Positioning the nail right where he needed it, Toke raised his hammer and—
Toke had begun the swing, but when he heard Zashiel's voice he had instinctively attempted to halt the hammer's motion. The sudden stress on his wrist had caused his injury to flare up. The hammer toppled from his listless fingers, clattering to the floor. Clenching his teeth, he grabbed his throbbing wrist in his left hand and waited for the pain to pass. It was all he could do.
Once he was feeling better, he looked up at Zashiel again. A coating of sweat covered his brow. “What did you say?”
Zashiel sat next to him, a hammer in her own hand and a board sitting before her. They had been at it for four hours already, and Toke was beginning to realize that building benches wasn't as easy as he would have thought. Not that he'd put much thought into the subject, but still. During their hours of labor, Toke had managed to repair two of the long wooden seats that Zashiel had destroyed. The Sorakine girl was still working on the same one she had started with, and though Toke didn't say anything, he suspected that Treyn wouldn't find the lopsided thing acceptable. He wanted his audience to sit comfortably while they watched his show. Toke's were better, since he had a natural eye for building things, but the going was still slow.
Two benches done. Only seventeen more to go.
The Sorakine girl set down her hammer and looked up at him. “I'm sorry I got us into this.”
Most of the pain had gone away, but Toke's fingers were still tingling. He tentatively reached down and tried to pick the hammer back up, but it fell from his noodle-like grip again. He sighed, but tried to give Zashiel an optimistic smile anyway.
“Ah, it's not that bad,” he said, waving his good hand. “It reminds me of when I was in... his class.”
The smile fell from his face.
Smiting idiot! Why would you bring that up?
Zashiel's expression tightened for a second, but then she nodded. “I can understand that. You made things in his class too, didn't you?”
“Zashiel, we don't have to talk about that.”
She shook her head. “It's fine, Toke. The past is the past. Navras is dead. Talking about him isn't going to bring him back to life.”
“But after what he did...”
“I said it's fine, Toke!” she snapped, probably more forcefully than she meant to. Taking a moment to calm herself down, she picked up her hammer and began clumsily pounding the next nail into her bench. Toke flexed his hand a couple times, judged it ready, and retrieved his own hammer.
It is kind of like being back in Navras' class, he thought as he reset the nail and began tapping it in.
“I missed this,” he said a minute later. Zashiel stopped working again and looked at him. “Building things, I mean. I just didn't realize it until now.”
“You did this a lot, then? Back before all this started?”
Toke chuckled. “Kind of. I never worked on anything like this, but still... just having a tool in my hand and building something with it... it feels the same, you know?”
Zashiel nodded, looking down at her unfinished crate. “Why don't you build stuff anymore, Toke?”
“Why don't I build stuff? Well, we've been kind of busy, haven't we?”
“Most of our time is spent hiding, not running. If you wanted to, you'd have plenty of time to build things.”
“Yeah, I guess. But I don't have the right stuff to make anything with.”
Zashiel seemed to accept this, but instead of going back to work, she turned and looked out over the side of the Seventh Swordfish. Lake Gang spread endlessly around them without a trace of land in sight. Vlangur was known for its gigantic lakes, and this one was no exception. If Toke hadn't known better, he would have thought they were out at sea. With the voices of the crew behind him, the gentle lapping of the waves in front of him, the sun shining above him, and a beautiful Sorakine sitting by on his side... building benches or not, he could think of a lot of worse ways to spend the day.
Toke and Zashiel looked up to see Inaska making her way toward them. Her golden mask glimmered in the sunlight, and in her hands she carried two cups full of a bright orange liquid.
“Hey,” Toke said back, though Zashiel stayed silent.
“And how are our two vandals doing?” Inaska stopped to look at their work, her long white hair rippling around her shoulders as she turned her head.
Toke set his hammer down. “As good as could be expected, I guess.”
“I hope the captain wasn't too hard on you.”
“He said he'd throw us overboard if we didn't get them all fixed before the first show.”
Inaska threw her head back and laughed at this. “He likes to tell people that, but don't worry. He won't do it. Probably.” She held out the two cups. “Here, I brought you something to drink.”
