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“Why?” Mathias said as he stared down at the back of his best friend’s head.
Aaslo patted the rich soil around the base of the sapling, then stood. “Why what?”
Wind surged through the trees, rustling their green and gold leaves and nearly whipping the dirty rag from Mathias’s fingers as he held it out for Aaslo. “Why won’t you go with Elanee to the dance? She wants to go with you.”
Aaslo took the proffered rag and dragged it across his soiled hands, but Mathias wondered if they weren’t becoming dirtier for the effort. Aaslo probably didn’t notice, and if he did, he likely didn’t care. The forester seemed the most content when he was covered in dirt and leaves. Aaslo didn’t immediately answer the question, either. He never did. Mathias waited, knowing that Aaslo would mull over every conceivable reply before settling on one. While others might consider it irritating, Mathias found comfort in knowing that whatever Aaslo finally said had been well considered. He had long since lost any frustration with his friend’s oddities. The foresters had their own strange way of looking at things.
Aaslo’s mouth twisted in consternation before he met Mathias’s gaze. His eyes were the dark, rich green of an ancient forest hiding epic mysteries. His fingers scratched his scruffy jawline, leaving a smear of dirt in their wake. Finally, Aaslo grumbled, “You know I’m going with Reyla.”
“You asked her?” Mathias said, already knowing the answer.
Aaslo’s lips turned down a well-worn path to a frown. “Why would I need to ask her? We always go together.”
Mathias shrugged and tossed a golden lock from his eyes. “I’m just saying, if you don’t ask her, how do you know she plans to go with you? Just because you went together to the last dance—”
“And the one before—and each of the six before that,” said Aaslo.
“Right,” Mathias replied, “but it doesn’t mean she’s planning to go with you to this one.”
Aaslo huffed as he scraped the mud from his boot on one of the many stumps that dotted the dense forest that had been recently visited by the loggers. “That’s ridiculous. She knows I’m making progress on the house. Pa and I set the beams yesterday. It’ll be ready to move into in a few months, and Reyla and I’ll be married. There’s no reason for her to go to the dance with anyone else.”
Mathias’s gaze was drawn to the tops of the tall pines where they bent under the force of the wind. He looked back to Aaslo and said, “True, but I still think you should ask her. Women like that kind of thing, you know.”
Aaslo checked his tools, then slung the bag containing all his forestry supplies over his shoulder. Glad he wasn’t carrying the bulky monstrosity that looked to weigh as much as his friend, Mathias picked up his much smaller pack, containing their water and lunch, and followed Aaslo through the trees. He never worried about getting lost. He was quite certain Aaslo could navigate the forest blindfolded in a blizzard.
After walking in silence for several minutes, Aaslo said, “Who are you going to ask?”
Mathias grinned to himself as he pictured how Neasey would react when he asked her—or maybe Arielle. Then he remembered a promise he had made at the previous dance.
“I guess I’ll have to take Jessi. She was pretty upset when I went with Laney to the last one. She said I should have taken her first since J comes before L.”
Aaslo glanced over his shoulder. “You’re taking them in alphabetical order?”
Mathias’s laughter was swallowed by the crackling of limbs and leaves as another gust tore through the timbers. “No, that hadn’t been my plan, but I guess it’s as good as any.” He groaned when Aaslo stopped and pointed to a clump of mushrooms growing from the side of a tree.
“That one,” said the forester.
“I don’t see why I have to know that, Aaslo. I’m not a forester.”
Aaslo rounded on him, his jaw tightening as the wind touseled his shaggy brown hair. He crossed his meaty arms and stared at Mathias. Although Aaslo was a few inches shorter than he, the forester was strong—a condition bred by a lifetime of lugging equipment and planting and maintaining the trees of the Efestrian Forest. Still, Mathias knew he could take Aaslo down if needed, since he won every two out of three sparring matches. He waited for Aaslo to say something, and eventually he did.
“If I have to learn the letters and numbers, and histories and sciences—”
Mathias threw up his hands. “Come on, Aaslo, that’s different.”
“—and maps and cultures, and languages and fighting—”
“—then you can learn the forest.”
With a heavy sigh, Mathias said, “All right, I get that, but I have no use for mushrooms. I don’t even like the taste. What you’re learning with Grams is useful.”
Aaslo grunted. “How is knowing that Akyelek is the official language in Mouvilan useful? It’s on the other side of the world. I’ll never go there, and I’ll probably never meet a Mouvilanian, either.”
Mathias hopped onto one of the many fresh stumps and spread his arms. “The world is huge and full of mysteries! Where’s your sense of adventure, Aaslo?”
Aaslo’s gaze bore into him as if he were staring down an enemy. “Words shouldn’t be wasted on telling you things you already know.”
With a chuckle, Mathias said, “That sounds like something your father would say.”
Aaslo nodded. “It is.”
Mathias crossed his arms. “It’s not like you get a limited number of words to use in your lifetime. You’re not going to run out.”
“That’s what I always say,” Aaslo said with a smile. It was more of a smirk, but it was the closest to a smile that Mathias had ever seen. Aaslo’s expression soured again, and he said, “Still, it applies. You know I have no desire to leave this forest or Goldenwood—ever. There’s nothing but trouble out there, and everything important can be found right here.”
Mathias raised his brow. “Important like the mushroom?”
“Yes,” Aaslo said with a curt nod, “because the mushroom is right here in front of us, and if not for your grandmother, we wouldn’t even know Mouvilan existed.”
As usual, Mathias was both humbled and amused by Aaslo’s artless mind-set. His gaze dropped to the bright orange mushroom, and he sighed. “Laetiporus?”
Aaslo nodded once. “Good enough. Couldn’t have been any easier.”
Mathias grinned as Aaslo turned back to the path that only he and other foresters could see. He was glad the foresters kept the underbrush to a minimum; otherwise the hike would have been much more strenuous and Aaslo would have had a plethora of foliage over which to quiz him. Although his friend would never admit it, Mathias knew that Aaslo enjoyed teaching him about the forest. A bud of mischief began to unravel inside him, and Mathias said, “You can lose the pride, Aaslo. You know I’ll be ripping it and your hide in the practice yard this afternoon.”
Aaslo didn’t turn as he answered. “Probably, but I’ll be sure to make you a bit prettier for Jessi. A black eye and split lip should go well with whatever absurd poetry you spout.”
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