There was a buzz of excitement when the sun rose over Tad Moru that was so strong that Toke swore he could see it vibrating the water. He stood at the edge of the ship, a half empty bowl of chili dangling carelessly from his hands so that very few seconds a small blob would fall into the lake below. The fish had swarmed it at first, eager for an easy meal, but the way they had quickly made themselves scarce after taking a couple bites told Toke that even having a lake's worth of water to drink couldn't save them from the raging fire in every mouthful.
What did it say about him that he found himself becoming more tolerant to the stuff?
With a sigh, he raised the bowl and dug in with his spoon again while looking out over the city. It wasn't that much different from Doku, he thought. Roughly the same size, with the same amount of people. Of course, he could only see the docks from here, and—of course—just like in Doku people were swarming over them like ants in an anthill. A small section of the docks and the waters around them had been cordoned off as the circus' territory, and the eager masses wouldn't be allowed in until sundown. That didn't stop people from trying to get around them and see what was happening on the multicolored barge, but the bouncers Treyn had set in front of them kept them out just as well. Just an hour ago, Toke had seen Ludsong throw a would-be trespasser ten feet into the lake.
Behind him, the crew was scrambling to get everything ready for sunset. If the docks were an anthill, then the ship was a hornet's nest just after it had been kicked. Though it looked like complete madness at first glance, with people running every which way with no sense of direction, upon closer inspection Toke was able to pick out the amazing efficiency with which they worked. It was as if preparing the circus was, in itself, an act. One they had performed so many times they no longer needed to rehearse it.
Zashiel's inhuman strength had quickly made her the most popular woman on the ship. Even now Toke could see her carrying a platform three times her size over her head, heavy tools and stage props piled precariously on top of it. The crew seemed to be looking for any reason they could find to have her carry, drag, or push things for her, and she couldn't take two steps without being flagged down for yet another job. Toke might have felt sorry for her, but she actually seemed to be enjoying the ceaseless work.
What's the point of being as strong as five men if you never get a chance to use it? he wondered.
But for all the work that Zashiel had been given, Toke hadn't been asked to do a single thing. Even Wayli and Boam were off doing odd jobs. His parents were doing their best to stay out of the way on the other side of the ship, same as Toke. He felt like that should have bothered him. They thought he was useless. They thought that Toke, the one who had nearly inherited the legacy of jidoryo before he'd even turned twenty, defeated Dranibor Navras, and single handedly saved Hashira, apparently didn't have it in him to help set up a smiting circus.
It should have bothered him. And if not for the patch of fabric in his pocket, it might have.
Instead, excitement bubbled up inside his chest, and he had to fight to keep himself from grinning. He spun around and marched back into the midst of the chaotic preparations, nimbly dodging between workers. Zashiel considered the ship a safe place, and had let herself get too busy to keep an eye on him. He ducked into his cabin and shut the door behind him, locking it.
Every cabin came with a chest for the crew to store their personal belongings. His and Zashiel's sat against the far wall, in between the two cots. It wasn't very big, but there was enough room for them to both keep their clothes in it. The hinges creaked as he opened it up and snatched out his Sorakine jacket, along with a ragged old shirt he hadn't worn in months. The shirt was folded up, and when he unfolded it a spool of thread, a needle, and five candles spilled out onto the floor.
Toke glanced warily at the door, a wave of paranoia washing over him. He had never done this with Zashiel so close by. Before, he would sneak out, claiming to be running some menial errand, and then hide himself away in an abandoned building. He knew it was unlikely since the Sorakine girl was being kept busy up above, but she did have a habit of barging in without knocking—a habit he had tried unsuccessfully to break her of. She wouldn’t break the lock—probably—but would he have time to put everything away and answer the door before she became suspicious? The thought made him tense. Letting out his breath, he closed the chest and then pushed open the little round porthole. He could faintly hear the waves lapping against the ship and echoes of the commotion from up above.
