The sun rose and the sun set on Toke and Zashiel's third day aboard the Seventh Swordfish, and dusk found the two of them where they had been all along: with Toke kneeling beside Zashiel, helping to guide her hands in their continued struggle to rebuild the seats they had destroyed.
“Just line the nail up right where you want it,” he said.
“Yeah, perfect. Now hold the hammer just a couple of inches above it.”
“Now you just—”
Toke saw Treyn's foot out of the corner of his eye, and instinctively recoiled just before it struck the board he and Zashiel were nailing in, sending it flying and flipping over their heads. It landed with a loud clatter on the top seat.
Treyn whistled appreciatively. “Got some good air on that one, didn't I?”
Toke stared at the board for a few seconds, and then turned incredulous eyes on his captain. “What the smite are you doing?”
“Speeding things up.” Treyn snapped his fingers, pointed at the benches, and a gang of burly men rushed in, all of them carrying wood, hammers, and nails. “You aftdraggers were taking too long.”
Toke opened his mouth to retort, but stopped. Their replacements were already working like a well-oiled machine, and within a couple of minutes an entire row of benches had been fixed. To his relief, though, Treyn didn't seem upset about it. He stood with his hands in his pockets, humming tunelessly as he watched the men work. Now that Toke looked around, they weren't the only ones working. The entire crew seemed to be dashing around the deck, like wasps whose hive had been kicked.
“We're coming up on our next stop,” the captain said to Toke's questioning look. “We've got to prepare for our grand entrance.”
“Grand entrance?” Toke echoed. “You mean we're putting on a show tonight?”
He thought for a second, and then clenched his teeth against the sudden rush of panic he felt. He and Zashiel hadn't come up with an act yet!
Again, Treyn calmed his nerves with a shake of his head. “No, we won't start performing until tomorrow. But whenever we come to a new town, we make sure they know we're here!”
Toke blew out the breath he'd been holding.
“What about tomorrow?” Zashiel asked, apparently thinking the same thing Toke was. “Will we be performing?”
Treyn opened his mouth to answer, but was cut off by the thunderous footsteps of his first mate sprinting across the deck to them.
“Hey, Cap'n,” he said once he'd caught up, putting his hands on his knees to catch his breath, “what do you think? Chickenhorn or the janglybanger?”
Toke looked at Zashiel, who shrugged, an equally baffled look on her face.
“Chickenhorn, definitely,” Treyn said without hesitation. “Lots of kids here. Kids love the chickenhorn.”
“Aye, Cap'n!” Ludsong agreed, and turned and raced back the way he'd come.
“A chicken... horn?” Toke asked once he was gone.
Treyn hesitated, and then a smirk rose to his lips. “Ludsong is a bit of an inventor, you might say. He makes new instruments that are as fun to look at as they are to listen to.”
Zashiel's head shot up at the word inventor, but Treyn didn't seem to notice.
“So what exactly is a chickenhorn?” Toke asked.
“Just wait. Trust me, you'll know it when you see it.”
“We're ready up here when you are, Captain!”
Toke looked up to see a whole team of acrobats perched on the tightrope. Inaska was one of them, masked as always, and dressed in a tight, legless piece of clothing that brought a blush to his face just looking at it. Even as he watched, she raised a leg so high that it pressed against her ear, whilst balancing on the thin cord, and then abruptly tumbled forward into a somersault. Rolling smoothly back to her feet, she bounced a couple of times, her feet leaving the rope entirely, and then launched herself into a triple handspring that ended with a full backflip. Watching her, Toke flexed hands that he hadn't realized had become sweaty.
This must be how everyone else feels when I run around on the walls and ceiling, he thought.
“Are you looking at Inaska?”
With a yelp, Toke snapped his eyes back to ground level, and saw Zashiel giving him a strange look.
“N- No,” he stammered, cheeks turning red. “I- I mean, I was looking... in her general direction, but... not at her!”
Zashiel looked at him for a few seconds more, eyes surprisingly thoughtful, and then shrugged.
“Why would you think I was looking at her?” Toke demanded, his words spilling out his mouth more quickly than he liked.
“She's pretty. Why wouldn't you want to look at her?”