Toke wasted no time in taking one of them. “Thanks!”
Zashiel was more hesitant, giving the bright orange drink a suspicious look before finally taking it. She didn't thank Inaska.
“What is it?” Toke asked, taking a closer look at it. It was as orange as the setting sun, but somehow still see-through, like stained glass.
“It's called thastyrkul,” Inaska answered. She began to sit down, but paused and tested the bench with her palm before judging it safe and taking a seat. “It's a worker's drink.”
Sure enough, when Toke looked around, he spotted a handful of other crewmembers drinking the stuff. He brought the cup to his lips and tilted it back, letting it wash down his parched throat.
“That's good!” he exclaimed, looking at his half empty cup in surprise. “It's fruity, but... it's not juice, is it?”
“It's supposed to hydrate you like water, but give you energy like coffee.” Inaska reclined on the bench, looking fondly down into the ring where she'd been rehearsing her role as Lady Valdo the night before. “Just don't ask me what's in it.”
Toke, who had been raising the cup for another drink, paused. “Why? Is it bad?”
“Because I have no idea.”
Toke looked at her for a few seconds, then laughed and finished the drink off in a few eager gulps. He sighed with contentment as it did its part to cool him off. He looked at questioningly at Zashiel, who still hadn't taken so much as a sip from her own cup. The look she gave him back was as flat as the wooden benches on which they sat. Finally, almost begrudgingly, she took a drink. Toke raised his eyebrows, waiting to see her reaction.
“What? It's fine,” she said, setting it down next to her.
Toke was about to tell her to thank Inaska when he saw Zashiel's eye shift a little bit to look at something behind him. He turned around, curious, just in time to see Inaska whip her head back around to look at the ring again. Her cheeks reddened just the slightest amount.
What just happened? Toke thought, looking blankly from her to Zashiel.
“Why do you wear that mask?” Zashiel asked suddenly.
Toke looked to Inaska, curious, and jumped a little when he saw how stiff she had become. She was a talented actress, so she hid it well, but Toke knew how to read people well enough to see it anyway. Her hand twitched, as if she wanted to reach up and feel the painted paper mask, but she kept it by her side. And then, just like that, she was back to normal.
“I think you two are going to fit in around here just fine,” she told them with a smile. “That fight you had earlier was impressive.”
Zashiel's eyes narrowed suspiciously, but Toke looked down at his knees in embarrassment. “Not impressive enough.”
Inaska scooted a little closer to him. “Don't be like that! Captain Treyn's right. He can't show an act that might hurt the audience.”
Toke wasn't sure what to say about that, and Zashiel didn't seem interested in chatting, so the conversation lapsed into silence. It was few minutes before Inaska spoke up again.
“So, how do you... you know...”
Toke looked at her and smirked. “How do my powers work?”
She nodded. “I thought that it was some kind of trick at first. That maybe you were an acrobat like me. But when I saw you fighting Zashiel this morning, I knew you were the real thing.” She paused. “Whatever that thing is.”
That earned a laugh from Toke. “I'm a Juryokine. Pretty much, I'm a human with a Sorakine's powers.” He nodded to Zashiel. “Anything she can do, I can do. Except fly.”
Inaska looked at him thoughtfully. “Are you as strong as her too?”
“No, I'm just as a strong as a human. You're not going to see me picking Dabba up over my head.”
He paused, though, remembering the way he'd nearly knocked Zashiel out with a single punch. He still didn't have an explanation for that. The scientist in him wanted to assign a rational explanation to it and be done with it. Perhaps Zashiel had a weak jaw, or he'd struck a facial nerve. The other part of him, the part that knew people could get super powers by eating Sorakine feathers, was more hesitant. He had tried, discreetly, to summon that strength again, to no avail. Something had happened in that split second when he'd punched Zashiel. Something that had never happened before. More importantly, it was something he couldn't explain.
He was a scientist. He didn't like questions he couldn't answer.
“So,” Inaska said, bringing him back out of his thoughts, “how did you get those powers?”
Zashiel sat up a little straighter at this.
Toke shrugged. “I just—”
He stopped midsentence and turned to see a warning look in Zashiel's eyes.
