Toke worked for several hours uninterrupted. Moving from top to bottom, he finally finished the first set of benches and judged it to be worthy of even the largest of men's backsides. Zashiel was still fumbling with the one she'd begun that morning. If the Sorakine girl had said anything during those hours, the void was strong enough to block it from his head. Some small, disconnected part of Toke felt bad for shutting her out like that, but in the void it was easy to ignore. It wasn't until the sun was beginning to set, turning the water a dark, burning orange, that an even more unignorable distraction came by.
That distraction took the form of Boam.
“Toke? Toke? Helloooo? You alive in there, buddy?”
Toke may have been able to ignore even that, until Boam began to poke him on the side of the head.
“Calling Cassitoka Gnasher! Cassitoka Gnasher, will you please report to the Seventh Swordfish deck for a—”
“Boam, I'm going to throw you overboard if you poke me one more time.”
The poking stopped, and a huge grin broke out across his friend's face.
“You can't scare me, Mr. Gnasher. Throwing people overboard is Captain Treyn's job.”
Toke swiveled around so that he was looking Boam directly in the eye. “I will get up right this second and go ask Treyn's permission to throw you into the smiting lake. In fact, I'll have Zashiel do it.”
Boam frowned. “Why—”
“From a hundred feet in the air.”
“And I'll do it too,” Zashiel chimed in. Toke couldn't tell if the look she was giving him was really one of contempt, or if she was just playing along.
Boam glanced at her, and then lowered his hand. “Got it. Toke is the no poke bloke. Don't poke Toke the no poke bloke, even for a joke. If you poke Toke the no poke bloke, you'll get soaked. Just—”
“One more, and I'll smiting choke you!” Zashiel snapped.
Toke looked at Zashiel. “Boam's puns may be most cancerous brand of humor there is, but don't you think strangling him would be a bit extreme?
The Sorakine girl's face turned a shade redder and she shrugged. “It rhymed with poke. I was just... forget it.”
The three of them fell silent for a minute, Zashiel and Toke sitting down while Boam stood awkwardly between them. The gentle waves lapped against the hull of the Seventh Swordfish, and a seagull squawked as it circled above them. Toke briefly wondered if the bird even knew this wasn't the sea, or if Lake Gang's sheer size was enough for it.
“So,” Boam said at last, raising a finger, “you were just kidding about choking me, then, right?”
Zashiel leveled a hard look at him. “For now, yes.”
Boam nodded. “Got it. Thanks.”
“Why are you here, Boam?” Toke finally demanded, setting his hammer down. “Didn't Treyn give you work of your own to do?”
“Finished that earlier,” Boam said with a dismissive wave. “The captain said I'm free for now.”
“Good.” Zashiel pointed at the pile of lumber. “You can help us fix the benches.”
Boam grimaced, and held up the stack of papers he was carrying. “As fun as that sounds, I actually came over here for something else.”
“You can't still be writing that book!” Toke exclaimed. “Don't you have more important things to worry about now?”
Boam's frown deepened, and Toke saw true grief in his friend's eyes this time.
“Oh, smite, I'm sorry,” he said, standing up. “Boam, I didn't mean it like that.”
“No, it's fine,” Boam said, shaking his head a little. When he looked at Toke again, he seemed as cheerful as ever. “I left that back in Yasmik. Didn't figure I'd have much time for writing while we were chasing a fugitive across borders, you know?”
“Even so... Boam, you loved that book!”
He shrugged. “It's no big deal. Maybe I'll get the chance to finish it someday. Even if I don't, this is more important.”
Toke sighed, but didn't push the subject. Boam was lying. Even after spending a year apart from him, Toke still knew the writer enough to see it all over his face. His lifelong dream had always been to be one of Yasmik's most beloved authors. Abandoning his book, even to chase after a friend, had probably been the most difficult thing he'd ever done. Zashiel might laugh at the idea, but Toke knew exactly how he felt.
