“Is everybody ready to go?”
“Yes,” a chorus of tired voices replied.
“You packed everything you need?”
“And you burned everything else?”
His father rolled his eyes. “Yes, son! Can we go now?”
Toke slung his pack over his shoulder. On other side of the room, Zashiel was watching through one of the windows, just to be sure nobody was waiting to ambush them. There was a low fog hanging over Doku this morning. That was good, Toke reasoned. It would give them more cover as they made their way across town. Zashiel turned to face him, and nodded.
“All right,” he said. “Zashiel's going first, and I'll take the rear. We're heading straight for the docks, no stops along the way. Everyone keep your heads down and talk as little as possible.”
His mother gave him a worried glance. “We're not in any danger, are we?”
“Of course not,” Toke lied. He hated how he was able to do that so easily to his own mother nowadays. “We just want to get out with as few people remembering us as possible.”
“That way if anyone does come by in the future, they won't be able to ask about us,” Zashiel said, joining in on the lie. “The ship is leaving soon. Come on, let's go. And stay close!”
Brin may have acted unconcerned with the move, but Toke didn't miss the way he scuttled after Zashiel as soon as she stepped out the door.
“Your parents don't know about the bounty hunter?” Boam said under his breath while waiting for his turn to vacate the building.
“There's no reason to scare them,” Toke answered just as quietly. “As long as we get out of here, it won't be a problem anymore.”
Boam nodded and started toward the door, but Toke stopped him with a hand on his shoulder.
“Don't tell them,” he warned the larger man.
“Is there anything I am allowed to talk about?” Boam asked, rolling his eyes. Shrugging his friend's hand away, he set off into the fog.
Toke stopped in the doorway and turned to give the cursed candy shop one last look. True, his family had only lived there for a month, but he still felt strangely attached to the place. It had served as his home, after all, even if only for a few weeks. His family and the woman he loved had all stayed in there with him. Who wouldn't feel at least a little nostalgic for a place like that?
He sighed. If he kept this up, he had a miserable life ahead of him. No matter how much he liked to pretend otherwise, he knew that this was all he had to look forward to for the rest of his life. Settling down in one place for a month or two, then packing up and running at the first sign of trouble. Maybe one day he would find a place where Klevon's hunters wouldn't haunt him.
That day wasn't today, though, so with another sigh he turned and followed the others out into Doku.
The waters lapped gently against the bridge supports below them, and fingers of mist stretched up out of the canals, as if reaching for the fugitives. Toke didn't say anything as Zashiel led them through the city, and after Evanya's halfhearted attempts to start a conversation were hushed, neither did anyone else. That was better, because without their idle chitchat to distract him Toke was able to focus on scanning the area.
He hadn't told Zashiel the day before, but when he'd spotted the hunter at the docks he had reached out and touched him with his powers. No two objects had the same gravitational field. Most of the differences were so insignificant that they might as well be identical, true, but if one was able to pick out those differences it was possible to “see” through his ability to sense gravity. He wasn't able to study everything in Doku, of course, which meant most of what he felt was nothing more than formless blobs of gravity.
Not the hunter, though. Toke had focused all his attention on him when he'd touched him with his powers. With the void blocking out all other sights, sounds, and distracting thoughts, he had, in essence, been able to snap a mental photograph of the hunter's gravitational field. If they passed anywhere near him, Toke would know.
The soft fabric of his jacket and the cold steel of his axes pressed against his chest were a comfort, but not as big a comfort as the Sorakine girl leading them through the city. Should the hunter be foolish enough to attack them in public, Zashiel would be more than enough to protect them. The thought of her pummeling him into a humiliated pile of hurt was enough to make Toke smile.
What were they going to do once they got to Stal Atrieda, he wondered? Obviously, they would still be in hiding, but Zashiel had to have a reason for wanting to go there. What could be interesting enough, or important enough, to catch the attention of an exiled Sorakine?
Maybe she really does just want to see the sights, he thought.
The group rounded the corner ahead of him, and for a split second Toke could see Zashiel's face. Her hard, grim, cold-as-ice face. Beautiful as a sunrise, but as welcoming as a... Toke paused to think. A pit full of cactus. A pit full of flaming cactus. Yeah, that sounded about right. Toke knew she had a softer side, but he'd had to save her entire race to find it. The idea that she simply wanted to sightsee struck him as ridiculous. And yet, if she did have some other, more important reason to go there, she would have shared it with him.
