“... going to be fine.”
A pounding in his head. Exhaustion engraved into his very bones. Toke felt like drops.
“... fault. All your fault.”
Voices were fading in and out, sometimes drowned out by his own heartbeat.
“He should wake up any time now.”
“I don't want you anywhere near my son, do you hear me? Get out of this room this instant!”
One voice was calm and quiet. The other was high pitched and only worsened his headache. Zashiel and his mother?
“I'm not going anywhere. I'm the only thing keeping him safe right now.” Zashiel again.
“And a fine job you're doing of it! He wouldn't be in this mess if it weren't for you!”
Toke's mouth twitched, trying to frown. He had told his mother never to say that. Zashiel may not show it, but he knew how much those words hurt her.
“He would still be out there if it weren't for me,” Zashiel shot back, a trace of anger in her voice now. “I'm the one who found him, brought him back, and healed his wounds.”
Healed his wounds? Toke almost laughed at that. The throbbing in his head deemed that statement a lie. But... wait, what wounds would she have had to heal? And where had he been that she'd needed to go find him? As Toke lay there, listening to the argument, his body slowly continued to wake up, and his brain along with it. That's right, he had encountered Finch out in Tad Moru, hadn't he? And... he'd won?
“What... th’smite?” he groaned, the words escaping his mouth before he even realized he was saying them out loud.
His mother gasped, and Zashiel stopped midsentence. Two sets of feet hurried to his bedside, and he felt a hand on his forehead.
“Toke? Sweetie? Can you hear me?” Evanya asked.
“He doesn't have a fever,” Zashiel snapped, and brushed his mother's hand away. “Toke, how do you feel?”
“Like someone dropped the Swordfish on my head.” He tried to open his eyes, but had to close them when the light burned them.
He heard Zashiel chuckle. “You'd probably be in better shape if that had happened.”
Toke forced his eyes open again, blinking until they adjusted to the light, and saw Zashiel kneeling above him. He was back in his cabin on the Seventh Swordfish and, judging by the lack of sunlight streaming in through the porthole, he had slept through the whole day.
His mother stood just beside Zashiel, pressing against her like she wanted to push the Sorakine girl away, with fear etched onto every line of her face.
“Hey, Mom,” he said, smiling weakly.
As if that was all she'd been waiting for, Evanya opened her mouth and issued a flood of reprehension the likes of which he had never heard in his life.
“Young man, what on Fissura did you think you were doing? Taking on a Sorakine all by yourself? Have you lost your mind? You've lost your mind, haven't you? You're running around, fighting bounty hunters and freaks with wings, getting torn apart, and for what? For nothing, that's why!”
She knelt down now too, and though Zashiel was far stronger than Evanya could ever be, she slid out of the way to give her room. There were tears running down his mother's cheeks.
“I have never been more frightened in my life, Toke! Don't you ever do anything like that again, do you hear me? No more fights! No more running on the walls. Never again! Let...” She threw a venomous look at Zashiel, and then wrapped her arms around Toke's neck, pressing his head against her chest. “Let her handle all of that from now on. That's why she's here, isn't it? Well, if she wants to get herself killed, then I say more power to her! Just leave—”
“Mom!” Toke interjected. As gently as he could, he pried himself from her clutches. “That's enough!”
Evanya froze, mouth half open with an unfinished sentence.
“I told you I don't want you talking like that about Zashiel,” he said.
“But- But she—”
“She's saved my life more times than I can count, Mom. If it weren't for her, I wouldn't be alive for you to fuss over right now. So how about you show her a little gratitude?”
His mother's mouth snapped shut in surprise, eyes widening with hurt. She looked from her son to the Sorakine girl, and Toke could practically see the gears turning in her head. Zashiel had, indeed, saved his life, but it was also Zashiel's fault he needed saving in the first place. Toke couldn't really blame her for being cross with—even hating—Zashiel. Without her, Toke would probably be a rich, famous inventor back in Yasmik. Instead, he was running for his life from their own government, his name to forever go down in history as a crazed terrorist.
