“Earn my way. I don’t know how to do anything. ”
Perry studied him. He didn’t know how to do anything? It wasn’t the first time Cinder had said something peculiar like that.
“Then we’ve got a lot of ground to cover. I’ll have Brooke get you a bow and start you on lessons. And I’ll talk to Bear tomorrow. He needs all the help he can get. One last thing, Cinder. When you’re ready, I want to hear everything you have to say. ”
Cinder frowned. “Everything I have to say about what?”
“You,” Perry said.
You have a good way with pain,” Molly said.
Aria looked up from the bandage in her hand. “Thank you. Butter is a good patient. ”
The mare blinked lazily in response to her name. Last night’s storm had triggered her flight instinct. Butter had kicked her stall in panic and suffered a gash along her front leg. To help Molly, whose hands were bothering her, Aria had already cleaned the wound and applied an antiseptic paste that smelled like mint.
Aria resumed rolling the bandage around Butter’s leg. “My mother was a doctor. A researcher, actually. She didn’t work with people often. Or with horses … ever. ”
Molly scratched the white star at Butter’s forelock with fingers as gnarled as roots. Aria couldn’t help but think of Reverie, where ailments like arthritis had been cured through genetics long ago. She wished there were something she could do.
“Was?” Molly said, peering down.
“Yes … she died five months ago. ”
Molly nodded thoughtfully, watching her with warm, soulful eyes the same color as Butter’s chestnut hair. “And now you’re here, away from your home. ”
Aria looked around, seeing mud and straw everywhere. The smell of manure hung in the air. Her hands were cold and reeking of horse and mint. Butter, for the tenth time, nuzzled the top of her hair. This couldn’t have been more different from Reverie. “I’m here. But I don’t know where home is anymore. ”
“What of your father?”
“He was an Aud. ” Aria shrugged. “That’s all I know. ”
She waited for Molly to say something fantastic, like, I know exactly who your father is, and he’s right over here, hiding behind this stall. She shook her head at her own silliness. Would that even help? Would finding her father take away the airy, gossamer feeling inside her?
“Shame to not have family at your Marking Ceremony tonight,” Molly said.
“Tonight?” Aria asked, glancing up. She was surprised Perry had scheduled it, right in the aftermath of the storm.
Butter gave an irritated snort as Wylan walked into the stable.
“Look at this. Molly and the Mole,” he said, leaning back against the stall. “You put on a good show last night, Dweller. ”
“What do you need, Wylan?” Molly asked.
He ignored her, his focus locked on Aria. “You’re wasting your time going north, Dweller. The Still Blue’s nothing more than a rumor spread by desperate people. Better watch yourself, though. Sable’s a mean bastard. Cunning as a fox. He’s not sharing the Still Blue with anyone, let alone a Mole. He hates Moles. ”
Aria stood. “How do you know that—from rumors spread by desperate people?”
Wylan stepped closer. “As a matter of fact, yes. They say it goes back to the Unity. Sable’s ancestors were Chosen. They were called into one of the Pods, but they were double-crossed and left outside. ”
In school, Aria had studied the history of the Unity, the period after the massive solar flare that had corroded the earth’s protective magnetosphere, spreading Aether across the globe. The devastation in the first years had been catastrophic. The polarity of the Earth had reversed over and over again. The world was consumed by fires. Floods. Riots. Disease. Governments had rushed to build the Pods as the Aether storms intensified, striking constantly. Other, scientists had called the alien atmosphere when it first appeared, because it defied scientific explanation—an electromagnetic field of unknown chemical composition that behaved and looked like water, and struck with a potency never seen before. The term evolved to Aether, a word borrowed from ancient philosophers who’d spoken of a similar element.
Aria had seen footage of smiling families, walking through Pods just like Reverie, admiring their new homes. She’d seen their ecstatic expressions when they’d first worn Smarteyes and experienced the Realms. But she’d never seen footage of what had happened outside. Until a few a months ago, Aether was something other to her—as foreign as the world beyond the safety of Reverie’s walls.
“You’re saying Sable hates Dwellers because of something that happened three hundred years ago?” she said. “Everyone couldn’t fit in the Pods. The Lottery was the only way they could make it fair. ”