“I, uh,” he faltered. “Trade secret, I'm afraid.”
Zashiel relaxed again.
“Oh,” Inaska said, obviously not having missed the silent exchange between them. Slowly, she stood up. “I should go. The captain probably wants to rehearse my lines.”
Toke nodded, smiling. “All right. Thanks again for the, uh... what did you call it?”
She smiled as she stepped down off the half-repaired benches. “Thastyrkul. And you're welcome. Hey, um,” she paused and cleared her throat. “If you need anything to get your act ready, I'd be happy to help. Don't hesitate to ask!”
Before Toke could say anything else, the young woman turned and dashed away, hair trailing behind her like a comet's tail. Toke waved at her retreating back.
“Okay, what was that about?” Toke asked, turning back to Zashiel once Inaska was gone.
Zashiel's eyebrows lowered. “Just because I made you a Juryokine doesn't mean I want everyone to be one. That's still a Sorakine secret, so don't go telling everybody about it.”
“No,” Toke waved his hand, “I meant... that! You were downright cold to her just now! What's wrong?”
She shrugged. “I'm cold to everyone.”
That gave Toke pause. She had a point there.
“Even so, try not to get us kicked off, would you?” he asked, settling down to get to work again. He readjusted the board he'd been working on and positioned the hammer and nail back where he wanted it. Now that his wrist was feeling better, it only took a few swift taps to secure it in place, and Toke lost in himself in the comforting monotony of manual labor.
A few minutes later, Zashiel spoke again. “If I could get you that stuff, would you go back to building things?”
Toke turned to look at her, nearly dropping his hammer again in surprise. “What stuff?”
“For you to build things with.”
“You mean like steal it?”
Zashiel nodded. The way she was staring intently down at her bench, her long hair obscuring her face, showed how ashamed she was to even think such a thing.
Why bring it up, then?
“Zashiel?” he asked tentatively. “Are you all right?”
Zashiel lowered her head even further and muttered something.
Toke leaned in toward her. “What was that?”
“I said that you deserve to be happier than this, Toke. If I can do something about that, I will.”
This time, Toke did drop his hammer.
“You're offering to steal materials, probably expensive materials, so that I can invent things, just to make me happy?”
Zashiel still refused to make eye contact with him, but she nodded.
“You saved my entire race, Toke, and in return you get exiled from your homeland. That's not fair. I can't repay the debt the Sorakines owe you, but I want to do what I can.”
“I don't want—”
“You should be happy. You deserve to be happy!” Her voice rose with every word until she was shouting. “It isn't right that you're stuck here building smiting benches for some crazy circus in Vlangur!”
The sailors who were within earshot stopped what they were doing and glared at her. Toke got the sinking feeling the only reason they didn't say anything was because of the wings coming out of her back.
“Zashiel,” he said softly, “inside voice, please.”
She hung her head again. “I'm sorry.”
“And would you please quit apologizing?”
For the first time, Zashiel finally looked up at him, her eyes wide with surprise. Toke sighed and ran his hand through his hair.
“How many times do I have to tell you, I don't regret what we did?” he asked. “I did what was right. If I could go back in time and do everything again, I wouldn't change a single thing.”
“What about your family? What about Wayli and Boam?”
Toke paused. “Okay,” he admitted, “there are a couple things I'd change.”
“What about—” She stopped when Toke put his hand on her shoulder.
“Zashiel,” he looked her directly in the eye, “I'm proud of everything I did—everything we did. From the night I swallowed your feather, to the day I crashed the Terracaelum. No matter what happens, it was worth it. Every bit of it.”
He smiled at her. Zashiel looked back. For a second, he thought she was going to return his smile, but then she hung her head again.
“So, if I were to get you those materials...”
Toke closed his eyes. Smite!
She was a great friend—the best he'd ever had. Wayli and Boam were great people, and he'd never trade them for anybody, but they hadn't been through hell and back with him the way Zashiel had. Investigating the Gravity Storms and uncovering Navras' plot had forged a bond between them the way nothing else could. They weren't just friends. They were something more than that. In a way, Toke was flattered that the normally cold, brooding Sorakine girl was so concerned with making him happy. It just bothered him that she beat herself up about it like she did.