But Zashiel meant too much to him to let Evanya talk about her that way. Not now, not ever.
“Well,” his mother finally choked out, “I suppose I'll go, then. Leave you two alone. Like always.” She got to her feet, hands shaking and lip quivering. “You obviously don't need your mother anymore.”
She turned and headed for the door. Suddenly, it felt like someone had shoved an icicle into Toke’s chest, and he struggled to sit up. His head throbbed and his vision swam, but he still managed to swing his legs over the side of the cot.
“Mom, wait!” he called. “Don't be like this. I just...”
She ignored him, and shut the door behind her as she left. Toke stared at the door for a few seconds, and then punched his cot.
“Smite it! Mom!”
He put his hands underneath him and forced himself up—and promptly pitched forward as his balance gave out. Luckily, Zashiel only had to reach out to catch him. With gentle hands that belied her incredible strength, she lifted Toke up and then sat him back down on his cot.
“You took a real beating back there,” she said. “Don't push yourself.”
Toke sighed, but nodded. He let Zashiel lay him back down, though he was determined not to stay there for long.
“You know,” she said a few minutes later, “I'm all right with her saying those kinds of things.”
Toke shook his head. “No, you're not.”
“I am, Toke. You can't tell me what I can and can't feel.”
“Well, you shouldn't be! You don't deserve any of that!”
Zashiel crossed to her own cot and sat down, facing him. “And you shouldn't have to push your family away for my sake.”
“They're not the ones who helped me take down Navras, Zashiel. They haven't saved my life the way you have.”
“But they raised you. They fed you, clothed you, gave you a roof over your head. They're your smiting family. Family means everything, Toke.”
He eyed her for a few seconds, his common sense telling him not to let the words bouncing around his head escape through his mouth. His common sense lost.
“You're one to talk,” he said. “Threatening to kill your sister if she doesn't leave me alone?”
“That's different,” she said without hesitation. “I'm doing this because I owe you a debt. You keep saying you'd be dead if it weren't for me. Well, she'd be dead if it weren't for you. So would everyone in Hashira. You don't repay someone for that by trying to kill them.”
Toke opened his mouth to argue further, but the words died while still in his throat. They'd had this same argument a hundred times, and the stubborn Sorakine still refused to budge an inch. Not even now that her own sister's life was at stake. He sighed, shaking his head while he stared up at the ceiling. If she wasn't going to listen, then he supposed they had more important things to discuss anyway.
“So, what happened?” he asked.
“I should be asking you that,” Zashiel countered. “I found you and my sister unconscious together in that warehouse.” She frowned, looking away. “At first I thought you were dead. Can you imagine my surprise when I found out Finch was wounded worse than you were?”
“I... had another one of those power surges while we were fighting.”
Zashiel nodded, as if that was what she'd expected. “Well, it saved your life.”
Toke thought back to just before he'd passed out. The pain that had consumed his whole body when he'd fallen. His broken ribs. Tentatively, he pressed his hand against his chest. Nothing. Apart from his headache, he felt good as new.
“You used the Chiyuka ointment, didn't you?” Toke asked. His heart sank into his stomach. They didn't have much left. For her to heal his ribs, plus whatever damage the fall had done... they had to be completely out now. The next time they got into a fight, they'd have no way to...
“Why are you smiling like that?” he asked, narrowing his eyes.
Grinning smugly, Zashiel reached into her jacket and pulled out a Chiyuka ointment bottle—a nearly full bottle.
“Yeah, I used up the last of what we had,” she admitted, sliding it back into her pocket, “but my sister was kind enough to lend us hers.”
Toke stared at her for a few seconds, and then burst out laughing. “Holy smite, woman, you're devious!”
His headache was fading now, so Toke tried again to sit up. Zashiel frowned at him, but he ignored her. He didn't intend to try standing yet. Give it a bit more time.
“And what about Finch?” he asked.
Zashiel looked away. “Alive,” she muttered.
