for much longer. Not with game so scarce and the Aether storms growing worse every winter. Rumors spoke of safer lands with still, blue skies, but Perry wasn’t sure. What he did know was that the Tides needed a Blood Lord who’d take action—and his brother didn’t want to budge.
Perry looked down at his worn leather boots. Here he was. Standing still. No better than Vale. He cursed and shook his head. Tossed his satchel up to the loft. Then he pulled off his boots, climbed up, and lay staring at the rafters. It was stupid to daydream about something he’d never do. He’d leave before it came to that.
He hadn’t yet closed his eyes when he heard a door whine and then the ladder jostle. Talon, a small, dark blur, catapulted over the top rung, buried himself beneath the blanket, and went still as stone. Perry climbed over Talon to the ladder side. The space was cramped, and he didn’t want his nephew taking a tumble in his sleep.
“How come you never move that fast when we’re hunting?” he teased.
Nothing. Not even a stir under the blanket. Talon had fallen into long stretches of silence since his mother’s death, but he’d never stopped speaking with Perry. Considering what had happened the last time they’d been together, Perry wasn’t surprised by his nephew’s silence. He’d made a mistake. Lately he’d made too many.
“Guess you don’t want to know what I brought you. ” Talon still didn’t bite. “Shame,” Perry said after a moment. “You’d have loved it. ”
“I know,” Talon said, his seven-year-old voice bright with pride. “A shell. ”
“It’s not a shell, but it’s a good guess. I did go for a swim. ” Before coming home, Perry had spent an hour scrubbing the scents from his skin and hair with handfuls of sand. He’d had to, or one whiff and his brother would know where he’d been. Vale had strict rules against roaming near the Dwellers.
“Why are you hiding, Talon? Come out of there. ” He drew the blanket back. Talon’s scent came at him in a fetid wave. Perry rocked back, hands fisting, his breath catching in his throat. Talon’s scent was too much like Mila’s had been when the illness came in force. He wanted to believe it was a mistake. That Talon was well and would grow to see another year. But scents never lied.
People thought being a Scire meant having power. Being Marked—gifted with a dominant Sense—was rare. But even among the Marked, Perry was unique for having two Senses. As a Seer, he made a skilled archer. But only Scires with noses as strong as Perry’s could breathe and know despair or fear. Useful things to know about an enemy, but when it came to family felt more like a curse. Mila’s decline had been hard, but with Talon, Perry had grown to hate his nose for what it told him.
He forced himself to face his nephew. Firelight from below reflected off the rafters. It outlined the curve of Talon’s cheeks with an orange glow. Lit the tips of his eyelashes. Perry looked at his dying nephew and couldn’t think of a single thing worth saying. Talon already knew everything he felt. He knew Perry would trade places in an instant if he could.
“I know it’s getting worse,” Talon said. “My legs get numb sometimes. . . . Sometimes I can’t scent as good, but nothing hurts too bad. ” He turned his face into the blanket. “I knew you’d get wrathy. ”
“Talon, I’m not—it’s not you I’m wrathy with. ”
Perry drew a few breaths against the tightness in his chest, his anger mixing with his nephew’s guilt, making it difficult to think clearly. He knew love. He loved his sister, Liv, and Mila, and he could remember feeling love for Vale as nearly as a year ago. But with Talon, love was only part of it. Talon’s sorrow dropped him like a stone. His worry made Perry pace. His joy felt like flying. In the span of a breath, Talon’s needs became Perry’s own.
Scires called it being rendered. The bond had always made life simple for Perry. Talon’s well-being came first. For the past seven years that had meant plenty of roughhousing. Teaching Talon to walk and then swim. Teaching him to track game and shoot a bow and dress his kills. Easy things. Talon loved everything Perry did. But since Mila had fallen ill, it wasn’t as simple anymore. He couldn’t keep Talon well or happy. But he knew he helped Talon by being there. By staying with him as long as he could.
“What’s the thing?” Talon asked.
“The thing you brought for me. ”
“Ah, that. ” The apple. He wanted to tell Talon, but there were Audiles in the tribe with hearing as keen as his sense of smell. And there was Vale, an even bigger problem. Perry couldn’t risk Vale scenting it. With winter only weeks away, all the trading for the year was done. Vale would have questions about where Perry got the apple. He didn’t need any more trouble with his brother than he already had.
“It has to wait until tomorrow. ” He’d have to give the apple to Talon a few miles away from the compound. For now it would stay wrapped in an old scrap of plastic, buried deep inside his satchel with the Dweller eyepiece.
“Is it good?”
Perry crossed his arms behind his head. “Come on, Tal. Can’t believe you asked me that. ”
Talon muffled a giggle. “You smell like sweaty seaweed, Uncle Perry. ”
“Yeah. The kind that’s been on the rocks for a few days. ”
Perry laughed, nudging him in the ribs. “Thanks, Squeak. ”
Talon nudged him back. “You’re welcome, Squawk. ”
They lay for a few minutes, breathing together in the quiet. Through a crack in the timbers, Perry could see a sliver of the Aether swirling in the sky. On calmer days, it was like being on the underside of waves, seeing the Aether roll and pitch above. Other times it flowed like rapids, furious and blazing blue. Fire and water, come together in the sky. Winter was the season for Aether storms, but in the past years the storms were starting earlier and lasting longer. Already they’d had a few. The last nearly wiped out the tribe’s sheep, the flock too far from the compound to be brought to safety in time. Vale called it a phase, said the storms would lessen soon enough. Perry disagreed.