Sitting down crosslegged on the floor, he set his tools out before him: the needle and thread to his left, the candles in front of him, and the patch of white fabric that would make this all possible to his right. He couldn't help but grin again when he looked down at it. It was a piece of the Seventh Swordfish's sail. Treyn didn’t use it often, preferring the speed and reliability of the pole pushers, and so it stayed down in the hold, rolled up and tucked against the wall. Toke had snuck down there and cut a piece free when nobody was looking. It wasn't as strong as a Sorakine jacket—nothing was—but it was still tough, yet soft as a thick blanket. It was the perfect solution for the hole in his wing.
A quick strike of a match lit all five candles. Bunched together like they were, he had a nice, hot, and easily concealed fire to work with. The smoke rose and billowed out when it reached the ceiling, but the gentle draft pulled it out the porthole. After giving the door one more nervous glance, Toke wiped his sweaty palms on his pants, and then held his jacket over the flames.
This was a discovery that had taken him entirely by surprise: heat actually softened the fibers in a Sorakine jacket. It had to be exposed to it for several minutes, and it had to be close enough that it should have lit the smiting thing on fire, but if done just right it would enable Toke to pierce the fabric with his needle. He smiled to himself. He'd only found this out because one of his bounty hunters had tried to burn the building he was in down. When he'd escaped, the hunter had thrown a knife at him. Toke could still remember his shock when the knife had actually cut right through the jacket! Zashiel had been forced to use some Chiyuka ointment to heal his wound, but it had been worth it. It had been the key to the invention of Toke's wings.
While he waited for the wing to heat up, his thoughts wandered. Looking down at all his tools, he almost felt like he was sitting in Navras' workshop again. It was a pleasant memory, but it couldn't stop the shadow that came creeping over his mind.
I promised that I'd never invent again, he thought, looking at the jacket in his hands. Not after my last one killed so many people. But... This is... It's...
Try as he might, he couldn't think of an excuse. Not one that didn't ring of pathetic desperation, at any rate. Zashiel called him a hero, claimed she owed him everything after what he did, but Toke had never felt that pride in his own heart. It was his batteries that had allowed Navras to wreak havoc across Yasmik. It was because of him that hundreds, if not thousands of people had died. He closed his eyes, but immediately forced them back open again, lest his mind take him back to that night in Exton. He swore the smell of rotting corpses buried under mountains of rubble had never left his nose. And it was all because of him.
Don't be stupid.
Squaring his shoulders, he let out the breath he hadn't realized he'd been holding. It wasn't his fault. He hadn't been the one to create a weapon with his batteries. He hadn't been the one to collapse Exton, torture dozens of Sorakines, and try to exterminate an entire race of people. The only person responsible for what Navras had done was Navras.
Toke was smart—a genius. He knew all this. And yet, somewhere deep down, he still blamed himself. The simple truth was, if he hadn't come along and invented his batteries, Navras would never have been able to build the Terracaelum. Exton would never have been destroyed. The old war hero would probably still be raising the next generation of inventors in Jerulkan, silently and secretly hating the Sorakines, but nothing more.
Just like these wings were the key to the sky, Toke himself had been the key to untold death and destruction.
That was why he'd sworn never to invent again. He wouldn't let himself be used for that kind of evil. And yet, here he was, contemplating how best to repair his latest invention without his best friend—the woman he loved—finding out about it. He clenched the jacket with a white knuckled grip, and had to fight off the sudden urge to simply fold it up and throw it back into the trunk. How long did he think he could keep this secret from Zashiel, anyway? The smart thing... no, the right thing to do would be to finish what had already been started, and tear the wings off the rest of the way. No more keeping secrets from the people he loved. For a minute, he mentally prepared himself to do exactly that. Instead, he clutched the jacket to his chest again. He couldn't do it. He couldn't make himself. As much as he wanted to keep the promises he'd made, both to himself and to Zashiel, the insatiable urge to take to the skies again was stronger. It wasn't a choice, he had to fix his wings and fly.
Smiting idiot, he thought to himself in defeat. Guilt gnawed at his heart, but not so badly that he couldn't ignore it. Taking his jacket away from the fire, he reached for his tools.
“All right,” he whispered, tying the thread to the needle with nimble fingers. Then, moving slowly, he positioned the piece of the sail directly over the hole in the wing. It was just the right size.