Toke wasn't sure how to respond to that question. Zashiel knew how he felt about her. Even if she didn't return those feelings, didn't she know he only had—
“Good! Wait for my mark,” Treyn called back up to them, interrupting his thoughts. “Not much longer.” He spun on his heel. “Where are those cannons?”
“Cannons?” Toke asked, forcing his attention back to the matters at hand.
“Are you going to echo every word I say?”
“Uh, no sir.”
Toke's question was answered anyway when he saw a dozen crew members carrying a bunch of long, narrow wooden tubes out onto the deck. They were three times as tall as a man, and big enough for one to fit inside, and they began setting them up at regular intervals toward the front of the ship. Ropes were tied from them to heavy weights and the railings of the ship itself to keep them from tipping over.
“What will those do?” Toke asked.
“You'll see!” was all Treyn would say. He began to walk toward the front of the barge. Toke shared a look with Zashiel, and she shrugged again.
“Captain, wait!” Toke called, chasing after him. “Zashiel and I don't have an act ready yet!”
“I know,” Treyn replied, unfazed. “You're not performing tomorrow. In fact, I'm saving you two for our final night here.”
They reached the front of the barge, and Treyn took a minute to stop and look out over the waters. On the horizon, Toke could just barely see the outline of buildings and other ships.
“What city is this?”
“Tad Moru, one of our most popular stops,” Treyn answered. “We'll stay here for three days, put on a show for each of them, and then set sail again the morning of the fourth.”
Zashiel stepped up beside them. “And when you say you want Toke and me to perform on the last night...”
Treyn nodded. “You'll be our closing act. That means that whatever you come up with, it had better be thuhdking good.”
There was something in the captain's voice that Toke didn't like. It wasn't a threat, it was... something else. Something familiar. He spun to face Treyn.
“What do you mean by that?”
“I mean,” he answered, voice edged with irritation, “that I have a Sorakine and a freak with gravity powers on my ship. I'm not letting that go to waste with just any old show. You two are my grand finale. So whatever you do out on that stage,” he jerked his thumb back at the ring of seats, “you'd better wow them so thoroughly that they're left feeling like there's something missing from their lives when we sail away.”
“Y- Your grand finale?” Toke asked.
“That's what I said.” Treyn folded his arms. “Are you up to it?”
Toke's face went as pale as milk. “I- I don't- I've never...”
Suddenly, Toke realized what he was feeling. It was the weight of Treyn's expectations. That explained why it was so familiar. It was the same weight he had felt a year ago, when Professor Navras had spoken to him about his batteries. Those same unspoken demands that he not simply be as good as everyone else, but better. His parents had shared those expectations. Zashiel had only added to everything by piling her own aspirations onto him. Invent batteries. Change Yasmik. Make us proud. Stop the Gravity Storms. Save Hashira. Save Yasmik.
And now, outperform a circus full of seasoned and experienced clowns, actors, and acrobats.
“Hey!” Treyn said, snapping him out of his thoughts. “I asked if you're up to it!”
Toke's mouth felt dry, and he wasn't sure he could answer.
“Of course he is,” Zashiel answered for him, coming to stand on his other side, returning Treyn's withering look with one of her own. “We both are.”
The Sorakine girl reached out and gave his arm a comforting squeeze. Taking a deep breath, Toke composed himself and nodded.
“Just tell us what to do,” he answered. A second later, he added, “And preferably give us some time to practice, too.”
Treyn nodded as if this were the most natural thing in the world—which, Toke guessed, it probably was to him.
“I've got an idea for your acts. I'll fill you in tomorrow, give you some time to practice. In the meantime...” He hummed and tapped his chin in thought. “Zashiel, tonight you'll be a stagehand. We can use your muscle to help carry the heavy props around.”
“Fine,” she agreed without hesitation.
“Wait, what?” Toke exclaimed. “You're making us work?”
The look Treyn gave him was on par with one of Zashiel's glares. “Everyone works. If you don't like that, there's still plenty of time to throw you all overboard.”
Toke's cheeks burned. “I- I wasn't... that's not what I meant! I was just... surprised.”
Treyn shrugged. “Do you know Grascow?”
“Well, go find him before the show starts tomorrow. He'll tell you what to do.”