“We've always been a lot alike, haven't we?” Toke asked, sitting back down.
Boam raised an eyebrow. “What do you mean?”
“You with your writing, and me with my inventing. Both our lives completely revolved around them.”
Boam nodded, but didn't say anything.
“Professor Navras had a...” Toke began, but then cut himself off. He glanced at Zashiel, who just rolled her eyes. No matter how many times she told him she didn't care, Toke doubted he would ever completely believe her. Taking a breath, he looked at Boam and started again. “Navras always had a saying: the purpose of inventing is to dream, and to bring our dreams into reality. Writing your book probably wasn't all the much different for you, was it?”
Boam nodded again. “That's one of the reasons I liked you so much, Toke. When you started talking about your batteries, it reminded me of... me. I've never seen that kind of fire in anybody but myself, you know?”
Unexpectedly, that made Toke laugh. “Zashiel's that way too.”
Boam looked at her in surprise. “Really? What does she make?”
“Ah... yeah, I could see that.”
Zashiel turned and gave Toke a wry look. “You really know how to flatter a lady, Toke.”
Toke grinned. “It's true and you know it!”
She turned up her nose. “I'm proud of it!”
Toke turned back to Boam. “Her dream is to someday kill everyone on Fissura.”
“Oh please, if I wanted to do that I wouldn't have let you crash the Terracaelum.”
Toke was about to send another retort her way, but Boam cut him off. “Actually, that's why I'm here.”
“What, the Terracaelum?” Toke asked, raising an eyebrow.
Boam raised the papers again, and Toke noticed for the first time the pencil he had behind his ear. “It's like I told you, nobody knows what really happened that day. They all think you're some kind of crazy terrorist. We may know that's bulldrops, but the rest of Yasmik doesn't. You, the Sorakines, that thing you were flying... nobody has been able to make heads or tails of it! So...”
He flopped the stack of paper down onto a bench and whipped the pencil out with a dramatic flourish.
“... Toke Gnasher, Juryokine and savior of Hashira, I want to tell your story!”
Toke blinked. “You... what?”
“A biography,” Boam explained. “I want to you to tell me everything that's happened to you so I can write it down.”
He and Zashiel looked at each other, and Toke could see his own surprise in mirrored Zashiel's eyes.
“Why would you want to do that?” he finally asked.
Boam gave him a nonplussed look. “Why wouldn't I want to do that? You literally made history that day, and everybody's completely clueless. They need to know!”
“It doesn't have to be a complete biography,” Boam reasoned with him. While he spoke, he began to sit down. “Just from the point where you got your powers to the day Navras tried to fly that thing into—”
Boam yelped, and then vanished.
“Boam!” Toke exclaimed, springing to his feet. There was another gaping hole in the bench where his friend had just tried to sit.
“I- I'm okay! I'm fine!” Boam's head appeared in the middle of that hole, and he looked around. “Did I do that?”
Toke paused, and then looked to see Zashiel's face turn as red as a furnace. That was the bench she'd been working on all day—and Boam's rear end had just destroyed it.
Please don't kill him, please don't kill him, Toke silently begged as he helped his friend back up.
Boam looked down at the broken seat, and then at the Sorakine girl, looking like he was ready to take off running at a moment's notice. “Um, sorry.”
Zashiel sighed dramatically, but merely shook her head. “Don't worry about it.”
“I don't know if that's a good idea,” Toke said, bringing the discussion back on track.
Zashiel nodded her agreement, but Boam shrugged. “Why wouldn't it be?”
“For one thing, the Yasmikan government has already spread their own version of what happened. Even if you wrote down my story word for word, nobody would believe you.”
Boam pointed at him. “All they've said is that it's your fault and that you're a terrorist. I told you, they don't know any more than the public does.”
“Secondly,” Toke cut him off, “you'd be incriminating yourself, wouldn't you?”
