Reef gave a tight nod, aimed at no one, and then shot Perry a hard look. “A word,” he said sharply, before he stalked off.
Anger streaked through Perry at being spoken to that way, but he trusted Reef. He looked at Aria. “I’ll be right back. ”
He hadn’t gone far when Reef wheeled around, his braids swinging out. “I don’t have to tell you what your temper’s like right now, do I? It’s the scent of stupidity. You’ve brought us out here chasing after a girl who’s got you so—”
“She’s an Aud,” Perry interrupted. “She can hear you. ”
Reef jabbed a finger in the air. “I want you to hear me, Peregrine. You have a tribe to think about. You can’t afford to lose your head over a girl—especially not a Dweller. Have you forgotten what happened? Because I promise you the tribe hasn’t. ”
“The kidnappings weren’t her fault. She had nothing to do with them. And she’s only half Dweller. ”
“She’s a Mole, Perry! One of them. That’s all anyone’s going to see. ”
“They’ll do as I say. ”
“Or maybe they’ll turn on you behind your back. How do you think they’ll take to seeing you with her? Vale might have traded with the Dwellers, but he never brought one into his bed. ”
Perry shot forward, grabbing Reef by the vest. They stood, locked, inches apart. Reef’s temper brought an icy burn to the back of Perry’s tongue. “You’ve made your point. ” Perry let Reef go and stepped back, drawing a few breaths. Silence stretched out between them, too loud after their arguing.
He saw the problem with bringing Aria back to the Tides. The tribe would blame her for the missing children, regardless of her innocence, because she was a Dweller. He knew it wouldn’t be easy—not at first—but he’d find a way to make it work. Whatever needed to be done next, he wanted her with him and it was his decision as Blood Lord.
Perry glanced to where Aria waited, then back at Reef. “You know what?”
“What?” Reef snapped.
“You’re a terrible judge of time. ”
Reef smirked. He ran a hand over the back of his head and sighed. “So I am. ” When he spoke again, his voice had lost its bite. “Perry, I don’t want to see you make this mistake. ” He nodded at the chain. “I know what that cost you. I don’t want to watch you lose it. ”
“I know what I’m doing. ” Perry gripped the cool metal in his hand. “I’ve got this. ”
Aria stared at the trees, listening to Perry’s footsteps grow louder as he returned. She saw the gleam of the chain at his neck first and then his eyes, flashing in the darkness. They’d come together in such a rush before. Now, as he strode toward her, she took her first good look at him.
He was impressive. Much more than she remembered. He’d grown taller, as she’d first thought, and more muscular through the shoulders, settling into his lanky height. In the dim light she saw a dark coat and pants with fitted, clean lines, not the battered, patched-up clothes of the hunter she’d met in the fall. His blond hair was shorter, falling in layers that framed his face, so different from the long twisting waves she’d known before.
He was nineteen, but he seemed older than her friends in Reverie. How many of her friends had been through what he had? How many had hundreds of people to look after? None. They came from totally different worlds. Aether, she thought. That was the only thing Dwellers and Outsiders had in common. It threatened them both.
Perry stopped a few feet away. Pale light fell on the strong planes of his face, and she noticed shadows under his eyes. He ran a hand over the fine scruff on his jaw. The brushing sound was so familiar, Aria could almost feel the gold bristles beneath her fingertips.
“Sorry about Reef. ”
“It’s all right,” she said, but it wasn’t. Reef’s words echoed in her mind. Dweller, he’d called her. Mole. Bitter insults. Words she hadn’t heard in months. At Marron’s, she’d fit in like she belonged.
Her gaze dropped to the ground between them. Three paces for her. Two for him. Moments ago they’d been pressed together. Now they stood apart like strangers. Like everything had just changed.
A mistake. Reef had said that, too. Was he right? “Maybe I should go. ”
“No—stay. ” Perry stepped forward and took her hand. “Forget what he said. He’s got a temper. . . . Worse than mine. ”
She looked up at him. “Worse?”
His mouth lifted into the crooked smile she’d missed. “Almost worse. ” He shifted closer, his expression growing serious. “I didn’t come here to see you for a night, or to offer to help you. I’m here because I want to be with you. It could be weeks before the pass to the north thaws. We’ll wait until it does, then search for the Still Blue together. ” He paused, his gaze focused completely on her. “Come back with me, Aria. Be with me. ”
Something brilliant unfolded inside of her at the sound of those words. She memorized them as she would a song: every note, unhurried, spoken in his deep, warm timbre. Whatever happened, she’d keep those words. She wanted nothing more than to say yes, but she couldn’t avoid the anxiety that swirled in her stomach.