With that, Treyn spun and walked away. Things were going up faster than Toke would have believed. The main show was going to be held in the ring in the center of the barge, of course, but tents of every shape and size were still going up all across the length of the barge. Some would put on other, smaller shows, while others contained games designed to turn people's coin purses inside out. The smell of greasy food, as delicious as it was unhealthy, was already wafting from more than a few different directions. The fact that there were more than thirty tents pitched on the Seventh Swordfish's deck, and Toke and Zashiel were still able to walk down paths as wide as highways, was a true testament to the barge's size. Everything was so bright and colorful that it almost hurt Toke's eyes to look at it all.
A flutter of anticipation rippled through Toke's stomach. This was real. He and Zashiel were actually going to be working in a circus. He knew his and his family's situation was still dire, and there was no guarantee they'd even make it to Stal Atrieda, but at the same time he found himself excited. This was the type of job every child wished they could have, but were wise enough to give up on before they became adults. Toke, performing in front of an entire crowd of people, hearing them cheer, making them gasp, and ooh, and aah with every... whatever it was he would be doing.
That's not wrong, is it? he wondered. Who wouldn't be excited about this?
“All right, everybody!” Treyn's voice echoed across the ship. For a moment, everyone fell still. “We're nearly there. The show goes on in five minutes!”
Craning his neck around, Toke could see that they were, indeed, drawing closer to Tad Moru. The buildings stood like small mountains jutting up from the surface of the lake. A small army of ships and boats were drifting closer to the massive barge, their occupants staring with wide eyes.
A series of quick, short toots brought Toke's attention back to the ship. It was Ludsong, he realized. Though it had only been a few minutes since they'd last seen him, he had somehow managed to change into a bright and colorful clown suit, complete with a thick layer of makeup on his face. Toke barely noticed any of that, though. He was too busy staring at the monstrous thing on his back.
It was an instrument, but not like one Toke had ever seen. A massive horn, big enough to fit Ludsong's entire head inside with room to spare, came up from his back and curved forward so that it covered the large man in its shadow. The brass tubes wound around his shoulders and waist so that it wouldn't slip off of him, and then branched into two more pipes that connected to... Toke wasn't sure how to describe it. They looked like accordions, but both of them were situated firmly underneath Ludsong's armpits. Even as he walked around, waddling a little under the instrument's weight, the sway of his arms squeezed the accordions, making short, quick blarts erupt from the horn above his head.
“Hey, Toke?” someone whispered from beside him.
He looked up, and was surprised to find Boam by his side. “What?”
“No offense, but I want to make a cult to worship that guy, not you.”
Toke raised an eyebrow. “How on Fissura am I supposed to react to that?”
Boam shrugged. “With a little indignation and a touch of godlike fury, I guess.”
Ludsong waddled past them, followed by a score of other performers, also dressed like clowns but carrying more mundane instruments. They made their way to the front of the ship, where a large area was still free of the tents being raised. Ludsong gave his chickenhorn a couple test toots.
And then Treyn was back, whipping around the ship in a bright red blur, somehow checking everything without once slowing his pace.
“Musicians, are you ready?”
“Acrobats, are you ready?”
Inaska did one last flip before scurrying over to the platform right above Treyn's head. “Ready when you are!”
“Secured and loaded, sir!”
Treyn finally stopped, right in the center of the commotion, and turned in a slow circle to look at everything. Toke hurried over to him, Zashiel close behind.
“Do you need us for anything?” he asked.
Treyn shook his head. “Just enjoy the show and don't get in anybody's way.” He raised his hands. “All right then, let's make sure the whole town knows we're here. Three... Two... One... Go!”
He dropped his hands, and all at once the ship roared into action. There was a deafening boom that Toke could feel in the floorboards beneath him, and a dozen flashes of light lit up the soft evening darkness. Toke watched as those lights shot up into the sky, thick trails of smoke leading back down into the wooden tubes below, and then exploded with an even louder bang.
Toke's eyes went wide at the sight. Red, blue, purple, yellow, green, and more. Every color he could think of exploded above him, sending showers of sparks careening across the sky. It was like rainbow had been sucked into a storm, and the thunder was scattering the bits in every direction. Even as the blasts rumbled in his ears and the sudden flashes of light burned his eyes, he couldn't look away. It was beautiful. Perhaps the most beautiful thing he'd ever seen.
