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Chapter Nineteen

Despite the worries and fears the evening had brought, Toke slept through the night like a baby.  That didn't stop him from shooting out of bed like one of Treyn's fireworks the moment he opened his eyes, though.


Skin pale and body trembling, Toke thrust his hand behind his back, fingers scrabbling, checking for feathers. There weren't any. That should have comforted him, but his stomach was too busy mimicking Inaska’s acrobatics to feel better.


“Are you all right?”


Toke spun around with a gasp, but put his hand to his chest when he saw it was only Zashiel. The Sorakine girl climbed out of bed, a concerned look on her face. She still had on the clothes she'd been wearing last night, even the jacket, while Toke wore only a pair of pants. Zashiel always slept in her clothes—to Toke's immense simultaneous relief and disappointment. She claimed it was one less thing to worry about if she had to get up and fight.


He nodded. “Yeah, I'm fine. Just...”


“Here, let me see.”


Taking him by the shoulder, she gently turned him around. Her hand was warm against his clammy skin, comfortingly so. To his surprise, though, she didn't touch him where his feathers had grown last night. Instead, she ran her fingers up and down his back, softly prodding him at certain points. Toke tried to not to shiver as they traced their way up his spine, before moving on to squeeze his shoulders.


“What are you doing?” he finally asked.


“Get dressed,” she said. “You're taking the day off.”


Toke spun around to look at her. “What? Why?”


“Because your muscles are all tied up in knots. You need to unwind.”


Toke opened his mouth to argue that Treyn would never allow that, but Zashiel cut him off, “If you don't, I'm going to throw you overboard just like Treyn keeps threatening to do.”


He sighed, but nodded. He agreed that he needed some time to calm his nerves, but despite Zashiel's good intentions he doubted the captain would allow it when he'd already shirked his duties the night before. He didn't argue, though. Once Treyn denied his request, there wouldn't be much Zashiel would be able to do. Not without disobeying a direct order, at least.


Once Toke was dressed, the two of them left their cabin together. They found his parents outside, waiting in the line trailing out of the galley for breakfast. Evanya gave Zashiel a dirty look as they passed, but no words were exchanged. Toke's cheeks burned red. He knew his parents, his mother in particular, didn't approve of him sharing a room with a woman. She had even petitioned Treyn to move him and Boam in together, and let Wayli and Zashiel share a cabin, but Zashiel had made it clear she would do no such thing. Her job was to protect Toke, and she couldn't do that with a locked door separating them.


What does she think we're doing together? he wondered as they passed through the door and onto the Seventh Swordfish's deck. She has to know that we're not doing… that!


You love Zashiel, his more cynical side argued. You hide that about as well as a turtle hides its shell. And if she offered, you'd do it. You know you would.


Toke's cheeks flushed a little, and he couldn't help but look at the beautiful Sorakine girl in front of him. The lithe, almost predatory way she walked, the slimness that belied her incredible strength, the way her clothes clung to her womanly curves... His heart leaped into his throat as his eyes fell—of their own volition, he told himself—to ogle the alluring way her hips swayed with every step. Hypnotic. Only she could look relaxed while at the same time give off the impression that she could murder you at any second.


You know you would.


He didn't contradict himself. It was true. A complete and total fantasy, the likes of which even Boam would call too outlandish to be believed, but true nonetheless.


“How are you feeling?” she asked.


Toke snapped his eyes back up, but Zashiel hadn't turned around. He breathed a silent sigh of relief.


“I feel fine,” he answered. That was a lie. He felt like his stomach was trying to skip rope with his intestines. But that was just every day anxiety. Considering that less than twelve hours ago he'd begun sprouting feathers, he felt surprisingly normal.


Zashiel nodded, still facing forward. “Good. If you start to feel odd, or you need me for some reason, just let me know.”


If you need me...


“Smite,” Toke whispered.


What if he just asked her? She always talked about how she'd never be able to pay off her people's debt to him. If he worded it the right way, was it possible her sense of duty would entice her to agree? They wouldn't be together, not the way Toke wanted, but in his time living in Jerulkan he'd heard tell of people who engaged in such things simply because they enjoyed it.