You've got no right to be mad at her for that, he thought, putting his hands in his pockets. It's not like you've been entirely honest with her either.
The shredded wing on the back of his jacket was proof of that. As was the mysterious attack his body had gone through the previous day. Not to mention—
Toke groaned inwardly and shook his head. Thoughts like that were only going to depress him further. He looked up into the fog-shrouded sky, and his spirits lifted a little when he saw the bright white sails of the ships.
His wings, he decided. That would be a good thing to think about on their way to the docks. Now that one of them had a hole, however it had happened, he would need to patch it up. That was easier said than done, though. The material for Sorakine jackets wasn't exactly easy to come across in Yasmik, and even less so in Vlangur.
There's got to be something, he mused, staring up at the sails. I'm an inventor. Thinking my way through these things is what I do!
The world around him began to fade away as his brain reflexively tried to form the void, but he shook it off. As comforting as it would be to lose himself in the quiet, empty darkness, he was still the group’s lookout, and for that he needed a clear head. So, reluctantly pushing the void into the back of his mind, he focused himself on the task at hand and reached out with his powers again.
A few minutes later the crowds began to grow thicker again. Though Toke could only see a fraction of them, he could still hear the raucous voices of the sailors coming from everywhere around him. His skin prickled with anxiety as Zashiel pushed her way into the crowd, his family right behind her.
“The Seventh Swordfish is a barge,” he heard her say, speaking more loudly now that they were surrounded by other voices.
Evanya wrinkled her nose. “A barge?” She turned to her son. “You didn't tell us we were going on a barge.”
Toke rolled his eyes. “Would you prefer to stay here? They agreed to give us all free passage to Stal Atrieda if Zashiel and I work for them.”
“And,” Brin broke in, sounding no more pleased than his wife, “what will you be doing aboard this barge?”
Toke and Zashiel exchanged a look. Toke hadn't been sure how his parents would react, so they'd decided to keep their newfound jobs to themselves until they got on board, when it would be too late to back out. Zashiel raised her eyebrows, letting Toke know who would get the honor of filling them in.
He took a deep breath. “The Seventh Swordfish,” he said, “is a circus.”
Brin turned around to look at him. “A—”
“Yes, a circus! Zashiel and I are going to be performing for them.”
“Awesome!” Boam exclaimed.
This time, Brin and Evanya shared a look.
“Son,” his father said in a slow voice, “I don't want to upset you, but... well, what on Fissura do you think you're going to be able to do in a circus?”
Toke blinked. “I—”
“Whatever he smiting wants,” Zashiel cut him off. She turned to look at Brin, cheeks red. “You should have more faith in your son.”
“I- I just—” Once again, Brin's overconfidence vanished under the piercing glare of the Sorakine girl. “I just wanted him to, uh, remember his... limits...”
“Your son can walk on walls and move things with his brain. I hardly think performing in a circus is beyond his limits.”
Brin looked down at his feet, mumbling something Toke couldn't hear.
“Honestly,” Zashiel kept ranting, “it's sad how the only people on Fissura who don't have any faith in Toke are his own smiting parents!”
“Zashiel!” Toke snapped.
The Sorakine girl looked back at him, saw the glare he was giving her, and shut her mouth. She didn't apologize before facing forward and leading them out onto the docks, but that was par for the course for Zashiel.
The Seventh Swordfish came into view long before they reached where it was docked. The bright morning sun shone down on it, making its swirling pattern of colors nearly blinding to look at. Unlike the day before, however, now the entire ship was crawling with sailors. Most of them were the same burly men that crowded the rest of the docks, but here and there Toke spotted ones that were... different. An old man hung from the gangplank, clutching the board with nothing but his toes, and was busy knitting something so quickly that his needles were a silver blur. Even in the few seconds that Toke watched, it grew three feet longer and started to dip into the water. A few crates were stacked at the other end of the dock—on their corners. And atop those crates was a woman balancing on her toes, slowly rotating while the three crates below her rotated in opposite, alternating directions. There was a ceaseless jangling noise coming from somewhere, and Toke eventually identified the source: a man wearing what looked like a suit made of metal discs and sticks. Every time he moved, one of those sticks would swing, strike one of the discs, and make a crystal clear ding! Even though they all seemed to be swinging at random, his movements as he walked from one side of the dock to the other produced a pleasant, melodious tune that, Toke soon realized, had gotten stuck in his head after only hearing it for a few seconds.