The gave Boam paused.
“He's right,” Zashiel chimed in. “People were already suspicious of you and Wayli just because you were his friends. If word gets out that you were traveling with him long enough to write his story, but didn't turn him in, they'd prosecute you as his collaborator.”
Boam was still gripping his pencil so tightly that the knuckles on his fingers were turning white.
“It was a nice thought,” Toke amended quickly, “but I can't ask you to do something like that.”
Slowly, Boam lowered the pencil and looked Toke in the eye. Toke was surprised when he saw a firmness in those eyes, and a fiery determination. It looked familiar, he realized. It looked just like...
“You're not going to give up on this, are you?” he asked quietly.
“If I wasn't ready to be called a criminal, I wouldn't have come to find you,” he said. “In fact, wanted posters with my and Wayli's faces are probably getting plastered all over Vlangur right now after that stunt you pulled on the docks yesterday.”
Toke froze. Wayli and Boam had been there when he'd fought the bounty hunter, hadn't they? Right in the most crowded part of Doku. Clenching his fist so hard that it threatened to spasm again, he ducked his head and closed his eyes. Smite!
“There wasn't anything Toke could do about it,” Zashiel said defensively when Toke didn't reply. “Or would you have preferred that he let that bounty hunter kill him?”
Boam raised his hands. “What? No! Nothing like that! I'm just saying, we're already past the point of no return. If they're going to call me a criminal anyway, I may as well do something useful with it.”
“And the most useful thing you can think of is to write down what I say happened, even if nobody will believe it?”
Boam gave him a firm look. “Can you really say that you're happy letting those droppers drag your name through the mud like this? You saved an entire race, Toke. People need to know that.”
“And what good will it do?” Toke straightened up again. His cheeks were burning red now, and his forehead was pounding. “What do you think they'll do? Grant me a full pardon?”
Boam hesitated. “Well, maybe...”
“And that still leaves the Sorakines to worry about,” Zashiel interrupted him. “Even if the Yasmikan government pardoned him, my people would still hunt him down because of what he is.”
Now Boam's face was beginning to turn red too. “So, what? We just let them keep lying to people about you? Nobody gets to know the truth?”
“The truth wouldn't change anything, Boam.”
Boam didn't answer right away. He looked down at his stack of papers, and then at the pencil in his hand. Toke had to turn away. It was hard, talking to his friend like that. All Boam wanted to do was help. But it just wasn't worth the effort. Things were as good as they could reasonably expect them to be right now. Trying to make them better would just end up making their lives even worse. They just needed to accept it and—
“Zashiel,” Boam said suddenly, turning to look at the Sorakine girl. Zashiel jumped a little in surprise, but neither she nor Toke said anything when they saw the look in the writer's eye. Determination like a wildfire, so strong that Toke almost thought he could feel heat radiating off his friend. “You started all this because you were investigating the Gravity Storms, right?” he asked.
Hesitantly, Zashiel nodded.
“When you first started, did you feel like it was an impossible task?”
What are you doing? Toke thought, looking from the writer to the Sorakine.
“Yes,” Zashiel finally answered, sound strangely begrudging to admit it.
“And then when you found Toke, did it suddenly feel like everything would become easy?”
“Of course not!” Zashiel retorted. “He was completely pathetic until he started taking things seriously.”
“Hey!” Toke shot at her.
Zashiel rolled her eyes. “You know it's true!”
“Toke!” Boam turned back to him now. “When Navras took off in the Terracaelum, did you really feel like you had a chance to stop him?”
Toke's cheeks turned a shade pinker. “Well, to be honest, no.”
“Then why did you do it?”
“Because...” Toke narrowed his eyes. “Oh, come on, are you really going to use that argument on me?”
“You did it because it was the right thing to do,” Boam answered for him. “And because you were the only ones who could do it. And that's exactly why I'm here too. You might be okay with nobody knowing what happened that day, but I'm not. Clearing your name is going to be hard. Maybe even impossible. But I'm going to do it anyway. Just like Zashiel, though, I’m going to need your help.”