Toke nodded. “That's good.”
“No it isn't, Toke. She's still out there plotting to kill you. I... I even gave her some Chiyuka to mend her more dangerous wounds.” She closed her eyes, gritted her teeth, and shook her head. “I'm so smiting weak! I should have... If I'd been stronger I would have...”
“Zashiel!” Her eyes snapped open to look at him. “You listen to me! You did the right thing. I would never have wanted you to kill your sister for my sake.”
Toke waved his hand. “No buts, Zashiel.”
“Yes buts, Toke!” she snapped. Her eyes flashed with anger, and she got to her feet, towering over him. “When I swore to protect you, that meant from everything! No matter who or what it was, I'd keep you safe from it. That doesn't change just because Finch is my sister.”
“Well, maybe it should,” Toke shot back. “You just said it yourself, family is everything! I'm grateful for your protection, I really am, but Zashiel... I forbid you to kill your sister!”
He wasn't sure what he should expect from an outburst like that. Giving Zashiel, a Sorakine warrior, orders? She may have been his protector, but he wasn't her commanding officer.
Sure enough, Zashiel's expression turned dangerous. “You don't get to make that decision, Toke. Finch is my sister!”
Toke spread his arms. “Then why am I the one arguing in her favor? You're not killing her, Zashiel, and that's final!”
Zashiel clenched her fists. “You know you can't stop me, Toke.”
Toke fell still. She was right. With her superior strength, there was nothing he could do to stop her from doing whatever she wanted. But...
His expression darkened. “Maybe not. But I can do something afterwards.”
Zashiel raised an eyebrow. “What?”
Toke's jacket was on the floor beside his cot. Bending over without getting up, Toke grabbed it and unfastened one of his axes from the loops in the back. Then, before Zashiel could react, he whipped it upwards—to his own neck.
Zashiel gasped, but didn't move. The blade was pressed so closely to his skin that the slightest movement would cut it.
“Now you listen, and you listen well, Zashiel Kal'Brynden,” Toke said, keeping his eyes locked with hers. “If Finch dies, then so do I. I'll take my axe and slit my own throat.”
Zashiel's eyes narrowed. “You're lying.”
“Maybe I am, maybe I'm not.”
He was lying. This was the biggest lie he'd ever told in his life. If Zashiel were to kill Finch, he would spend the rest of his life resenting her for it, but he'd never kill himself. Still, he knew Zashiel wouldn’t call his bluff. If there was one thing on Fissura she took seriously, it was her debt to him. She really would do anything to protect him—even if that meant not killing her sister.
Sure enough, after a minute of staring each other down, Zashiel growled and punched the wall hard enough to make their cots shudder. “This is none of your smiting business, Toke!”
“I'm making it my business!”
She stood up. “Fine! If it means that much to you, then I'll... I'll let my sister keep trying to kill you. Are you happy now?”
Slowly, Toke lowered his axe. He half expected Zashiel to dart across the room and snatch it from him, but all she did was sit back down. Her head was hanging in defeat, but there was a sort of... peace in her posture that hadn't been there before. Toke smiled. She may have been too stubborn to say it, but Toke knew what she was feeling.
She was relieved that she wouldn't be forced to kill Finch.
By now, Toke's headache had faded entirely, and he stood up, testing his legs. They were still a little wobbly, and would probably stay that way for a few more hours, but he didn't care. Keeping one hand on the wall to steady himself, he made for the door. Behind him, Zashiel sighed, and a moment later she was beside him, putting his arm around her shoulders.
“If you insist on getting up, then let’s go on deck. You need to talk to Inaska.”
Toke looked at her. Talk to... Oh, smite!
He dug his heels into the floor. “On second thought, I think I need to rest a little more.”
“Too bad. Get moving!”
Opening the door with one hand, Zashiel forcefully guided Toke through it with the other. He couldn't have resisted if he'd tried. He was still too weak, barely strong enough to keep standing. The corridor was crowded with performers, still in their makeup and costumes, though now that Toke paid attention he realized he couldn't hear anything going on outside.