Talon shifted beside him. Perry knew he wasn’t asleep. His nephew’s temper had grown dark and damp. Eventually it tightened like a belt around Perry’s heart. He swallowed, his throat raw and aching. “What is it, Talon?”
“I thought you’d left. I thought you dispersed after what happened with my dad. ”
Perry let out a slow breath. Four nights ago he and Vale had sat at the table below, passing a bottle back and forth. For the first time in what seemed like months, they’d talked as brothers. About Mila’s death and about Talon. Even the best medicines Vale traded for weren’t helping anymore. They didn’t say it but both of them knew. Talon would be lucky to live through winter.
When Vale started to slur, Perry told himself to leave. Luster sweetened Perry but it did the opposite for Vale. Turned him rabid, just like it had their father. But Perry stayed because Vale was talking and so was he. Then Perry made a comment about moving the tribe away from the compound to safer land. A stupid comment. He knew where it’d lead, where it always led. Arguments. Angry words. This time Vale hadn’t said anything. He’d just reached out and cuffed Perry across the jaw. Given him a sharp knock that had felt familiar and horrible at once.
He’d swung back, pure reflex, catching Vale on the nose, starting them both grabbing and swinging across the table. Next thing he knew, Talon stood at the bedroom door, sleepy and stunned. Perry had looked from Vale to Talon. Same serious green eyes, both pairs fixed on Perry. Asking him how could he give a new widower a bloody nose? In his own house and in front of his dying son?
Shamed and still in a fury, Perry had left. He’d gone straight to the Dweller fortress. Maybe Vale couldn’t find medicines to help Talon, but he?
??d heard rumors about the Moles. So he’d broken in, wild and desperate to do something right. Now he had an apple and a useless Dweller eyepiece.
Perry pulled Talon close. “I was stupid, Tal. I wasn’t thinking straight. That night should never have happened. But I do need to leave. ”
He should have done it already. Coming back meant seeing Vale. He didn’t know if they could keep pacing around each other after what had happened. But Perry couldn’t let that be the last memory Talon had, him slamming his fist into Vale’s face.
“When will you go?” Talon asked.
“I thought I’d try . . . maybe I can hang on . . . ” He swallowed. Words never came easy, even with Talon. “Soon. Sleep, Tal. I’m here now. ”
Talon buried his face into Perry’s chest. Perry pinned his gaze on the Aether as Talon’s cool tears seeped through his shirt. Through the crack above, he watched the blue flows circling, churning in eddies this way and that, like they weren’t sure which way to go. People said that the Marked had the Aether flowing through their blood. Heating them up and giving them their Sense. It was just a saying, but Perry knew it had to be true. Most of the time he didn’t think he was very different from the Aether at all.
It was a long while before Talon grew heavy in Perry’s arms. By then his shoulder had gone numb, pinned beneath Talon’s head, but he kept his nephew there and slept.
Perry dreamed he was back in the Dweller fire, following the girl. She ran ahead of him through the smoke and flames. He couldn’t see her face but knew her raven-black hair. Knew her off-putting scent. He chased after her. Needed to reach her, though he didn’t know why. He was just sure in that certain senseless way of dreams.
Perry woke sweated to his clothes with both his legs cramping. Some instinct kept him still when he wanted to rub the soreness out of his muscles. Dust motes swirled in the dim loft, how he imagined scents must look, always churning through the air. Below, floorboards groaned with the sound of his brother moving around. Adding wood to the hearth. Getting the fire going again. Perry peered at the satchel by his feet, hoping the worn layer of plastic would keep Vale off the scents wrapped within.
The ladder creaked. Vale was climbing up. Talon slept curled against Perry’s side, a small fist tucked under his chin, his brown hair wet with sweat. The creaking stopped.
Vale breathed just behind him, the sound loud in the quiet. Perry couldn’t scent Vale’s tempers. As brothers, their noses skipped past the tones, reading them as their own. But Perry imagined a bitter red scent.
He saw a knife reaching over him. For a panicked, mindless instant, Perry was shocked his brother would go about killing him this way. Challenges for Blood Lord were supposed to be held in the open, before the tribe. There was a way of things. But this had begun over the kitchen table. Wrong from the start. Talon would be hurt, no matter whether Perry left or died or won.
In the next instant, Perry realized it wasn’t a knife. Only Vale’s hand, reaching for Talon. He rested his hand on his son’s head. Vale held it there a moment, brushing Talon’s damp hair from his forehead. Then he padded down the ladder and across the room below. The loft flooded with light as the front door opened and closed, leaving the house in silence.