“Well,” he heard his father mutter, “this is certainly going to be interesting.”
Even amongst all the chaos, Inaska was easy to spot. She stood by the gangplank with her hands on her hips, as if supervising the others. She still had the same gold mask on that she'd been wearing the day before. Toke pointed her out, and the group moved toward her. Toke mentally prepared himself for the worst. Between her trying to kill him, and him nearly killing her, the two of them hadn't exactly gotten off on the right foot. His cheek still stung from where she'd punched him.
To his surprise, though, her face lit up with a smile when she saw them.
“You made it!” she chirped. Her long, white hair fluttered around her shoulders as a breeze blew in from the river. “Come on aboard. I think Captain Treyn wants to talk to you all before we cast off.”
Zashiel nodded and followed the other girl up the gangplank. Brin and Evanya went after them, followed by Wayli and Boam. Toke waited until they were all safely on board before…
A familiar field of gravity was closing in on him—fast! Reacting on instinct, he weakened his gravity and jumped just as a thick, round wooden shield went flying underneath him. He twisted in midair and landed facing the opposite direction. Sure enough, the hunter was standing at the edge of the dock, so red in the face that he was practically blowing steam out of his nostrils.
“It took me months to find you,” he shouted, drawing his club from its sheath on his back. “I'm not letting you get away now!”
He held the club with his left hand, the bandages around his right arm preventing him from using it, but Toke thought back to their fight the other day and got the feeling it wouldn't matter. The confrontation wasn’t lost on the rest of the Swordfish’s crew, and the sudden stampede of feet told him they were all getting onboard as quickly as they could. Good. That would leave the dock empty, giving Toke more room to work without worrying about hurting a bystander. Slowly, he reached under his shirt and drew his axes. He couldn’t put his jacket on without taking his eyes off the hunter, but hopefully with the hunter in the condition he was in he wouldn't need the extra layer of protection. He eyed the hunter's broken arm.
An obvious weak point, he thought. I should—
Before he could finish working out his strategy, the hunter charged across the dock at him. Toke jumped up out of the hunter's path, and then anchored himself to a farther part of the dock so that he landed behind his enemy. The hunter reacted just as quickly as Toke knew he would, spinning around and swinging his club at Toke's head, so Toke dropped down onto his back. There was a post rising from the water at the end of the pier, and Toke anchored himself to it, spreading his legs as he slid across the rough wood so that he kicked the hunter in both kneecaps. The hunter grunted in pain and fell forward, but not before Toke was out from beneath him.
Toke released his anchor on the post, sprang back to his feet, and leaped as high as he could into the air. Taking aim, he anchored himself to the dock again as strongly as he could and came plummeting back down—right on top of the hunter. The gigantic man gasped as Toke's feet slammed into his ribcage, forcing the air out of his lungs, but the sound was drowned out by the earsplitting crack the dock made when it collapsed under Toke's weight.
The two of them splashed down into the cold water, but Toke didn't let up. Switching his anchor from the dock to the bottom of the canal, they sank at freefall speed and slammed into the muddy riverbed. As soon as they landed, Toke anchored himself back to the underside of the docks and began to rise back toward the surface—but came brought to a sudden stop.
Toke gasped, precious air escaping into bubbles around his mouth, and looked down to see the hunter glaring at him with a meaty fist wrapped around his ankle. The grip tightened, making his leg throb with pain, and no matter how hard he anchored himself to the surface he couldn't break the hunter's grip. Slowly, the hunter began to pull him back down again. Toke's lungs were burning. The hunter had turned this from a fight into a contest to see who could hold their breath the longest, and Toke could already feel himself running out of air.