He made to sit again, but paused halfway down. With a grimace, he sat down as gently as he could on the bench, waited for a few seconds, and when it didn't collapse under his weight again he finally relaxed.
“Smite, I've got to lose some weight,” he muttered.
He looked up at Toke, waiting for an answer—an answer he didn't have. Toke averted his gaze, hoping Zashiel would think of some excuse to deter the eager writer. When he looked at her, though, he was surprised to see her looking at him the same way Boam was. A mixture of respect and excitement lit up her eyes, and instead of shutting Boam down, she nodded.
“Sounds fine to me,” she said at last.
“You can't be serious!” Toke shot back at her.
Zashiel gave him her signature icy glare. “Does this face look unserious?”
“No,” he admitted, looking down at his knees. Zashiel's face softened a bit.
“We all have our own missions, Toke,” she said more quietly. “Mine was to stop the Gravity Storms. Yours was to stop Navras. Now that that's done, maybe Boam's mission is to spread the word about what you did.”
“You did your part,” Boam agreed. “Now let me do mine!”
With sluggish movement, Toke looked at them both. Zashiel was as impassive as ever, but Boam looked like a puppy waiting for its master to throw it a treat. A gigantic, hairy puppy.
“Give me some time to think about it,” he said at last.
“What's there to—” Boam's voice cut off when Zashiel grabbed his shoulder and gave it a Sorakine-strength squeeze.
“It's his decision to make,” she said in a low voice. “Let him make it.”
Boam's eyes flicked nervously to her, then to her wings, obviously thinking about her earlier threat to drop him into the lake from a hundred feet in the air, and nodded.
“I just want to help,” he said with a bead of sweat sliding down his brow.
Toke nodded to Zashiel, and she let go of his arm. Boam tried to act like he wasn't bothered, but Toke could still hear his sigh of relief when he was released from the Sorakine's iron grip. There was a white mark on his bare skin where she had grabbed him. Toke felt a stab of sympathy for him, but it was quickly buried underneath his other emotions. Boam, pure hearted as he was, had no idea what he was really asking for. He didn't know what kind of responsibilities it would carry. He would consider Boam's offer, he decided, but he was far from comfortable just agreeing to such a thing. He raised his hand to dismiss him... but then stopped.
“Actually,” he said, “there's something you can help me with right now.”
Boam cocked his head. “What's that?”
“You mentioned that there's a cult devoted to me back in Yasmik.”
Zashiel looked at him. “There's a what?”
“A cult. Boam says they sprang up sometime after I crashed the Terracaelum.”
Boam nodded. “And Toke's their deity.”
Zashiel's face turned pale. There was a flash of yellow, and the next thing Toke knew she had grabbed him by the collar and was shaking him like a rag doll.
“And you didn't think to tell me this?” she demanded, her voice high and shrill.
The rapid back and forth motions were almost enough to shake Toke's teeth out of his skull. “I-I-I-I-I'm s-s-sor-r-r-r-ry-y-y!”
As if only now realizing what she was doing, Zashiel released him and let him collapse onto the Swordfish's deck.
“There wasn't much to tell you,” he said, picking himself back up. Was it just him, or was the ship rocking back and forth like a seesaw? “I haven't had time to ask Boam more about it until now.”
Zashiel shook her head. “This isn't good, Toke. Do you know what Klevon will do if he hears about this?”
“I doubt he hasn't heard already,” Toke said, trying and failing to sound reassuring. On wobbly knees, he sat back down.
Zashiel's mouth became a thin line. “Then we really should be worried. If Klevon knows, he'll twist it to make it sound like you're building an army for sure.”
“Actually,” Boam said meekly, “that's not too far from the truth.”
Both of them turned to look at him, and Boam curled up a little, like he expected Zashiel to punch him.