“Zashiel,” he said, his hand tentatively reaching out toward her again. “Do you... know what would really make me happy?”
Toke's fingers alighted on the soft fabric of her sleeve. The Sorakine girl didn't answer, and he let his hand slide down her arm, to where her bare hand rested on her lap.
“Y... Y...” Toke's throat seemed to close in on itself. He could feel her looking at him like he'd lost his mind, so he kept his eyes focused on their hands.
The void, you idiot! Use the void!
His silent sanctuary didn't come easily, though. The focus he needed to block out the rest of the world was being pushed back by his nervousness and embarrassment.
This is your chance. Just do it!
Finally, he abandoned the void and looked up at Zashiel's face again.
“All I need to be happy,” he began again, fighting to keep his voice from shaking, “is... you.”
He gently closed his hand around, searching her eyes for any sign of what she was thinking. They were closer to each other than anybody else on Fissura. They had fought gangs, bounty hunters, and genocidal maniacs together. And Zashiel claimed she wanted to make Toke happy more than anything else. She wouldn't be opposed to this, would she? They could be—
Zashiel pulled her hand free.
“I'm sorry,” she said for the third time, and stood up and walked to the edge of the ship.
Toke sat where he was, frozen with his hand outstretched as if it were still holding Zashiel's. He felt like he had become a statue, and he had to force himself to move and look up at her. She stood with both hands on the railing, looking blankly out across the water. A stray breeze tugged at her hair.
“I don't understand,” he choked out a minute later. “Why not?”
“Toke...” Zashiel didn't turn around. “I'll do anything to make you happy. Just not that. That's the one thing I can't do.”
Toke rose and took a step toward her. “But...”
She finally turned to look at him again. With her soft, yet inhumanly strong hands, she reached out and clasped Toke by both his shoulders. “I care about you, Toke. Don't think for a second that I don't. You're my partner, you're my best friend, and I do love you. I love you like a smiting brother, Toke. I just don't...”
“You don't really love me,” he finished for her, his voice cold and bitter. He bit his tongue as soon as the sentence slithered between his teeth.
What the smite is wrong with me?
Zashiel's face hardened. “Don't be immature, Toke. Of course I do, and I'll be your friend until the end. We're just not meant for each other that way. Okay?”
Toke's face turned red, and he looked away. “I'm sorry. I don't know why I said that.”
To his surprise, Zashiel smiled at this. “I do. You just got rejected by a beautiful girl. A little bitterness is to be expected.”
Toke smiled back at her, but it went away almost instantly. It felt wrong, like he was lying to her just by wearing it. He wasn't happy. He was glad that Zashiel was happy, but that wasn't enough to chase away the gloom that had flooded his heart. Zashiel was an amazing woman. He should have been honored that she saw him as her equal, much less her friend. Clinging to these romantic feelings was selfish of him. All they would do was remind him of what he couldn't have, and leave him more bitter every time. It wasn't like he could just make himself stop loving Zashiel, though. So what could he do?
I can distract myself, he thought, looking back at the shattered benches. I can give myself so much to do that I won't have time to even think about Zashiel.
“Come on,” he said, returning to his seat. “Let's get back to work.”
Zashiel didn't follow him immediately. “Toke, are you going to be okay?”
He sat down, and anchored himself to his hammer so that flew into his hand. “Of course I am. We'd better get these done before Treyn throws us over, though.”
Toke wasn't listening anymore, though. Shoving the unwelcome feelings aside, he called upon the void and sank into its silent depths where there was only his hammer, his nails, and the pile of wood waiting to be made into benches. The only sound he could hear was the rhythmic tap-tap-tap of his hammer. Most importantly, he felt nothing except the coarse wood in his hands, and the satisfaction of a job well done.
It didn't make him happy, but that was all right. As long as he was deep in the void, nothing could reach him. Not his unwelcome feelings, not his intrusive thoughts...
Not even Zashiel.
NEXT TIME: Geez, this is turning into a romance novel! If this keeps up, Toke will be sparkling within the next five chapters. There’d better be a fight scene next week… or maybe a mysterious cult.