His axes were still in his hands, he realized through thoughts that were becoming hazy. Raising them, he brought them both down at the hunter. The water slowed his movements, but the attack still came fast enough that it should—
The hunter rolled over on the riverbed, taking Toke with him. Toke's axes missed their mark, and their blades sank down into the mud. Then the hunter was on top of Toke, his hand wrapped around his neck. It was a pointless move—it wasn't like he was able to breathe anyway—but it kept him from trying to escape again. Toke kicked, ramming his foot into every part of the hunter he could reach, but the larger man took every blow with an air of vengeful patience. It didn't matter how many bruises Toke gave him. In just a few seconds, he was... going... to...
Toke's eyes closed.
A brilliant yellow light exploded in front of his eyelids, but Toke didn't have the strength to open them. He vaguely felt the hunter's hand be torn from his throat. Then there was movement, followed by a bitter cold wind, and then...
“Breathe, Toke!” a familiar voice screamed into his ear.
Something pressed against his lips, and air flowed through his mouth and into his lungs. His thoughts became a little bit clearer. Something started pushing rhythmically against his chest, and then touched his lips again. His lungs rose and fell. It was like somebody was breathing for him. Almost as if—
Toke's eyes popped open to see Zashiel's face closer to his than it had ever been before. The pressure was still on his lips—a warm, soft pressure.
“Zashiel?” he yelled directly into the Sorakine girl's mouth.
Zashiel's cheeks puffed up as air rushed from Toke's mouth into hers. Her eyes opened in shock, and then she recoiled from him. Toke sat up, lucidity rapidly returning to him, but still unable to wrap his head around what had just happened.
Zashiel stood, looking down at him in horror. “You're... You're awake,” she finally said.
“Yeah, I am,” he said back.
Zashiel took a breath, closed her eyes, and when she opened them again she was back to business as usual. “That's good. Are you okay?”
Toke was still short of breath, but he nodded. “Y- Yeah. I'll be fine just give me a—”
Before he could finish, the water behind him exploded, and the hunter's arm wrapped around his throat. Toke gave an undignified croak, still too disoriented to fight back, and could only stare at Zashiel as he was dragged back into the canal. The Sorakine girl moved in a blur of yellow light, crossing the docks, grabbing him by the ankles, and hauling him back up—bringing the hunter with him.
The hunter had half a second for the alarm to register on his face before Zashiel's fist slammed into it.
“Let me make one thing clear,” she said, grabbing him by his collar and hoisting him up off the ground—no small feat, since he was at least a foot taller than her. “Toke is under my protection. If you ever try to hurt him again, I'll kill you.”
The hunter narrowed his eyes and glared at the Sorakine girl. “You'd better kill me now, then, because that's the only way I'm ever going to stop hunting him.”
Zashiel drew him closer. “No. I'm going to use you to send a message to my sister. Tell Finch that what I just told you goes for her too. Nobody is going to lay a hand on Toke.”
There was blood running down the hunter's face from at least three different wounds, all inflicted by Zashiel's single punch, but the look he gave her was still enough to chill Toke's blood. Fortunately, Zashiel was a warrior to her core, and she returned the glare with just as much, if not more, menace. Then she raised him above her head and threw him down into the dock. The wood shattered from the impact, and Toke raised his arm to keep any of the flying splinters from hitting him in the face.
Wedged between the broken planks, the hunter cried out in pain. Zashiel looked down at him and, almost casually, put her foot on his chest. She thrust her leg out, shooting the hunter down the length of the dock, splitting every board he struck in half. The sound of splintering wood was enough to make Toke cringe. The hunter came to a stop just a few planks away from the edge, leaving a trail or destruction behind him. Spreading her wings, Zashiel flew across the gap to stand in front of him again.
“Tell her what I said,” she told him, yanking him up out of the water. “And pray to whatever gods you choose that I never see you again.”
And with that, she drew her arms back and threw the hunter into the canal. Propelled by her inhuman strength, he shot out over the water like a stone hurled from a catapult. He hit the water almost thirty feet away from the dock, skipped twice, then went rolling and bouncing across the surface of the lake before coming a stop and sinking beneath the surface.
For a minute, it seemed like time had stopped. The only sound was the water lapping up against the side of the docks. Zashiel stayed where she was, staring out at where the hunter had landed.