“Wonderful,” Zashiel muttered.
Toke crossed his arms. “Boam, tell us everything you know.”
Timidly, Boam raised his head a little and gave Zashiel a fearful look. “I'm not sure that's a good idea.”
“I mean, I'll tell you, but... maybe not with her here.”
Zashiel narrowed her eyes. “You'd better believe I'm not going anywhere now.”
“It's okay, Boam,” Toke reassured him. “Whatever you say to me, you can say to Zashiel.”
Boam sighed. “All right. They call themselves The Inverted Path. They're trying to, you know... become Sorakines.”
“Why would they want to do that?” Zashiel demanded.
Boam held up his hands. “Hey, don't ask me! I'm not one of them!”
“You said you heard them talk a couple times,” Toke interjected. “What did they say?”
“The usual cultish gibberish. Mankind is doom unless we ascend and move on. They'll turn into Sorakines and go live in Hashira, where everything's sunshine and roses.” He pointed at Toke. “You're their messiah. They say you're the first one to undergo this transformation, and someday you'll come back as a full Sorakine and show them the way.”
Toke nodded. Based on what little he knew, that was to be expected.
“More important than what they believe is what they're doing,” Zashiel cut in. “So, what are they doing?”
Boam shrugged again. “Not much. At least, not when Wayli and I hopped the border. Mostly they just preach on street corners, trying to get as many members as possible. They're not violent, if that's what you're worried about.”
That comforted Toke somewhat, but he noticed how grim Zashiel looked.
“If they don't actually become Juryokines, Klevon will leave them alone, right?” he asked.
Zashiel shook her head. “If Klevon hears about them, they're dead. Every one of them. He's going to clip their smiting wings.”
Toke and Boam shared a look.
“I'm pretty sure none of them—” Boam began, but Zashiel cut him off.
“It's an expression, you idiot. It's a Sorakine punishment, used only for the worst of the worst criminals.”
Toke raised an eyebrow. He didn't see what this had to do with what they were talking about, but Zashiel was talking so fast it was like she'd rehearsed this.
“'Clipping' isn't even the right word for it,” she said with a dark, humorless chuckle. “We only call it that because it helps us sleep at night.”
Her words sent a shudder down Toke's spine. The Sorakines were a race of warriors, the strongest on Hashira. What could possibly be horrible enough that they would have to twist their words around for their own comfort? He considered telling Zashiel to stop, that he didn't want to hear, but he got the feeling that she'd been holding this in for too long and needed to let it out.
“They strip you naked and drive two long metal nails through your shoulders,” she said, pointing at her own shoulders, “and then dangle you over the edge of Hashira from them. That's more than ten miles in the air.”
Boam made a disgusted face.
“They break your arms to keep you from escaping, tie weights to your feet so you can’t make yourself lighter, and then leave you there for a week with no food or water. Then, on the eighth day, the council, the Seraphs, and the families of the people you wronged all gather around to watch the... clipping.”
Zashiel was curling up on herself, Toke realized, and her face had gone from red to pale, ghostly white. Her hands gripped her forearms so tightly he almost thought her nails would pierce straight through her jacket.
Why that reaction? he thought. Sure, it's gruesome, but Zashiel's tough. It shouldn't bother her this much.
“One by one, they pluck every feather from your wings.” She reached out and mimed the plucking motion. “Until you're as bald as a newly hatched chick. Then the council comes forward and disowns you from the Sorakine race. Then the Seraphs compete to see who gets to execute you with a knife throwing contest.”
Boam raised an eyebrow. “That sounds oddly out of place.”
“Not when you're the target.”
“Ah. Yeah, that'd do it.”
“The winner is given an axe, and they...” Zashiel paused and shuddered.
“You don't have to say it if you don't want,” Toke said, though he was feeling more and more certain he knew how the story was going to end.