He thought about it, his heartbeat racing as provocative images flashed before his eyes. And yet, he found his enthusiasm leaking away almost as quickly as it had appeared. After being betrayed and exiled by the very people she had saved, somehow Zashiel had managed to keep her pride. That was all she had left. Making her demean herself for his own carnal desires would be to take it away from her. Suddenly, he felt filthy for even considering it. What kind of a person did that make him? The scientist in him said it was natural, that he was a healthy and virile young man.


He shut that voice up.  There were no excuses for things like that.  He deserved to be ashamed of himself.


They spotted Treyn standing beside the seats, giving orders to a few crewmembers, and made their way over. The captain was still wearing the ragged red coat he always had on. Toke was beginning to wonder if he ever washed it—or took it off at all. Treyn dismissed the sailors just as Toke and Zashiel reached him.


“Captain,” said Zashiel, “I think—”


Treyn cut her off, pointing at Toke. “You. Off my ship.”


Toke stopped short, blinking in surprise. “I... what?”


“You were sick yesterday. You might still have the germs on you now. Get off my ship before you infect somebody.”


Toke's mouth hung open, unsure of what to think. He looked from Treyn to Zashiel, and then back again. “Are you...”


Treyn rolled his eyes. “No, I'm not firing you. Just getting you away from my performers before I have to cancel an act tonight.”


Zashiel folded her arms. “See? It all worked out.”


“I guess so.” Toke frowned. Something didn't feel right.


“There's a place in town called the Shikurahan,” Treyn said, pointing out at Tad Moru. “It's kind of a holy place to these people. They say the water can heal any injury or sickness, if you deserve it. Why don't you head there?”


Zashiel answered before Toke could, “That sounds perfect. We'll be back before nightfall.”


They turned to leave, but Treyn's voice stopped them in their tracks. “And just where do you think you're going?”


“To the She Cures a Ham... whatever you said.”


Treyn shook his head. “I told him to get off my ship, not you. You've got work to do, young lady.”


“But I was with him all night. What if I'm sick too?”


“You're a Sorakine. You're practically immune to human diseases.”


This time, it was Zashiel's turn to take a step back in surprise. Toke looked at her, eyebrows raised.


“Is that true?” he asked.


Slowly, Zashiel nodded. “How did you know that?” she asked.


Treyn shrugged. “I know a lot more than you think. Now get to work! Don't make me tell you again.”


With that, he turned on his heel and marched away, leaving no more room for discussion. Zashiel watched him go, and Toke noticed the way her hand twitched, like she wanted to draw her chakrams. Then, with a sigh of resignation, she shook her head.


“Is it really that big a deal that he knows?” Toke asked.


“Not really,” Zashiel admitted, “but... we don't make a habit of telling everyone how our bodies work, Toke. The fact that he knows about our immune systems is... troubling.”


“So, he knows you don't get sick easily. So what?”


“So, what else does he know?”


She kept glaring after the captain for a few seconds, and then forced herself to turn around. “Well, looks like you'll have to go by yourself.”


Toke stood up straighter in surprise. “A- Are you sure that's a good idea?”


To his surprise, that bought a smile to Zashiel's lips. “What? Afraid you won't be able to take care of yourself?”


“Don't give me that! What if...” He paused and looked around, and then continued in a quieter voice, “What if it happens again?”


“Then you'll come back here. But I don't think you need to worry about it.”


“Why not?”


Zashiel shrugged nonchalantly, but Toke noticed the way her eyes slid to the side so she wasn't looking at him. “I just have a feeling. Now you'd better get going before Treyn decides to throw you off.”


Toke sighed, but nodded. “I guess I'll see you later tonight, then.”


An hour later, Toke stood at the Shikurahan. It just looked like an abandoned pier to him, but the smooth boards and fresh coat of blue paint told him it saw much better treatment than the town's other docks. He stayed like that for a while, listening to the water lap gently against the wood below him. In the distance he could still hear the bustle of Tad Moru. People speaking, feet tramping across bridges, and oars splashing as they dipped into the canals. Somehow, though, it felt farther away than it should have. If Toke didn't focus on it, it vanished entirely. The resulting quiet was almost unnatural. Toke had grown used to the ceaseless noise of Jerulkan, and joining the circus had done nothing to break him of that. To be here, alone and able to hear himself think, was a bit unsettling.


