“I will, but we won’t get more than half of what we need done. ”
“Then do the half! I’m not pulling men off watch. ”
Bear went still, as did several people around the clearing. Perry didn’t understand how they didn’t understand. Almost a quarter of the tribe had dispersed. Of course they couldn’t get everything done. He’d hoped to build up food rations for the tribe’s journey to the Still Blue, but after the damage from the Aether storm and the loss of manpower, it was all he could do to keep them fed every day. They were overworked and underfed, and he needed a solution.
He considered his options throughout the day as he cleared drains for Bear and checked the Tides’ defense measures. Reef worked beside him, close as his shadow. When Reef wasn’t there, one of the Six took his place. They wouldn’t leave him alone. Even Cinder seemed in on it, joining Perry if he walked off in search of a few minutes to himself.
He didn’t know what they expected from him. The initial shock had worn off, and now he saw the situation for what it was. Roar and Aria had left; they would go to the Horns to find Liv and the Still Blue. Soon they’d return, and that was all. It had to be. He wouldn’t let himself think beyond that.
Supper was late that night—they’d lost three cooks to Wylan’s group—and the cookhouse was strangely empty and quiet. Perry didn’t taste his food, but he ate because the tribe watched him. Because he had to show them that things might have changed but tomorrow would still come.
Reef fell in step with him as he left the cookhouse and headed for the eastern lookout. Perry sensed Reef working up the courage to say something as they walked. Hands curling into fists, he waited to be told he needed sleep, or more patience, or both.
“Terrible supper,” Reef said at last.
Perry let out a breath, the tension seeping out of his fingers. “Could’ve been better. ”
Reef looked up to the sky. “You feel it?”
Perry nodded. The sting in the back of his nose warned him that another storm wouldn’t be far off. “Almost always now. ”
The Aether flowed, corded and angry, giving the night a blue, marbled glow. After the storm, the calm skies had only held for a day. Now there was little difference between day and night anymore. Days were darkened by clouds and the blue cast of Aether. Nights were brightened by the same. They flowed together, the edges blurring into an endless day. An ever night.
He looked at Reef. “I need you to send a message. ”
Reef raised his eyebrows. “To?”
“Marron. ” Perry didn’t want to ask for help from him again—he’d done it only months ago when he’d sought refuge there with Roar and Aria—but the Tides’ position was too weak. He needed food and he needed people. He’d ask for a favor before he saw his tribe starve or lose the compound in a raid.
Reef agreed. “It’s a good idea. I’ll send Gren first thing tomorrow. ”
Even after he and Reef showed up to relieve them, Twig and Gren remained at the watch post, huddled at the edge of a rocky overlook. The four of them sat together in comfortable silence as a fine mist began to fall.
Hyde and Hayden arrived soon after, Straggler trailing behind them. They had the night off watch, all three. Perry had seen Hyde yawn half a dozen times during supper. They settled themselves along the lookout, watching as the mist thickened to rain. Still no one spoke, or left.
“Quiet night,” Twig said finally. “We’re quiet, I mean. Not the rain. ” His voice sounded raspy and hoarse after the long stretch of silence.
“You eat a frog, Twig?” Hayden asked.
“Maybe there were frogs in the soup tonight,” said Gren.
Hyde grunted. “Frogs taste better than that tripe. ”
Twig cleared his throat. “You know I almost did eat a live frog once,” he said.
“Twig, you look like a frog. You have froggy eyes. ”
“Show us how high you can jump, Twig. ”
“Shut up and let him croak the story. ”
The story itself wasn’t much. As a boy, Twig had been on the brink of kissing a frog, on a dare from his brother, when it slipped through his fingers and jumped into his mouth. It was the wrong story for Twig to tell. At twenty-three, he had yet to kiss a girl, and the Six knew it, as they knew nearly everything about one another. A massacre followed, as they took shots at Twig, saying things like maybe he was worried that after the frog, a girl would be a letdown, and that they supported his quest to find a prince.
Perry listened, smiling at the better jabs, feeling more himself than he had in the past two days. Eventually it grew quiet again, except for the rhythm of a few snores. He looked around him. The rain had stopped. Some slept. Other
s breathed steadily, focused on the night. No one spoke, but Perry heard them clearly. He understood why they’d been shadowing him and why they sat with him now, staying when they didn’t have to.
Given any choice, they wouldn’t leave. They’d stand by him.