Chapter 26

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"There's this man," Leithan said, "his name's Tremes Oldwoods, and he's our Elder Priest. He's got a lot of power, like a clan leader, or shaman, but for my people. And he knows – I mean, he knew – what I wanted, and everything that was important to me."

Leithan took a deep breath, looked up at Teshin. "For years, he let me believe I could have it all, if only I worked hard enough. And I believed him. All I had to do was give up my vote – and vote for the man I hated most in the world, no less. But I honestly thought that was the only catch. And at the time, sure, I hated it, but I figured, who cares? That man was always going to be on the council, whether I voted for him or not. In the end, it was a small price to pay for the life I wanted."

He shrugged, shook his head, and looked away again. "I should've known, though. Should've known it wasn't going to be that easy. Last year, when I turned nineteen, that's when I became a chosen. I finally had everything I wanted. No more chores, no more crappy salary, no more shared bedroom or shared bathrooms. I could afford to go out with my friends, and buy things for my mother. And the lectures . . ."

Leithan smiled. "I love being on that stage. Inspiring people. But . . . You probably have no idea what I'm talking about, though."

Especially since he switched to the Rengleam language whenever there wasn't a Yoxai word for what he was trying to say. It was a mess.

But Teshin said, "Doesn't matter. I'll try to keep up."

"Well, the details aren't important, anyway," Leithan said. "The thing is, the elder, he . . . let me have it all, you know? Let me have a taste of the life I wanted. He was insidious about it." Leithan's smile faded.

"And, at first, when I was . . . summoned for those meetings, nothing happened. He told me he just wanted my company. He made me taste all these fancy Rengleam red wines. And in the beginning, we really did just talk. I knew something was off, though, could feel it in my gut."

Leithan leaned against the wall, and ran a hand through his hair, sighing.

"Should've listened to that feeling, but I ignored it. I was as naive about it as my friend Shay is about, like, everything." Leithan paused, then said, "You'll see what I mean if you ever meet her."

Teshin gave him a little smile, said nothing. He sat with his legs crossed, hands in his lap. One finger worrying at the leather strap of his sandal.

Leithan said, "It's probably obvious by now, what happened. What's been happening."

Still, Teshin clarified, "This man wanted to have sex with you?"

Leithan sighed, a bit shaky still, dread gnawing and coiling inside like some dark and poisonous snake.

"That became our arrangement, yes. Once every two weeks."

"Twenty-three times?" Teshin asked.

Leithan gave him a sidelong look. Teshin's expression was unreadable. Leithan asked, "How did you know that?"

"I counted the cuts on your arm, earlier," Teshin admitted.

"Oh," Leithan said. He sat with his knees propped up, one elbow leaning on his knee, hand in his hair, so that part of his face was hidden from Tesh, behind his folded arm.

"I wonder if," Leithan said. "Is it weird that I feel kinda shitty? Like, after your story about losing your parents, and your sister, and the thing with Mikai, I just . . . I feel like a whiny brat."

"Aki, it isn't a competition," Teshin said.

"I know, but still. I mean, I lost my dad when I was ten, so that was a long time ago. But," Leithan said, frowning, hand still tangled in his hair. "It's like, the loneliness from losing him makes all the rest more difficult, you know? And, besides, probably none of this would've happened if Kovishi was still around. He was so protective."

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