Another man might have found the peace and quiet comforting, but it made Toke's hands slick with sweat. It was an unreasonable fear, he knew. The lack of noise would have made it easier to hear somebody sneaking up on him. If Finch made an appearance, he would hear her wings flapping. And yet, no matter how many times his brain told him that, his heart continued to thud anxiously in his chest. His jacket was strapped beneath his shirt as always, and his axes were wrapped up in it. His hand itched to draw one. The cold, hard steel... now that would have been comforting.


Toke clenched his fists, ignoring the twinge in his right hand, and took a deep breath.  The quiet was probably why Zashiel had told him to come out here. Did she know how on edge it would make him? He had a feeling she did. She had been a warrior for years before he’d even picked up a weapon—almost a lifetime, in fact. If someone was paranoid enough that peace and quiet frightened them, then the best thing to do was for them to come and face it until it became just that: peace and quiet.


Well, may as well make use of it, he thought. There was nobody else in sight. Treyn had called this a holy place for the Vlangurtians, and Toke could see why. Though it bore no decorations other than its coat of paint, this pier had the feeling of a place held in reverence by hundreds, if not thousands of people. He shucked off his shirt, wrapped his pouch and jacket up in it, and then set them down. After another quick glance around, he took off his pants, leaving him in only his undershorts, and folded them up neatly beside the wadded up shirt-jacket-ball.


Then he leaped off the pier. The water was refreshingly cold, but not too cold, and Toke curled into a ball and just let himself float beneath the surface for a while. It was far cleaner than the canals in Doku had been. Probably even cleaner than the other canals in Tad Moru. How did they manage that, he wondered? Regular cleanings? Grates to block the garbage flow from the other canals? He had never studied the upkeep and maintenance of canals, but it seemed odd to him that one could be this much cleaner than the others.


Toke's head broke the surface, and he sucked in a lungful of air. The water was about a dozen feet deep, and clear enough that he could see straight down to the bottom. The posts holding up the pier didn't have a single patch of moss growing on them.


Treyn said the Vlangurtians think it can heal any wound or sickness, he thought, lethargically treading water. What does that mean for me?


Toke doubted that the Shikurahan had any special healing capabilities. It was just a myth spread by the people who believed they lived on the tentacles of a giant dead octopus.


Even so, he couldn't help but wonder. He wasn't suffering from a cold or a cough—he was growing smiting feathers! If the waters here were somehow magical, what would they make of that? Obviously something was wrong with him, but could it be called an illness? Zashiel could make all the excuses in the world, but something about this was wrong. Very, very wrong.


He dunked his head under again, trying to put it from his mind. Bobbing gently in the cool, crystalline waters, it was surprisingly easy. He kept his eyes shut. It was almost like summoning the void, only... better. The void was a counterfeit peace. Closing his eyes here, losing himself to the soothing sense of weightlessness, he found he could almost believe the legends about this place. It was like the surface of the water was a mesh of wire that separated Toke from his worries and everyday troubles like water being poured through a colander. Nothing mattered down here. Even when his lungs began to burn from holding his breath, the urge to rise up and breathe felt strangely unimportant. He did it anyway, reluctantly opening his eyes to the glare of the midmorning sun.


Zashiel was right, he thought, turning around to look into the distance. The Shikurahan was right at the edge of town, with nothing beyond it but wide, open lake. Toke swore he could see where the Shikurahan ended, and the darker, dirtier waters of the lake began. I just needed to come out here and—


“Hey! Is that you, Toke?”


With a gasp, Toke spun around in the water to see a white clad figure making its way down the pier. Had Zashiel decided to... no, that couldn't be her. She didn't have wings, and her hair was pure white. That was...


“Inaska?” Toke called out in surprise.


The acrobat reached the end of the pier and smiled at him. “Treyn gave me the day off since I don't perform tonight, and I thought I'd come keep you company. Mind if I join you?”


She was wearing a long white robe that reached her ankles. The material looked thin and smooth, but still modestly covered her body. No shoes on her feet, and her hair was worn down, like it always was, so that it blended in almost perfectly with the robe.  Her golden paper mask glimmered on her face.


“Sure, I guess,” Toke answered, his mind still reeling. With Inaska's appearance, the tranquility of the Shikurahan was suddenly shattered.


Inaska smiled again—and untied the robe. Toke barely had time to hiccup in fright before it fell around her feet. Though his head was spinning so quickly it felt like it would unscrew from his neck, he realized that Inaska was still clothed. Barely. A thin strap of fabric ran around her chest—and only her chest—and another piece of cloth covered her below, leaving her legs, her arms, and her midriff completely bare. It was even more revealing than what she wore when she performed, a feat Toke hadn't believed possible until this very moment. So shocked was Toke that he forgot to tread water, and had to flail his arms to get his back above the surface, spluttering.