“Whoa,” Toke finally said. “Holy smite.”
Zashiel finally turned and flew back to where he was lying. Her face was as cold as ever. “Can you stand?”
Toke took a second to take stock of his body, but then nodded. “I- I think so. My head's just a little...”
“Here,” she cut him off, kneeling down. Putting her arm under his, she helped him to his feet. “Lean on me.”
Toke's face began to burn. “I'm fine, really! I just—”
“Drowning can take a lot out of you,” she chastised him as they headed, at last, for the gangplank. “Don't fight me on this. Just rest so you can recover.”
Toke sighed. “Fine.”
It took longer than it should have for them to climb onto the ship, the narrow gangplank not suited for people walking side by side, but since Zashiel had made it clear she didn't intend to let Toke walk on his own he hobbled alongside her until they were standing on the Seventh Swordfish's deck.
It took less than a second for his mother to pounce on him.
“Are you all right?” she demanded, wrenching him away from Zashiel's grip. As soon as the Sorakine girl's supporting arm was gone, his legs gave out and he collapsed to the barge's deck, the world spinning in front of his eyes. “Oh, goodness! What did you do to him?”
“I didn't do anything,” Zashiel said, standing above him with her arms crossed. “It was that—”
“And just who was that man? Why was he trying to kill my son?”
The rest of the crew was staring, Toke realized with a sigh. They hadn't even pulled out from the harbor, and his reputation on the Seventh Swordfish was already soiled.
“He was a bounty hunter from Yasmik,” he said loudly enough for everyone around to hear. “He's been tailing me all over Vlangur. I guess he decided to make a last ditch attempt to keep me from leaving town.”
His mother stiffened, but he didn't pay her any attention. Weakening his gravity to make himself lighter, he stood up. His legs were still wobbly, but his strength was beginning to return so he was able to stand on his own. He saw Zashiel watching him with a wary eye, but he could tell she understood what he was doing and didn't try to stop him.
Brin stepped forward out of the crowd of sailors, rigid with anger. “And that man,” he said, pointing down at the dock, “is the real reason we're leaving?”
Toke hesitated, and then nodded. “I didn't want to worry you, but yeah. We're leaving because of him.”
The look of betrayal in his father's eyes was enough to make Toke take a step back.
“Why didn't you just tell us?” he asked.
Toke opened his mouth to reply, but realized he had no idea what to say. Luckily, Captain Treyn came to the rescue.
“Hey, you bunch of lazy aftdraggers!” he shouted, drawing one of his knives and waving it above his head. “Am I paying you to ogle like a bunch of peeperfish, or am I paying you to move this ship? Get going!”
Most of them were twice Treyn's size, yet they all still hurried to do as he said. Once they were gone, he turned toward Toke. “Well, that was certainly impressive.”
Now that nobody was staring at him, Toke leaned against the wall. “Hardly,” he scoffed. “I lost.”
“But you did so quite spectacularly!” the captain laughed, his voice strangely approving.
Toke looked at Zashiel, who shrugged. Still laughing, Treyn went and looked over the side of the ship.
“Well, lookie here,” he mused.
Toke turned to look, and heard the sound of stamping feet. Lots of them. And they were getting louder by the second.
“Time to go,” Treyn said suddenly, pushing himself away from the edge of the boat. “Everyone, prepare to cast off!”
Toke didn't have to look to know what was going on, but he rushed up to where Treyn had just been standing to look anyway. Sure enough, a line of armored men were marching down the pier, straight for the colorful barge, swords and spears held at the ready.
“Smite,” he muttered. “So much for a clean getaway.”
“I don't think the good people of Doku are too happy with what you did to their dock,” Treyn said over his shoulder.
Zashiel folded her arms stubbornly. “Seemed like a reasonable thing to do at the moment.”
“So, now what?” Toke asked. “If they board the ship—”
“They're not gonna board us,” Treyn said with a dismissive wave of his hand. “My crew knows what to do. This isn't the first time we've been run out of town.”
The last of the crewmembers rushed onto the ship, dragging the gangplank up with them. Ludsong appeared beside them, and Toke immediately went on the defensive when he saw the massive axe he effortlessly raised above his head. When it came down, though, it only struck the thick mooring rope, cutting it as easily as if it'd been made of string. He jangled as he did so.
