Two days later, Perry came through a stand of oaks and the Tide compound appeared, crowning the top of a slope with the thickly clouded sky at its back. Fields rolled out on either side of the dirt road, stretching to the hills that framed the valley.
Growing up, he’d imagined being Blood Lord plenty of times, but nothing compared with the feeling he had now. This was the first time he’d come home to his territory. Earth to sky and every person, tree, and rock in between belonged to him.
Aria appeared at his side. “Is that the compound?”
Perry shifted the bow and quiver on his back, covering his surprise. On their return, she’d paid him no more attention than she had Reef, who wouldn’t look at her, or Gren and Twig, who couldn’t stop staring. They’d slept across the fire from each other at night, and had hardly spoken during the days. When they had spoken, their exchanges had felt brief and cold. He hated pretending around her, but if it helped her feel comfortable coming back with him, he’d go along with it. For now.
“Right there,” he said, nodding. Rain had threatened all day, and now a light drizzle began to fall. He wished the clouds would part to show the sun or the Aether—any light at all—but the sky had been overcast for days. “My father had it built in a circle—easier to defend. We have wooden walls that draw closed between the houses during raids. The highest structure … See the roof over there?” He pointed. “That’s the cookhouse. The heart of the tribe. ”
Perry paused as Twig and Gren passed them. He’d sent Reef ahead that morning to make an announcement to the Tides, letting everyone know that Aria was under his protection as an ally. He wanted her arrival to go as smoothly as possible. With Twig and Gren pulling ahead, he let himself step closer to her and nodded toward the burnt stretch of land to the south.
“An Aether storm tore right through those woods in the winter. It took out part of our best farmland. ” A small shudder rolled through his shoulders as her temper hit him. Bright green, a scent like mint. She was alert and a little skitty with nerves. He’d forgotten what it felt like to be rendered to another person, to not only scent their tempers but feel them himself. Aria didn’t know this bond existed between them. He hadn’t told her in the fall, having thought then that he’d never see her again, but he’d do it soon, when he got her alone.
“The damage could’ve been worse, though,” he continued. “We kept the fires from spreading, and the compound wasn’t hit. ”
He watched her as she studied the horizon. The Tide Valley wasn’t a large territory, but it was fertile, near the sea, and well positioned for defense. Could she see that? It was good land when the Aether left it alone. He didn’t know how much longer that would be. Another year? Two, at the most, before it became nothing but scorched earth?
“It’s much prettier than I imagined,” she said.
He let out his breath, relieved. “Yeah?”
Aria looked at him, her eyes smiling. “Yeah. ” She turned away, and Perry wondered if they’d been standing too close. Couldn’t they talk if they were pretending to be allies? Was a smile too much? Then he saw what she’d heard.
Willow charged toward them at full speed on the dirt path, Flea galloping at her side. The dog thundered up first, laying back his ears and baring his teeth at Aria.
“It’s all right,” Perry said. “He’s friendly. ”
Aria stood her ground and rolled on the balls of her feet, ready to move quickly. “He doesn’t look it,” she said.
Roar had told him she’d become a skilled fighter in the past months. Perry saw the difference now. She looked stronger, quicker. More comfortable with fear.
Tearing his eyes away from her, he knelt. “Here, Flea. Give her some space. ” Flea inched forward and sniffed Aria’s boots, his tail wagging slowly, before he pranced over. Perry scratched his wiry coat, a patchwork of brown and black fur. “He’s Willow’s dog. You’ll never see them apart. ”
“Then I guess this is Willow,” she said.
Perry straightened in time to see Willow blow past Gren and Twig with a hasty greeting; then she jumped into his arms the same way she’d done since she was three. At thirteen she was getting too big for that, but it made him laugh, so Willow kept doing it.
“You told me you’d only be a few days,” she said as soon as Perry set her down. She was in her usual outfit—dusty pants, dusty boots, dusty shirt, and red strips of fabric braided through her dark hair, made from pieces of the skirt her mother had sewn for her over the winter but that she’d taken apart.
Perry smiled. “It was only a few days. ”
“Felt like forever,” Willow said, and then she peered at Aria, her dark brown eyes suspicious.
When she’d first been cast out of Reverie, Aria had been hard to miss as a Dweller. She’d spoken in sharp, clipped sounds, her skin had been pale as milk, and her scent had been rancy and off. Those differences had faded away. She was noticeable for another reason now—the same reason Twig and Gren had stared at her for the past two days when she wasn’t looking.
“Roar told me a Dweller was coming,” Willow said finally. “He said I’d like you. ”
“I hope he’s right,” Aria said, petting Flea on the head. The dog now sat against her leg, panting happily.
Willow lifted her chin. “Well, Flea likes you, so maybe I will too. ” She looked up at Perry, frowning, and he scented her temper. Usually it was a bright citrus scent, but now a dark tinge blurred into the edges of his vision, telling him something wasn’t right.
“What’s happened, Will?” he asked.
“All I know is Bear and Wylan have been waiting for you, and they don’t look happy. I thought you’d want to know. ” Willow’s narrow shoulders lifted in a shrug; then she sped off, with Flea loping beside her.
Perry made for the compound, wondering what he’d find. Bear, a wall of a man with a gentle heart and hands permanently stained from working the earth, was lead on anything related to farming. Slight and surly, Wylan was the Tides’ head fisherman. The two bickered constantly about where the Tides’ resources belonged, in a never-ending battle between earth and sea. Perry hoped that it was nothing more.
Aria strode beside him with confidence as they passed through the main gates and stepped into the clearing at the center of the compound, but he scented the cool tone of her fear. He saw his home through her eyes then—a circle of cottages made of wood and stone and weathered by the salt air—and wondered again what she was thinking. It was nowhere as comfortable as Marron’s, and there’d be no comparison at all to what she was used to in the Pods.