Inaska laughed. “Don't tell me you've never seen a bathing suit before!”


“Uh... no,” was all Toke could force out of his mouth.


Swimming hadn't been one of his favorite pastimes back in Yasmik. He hadn't been particularly drawn to anything that involved physical exercise, but the few times his parents had dragged him to the lake, he had never once seen an outfit like Inaska's. In Yasmik, men and women both wore large, loose fitting garments that covered them almost as thoroughly as their everyday clothes. Wearing something like that... with barely a handful of fabric... it was scandalous! And yet, Inaska didn't seem the least bit embarrassed as she stripped in front of a near-perfect stranger.


She took a step backwards, and bent her knees to jump in.


“W- Wait!” Toke blurted out.


Inaska froze. “What?”


Toke paused, his mouth hanging open.  Yeah, Toke.  What?


“Y- Y- Your m- mask,” he said, pointing at her face.  He was stuttering so hard he could barely understand himself. “Y- You'll ruin it if you keep it on.”


Slowly, Inaska reached up and touched the paper mask, as if she'd forgotten she had it on.  She wore it so often, Toke, thought, that he wouldn't be surprised if she had.  For a minute, she looked so utterly frightened that Toke was convinced she was going to turn tail and run back to the ship.  Then he saw her lips moving, whispering to herself.


“... have to do it eventually,” she was saying, but Toke couldn't make out more than that.


“Inaska?” he asked.


She moved quickly, whipping the mask off of her face the same way someone would yank a sticky bandage off of their arm.  She cringed a little, like she was expecting someone to strike her for it, but then relaxed.  This was, Toke realized, the first time he'd ever seen her without it close up.  She didn't wear it when she was acting in one of Treyn's plays, but it was always back on the minute she went offstage.  For the life of him, Toke couldn't understand why.  The upper half of her face was every bit as beautiful as the lower half, perhaps even more so because of her brilliant violet eyes.  Nothing was out of the usual.  If Toke had wanted to, and had any artistic talent, he could probably have sketched the way her face would look without even having seen it.


There's more to this girl than meets the eye, he thought as she gently set the mask down on top of her other clothes.


Her insecurities seemed to vanish as she turned back toward him, and then launched into a triple back handspring that turned into the most perfect swan dive that Toke had ever seen. She barely made a ripple when she hit the water. A few seconds later, she came up again, a few scant inches away from Toke.


“I love these places,” she said, curling backwards into a backstroke. Her long, slender legs propelled her through the water like a fish. “They're so peaceful, and the water is always the perfect temperature.”


Toke wasn't so sure about that. The water felt like it had been getting increasingly warmer over the past few minutes.


Inaska made a complete circuit around Toke before thrusting her legs into the air and sinking below the water and came back up headfirst. She shook her head, long white hair flinging water droplets everywhere, and turned back to Toke.


“So, tell me a little about yourself,” she said with an inviting smile.


“Uh, m- me?” Toke asked. He was stuttering. He couldn't help it. His jaw refused to stay still when he talked. “Th- Th- There's not really much to say.”


Inaska snorted. “Really? Nothing to say about the heroic Juryokine? If that's true, then I should shut my mouth and never say another word!”


Toke stared dumbly at her. “Why?”


Inaska gave him a sidelong look, and then burst out laughing. “I guess you're one of those awkward geniuses, huh?”


She did a quick somersault in the water, and then began to breaststroke away from him. Toke tried not to look at her scantily clad form—and failed.


“What makes you think I'm a genius?” Toke asked, trying to take his mind off of her... um... “Or some kind of hero?”


“Zashiel,” Inaska said plainly. “She hasn't told us everything, but she keeps mentioning that you're a hero up in Yasmik, and that you were going to change the world. The whole crew's trying to guess what it is you did.”


Toke stared at her as she flipped upright again, but not for the same reason as before. Zashiel was spreading stories about him around the crew? Why on Fissura would she be doing that? True, there wasn't as much reason to lay low on the Seventh Swordfish as there was when they were hiding out in an abandoned building, but that didn't mean they didn't need to be careful. They couldn't stay with the circus forever, and the more the crew knew about them the easier it would be for their enemies to track them.