He let himself get lost in the simple repetition of the sewing. He'd never been much of a seamstress, but the concept was simple enough. All he had to do was use enough thread that it wouldn't break free when he flapped. Once the jacket's fibers hardened again, it was unlikely that would ever happen, since it would protect the string woven into it just like it protected him when he wore it. The thread was tough anyway, more like fishing line than string. He suspected that he could hang his entire weight on a couple strands of it without it breaking.
He wasn't sure how much time passed with him sitting there, the candles slowly melting. All that mattered was the work. The inventing. Up and down, in and out came the needle, and slowly but surely the hold in his wing disappeared, until...
“Done,” he finally said to himself. Standing up to stretch the kinks out of his legs, he held the jacket out in front of himself. He smiled. You could barely tell the difference.
Then he grinned again. Dashing back to his trunk, he withdrew the leather straps Zashiel had made for him, slipped it on underneath his shirt, and tucked the jacket into it. Then he doused the candles and tossed them out the window. He couldn't imagine Zashiel seeing the half-melted candles and jumping straight to the conclusion that he'd been building his own personal pair of wings, but it would undoubtedly lead to questions he'd rather not answer. That meant he would have to lie to her again, and that was the last thing he wanted.
Banishing those dark thoughts from his mind, he raced back up to the barge's deck, narrowly avoiding a team of workers who were trying to carry a hollow wooden dragon to the other side of the ship.
“Watch it, aftdragger!” the one in the lead shouted after him.
“Sorry,” Toke called back, but he didn't slow his pace.
Even amidst all the colors and commotion, he easily spotted Treyn's coat. It stood out because, while all the other tents and decorations were bright vivid colors, his was dark and stained by age and use. The captain stood just in front of the benches that circled the ring, shouting instructions up at someone on the tightrope.
“Hey Treyn!” Toke blurted out, skidding to a stop behind him. “Mind if I go into town?”
Treyn gave him an irritated look and raised his eyebrow. Toke blinked.
“Er, right. Permission to go ashore, Captain?”
“We're less than eight hours before showtime. Why do you want to leave the ship now of all times?”
Toke opened his mouth, but found he didn't have an answer. “I, uh... I just wanted to...”
Before he could think of an excuse, a loud clatter came from further down the ship, and one of the tents collapsed.
“Stragg!” Treyn cursed. “Fine! Do whatever you want. Just be here before the show starts or I'm throwing you overboard! Got it?”
He sprinted away to help before Toke had a chance to answer. That was fine with him. Looking around just to make sure Zashiel wasn't paying any attention to him, he made for the gangplank with an eager spring in his step. The crowd was still gathered at the edge of the cordoned section, with only Ludsong between them and the ship. Toke stopped for a second, wondering how he was going to get past them. They were packed shoulder to shoulder so tightly it was a wonder they didn't go toppling into the water. Toke glanced to the side and saw another length of dock about twenty feet away from the one he was standing on. He looked at it, and then at the frenzied crowd.
Treyn probably won't like this, he thought. That thought only made him want to do it more. Bending his knees, he sprang out over the water, his weakened gravity carrying him across the gap between piers. Then, for good measure, he did a flip just before landing. The crowd went silent.
And then they erupted into applause.
Toke gave them a cheeky wave, noticing Ludsong's disapproving expression, and then ran toward town. The crowd was thinner this far away from the ship, and he was able to slip through it without any trouble.
He didn't expect them to chase after him, though.
“Hey, mate! What's your name?”
“Are you an acrobat?”
“I'll give you fifty silvers for a ticket here and now!”
A sound like thunder rose from the docks as dozens of feet came running for him. Toke glanced at Ludsong, but the big Vlangurtian only shrugged. Toke's eyes went wide as the stampede closed the distance.
Turning on his heel, Toke turned and sprinted the other direction.
“Tickets for me and my children!”
Toke considered turning around and telling them he didn't have any tickets to sell, but he knew the words would fall on deaf ears. His trick had whipped them into a frenzy, like throwing a hunk of meat into a swarm of piranha, and now escape was his only option. His feet pounded against the dock's hard wooden planks, a sorry echo of the cacophony behind him, and the Seventh Swordfish shrank behind him with every step. A minute later, he was in Tad Moru.
“Gotta get away,” Toke muttered to himself as he dashed across one of the bridges spanning the canal. There were even more people here, making running harder, but at least these ones weren't chasing him.