Toke eyes widened in disbelief. The burley, sour faced first mate was the one wearing the bell-and-stick suit!
“Pole pushers!” Treyn shouted while Ludsong hurried to cut the other ropes. A dozen men, each of them carrying a pole as thick as their arm, rushed to the side of the ship and thrust the poles into the canal. The Seventh Swordfish lurched in the water.
“What does a circus have to do to get run out of town?” Toke asked. The guards were drawing closer, and the ship was still close enough to the pier that they wouldn't have any trouble boarding.
“Put on a really bad show,” the captain answered, and then yelled, “Put your backs into it!”
The pushers thrust their poles into the water again, and this time the ship slid away from the dock. Just in time, too, because the first of the guards reached the edge of the pier.
“Captain Treyn of the Seventh Swordfish!” he declared, stamping the butt of his spear on the dock. “You are hereby charged with the destruction of city property and commanded to dock your ship at once!”
Toke glanced at Treyn, and was surprised to see how calm he looked. He casually strolled up to the side of the ship to look at the guard.
“No,” was all he said.
The guard stamped his spear again. “Very well. Men, bring the ship in and prepare to board by force!”
“Get ready,” Zashiel whispered to him. “Looks like we're going to have to fight after all.”
He nodded. On the docks, five men stepped forward, swinging grappling hooks. At their captain's command, they loosed them. The pole pushers flinched a little when they saw the heavy metal hooks flying towards them, but continued to push the ship away from the dock. The hooks buried themselves in the hull of the Seventh Swordfish, and the men on the pier all took up the ropes and began to pull back.
And Treyn still looked completely unconcerned.
“Wonderful,” he groaned, looking at where the hooks had gouged the ship's colorful wood. “Now I'm going to have to repaint. Ludsong!”
“Yes, Cap'n?” the large man asked with a sharp salute and a noisy jangle.
“I think these gentlemen want to come aboard.”
“Do they have tickets?”
“Indeed, they do not.”
Ludsong grinned and, without having to be told what to do, ran to one end of the ship. Then he dashed back along the edge of the side, snatching up all of the grappling hooks as he ran. Each one was firmly buried in the ship's hull, and yet they came free at his slightest tug. Once he reached the far end of the Seventh Swordfish, he had the ropes to all five hooks grasped in one meaty hand.
“Permission to bring them aboard, Cap'n?” he called.
Treyn nodded. “Permission granted!”
Ludsong gave the ropes a mighty pull and, to Toke's disbelief, all the men holding them on the dock were flung into the air. Most of them let go as soon as their feet left the ground, splashing down into the murky canal water, but a couple of them stayed determinedly latched onto their ropes.
Those ones slammed face first into the Seventh Swordfish's hull.
“Zashiel?” Toke whispered, watching the unlucky guards plummet into the water.
“These people are insane.”
“I noticed.” She turned to him and gave him a wicked grin. “I like them!”
They watched for a few minutes as the barge was pushed farther away from the docks. Treyn gave the remaining guards a cheerful wave.
“A- And don't come back!” he heard the one in charge yell after them.
Before much longer, Doku had disappeared into the distance and there was nothing around them but calm, open water.
“Here,” Zashiel say, bringing his attention back to her. Toke turned and saw her holding his axes out to him. “You dropped them when the hunter was trying to drown you. I grabbed them before I brought you back up.”
With a jolt, Toke realized that the familiar weight of his axes was missing, and his face turned pale. “Holy smite, I didn't even—”
“Don't worry about it,” she said with a little smile. “You weren't exactly thinking clearly down there, were you?”
Toke chuckled weakly. “No, I guess I wasn't.”
He took the weapons gratefully and put them back into his jacket, under his shirt. The anxious knot in his stomach untied itself a little. Those axes meant more to him than anyone could understand, except for maybe Zashiel. To him, they were a symbol. They represented the turning point in his life, where he went from being a cowardly nobody to someone who actually made a difference in the world.
That's not true, his subconscious argued with him. You weren't a nobody, you were an inventor. Professor Navras himself said you were going to change the world!