Toke thought quick. “I don't think I'm comfortable talking about all that,” he said.


“Aw, why not?” Inaska asked, her smile turning into a frown.


Something on her face caught his eye.  A little speck of pink just beside her right eye that hadn't been there before...


Toke looked away before he started staring. “A lot happened back in Yasmik, and I'm not proud of a lot of it. I'd rather just keep it to myself.”


“But Zashiel said—”


“I'd rather hear about you, Inaska.”


Inaska went motionless so suddenly it was like the Shikurahan had frozen around her. “You... why would you want to talk about me?”


He shrugged. “Why not? I already know my story. Maybe I want to hear yours.”


The white-haired girl looked at him for a few long seconds, and Toke felt his face redden under her gaze. Then her eyes changed.  It was subtle, a bit of her confidence melted away to show something that lay hidden beneath.  Something as tender and sensitive as a fresh wound.


And speaking of her eyes, that mark he had seen on her had grown even larger.  It was long, thin, and pink, almost like a—”


“Maybe I don't want to talk about myself either,” she quipped.  “So there!”


She dipped below the surface again, and the crystal clear water let Toke watch as she flowed through the Shikurahan as gracefully as an eel. He immediately felt bad for making that analogy, comparing something as beautiful as Inaska to something as slimy as an eel.  It was almost a full minute before she came back up for air.


“That hardly seems fair,” Toke said while she shook her hair out of her eyes. “You want to know my story but won't tell me yours?”


“You're the man.  Isn't letting men go first a Yasmikan thing?”


Toke couldn't help but laugh. “Actually, it's the other way around.  The women go first.”


Inaska smirked.  That mark on her face was becoming even more visible.  Now it almost looked like it was circling her right eye.


“Well, then I guess it's a good thing we're not in Yasmik.”


Toke took a deep breath. “I guess we're not.”


Smiling, Inaska turned and swam back toward the pier, and hauled herself out of the water.  Water droplets beaded her pale skin as she sat down on the edge of the dock and patted the space beside her.  Toke's heart was pounding in his chest as he swam over to join her, not as gracefully as she had, but well enough that he didn't embarrass himself when he climbed out.  The pier was wide enough for them to sit side by side, but just barely. Toke felt his leg brushing up against Inaska's, and their shoulders rubbed together when she reached up to wring her hair out.


“There really isn't much to say about me,” she said a minute later.  She spoke slowly, choosing her words carefully, as if afraid of offending him. “I was born on the Seventh Swordfish.  My father was already part of the circus, and he raised me to perform as well.”


“Your dad's on the Swordfish?” Toke asked, genuinely surprised. “Who's he?”


Inaska laughed. “You met him your first day on board.”


“I did?” Toke paused. “Wait, it's not Treyn, is it?”


Inaska laughed again. “No, silly! It's Ludsong!”


Somehow, that surprised Toke even more. “Ludsong? A- Are you sure?”


Inaska stopped untangling her hair and frowned at him. “What's that supposed to mean?”


Toke clenched his teeth and resisted the urge to slap his forehead. “It means I'm an idiot. Anyway, what were you saying?”


Inaska shrugged. “Nothing else. Unlike you, I really don't have much to say about myself.”


Her hair wrung as dry as it could be, the pretty acrobat laid down on her back, crossing her hands beneath her head. Toke inadvertently ran his eyes over her, and then snapped his head back forward. Even so, he couldn't help but smile.


“You were raised in the circus, and you don't have a single story to tell?”


“You're a mutant freak of nature who can control gravity, and you don't either?”


The smile fell from Toke's face. He hunched forward, clasping his hands together as he kicked idly at the water. “I don't know. I guess it isn't so much that I don't have a story, it's that I don't want to make myself relive it.”


“Is it really that bad?” The concern was audible in Inaska's voice.


“Bad. Very bad. People died because of me. Lots of people, more than once. I... once, an entire city was destroyed because of me.”


Inaska sat up again, and Toke jumped when her hand alighted on his arm. “It's all right, I understand. You don't have to talk about it if you don't want to.”


Toke looked at her hand, with its soft, creamy skin, and was surprised by the sudden urge to reach up and hold. Instead, he looked back out over the lake and shook his head.