“Is the show over?” he asked.
“It ended about ten minutes before you woke up,” Zashiel confirmed, forcing him through the crowded hallway. He was only too happy to go now—the mass of tired, sweaty bodies filled the narrow hallway with equal parts heat and body odor. He actually gasped with relief when they emerged into the cool night air. The moon shone down on the Seventh Swordfish's deck, and the last few guests were being politely ushered down the gangplank by a smiling Treyn.
“Come on,” Zashiel ordered him, pushing him onward. Slowly, they made their way across the colorful barge.
Emotions were weighing heavily in Toke's chest as he limped, and they grew heavier with every step. They wanted out. He resisted at first, knowing that voicing them would only lead to another argument, but...
“Zashiel,” he finally asked, “why did you do it?”
She didn't have to ask what he meant. “Because you deserve somebody to love, Toke.”
“I love you.”
“I know. And you know that's never going to go anywhere.”
“Why not? Why shouldn't it?”
“Toke, what if Wayli came up to you right now and said she loved you? How would you respond?”
Toke paused, surprised. “I would say... that I was flattered, but I didn't see her that way.”
His spirits fell a little further with every word that came out of his mouth.
“But she was your best friend at school, wasn't she? You like her, don't you?”
When Toke didn't respond, she asked again, more sharply, “Don't you?”
“Of course I like her!” Toke snapped.
“Then why wouldn't you—”
“Zashiel, you've made your point! Drop it already!”
“No, Toke, I won't drop it! Not until you stop this nonsense!”
With a growl, Toke shrugged off her shoulder and stumbled away. There was a barrel sitting beside one of the tents, and he stopped to put his weight against it for a few seconds. Zashiel didn't follow him.
“You don't get it, do you?” he spat? Then he laughed. “No, of course you don't!”
“I think I understand just fine, Toke.”
“Then why do you keep telling me to stop? As if I can just turn off my feelings like blowing out a candle. That's not how it works, Zashiel!” He paused, and then looked away. “Maybe you can do that, but I can't.”
The Sorakine girl walked over to him, but didn't touch him. “What's that supposed to mean?”
“I mean, the way you... are you!” He motioned at her face, as if that would explain it. “It's like you really can choose whether you want to feel something or not. I've watched you, Zashiel! Whenever something bothers you, you just decide that it doesn't and go on with your life. I can't do that!”
Zashiel shrugged. “Neither can I.”
“But I... you...”
“You're wrong. I can't control what I feel, Toke. I just choose not to let my feelings control me either.”
Toke frowned. “So you're saying...”
“I'm saying, if an emotion is going to distract me from what's important, I ignore it.” She reached out and put a hand on his shoulder. “It isn't easy. I had to be trained how to do it. But it is possible.”
Toke sighed, deflating. “How? Teach me, Zashiel. Life would be so much easier if I knew how to ignore these feelings.”
Zashiel hesitated, and then, to Toke's surprise, shook her head. “No.”
“No? Why not?”
Again, she hesitated. She looked away from him, around the ship, then up at the moon, as if she were still trying to figure things out herself.
“Because we’re different, Toke. My feelings aren’t like yours.”
“My feelings can be… dangerous. They could destroy me, if I let them. I ignore them because I have to, not because I want to. You’re not like that, though. Your feelings help you, they make you who you are.”
Toke looked into her eyes, and shuddered when he saw the pain inside them, the pain that she always kept buried, even when she smiled at him. She was right, his feelings might hurt, but they weren’t anything like hers. Still…
“They hurt, though,” he whispered. “What’s wrong with wanting that to stop?”
He expected her to give him a speech on how pain was the greatest teacher, or how only a weakling ran from the pain they had earned, or something equally fitting a warrior, but the answer she actually gave was far more surprising.
“Because that's a road I don't want you going down,” she said a minute later. “Once you teach yourself to ignore your feelings, you then have to teach yourself to pay attention to them again. If you go too far, that’s when you forget how to feel at all.”