Zashiel shook her head resolutely. “They chop your wings off. First one, and then the other. Without them, a Sorakine can't fly. They... they may as well be human.”
“And what's wrong with...”
Toke gave Boam the coldest glare he could manage. It couldn't compete with one of Zashiel's, but it still shut his friend up midsentence.
“Then the Seraph cuts the chains that are holding you up, and you fall all the way down to Fissura, and...”
Toke didn't need her to finish to know what she was thinking. Splat. His stomach did a somersault inside him. Suddenly, her reluctance to talk about it made complete sense.
“In all the thousands of years we've been living in Hashira, only three Sorakines have ever had their wings clipped,” she concluded, hunching her back and looking at the floor. Telling them all that seemed to have tired her out even more than their fight earlier had. “It's the ultimate insult. In Sorakine culture, there's nothing more dishonorable than falling to your death. When you have wings and can control gravity, it takes a special kind of incompetence to die from falling.”
Toke nodded. He glanced at Boam, worried that he would say something stupid and launch Zashiel into a destructive rage, but for once the absentminded writer seemed to pick up on the fact that he should keep his mouth shut, and did so. The dinner bell began to ring, and he took that as his excuse to get up and leave before things became even more awkward.
“Let me know what you decide,” he said, clapping Toke on the shoulder as he passed. “I'll save you a bowl of chili!”
“You're a pal.” Toke rolled his eyes.
After watching the bigger man clomp off in search of food, Toke turned back around to see Zashiel still hunched over with her hair hanging to cover her face.
“Zash?” he asked tentatively. “You all right?”
“I'm fine,” she grunted.
“Why did you bring that up? What does it have to do with any of this?”
Toke watched her for a minute, and when she didn't budge he scooted over next to her. His arm reached out to wrap around her shoulders, but he caught himself at the last second and snapped it down to his side again.
Smiting idiot. Get a clue already!
“You know you can't lie to me,” he said, leaning a little closer. “You made Boam spill his guts. Now it's your turn.”
Zashiel gave him a wry look. “I thought I already did.”
“To him, yeah. Now you're going to do it for me.”
Zashiel didn't reply. Toke didn't push her. Whatever was going on in her head, it was bothering her a lot. She would tell him, he knew she would, but not before she was ready. Sailors lumbered past, their boots thudding loudly on the Swordfish's deck, and slowly the sun began to sink toward the horizon. Toke's stomach growled. More chili tonight. That seemed to be the only thing they ever ate on this smiting boat. During dinner, his tongue would be burning. Tonight, his stomach would be burning. And when he woke up in the morning, it would be his—
“Huh?” Thoughts of the fiery stew had had gotten Toke so distracted that it took him a second to remember what he had asked her.
“I shouldn't let nonsense like this bother me,” she said, squaring her shoulders and raising her head.
Toke frowned. “Nails through your shoulders, dangled millions of feet above the ground, starved, used as a dartboard...”
“... your feathers plucked, and then thrown to your death more than ten miles in the air? Who wouldn't be bothered by that?”
Zashiel shook her head. “That's not what I meant. I've just... it's been on my mind a lot lately.”
“Kind of a morbid thing to daydream about.”
He was hoping that would elicit a smile from her. Instead her frown only deepened.
“All right,” he said, more quietly this time, “I'll bite. Why are you thinking about it so much?”
“You haven't guessed?” She looked at him. “Toke... we're wanted criminals. Guilty of one of the most heinous crimes in Sorakine law.”
Toke nodded—and then froze.
“You don't mean...”
Zashiel stood up. “Yes. If we ever get caught, that's exactly what they're going to do to me.”
Toke's mouth fell open, but before he could say anything else, Zashiel walked off in the direction of the dinner bell.
NEXT TIME: Bloody, gory, pulpy meat… exactly what you want to hear about before chili night! Don’t worry about The Inverted Path, though. You know me, if I mention them once, they’ll never appear again… right?