“No, you don't.  No offense, Inaska, but this isn't the kind of thing you can understand unless you've been through it yourself.”


Inaska didn't reply, but she took her hand off his arm.  Toke felt a momentary stab of disappointment.  He looked at her, and couldn't help but notice that the mark on her eye was even more noticeable than ever, and a strange flesh-colored paste seemed to be running down her face.


“I understand more than you think,” she whispered, so low that Toke could barely hear her.


He arched an eyebrow. “What do you mean?”


Slowly, hesitantly, Inaska raised her hand.  It was shaking, like she was having to fight herself to make it obey.  She was trembling now, and he got the feeling that if he could see her eyes through the curtain of hair that blocked his view of her face, he would see tears in them.


“Whoa, hey!” he exclaimed. “I- I didn't mean it like that!  Don't be mad!”


“I'm not mad,” she said. “I just...” Finally, she raised her head to look at him. “I've just never done this before.  I'm scared.”


“Done what?  What are you talking about?”


Inaska swallowed hard, and then began to rub her eye.  Her right eye, the one where the marking was becoming more visible by the minute.  It took a few seconds, but when she finally lowered her hand—now covered with wet, slimy makeup—she clenched her fist and gritted her teeth, closed her eyes, and forced herself to face Toke.  There, on her face, were a pair of scars.  They were shaped like C's, one bigger than the other so that the smaller scar fit inside it.  They circled Inaska's eye like some kind of monocle, coming to a stop just in time to keep from becoming full rings.  They were pink against her pale white skin, and so perfectly formed that it was obvious to Toke that they weren't there by accident.  Somebody had carved them into her face intentionally.


Toke's eyes went wide. “What happened to you?” he asked, breathless with shock.


Inaska squeezed her eyes shut, and tears ran down her cheeks. “I'm sorry!” she gasped, looking away so quickly that her long, wet hair actually slapped Toke in the face. “I shouldn't have shown you.  Please, just... please don't tell anybody!”


“Inaska, I don't understand!” Toke said.  He took her gently by the shoulder and turned her back around to face him. “What's wrong?”


Inaska seemed to take a minute before she understood what he'd said, and then her eyes went even wider. “You...You really don't mind?”


“Don’t mind what?  Inaska, I have no smiting idea what you're talking about!”


“My... this!” she all but yelled, jabbing a hateful finger at her scars. Tears were streaming down her face now like twin rivers now.  Guilt stabbed at Toke, though he had no idea why.  Baring her scars for him—literally—had clearly been incredibly difficult for her.  But, then why do it?  And why was she ashamed of them?  True, Toke hadn't expected them to be there, but that didn't mean Inaska wasn't still one of the prettiest girls he had ever seen.


He tried to laugh to lighten the mood, but it came out sounding forced. “What, your scar?  If you hadn't noticed,” he pointed at his own face, “I've got one too.”


“It's not the scar,” Inaska insisted. “It's... It's what they...” She paused, and then blinked at him. “They really don't bother you?”


Toke shrugged. “Why would they?”


For a few seconds that felt like an eternity, Inaska's glittering purple eyes looked into Toke's.  She was breathing heavily, as if she'd just run a marathon.  Once again, something inside of her changed, and she began to look at Toke as if he'd just become a brand new person she had never seen before.


“She was right,” she whispered.


“Who was right?” Toke asked, now completely lost. “About what?”


Instead of answering, Inaska slipped off the pier and back into the Shikurahan. “Come on, I want to show you something.”


Raising an eyebrow, Toke nonetheless splashed back into the water with her.  What a strange woman.  Even stranger than Zashiel, though he'd never have thought it possible.  They both treaded water for a few seconds, and then Inaska took his hand, leading him farther away from the pier. Then she pointed downward.


“We're both going to swim to the bottom and find a stone, all right? Bring it back up with you, and then go back to the pier.”


Toke nodded.  He may not understand what the smite was going on, but he could at least understand what she wanted him to do now.  Besides, she wasn't crying anymore.  That had to be a step in the right direction.  Inaska released his hand and dove underwater. Taking a deep breath, Toke went after her. The acrobat reached the bottom long before he did and, somehow, knelt down on her knees on the sandy lake floor and waited for him. Toke tried to mimic her, but the air in his lungs kept pulling him back upwards. Inaska smiled, tiny bubbled escaping her mouth as she laughed, and then she turned her eyes downward and began to run her hands across the sand. Within seconds she found a stone, and with a thrust of her legs launched herself back up to the surface.


