“I want to,” she said. “But it’s not just the two of us anymore. ” He had his responsibility to the Tides, and she had her own pressures. Consul Hess, Reverie’s Director of Security, had threatened Perry’s nephew, Talon, if Aria didn’t bring him the location of the Still Blue. It was the reason—one of the reasons—she’d come back to the outside.
Aria looked into Perry’s eyes and couldn’t bring herself to tell him about Hess’s blackmail. There was nothing he could do. Telling him would only make him worry. “Reef said the tribe would turn on you,” she said instead.
“Reef’s wrong. ” Perry’s gaze flicked to the woods in annoyance. “It may take them some time to adjust, but they will. ” He squeezed her hand, a smile lighting in his eyes. “Say yes. I know you want to. Roar will beat me if I show up without you, and there’s another reason you should come. Maybe it’ll help you decide. ”
He slid his hand up her arm and ran his thumb over her bicep. The feel of his archer’s calluses, somehow both rough and soft, sent a thrill through her. She heard the trees rustle with a breeze, and then felt it brush cool against her cheeks. No one planted her as firmly in her skin as he did.
Perry was talking. She had to backtrack in her thoughts to catch up. “You need Markings. It’s dangerous not to have them. Concealing a Sense is deceitful, Aria. People are killed for hiding them. ”
“Roar told me,” she said. She’d been hiding out in the woods since leaving Marron’s, so her lack of Markings hadn’t been a problem yet. But once she went north, she’d come across other people. She couldn’t deny that she’d be much safer with the Audile tattoos.
“Only a Blood Lord can warrant them,” Perry said. “I happen to know one. ”
“You’d support me getting Markings? Even though I’m only half Outsider?”
He tipped his head to the side, blond waves falling across his eyes. “Yes. I very much want to. ”
“Perry, what about …” Aria trailed off, not sure she wanted to voice the question that had plagued her for months, but she had to know. Even if it meant hearing something that would crush her. “You told me you’d only be with another Scire, and I’m not …” She bit her lip and finished the sentence in the safety of her thoughts. I’m not like you. I’m not what you said you wanted.
Her face warmed as he watched her. No matter what she said or didn’t say, he’d scent the depth of her insecurity.
He shifted closer, tracing the line of her jaw. “You changed the way I think about a lot of things. That’s only one of them. ”
Suddenly she couldn’t imagine leaving him. She had to find a way to
make this work. The tribe would hate her for being a Dweller—she was sure of that. And if she and Perry arrived at the compound hand in hand, the Tides would lose all faith in his judgment. But what if she and Perry turned the focus onto something else? Onto something they both needed? An idea took shape in her mind.
“Did you tell the Tides anything about me?” she asked.
He frowned. The question seemed to catch him off balance. “I told a few people you’d help find the Still Blue. ”
“I haven’t talked about us with anyone, if that’s what you mean. ” He shrugged. “It’s private. . . . Between us. ”
“We should keep it that way. I’ll go back with you as an ally, and we’ll keep us out of it. ”
He laughed, the sound flat and humorless. “You’re serious? You mean lie?”
“It wouldn’t be lying. It’s no different from what you just said: keeping it private. We could ease the tribe into it that way. We won’t talk about us until we have a better idea of how they’ll take it. Roar would keep quiet if we asked him. Would Reef?”
Perry nodded, his jaw clenched. “He’s pledged to me. He’ll do anything I ask of him. ”
The sound of a branch snapping pulled her attention to the darkened woods. Three distinct strides took form, one heavier than the others. The rest of Perry’s guard was on the way. They spoke in quiet tones, yet each voice was unique to her ears, as singular as the features of a person’s face. “The others are coming. ”
“Let them come,” Perry said. “They’re my men, Aria. I don’t have to hide anything from them. ”
She wanted to believe him, but they had to be smart. As a new leader, he needed his tribe behind him. But she couldn’t deny that being Marked would improve her chances of finding the Still Blue, to say nothing of the advantage Perry would provide on her journey to Rim. He was a hunter, a warrior. A survivor. More at ease in the borderlands than anyone she knew. All good reasons to go to the Tides for a few weeks before searching for the Still Blue. She and Perry would get everything they wanted if they just showed a little caution.
Perry’s guards were closing in, their footsteps growing louder by the second. Aria stood on her toes, resting her hands on his chest. “This is the best way—the safest,” she whispered. “Trust me. ”
She pressed her lips quickly to his, but it wasn’t close to being enough. She took his face between her hands, feeling the soft scruff she’d missed, and kissed him again firmly, fiercely, before she backed away.
When Reef and two other men appeared, she and Perry stood several paces apart—the distance between strangers.