A quick and unexpected pang of guilt reminded him of the Sorakine girl standing beside him. Fine, the second most beautiful thing. Zashiel seemed just as awed as him as a second round of the strange but gorgeous balls of light erupted from the cannons. Her mouth hung slightly agape while her eyes traced the upward ascent of the whatever-they-weres. Toke didn't think he'd ever seen her so unguarded. If he'd wanted to, he felt like he could have slid a knife between her ribs right then and there.
Not that he would ever want to do that, he thought, the pang of guilt growing even sharper. Not ever.
As soon as the second echoing bang of the cannons faded away, Ludsong and his band launched themselves into song. Their music rang out across the lake, even louder than the cannons, drowning the boats sailing next to them in a lively, jubilant tune. And then something happened that caught Toke off guard even more than the cannons.
With the chickenhorn still on his back, the first mate began to hop and prance around the ship in perfect time with the music. He twirled and spun on his toes with more speed and agility than Toke would have believed possible for the heavyset man. He was practically a ballerina. A ballerina with the world's strangest horn on his back. And all the while, the chickenhorn played a lively, bouncing tune. True to its name, Ludsong played it by tucking his hands under his armpits and waving his elbows up and down—like a chicken flapping its wings.
Toke couldn't help but laugh out loud at the sight.
Another round of colorful explosions came from the cannons, and Toke turned to look up at the tightrope above him. The acrobats were giving it all they had, ducking, rolling, leaping, and flipping over each other on the narrow cord like a flock of birds. Inaska, easily spotted because of her glimmering gold mask, outdid them all. She had a pair of long, rainbow colors streamers that trailed behind her like comet tails as she danced across the tightrope. She leaped and spun, temporarily disappearing inside the tornado of streamers. It was hypnotic. Toke couldn't pull his eyes away.
“You're looking at her again,” he heard Zashiel say, barely audible underneath the music and the explosions. Was that smugness in her voice? He felt like, if he looked at her, he would see a knowing smirk on her face. He didn't look, though. Inaska's airborne dance had him entranced.
Balancing on the toes of one foot, she spun around and around, travelling from one end of the tightrope to the other without stopping once. From there she backflipped back over the rope—and missed. Toke's breath caught in his throat, and he bent his knees to jump up and catch her, but before he could move Inaska had dropped one of the streamers and thrown the other one over the tightrope, grabbing the tip with her other hand. Now, dangling thirty feet over the deck of the Seventh Swordfish, she began to swing back and forth. Her momentum carried her up and over the top, and soon she was performing flips like a trapezist, her long white hair flowing behind her like liquid moonlight. First she held on with both hands, and then one hand, and then she let go entirely, flew up and over the tightrope, and caught the streamer with her toes. More flips, upside down now, and—Toke froze. For a quarter of a second, she had looked his way and the two of them had made eye contact.
Had she just winked at him?
And then the moment was gone, and she was flipping around and around the tightrope again. Toke decided he must have imagined it. How would he even have known, with her wearing that mask of hers? Finally, she unclenched her toes, releasing the streamer, and flew up into the air again. In a blink of an eye, a young man was beneath her. Toke vaguely recognized him as the one who played Saldo Gunn. He somersaulted his way underneath her and sprang back to his feet just in time to catch Inaska on his shoulders. His knees didn't so much as bend underneath the impact.
The rest of the show came to a stop the moment Inaska landed, the performers working in perfect harmony without even having to look at each other. One last round of explosions came from the cannons, and then something flashed past Toke on ground level, close enough for him to touch. Dabba the lion bounded across the Seventh Swordfish, with Captain Treyn riding on his back. The band parted smoothly down the middle to let them through, and Dabba skidded to a stop right at the edge of the ship and let out a loud, defiant roar. Treyn leaped to his feet, balancing on the lions back, and drew a long, curved sword and thrust it into the sky.
“The Seventh Swordfish Circus has arrived!” he cried at the top of his lungs.
The music started again, and the cannons let loose another barrage of colorful lights, but Toke could barely hear any of it over Tad Moru's deafening, thunderous applause.
NEXT TIME: Just so you guys know… these next few chapters are going to be a ton of fun! Seriously, writing the circus bits were some of the most fun I’ve ever had! Wait, I’m doing this wrong. Uh, SPOOKY MYSTERY INTRIGUE! HOW CAN THEY FIND OUT WHO IS THE WILL THEY BE ABLE TO AND THEN WHAT woooOOOooo!