“Bad, Toke. Very bad. A warrior who lets their feelings control them is already dead. But if you, as a person, forget how to feel at all, you may as well be dead then too.”
Toke watched her, but could tell she wouldn't back down. Finally, with a sigh, he nodded.
“Fine. But you know how I feel about you. And you know that's not just going to go away.”
Zashiel nodded back. “That's what I'm trying to help you with. I thought if I gave you someone else you could fall in love with, maybe you'd have an easier time letting me go.”
She took him under the shoulder again, and together they resumed their walk across the Swordfish.
“How is this any different, though?” Toke asked. “If you can't make yourself love me, and I can't make myself love Wayli, then what do you expect to happen between me and Inaska?”
When she answered, Toke was surprised by how firm Zashiel's voice was. “You need to give her a chance. People fall in love more than once in their life. If you open your mind... and your heart... then I think Inaska might just surprise you.”
“Love is a choice,” Inaska's voice echoed in his head. He bit his lip, looking down at his feet as he limped across the ship. What if Zashiel was right? Could he, possibly, find it in himself to fall in love with Inaska? What if Inaska was right? What if he simply decided that he did love her?
“She's probably changed her mind,” he said softly. They were coming up at the barge's bow, the massive, flat ledge looking out over Tad Moru. “After how I treated her earlier...”
“You'll have to let her make that decision,” said Zashiel. “And this time, don't try to make it for her. Now go.”
Toke looked up with a start, and realized he and Zashiel weren't alone out here. Inaska herself stood at the ship's bow, leaning on the railing and looking up at the moon. She was wearing a much more proper outfit this time, a skirt and shirt that, while tight fitting, at least covered her skin. Her mask glittered in the moonlight, giving her that edge of mysteriousness that complimented her beauty so well. Toke's heart started to thud in his chest, like it was desperately trying to break free and escape the awkward situation. When he didn't move immediately, Zashiel gave him a sharp look and nudged him forward. Taking a deep breath, Toke approached the white-haired acrobat.
“Um, Inaska?” he said tentatively.
Inaska jumped a little, a spun around to see the two of them. “Oh... Toke.”
He smiled sheepishly. “Do you... mind if I join you?”
Inaska's eyes went from him to Zashiel, and slowly she shook her head. Nodding decisively, as if she'd planned all this out—and who was to say she hadn't, Toke wondered?—Zashiel helped walk Toke up to the railing, and then let go of him once he'd put his weight onto it.
Then she turned to leave.
“Wha- Zashiel, wait!” Toke called, turning as quickly as he couldn't without losing his balance. “Where are you going?”
“This is between you two,” she said without looking back. “You don't need me here.”
She rounded the corner, but Toke didn't turn away until even the light from her wings had faded to the gentle evening darkness. His heart began to race again. He was alone. No, not alone. He was Inaska—which was even worse! Slowly, he turned back around to face her, and found her staring at him. As soon he looked, her eyes darted away to look at the reflection of the moon in the water.
Oh, smite, he thought as sweat began to bead his brow. He didn't recall being this afraid even when he'd been fighting Finch that morning. What do I do? What do I say?
Apologize, the sensible side of him answered. Tell her you're sorry for how you treated her, and then go from there.
Gripping the ship's railing with white knuckles, Toke breathed deep. “So...”
“I guess I owe you an apology, huh?”
Toke froze, eyes so wide he might have been mistaken for a hooked fish. “You what now?”
Inaska was still looking at the moon's reflection. “I guess I came on too strong this morning, didn't I?”
Toke's face flushed, and he too turned to study the moon. “No, it wasn't you. It was me. I just—”
“Toke, it's all right. I know what I did was wrong.”
Those words were like magic to him, making his grip on the railing loosen and some of the stiffness in his spine melt away. He turned to look at her again, but she was still staring down into the water.
“Well, for what it's worth, I'm sorry too. I shouldn't have stormed off like I did.”
