Her heart started drumming with anger. “Much,” she said.
A waiter arrived with a tray of coffees. Dark-eyed and handsome, he could have been Roar’s brother. He smiled as he set the drinks on the table. A warm breeze blew past, carrying the spicy scent of cologne and shifting Aria’s hair on her bare back. It was all so normal and safe and charming. A year ago, Paisley would’ve been kicking her under the table over the waiter’s smile. Caleb would have looked up from his sketchbook and rolled his eyes. She was suddenly furious at how difficult life was now.
Hess sipped his coffee. “Are you well, Aria?”
Did he know she’d been poisoned? Could he tell through the Eye? Through her body chemistry? “I’m terrific,” she said. “How are you?”
“Terrific,” he said, matching her sarcasm. “You’re on your way now. Are you traveling alone?”
“What do you care?”
Hess’s eyes narrowed on her. “We detected a storm near you. ”
Aria smirked. “I detected it too. ”
“I can imagine. ”
“No, you really can’t. I need to know if something’s happening in Reverie, Hess. Were you hit by the storm? Has there been any damage?”
He blinked at her. “You’re a smart girl. What do you think?”
“It doesn’t matter what I think. I need to know. I need proof that Talon is all right. I want to see my friends. And I want to know what you’re going to do when I give you the location of the Still Blue. Are you moving the entire Pod? How will you do that?” Aria leaned across the table. “I know what I’m doing, but what about you? What about everything else?”
Hess tapped his fingers on the marble tabletop. “You’re quite fascinating now. Life among the Savages suits you. ”
Suddenly the Realm plunged into silence. Aria looked to the canal. The gondola had frozen on water that was as still as glass. A flock of pigeons hung in the air above, caught in mid-flight. People looked around them, panic on their faces; then the Realm snapped back, sound and movement returning.
“What was that?” she demanded. “Answer me, or we’re done. ”
Hess took another sip of coffee and watched the traffic in the Grand Canal like nothing had just happened. “Do you think you can fraction if I don’t want you to?” He looked back at her. “We’re done when I say so. ”
Aria grabbed her coffee and flung it at him. The dark liquid splattered over his face and his pale suit. Hess jerked back, gasping, even though it hadn’t hurt him. Nothing in the Realms could inflict true pain. The most he would feel was warmth, but she’d surprised him. She had his attention now.
“Still want me to stay?” she asked.
He disappeared before she’d finished speaking, leaving her to stare at an empty chair. Though she knew it would be pointless, she tried to shut off the Eye. She was ready to be back—completely—in the real.
UNAUTHORIZED COMMAND flashed on her Smartscreen.
Now what? The waiter peered through the café window, interest sparking in his eyes. Aria turned away, looking toward the canal. A couple embraced at the top of the ornate cement bridge, watching the water traffic below. She tried to imagine that she was the one pressed against the rail. That it was Perry brushing her hair aside and whispering in her ear. Perry had hated the Realms. She couldn’t form the picture in her mind.
A time counter appeared at the upper corner of her Smartscreen. It ticked down from thirty minutes. Aria braced herself. Hess was up to something.
In the next moment, she fractioned to another Realm, appearing on a wooden pier. The ocean lapped gently below, and gulls cried overhead, the sounds garish parodies of their real versions. A boy sat at the very end of the pier. He faced out to sea, but Aria knew exactly who he was.
She felt sick. She’d wanted to know that Perry’s nephew was well, but she wasn’t sure she wanted to know him. She didn’t want to care any more than she already did. And what was she supposed to say to him? Talon didn’t even know her. She looked down at herself. At least she was back in her usual black clothes.
The time counter now read twenty-eight minutes. She’d been standing there for two minutes. She shook her head at herself, and went to him.
He leaped to his feet and faced her, his eyes wide with surprise. She’d never met Talon, but she’d seen him once before. Months ago, when Perry had visited Talon in the Realms, she’d been watching on a wallscreen. He was a striking boy, with curling brown hair and serious green eyes, their color darker, richer than Perry’s.
“Who are you?” he asked.
“A friend of your uncle’s. ”