Chapter 7

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Leaning hard against a moss-covered tree, booted feet propped onto protruding roots among a bed of ferns, Leithan laughed, holding his aching waist. Dark violet hair veiled his face, and tears prickled his eyes.

Teshin stood with his arms crossed. "Glad to see you're in such a brilliant mood."

"It's just," Leithan said through the panting, "it's just so . . . I mean, the way Etrikis talks to you. It's like something out of a bad play. Or one of those fiction books. I have to tell Shay about this. Oh and, spirits' fucking sakes, ensnared? Really?"

Teshin shrugged. "Sound confident enough and people will believe anything."

Leithan tucked his hair behind his ear. "Is that even possible? Is that something Xefen actually did?"

Teshin's turn to burst out into a fit of laughter, now. He had a nice laugh, fun and musical, infectious. Leithan laughed some more, then let it die out when Teshin stopped.

"Oh, spirits, no. Not at all. But I figured," Teshin said, shrugging. "They don't know that, do they? They apparently have this conception of my brother as some draconian, all-powerful, warmongering leader."

Leithan wiped a tear with the back of his finger. "And he wasn't like that?"

Teshin shook his head with a small smile. "Not really."

With their laughter gone, the sounds of the forest – the clicks and screeches, whines, scuttling and rustling – seemed louder to Leithan's ears. Almost menacing. But maybe that was the voss.

Or, maybe it's the fact that I'm in the tropical forest with a stranger at—

He looked at his watch, the voss enabling him to see it even in darkness. The ticking of the mechanism seemed amplified, too.

—in the tropical forest with a stranger at three in the morning.

They started walking.

"So, do you know where we're going?" Leithan asked, leaping over a fungi-eaten log.

"I think she uses the same cave as . . . as back then. The path can be steep at times," Teshin added, and Leithan thought he heard a question in his voice.

"I'll be fine," he reassured. "I run laps around Veya's Gardens almost every morning. Been doing that for four years now. Um, eight seasons."

Teshin gave him a smile over his shoulder. "Got it."

As they moved, Leithan grew captivated by his surroundings. He'd never been this deep into the forest before. Decorative plants and trees abounded in New Rimar but this was something else. The richness of the foliage, the voluminous size of the leaves, the sheer density of it all intimidated him. It must've been even more beautiful in the daylight.

For now, the voss helped cast a grayness over everything and, when they were lucky, the moonlight filtered through cracks in the canopy. Its glow painted various things in a charming red hue; leaves, branches, moss, fronds, but also, Teshin's hair, and his eyes, whenever he turned to make sure Leithan was still following.

Leithan thought he heard the gushing of a waterfall in the distance – a backdrop to the other songs of the forest. He heard birds hooting, wind hushing through leaves, and at some point he thought he caught the telltale slither of a snake.

"Is it dangerous being here?" Leithan asked. "Are there . . . any big animals?"

Teshin stopped, and Leithan almost bumped into him.

Leithan pressed his hand to a tree for balance and, looking up, realized they were standing rather close.

"So, you live on Asheth, but you don't know anything about Elissi, or Ashira? Have you never been here before?" Teshin asked.

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