Inaska shook her head, the moonlight rippling in her pure white hair. “I deserved it. I just... I don't know what came over me. I know you don't do things like this in Yasmik, so I shouldn't have expected you to react well.”
Something slid down her mask and fell from the tip of her nose, almost too tiny to see, and splashed into the lake below. Toke took a closer look, and was startled to see the paper mask stained from the inside out by her tears.
“But at the same time, even here in Vlangur we don't do it like that!” interrupted him. “We- We don't just surprise people with courtships! I can't believe I did that! It was like I was saying you had no choice but to marry me!”
Sniffling, she ran her palm over her face, but all that did was push her mask further up her brow. She quickly fixed it, but not before Toke caught sight of the bright pink scars again.
“I don't blame you for running off. It's just... after the things Zashiel told me, I got so excited. I didn't even stop to think that you wouldn't want to marry someone like... like me!”
Toke straightened up. “Why wouldn't I want to marry someone like you?”
“Oh, don't pretend!” Inaska snapped, her voice suddenly becoming bitter. “The way you ran off...”
“I ran off because I was surprised and upset!” Toke protested. “I was mad at Zashiel, not you!”
With a sigh, he slumped against the railing. “I should be the one saying all this to you,” he said after a minute of staring out at the town. “We might not do courtships like that in Yasmik, but we do have common courtesy. Running away from a woman who just opened her heart to you like that isn't acceptable either.”
He saw movement out of the corner of his eyes, and turned to find her looking back at him. She quickly looked back down again, but somehow Toke found her glance encouraging.
“We're a sorry couple, aren't we?” he asked, chuckling.
To his relief, she laughed softly as well. “Yeah, I guess we are.”
They stood there together in silence for a few minutes. Tad Moru was still busy, even at this hour of the night. A couple boats slid across the tranquil surface of the canals. Toke followed someone's lantern with his eyes as it crossed one bridge and then another before disappearing behind the town's floating buildings. The silence crept on, and Inaska fidgeted nervously beside him. Toke knew if he didn't act soon, she would walk away. He knew what he had to say next. The words felt heavy on his tongue, though, because he knew that once he said them he could never go back.
“I've been chasing Zashiel all this time,” he said so softly it was barely a whisper. Even so, Inaska's head perked up. “I've known all along that nothing would ever come of it. I told myself she'd give in eventually, but I never really believed it. Maybe...” He paused and swallowed hard. “Maybe it's time I gave up.”
“What are you saying, Toke?”
Toke didn't answer immediately. What was he saying? That he wanted to marry Inaska? That he loved her? That couldn't be it, because neither of those things were true.
It wouldn't be a proposal. Just a courtship. No promises made, no vows to break.
He spoke slowly, “I guess what I'm saying is that I... I'd like to court you, Inaska.” She spun to look at him, and he quickly added, “If you're still interested, that is.”
“Are you saying this,” she asked carefully, “because you really think you could love me? Or am I just replacing Zashiel for you?”
“Smite it, I don't know!” Toke took two big handfuls of his hair and leaned precariously over the side of the ship. “I just... I don't know. But I know I want it work. I wasn't lying this morning when I said you were an amazing woman. If I was... If we were to... you know, make a decision...” He cringed at his own stupidity, but he'd gone too far to back out now. “Then I'd consider myself a very lucky man.”
Acting with more bravery than he felt his situation warranted, he took a step, closing the distance between them a little. Then, with a hand he could barely stop shaking, he reached out and put it on top of hers. Inaska went as still as if she'd been turned to stone... but unlike Zashiel, she didn't pull away.
“If you've changed your mind after the way I acted, I don't blame you. But I hope you'll still give me a chance.”
And then Toke waited. His heart was beating so hard that he could hear every thump. With every second that passed, the pit in his stomach grew a little larger, a little heavier. She was going to say no. He'd shown his true colors that morning, and she'd changed her mind. Not only had he wasted his time pining after a girl he could never have, but in doing so he'd chased away another who had actually shown interest in him. He was a smiting idiot, and he deserved to be—
To his surprise, Inaska smiled.
