Olivia, what are you doing to me?” Roar spoke in a low rush, staring into Liv’s eyes. “How could you come here?”
“I’m sorry, Roar. I thought I could help the Tides. I thought I could go through with it. I thought I could move on from you. ”
As she spoke, Roar kissed her cheeks, her chin, her forehead. Aria spun and darted for the balcony, passing Liv’s wedding dress hanging by the opened doors. She kept going until her legs bumped against the low wall and her fingers gripped the cold stones and she was staring down. Down at the dark water in the distance.
She didn’t want to listen, didn’t want to hear them, but her ears were sharp—so much sharper when her adrenaline was going.
Liv’s voice. “I was wrong. I was so wrong. ”
And then Roar. “It’s all right, Livy. I love you. No matter what. Always. ”
Then it was quiet, and Aria heard only the wind breathing over the balcony, and their breaths, Liv’s and Roar’s, uneven and catching. Aria shut her eyes as her heart twisted and twisted. She could almost feel Perry’s arms around her. Where was he now? Was he thinking about her, too?
Seconds later, Roar and Liv appeared on the balcony together, eyes sparkling. Liv’s half-sword peeked over one shoulder. Over the other, she carried her satchel and Aria’s.
“I was coming for you tonight,” Liv said, and handed the leather pack over. She reached into her bag and brought out the Smarteye. “Sable hid it in his room. I snuck in while he slept. I’d scented pine on it earlier. I went right to it. ” She handed it to Aria. “Go. Use it quickly. ”
Aria shook her head. “Now?” How long until someone noticed the guards missing? “We have to get out of here. ”
“You have to do it now,” Liv said. “He’ll come after us if we take it. ”
“He’ll come after you regardless, Olivia,” Roar said. “We need to go. ”
“He won’t,” Liv said. “Get the Still Blue. If we don’t have that, we don’t have Talon. ”
There was no time to argue. Aria applied the device, and her Smartscreen appeared. She chose the Phantom icon. Soren would know whether Sable and Hess had discussed the Still Blue. She waited, expecting to fraction into the opera hall. She didn’t. Ins
tead, two new icons appeared, generic, bearing only time counters. Soren had left her the recordings.
She chose the one with the shortest running time, growing more nervous with every passing second. Roar was in Liv’s room, listening by the door for sounds in the hall.
An image expanded on her Smartscreen. She was viewing a scratch Realm. A blank space with nothing more than darkness, broken by a single spotlight from above. Sable stood to one side, Hess to the other, the planes of their faces cut sharply by light and shadow.
Hess was wearing his official Consul uniform. Navy, trimmed with reflective slashes along the sleeve and collar. He stood rigid, straight, hands down at his sides. Sable wore a fitted black shirt and pants, and the Blood Lord chain sparkled at his neck. He had a relaxed stance, his eyes wrinkled in amusement. One man looked dangerous; the other looked deadly.
Sable spoke first. “Charming, your world. Is it always this appealing?”
Hess’s mouth lifted into a smirk. “I didn’t want to overwhelm you earlier. ”
Aria realized she’d chosen the recording of their second meeting. There was no time to change. She let it play on.
“Would you prefer this?” Hess asked.
In a quiet lurch, the Realm changed. Now they stood in a thatch-roofed hut with open sides, set up high like it was on stilts. A golden savannah rolled out to the horizon, the grass undulating in waves under a warm breeze.
Hess had no idea. He had meant it as an insult. A jab at the primitive man he believed Sable to be. But for a long moment all Aria could do—all Sable could do—was stare in wonder at the sun-doused scenery. At an open, still sky. At earth that was gently baked, not cruelly burned by Aether.
Sable turned his focus back to Hess. “I do prefer it, thank you. What have you learned?”
Hess sighed. “My engineers assure me that the craft will travel over any kind of terrain. They have shields, but their effectiveness is limited. Any intense concentration of Aether will overpower them. ”
Sable nodded. “I have a solution for that. What’s the total, Hess?”
“Eight hundred people. And that will be pushing their capacity. ”
“That’s not enough,” Sable said.