Aria was here.
Perry followed her scent, moving swiftly through the night. He kept his stride even as he scanned the darkened woods, though his heart hammered in his chest. Roar had told him she was back on the outside, had even delivered a violet with a message as proof, but Perry wouldn’t believe it until he saw her.
He reached a rise of boulders and dropped his bow, quiver, and satchel. Then he jumped up, leaping from rock to rock until he stood at the top. The sky was coated with a thick layer of clouds that glowed softly with Aether light. He scanned the rolling hills, his gaze stopping at a barren stretch of land. Scorched, silver in color, it was a scar left by the winter’s storms. Much of his territory, two days to the west, looked the same.
Perry tensed as he spotted the tail of a campfire in the distance. He inhaled and caught the smoky scent on a cool gust. That had to be her. She was close.
“Anything?” Reef called up. He stood some twenty feet below. Sweat glistened on his deep brown skin, running along the scar that reached from the base of his nose to above his ear, dividing his cheek, and he was breathing heavily. Just a few months ago they’d been strangers. Now Reef was the head of his guard, seldom leaving his side.
Perry climbed down, landing with a soggy crunch on a patch of melting snow. “She’s due east. A mile. Maybe less. ”
Reef drew a sleeve across his face, pushing his braids away and wiping off sweat. Usually he kept up without any effort, but two days at a driving pace had brought out the decade between them. “You said she could help us find the Still Blue. ”
“She will help,” Perry said. “I told you. She needs to find it, just as we do. ”
Reef strode up, coming to within a foot of Perry, and narrowed his eyes. “You did tell me that. ” He tipped his head and inhaled, the gesture bold and animal. He didn’t downplay his Sense like Perry did. “But that’s not why we’ve come after her,” he said.
Perry couldn’t read his own tempers, but he could imagine the scents Reef had taken in. Eagerness, green and sharp and alive. Desire, thick and musky. Impossible to miss. Reef was a Scire too. He knew exactly what Perry felt right now, moments away from seeing Aria. Scents never lied.
“It’s one reason,” Perry said tightly. He picked up his things, shouldering them with an impatient tug. “Camp here with the others. I’ll be back by sunup. ” He turned to go.
“Sunup, Perry? You think the Tides want to lose another Blood Lord?”
Perry froze and then faced him again. “I’ve been out here a hundred times on my own. ”
Reef nodded. “Sure. As a hunter. ” He took a water skin from his leather satchel, his movements casual and slow though he was still out of breath. “You’re more than that now. ”
Perry stared into the woods. Twig and Gren were out there, listening and watching for danger. They’d been protecting him since he left his territory. Reef was right. Here in the borderlands, survival was the only rule. Without his guard, his life would be at risk. Perry let out a slow breath, his hope of spending a night alone with Aria vanishing.
Reef stoppered the cork on his water skin with a firm thump. “Well? What does my lord command?”
Perry shook his head at the formal address—Reef’s way of reminding him of his responsibility. Like he could forget. “Your lord will take one hour alone,” he said, and jogged away.
“Peregrine, hold on. You need to—”
“One hour,” Perry called over his shoulder. Whatever Reef wanted, it could wait.
When he was sure he’d left Reef behind, Perry firmed his grip on his bow and broke into a run. Scents flashed past as he threaded through the trees. The rich, promising smell of wet earth. The smoke from Aria’s campfire. And her scent. Violets, sweet and rare.
Perry relished the burn in his legs and the crisp air flowing through his lungs. Winter was a time for holding in place as the Aether storms wreaked havoc, and he hadn’t been in the open like this for too long—not since he’d taken Aria to the Dweller Pod in search of her mother. He’d been telling himself she was back where she belonged, with her people, and he had his own tribe to take care of. Then, just days ago, Roar had showed up at the compound with Cinder and told him she was here on the outside. From that moment he could only think of being with her again.
Perry tore down a slope soft with new grass and recent rain, panning the woods. It was darker beneath the trees, the Aether light filtering softly through the canopy, but every branch and leaf stood in sharp contrast, thanks to his Night-Sighted eyes. With each step, the scent of Aria’s campfire grew stronger. In a flash he remembered her game of sneaking up, silent as a shadow, and planting a kiss on his cheek. He couldn’t keep the smile from coming to his lips.
Up ahead he spotted movement—a blur through the trees. Aria ran into view. Sleek. Silent. Intent as she searched the area. When she saw him, her eyes widened in surprise, but her stride didn’t slow and neither did his. He shed his things, dropping them where they fell, and sprinted. Next thing he knew, she slammed into his chest, solid and fragrant in his arms.
Perry held her against him. “I missed you,” he whispered in her ear. He couldn’t hold her close enough. “I should never have let you go. I missed you so much. ”
Words tumbled out of him. He said a dozen things he hadn’t meant to say, until she drew back and smiled up at him. Then he couldn’t speak at all. He took in the arch of her slender eyebrows, black like her hair, and the cleverness in her gray eyes. Fair and finely made, she was beautiful. Even more than he remembered.
“You’re here,” she said. “I wasn’t sure if you’d come. ”
“I left as soon as—”
Before he could finish, her arms closed around his neck and they were kissing—a clumsy, hasty kiss. They were both breathing too hard. Smiling too much. Perry wanted to slow down and savor everything, but he couldn’t find a scrap of patience. He wasn’t sure if he started laughing first or if she did.