The obvious answer was to use his powers and escape to the rooftops, but that wouldn't solve his problem if the crowd continued to follow him. He had to get so far ahead of them that they wouldn't be able to catch up, and then make his way back to the ship. But how...
Toke blinked. I really am an idiot!
Weakening his gravity again, Toke launched himself up off the bridge and into the air. A chorus of “ooh”s came from his pursuers, and for half a second the sound of footfalls disappeared. Toke anchored himself to a building further down the canal, falling that way instead of back down to the bridge. As he fell, he reached under his shirt, withdrew his jacket, and curled into a flip as he put it on and zipped it up.
His feet struck the clay tiled roof and skidded a few feet with the momentum. He raised the hood with one hand, hiding his eyes behind the dark glass visor, and grinned.
Let's give these a try!
Running for the other end of the building, ignoring the cheers of his adoring audience, Toke weakened his gravity and leaped from the roof. He snapped the wings open. For one... two... three heart stopping seconds, nothing happened.
And then the wings caught the wind, and he soared over the watery streets of Tad Moru. Toke gave them an experimental flap, and laughed out loud when the patch of sail held tight. Two more flaps carried him up above the buildings, and he tilted to the side. Tad Moru swung to his right as he repositioned himself to head further away from the docks. He'd fly halfway across the city, he decided, then find a secluded place to land, hide the jacket, and then make his way back to the ship on foot.
Below him, Toke could hear the townspeople calling out in surprise as he flew over them. How many of them were calling him a gaur stukan, he wondered? How many would connect him with the circus that had just made port the night before? He ought to charge Treyn for advertisement.
He winced when he flapped his arm, and his wrist twinged with pain. He hadn't done anything strenuous since his fight with Zashiel, and in the excitement of fixing his wing he'd nearly forgotten about his injury. He looked at it and gave another flap. It hurt again, like someone was pinching his muscle with a pair of really sharp fingernails, but it wasn't so bad that he couldn't concentrate on his flying. Putting it from his mind as best he could, he faced forward again and, tilting backwards, rose even higher above Tad Moru.
His eyes widened behind his visor as he gazed down on the city from above. From here, the buildings looked like islands rising out a maze of tiny rivers, both symmetrical and haphazard at the same time. The people were dots, and he couldn't help but compare them to ants again. Toke's heart pounded in his chest with exhilaration. He had flown before, but he'd never gone this high. He'd always been too afraid. Afraid of what would happen if his wings gave out, or his arm. To his own surprise, he couldn't even feel a glimmer of those fears anymore. It was like he was meant to be up here. He belonged in the sky, soaring amongst the clouds, even more than he belonged down there on the ground. It was almost like... like he was...
As if waiting for those words to cross his mind, Toke’s chest exploded with power! It was just like before, when he had been sparring with Zashiel. That same warmth flashed through his whole body, filling him with strength. Toke gasped at the unexpected sensations, and his body went rigid. His wings instantly lost the wind, and for a few seconds he kept going forward until his momentum died out. Then his path curved downwards.
Smite! Toke thought, snapping out of his stupor. The power was still coursing through his body and, without thinking, Toke snapped his wings back open and thrust them downward.
And up, up, up he went!
Toke let out yelp of surprise as he rocketed skywards yet again. Ten, no more like twenty feet, far more altitude than he should have gained from a single flap. The sudden journey upwards nearly shocked Toke senseless again, but this time he managed to collect himself before he began falling and leveled himself out. He glided forward, looking forward without seeing anything, his thought all abuzz.
What... the... smite?
Just as quickly as it had come, the warmth seeped from his body, leaving him as if it had never been there. Not knowing what else to do, Toke angled himself back down toward Tad Moru. When he was thirty feet above the buildings he let his wings snap closed again, and used his powers to help him touch down safely and lightly. As soon as he stopped moving, he raised his hands and looked at them in shock. The twinge in his right arm was back again.
“Something,” he whispered to himself, “is definitely wrong with me.”
NEXT TIME: Sudden bursts of strength? There is only one explanation! Toke is obviously turning into the Hulk! But no time to worry about that, the circus is about to start!