Yeah, and look where that got you.
That shut his optimistic side right up.
“By the way,” Treyn said, strolling past them as if nothing out of the ordinary had just happened, “you two are repainting the hull.”
Toke opened his mouth to argue, but thought better of it. All things considered, a little manual labor was letting them off easy. Zashiel laughed a little when he deflated, and put her hands on the Seventh Swordfish's railing, leaning out over the water. Her wings glittered in the late morning sunlight, still dripping onto the barge's deck. Her long golden hair was clinging to her scalp, and yet somehow none of that managed to diminish her beauty in any way.
“Why do you really want to go to Stal Atrieda?” Toke found himself asking.
Zashiel shot him a sidelong look. “I already told you. I want to see the city.”
“Zashiel, be honest with me. You're a warrior. You don't care about things like tourism and sightseeing. I thought you were supposed to be above stuff like that. So come on, why are we really on this boat?”
For a minute, Zashiel didn't answer. The two of them stood side by side, listening to the water churn as the Seventh Swordfish plowed its way across the lake. The crew was bustling behind them, pushing this and pulling that, but Toke ignored them. The only thing he cared about right then was the winged girl standing beside him.
“Maybe it's time we stopped calling ourselves warriors,” she said softly.
“What?” Toke exclaimed. “Why?”
“Warriors are supposed to fight for what's right and make the world a better place. People are supposed to look up to them and respect them” She clenched her fist. “Everyone hates us, Toke!”
Toke opened and closed his mouth a few times, completely at a loss for what to say. What could he say to something as ridiculous as that? Zashiel saying she wasn't a warrior was like saying...
“Zashiel, am I a hero?” Toke asked.
“Of course you are,” Zashiel answered without hesitation. “You saved my entire race.”
Toke crossed his arms. “They think I was trying to kill them.”
“We know you weren't.”
“My own country think I'm a terrorist and a traitor.”
“So what? If we're basing who we are on what other people think of us, then I'm a criminal and a murderer and I should have let that bounty hunter take me back to Yasmik.”
Zashiel's mouth snapped shut.
“In fact, maybe we should just jump ship right now. I bet your sister would be more than happy to—”
“Okay, okay, I get it.”
Toke smiled at her, and was relieved to see her smile back.
“Thanks,” she said. “All of this... all the running, all the hiding, it... I dunno, I guess—”
“It gets to you,” Toke interrupted her. “I know, I feel it too. Sometimes I really do just feel like giving up.”
Slowly, he slid his hand across the railing until it was touching hers, and his heart skipped a beat when she didn't pull away.
“Not when I'm with you, though,” he said softly. “You make all of this worth it. As long as I have you, I'll...”
Zashiel took her hand away and put it in her pocket.
“We'll always be here for each other,” she said without looking at him. “We're friends, and partners to the end. And it doesn't matter how badly you feel like giving up—as long as I'm here, I'll never let you do it.”
Toke looked at her, and saw a smirk crack her serious facade.
“Come on,” she said, turning around and heading further onto the Seventh Swordfish. “Let's go see where Treyn has us quartered.”
Toke hesitated for a few seconds, watching her go. The other sailors gave her a wide berth, the way most humans did when they saw her wings. Not many people were brave enough to get in the way of a Sorakine... his Sorakine.
No, he thought bitterly, looking down at his feet. Not mine. She's my friend and my partner, but she'll never be... mine.
Admitting that to himself felt like driving an ice-cold dagger into his heart, and he clamped his hand around the Seventh Swordfish's railing until the familiar, throbbing ache came back.
“Smite it,” he growled under his breath. Was it right for him to be angry like this? Or was he just being selfish? Zashiel was free to make her own choices, and that included what she chose to feel for him, but that didn't make the rejection any easier for him to cope with. So he cursed again, “Smite it!”
Already halfway across the ship, Zashiel turned back to see why he wasn't following her. Pushing his feelings back, Toke let go of the railing and went after her. Maybe an answer would come to him someday. Until then, all he could do was just keep surviving.
NEXT TIME: It’s official, ladies and gentlemen! Toke and Zashiel are part of the circus. What do you think Treyn will have them doing? Clowns? I bet they’re going to be clowns.