“Maybe,” she said tentatively, “we could both... court each other?”
Toke raised his head. “What does that mean?”
She giggled. “Normally, the man courts the woman. He tries to convince her that he's worth marrying. But maybe, since neither of us are really sure what we're doing, it'd be best if we both tried to convince each other. And... maybe ourselves too.”
Toke found himself smiling as well. “That sounds perfect, actually.”
Inaska beamed, her teeth as white as her hair and her smile as bright as the moon. Before Toke knew what was happening, she had tackled him, and he hit the ship's deck with her arms around him.
“Oh, Toke!” she exclaimed, practically singing with glee. “I... you don't know how happy this makes me!”
“I... I don't really know how to feel,” he said, looking back up at her. That wasn’t true. He felt elated, so lighthearted that the next gust of wind could pick him up and blow him away. And, staring into Inaska's beautiful violet eyes, he got the feeling she knew he was lying.
Then she kissed him.
It was just a quick peck on the lips, not even lasting a second, but it still made Toke's body freeze and fire course through his veins at the same time. She picked herself up off of him, still grinning from ear to ear.
“You have twelve weeks,” she reminded him.
“That's a long time.” He smiled stupidly up at her, his voice slurring like he was drunk. “I think I can manage.”
Inaska raised her fist to her mouth, stifling a giggle. “Good luck, then! I'll... see you tomorrow?”
“You're leaving?” Toke asked, sitting up. “But...”
But what? What did he expect to happen tonight, not even a minute after deciding to court her?
Inaska pointed accusingly, but playfully, at her mask. The paper was beginning to turn soft from her tears earlier. “I ruined my best mask tonight, thanks to you. Now I have to go make another one!”
Before he could reply, the white-haired acrobat turned and raced away, quickly vanishing behind the wall of tents. Toke didn't follow her. He laid back down on his back, staring up at the moon, his heart racing yet again and a burning red tint stinging his cheeks. That... Had that been real? Or was he still dreaming? To his surprise, even the sting of Zashiel's final rejection didn't hurt as much as it had before. It was still there, and he wasn't sure it would ever go fully away, but when he thought about Inaska... her pretty smile, her shining hair, her dazzling eyes... he found that he could almost ignore it.
Maybe, he thought, this could work out after all.
Then a new face appeared above him, one that was far less welcome than Inaska's.
“Hey,” said Treyn, leaning over him. “You alive down there?”
Toke sighed. “Yes, Captain. I'm alive.”
Treyn nodded. “Glad to hear it. Get up, we've got work to do.”
He turned on his heel and marched away, leaving Toke to scramble to his feet and run after him.
“Work?” Toke echoed. “What kind of work?”
“Oh, how easily he forgets!” Treyn grumbled with a roll of his eyes. “I let you onto this ship in exchange for something, remember?”
Toke thought back, and then froze in his tracks. “My act,” he said breathlessly.
“There you go! Glad your memory wasn't affected by that thumping you took earlier.” Treyn led him into the ring, now deserted since the show was over. Something was lying on the benches, long and white and flat. “I had an idea for your act, since you so rudely didn't come up with any yourself.”
Toke's stomach was a churning mess of nausea and anxiety, but he couldn't help but feel curious. “What is it?”
With a flourish, Treyn grabbed the white thing and spun around to present it to Toke. It was a robe, long enough to cover Toke from head to toe. The hem and the sleeves were ragged, and it had a hood large enough that it could have cast Toke's entire face in shadow.
“Put it on and let's rehearse,” Treyn paused dramatically, an evil glint in his eye, “Mr. Gaur Stukan!”
NEXT TIME: Toke and Inaska sitting in a tree! K-I-S-S-I-S-S-I-P-P-I! First comes love, then comes marriage, then comes everyone getting brutally slaughtered by an army of angry Sorakines because Toke is still a wanted fugitive and Sorakines are kind of jerks if you hadn’t noticed, and… what was I talking about again?