Milyi squatted beside the river, soaking the red cloth until her fingers numbed. The boy slept now, but his sweat had soaked through his garments. He'd wandered in and out of lucidity for most of the night, and Milyi caught snatches of his story through his mumbling. She'd gathered he'd fallen and that he'd lost someone important to him.
A woman he called angel.
Through his fever, he'd called to her so fervently Milyi hadn't been able to help crying for them. The boy's face, so clenched with emotion, impassioned and tortured at the same time. He had soft skin, brown and bright as the inside of a bark strip. His eyes, when open, shone with so much intensity--she'd stared into them, hadn't been able to resist searching for some hint at his mystery in their depths.
Such strong hands, and yet, the odd wounds.
"You should have left him in the river." Horatch vaulted from the edge of the jungle. He landed on a boulder near the water. Not on her shoulder, she noted. The T'rant had kept his distance since Saku.
"You saw the colors...and the stings."
"I should have left him to die?"
"It would have been more humane."
"Why?" She dragged the cloth out of the current, red as blood, as a Wisp's wings. Horatch knew more than he meant to tell her, as usual. This time she needed to know, however. This time, she'd had enough of his riddles. "What do you know about him? About this?"
She flipped the garment and icy drops sprayed across the rocks. Horatch remained in the shower, and when the drops pattered against his snowy carapace, Milyi cringed against a flash of guilt. He'd saved her life. He'd defended her when her own people refused to.
"Horatch, I need to know. That boy...his body is covered in..."
"The Wisp poison does not kill your kind." His voice came like a breath of wind, softer even than the babbling of the river. "Not unless they choose to. More often, the stings are very calculated."
"How do you know this? How is it my own people don't know this?"
"Because your people have chosen to forget. Or perhaps, that choice was taken from them. Milyi, this is an ancient war, and you Hands are caught up in the center. My people would choose you as partners, allies against that color you hold. The Wisps would use you as a tool, as pawns, thoughtless drones kept subservient by the poison underneath your skin."
"Saku?" She stared at the cloth. The slick fabric darkened under the weight of river water, looking like old blood now. "You mean he's..."
"Under their control, Milyi. The boy is our enemy."
"No." She shook the thought away, unsure why she resisted so fiercely. "You can't know that. He's all alone out here."
Like she was. Was that it? Saku had no people either, and as much as she had come to trust the T'rant, he was not of her kind.
"Milyi, I understand."
"You don't know for sure. You haven't even spoken to him."
"And what would happen if I did? Do you think any of your people would greet me as a friend?"
"Because you are special."
"Maybe he is too." That was it. Saku was special. Milyi had felt it from the start. It had tingled through her hands as she pulled him from the river and grown into shivers of revelation as she'd watched over him through the night. The boy was different, too. He was like her. "Maybe Saku is special."
"Would you risk my life to find out?" Horatch tapped a punctuation on the rock with his foremost appendages. "Would you risk the Great One's life to test that theory?"
"I-no." Milyi's belly squirmed. Her memory flashed red and black, death from above. She'd saved the Great One in the end, but it's huge legs still seized beneath him, and he'd barely managed to consume the food they'd pressed to his face, the water they'd dribbled over his bristles. "What do we do then? I can't just...I won't."
"Maybe not," Horatch said. "Maybe the boy is special. But you must promise me, Milyi. Promise me you won't let him near the Great One."
"I promise." Milyi nodded for emphasis. She'd feared worse, had expected Horatch to demand she roll Saku back into the river. Still, he didn't sound thrilled with her, and eventually they'd move on to his city. If the Great One continued with them, would Horatch just leave Saku behind?
What would she do if he did?
"The Great One cannot flee or fight," Horatch said. "And the boy will be mobile very soon. Perhaps, we can send him away."
"He might help us." She tried again, though she read the T'rant's mood enough to know his answer already. "If the Wisps hurt him, he might want to come with us."
"Let's see." Horatch flipped his legs up and down, not only tapping but actively fidgeting now. His round butt lifted and lowered, flashing its ink patterns like an irritated flag. "I propose a test, Milyi. We'll let the boy recover, let his strength return and then...if you are still interested in his assistance, we'll see what he thinks of me."
"You?" Milyi's throat went dry. It was one thing to believe in the feverish boy, but fully healed...she'd lived among her people too long to expect a miracle. "Won't that be dangerous?"
"Most definitely. But I don't intend to come down and sit in his lap. I am capable of great caution, you'll remember."
She did. Milyi remembered a white streak against dark bark. Had Horatch spoken to anyone else in her village, she had no doubts the T'rant would not have survived the encounter. She wanted to believe in the boy. She wanted Saku to be special, to prove Horatch wrong.