Milyi slipped away when Saku fell asleep beside the fire. Her feet still throbbed from the dancing, but her heart beat louder than it had since leaving home. She threw her arms wide and looked up to the net of fronds over her head. When had she stopped fearing the jungle? When had she ever felt like this?
She scanned the trees for Horatch, slipped between the trunks, and stumbled into the mangled clearing where their Great One should have been.
"Horatch?" The jungle broke at the far side as if a huge hand had crushed the foliage. "Horatch!"
"I am still here." His voice drifted down, and today it had a flatness to it, a note that made the skin prickle down her arms.
"Where is the Great One?"
"He's gone to find his Hands." Horatch moved and then, at last, Milyi could see him. His white and black legs shifted and he slid further into view. "We must cover his leaving, Milyi. You and I. The boy must not know."
"Why?" She bit her lower lip and frowned at the stretch of tree bark where he'd all but vanished.
Horatch didn't care for Saku. He'd not bothered to hide it, even though the boy had done nothing but need their help. Even though he understood exactly what Milyi had been through, had been thrust from his own village just as abruptly, lost, unwanted... just like her. "Saku wouldn't do anything."
"Maybe not." There was fatigue in the T'rant's voice today.
"Why don't you like Saku?" She crept nearer to his tree, tried to see his posture, to gauge from what she'd learned of him, all the secret things that always hid beneath his conversation. "You don't want me to like him either."
"It is a natural thing. Neither of us can prevent that, nor would I, Milyi... but like him or not, I fear this boy. I fear what he might be and what he hides from us."
The front legs came up together. Horatch reared, defensive, and she let her protest trail away. She'd sensed it too, how Saku chose his words with care, how he crafted his story. She didn't want to lie to Horatch, nor to lose him. But she wanted to keep Saku as well, and the miserable knot in her belly suggested that might be too much to ask.
"I know," she said. "But do we have to just leave him, Horatch?"
And that quickly, she'd chosen the T'rant. Saku's sweet eyes flashed through her mind, the way he'd laughed and clapped while she danced. But he hadn't offered her a future, not like Horatch had. Milyi would see the T'rant's city. She would find out why the spider had chosen her, or she would have left her life, her grandmother, even little Rani, for nothing.
"No." Horatch lowered his legs. She might have imagined the relief in his words, might only have wished for it to be there. "But we will have to go wider, now. We must lead the Wisps away from our wounded friend."
"And you think they follow Saku?"
"I believe he is theirs, Milyi. Yes."
"But, isn't there something we can do for him? Some way to..." She couldn't even imagine what it was she wanted now. She'd seen the red and black beasts, the arm-long stingers and the flat, unfeeling reflections in the Wisp's eyes. "Maybe if he knew the truth about them?"
"Are you certain that he doesn't already?"
"Yes." How could he know? How could Saku know what the Wisps were capable of and still wear those robes? "I want to try, Horatch."
"If he listens to you at all," Horatch said. "He will still have their poison in his veins, child. The remedy for that is not sure, nor painless."
"But there is a remedy?"
"My people used it once, long before the Great Ones returned to their resting. It is difficult, and must be chosen freely."
"We can ask him." A flutter of hope stirred her. Of course, Saku would listen. If the T'rants could save him from the Wisps, then why would he not? "I can ask him, can't I?"
"I would not stop you." Horatch agreed in that much. "But I would ask you to wait, to give the Great One a little lead, in case your feelings for the boy are misplaced."
"Feelings?" Milyi's face warmed. She stuck out her chin and crossed her arms over her breast. "I don't know what you're talking about."
"In case the boy says no, Milyi. We must wait a little, for the Great One's sake."
"I wish to move again. My time away stretches and I would have safe walls around us sooner rather than later. We can skirt to the south and avoid the Great One's trail. It will add a little time, but less than standing still to wait."
"And Saku can come?"
"If you wish it." The only sign of the spider's agitation was the slight shuffling of his velvet toes. Milyi saw it. She marked it. But her heart still raced when he agreed with her. "If he wishes, he may come."
"Thank you, Horatch." Milyi danced in place. The vines underfoot stuttered her steps, but she threw her arms out again and held her balance. "Thank you for being reasonable, and wise, and... you."
"Don't thank me. Not yet, Milyi."
But her heart already fluttered in her chest. She heard the warning in the T'rant's words. She heard the touch of fear and concern. He sounded almost like her grandmother would have. Still, Milyi's feet pounded her joy against the jungle floor. She danced, and she couldn't for a second believe that Saku would say anything but yes.
She couldn't fear, as Horatch did. Couldn't let the thread of foreboding in the spider's words take root. She danced it away because, if she let it sink in and grow, she might have to imagine what would happen to her heart, to her song, if the boy said no. If Saku refused them...
Milyi spun and laughed and wished that thought into non-existence.