What's the point of this? Toke wondered. He wasn't going to find out down here, so he did as she had done and ran his hands through the sand until he found a smooth, flat stone. Just in time too, because his lungs were beginning to burn just as he kicked upwards. He broke the surface, and breathed in.


“Hurry up, slowpoke!” Inaska called to him, already standing on the pier again.


“What are we doing?” he asked, setting his stone on the pier and climbing up beside her.


“You'll see.”


He stood up, and was once again reminded of how close they were when the motion bumped his forehead against her bare stomach. By now his face was so red that he thought it would explode, but Inaska just laughed again.


“You've really never seen someone dress like this, have you?” she asked.


“N- No. You would probably cause an uproar wearing something like that in Yasmik.”


She smirked. “Well, get used to it. This is what all the girls wear around here. Now pick up your rock.”


He did as she said, careful not to bump her again as he bent over.


“Now,” she said once he had it in his hand, “give it to me.”


“Uh, sure.” Toke handed it over. Inaska immediately held out her other hand.


“Now you take mine.”


Toke held his hand out, and she deposited her stone into his palm.


“Do you know how to skip stones?”


Toke snorted. “Of course I do. Who doesn't?”


“Just thought I'd ask. You Yasmikans are weird, after all.”


She seemed to have completely gotten over whatever had made her cry earlier.  That made Toke feel somewhat better, though he still had no idea why she would be so sensitive about her scars that she would wear a mask and makeup to hide them. Without any more explanation, though, she turned to the water, drew her hand back, and threw the rock into it. Her form was perfect, and the spin on the rock made it skip seven times before losing momentum and sinking below the surface again.


“Seven,” she said, almost whispering. Then she stepped back. “All right, your turn.”


Toke looked at the ripples Inaska's rock had created. Seven skips wasn't bad. He'd need at least eight to beat her. Could he do it? Probably not, he admitted to himself. He had never taken much interest in skipping stones as a child. He could vaguely recall trying back in Kassfar, and then giving up when he could only get two skips.


I was a different person back then, he thought, looking down at the stone Inaska had given him. Now, after Zashiel's relentless training, he had acquired grace and strength that most people could only dream of having. Perhaps...


Taking the rock between his middle finger and his thumb, the edge pressed against his palm, he drew his arm back behind him. He could feel Inaska's eyes on his back, watching him. He wasn't sure why she had decided to play this game, but what harm could it be? The worst that could happen was that he'd be out-skipped by a girl he barely knew.


With a grunt, he whipped his arm forward, flinging the stone out over the Shikurahan with all his might. It struck the water, bounced, and then bounced again, and again.


One... two... three... four... Toke counted in his head. Then he frowned. Five.


Five skips. Two short of matching Inaska, and three shy of beating her. He shrugged. Oh well. Maybe he could practice a little and—


“Twelve,” Inaska exclaimed.


Toke turned to look at her, eyebrow raised. “Twelve? I only got five.”


The white-haired girl laughed and came to stand beside him again, their hips brushing on the narrow pier. “And I got seven. Together, that makes twelve.”


Toke nodded. She was right, of course. That was simple math. But what kind of game had the opponents add their scores together?


Inaska's voice took on a different tone, almost breathy. “It'll last twelve weeks, then.”


Toke looked at her again. “What will?”


He felt something touch his hand, and looked down to see Inaska put her own hand in his. She gave it an eager squeeze.


What the smite? Toke thought.


“We have a tradition here in Vlangur,” she said. She was breathing quickly again. Toke almost thought he could hear her heartbeat. “A man and a woman will exchange stones from the bottom of the lake, and then skip them. The combined number of skips...”


A pit formed in Toke's stomach.


“... will equal how many weeks the man has to court the woman.”


“What?” Toke shouted. He yanked his hand out of Inaska's as if she had burned him, and backpedaled so quickly that his foot went off the side of the pier. With a yelp, he went tumbling back into the Shikurahan. When he surfaced, to his disbelief, Inaska was laughing again.


“What do you mean court you?” he demanded.


It took her a few seconds, but Inaska eventually managed to stop laughing. Her cheeks were still red with a barely contained smile as she looked down at him, though.


“What do you think it means? You have twelve weeks to convince me to marry you!”



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