Chapter Twenty Three
“Ladies and gentlemen, the gaur stukan!”
Ludsong, standing somewhere out of the audience's sight, began to play an eerie tune on one of his strange instruments. The “fog” Toke's landing had thrown up thinned, and he got his first real look at the audience—his audience. They had fallen completely silent now, and their eyes were so focused on him that nobody even glanced at Treyn as he crept from the ring, a sadistic smile on his face. All those people. All those eyes. All on him.
Don't think about it, he told himself, remembering what Inaska had said to him. Pretend they're not there. You're just rehearsing it with Treyn again. Go through the motions, and you'll be done before you know it.
Moving slowly, the way he imagined a ghost would move, he raised his arms. He wore white gloves on his hands, and white pants and shoes under the robe. Treyn didn't want anyone to see an inch of Toke's skin, lest the illusion be ruined. The robe's long sleeves swayed as a breeze blew across the ship. Somewhere out in the audience, a child began to cry.
“It's all right,” he heard its mother whisper. “It's not real. It's just a man in a costume!”
Toke smirked under his hood. Not real, was he? He would show them...
With that, he began his act in earnest. Weakening his gravity, he bent his knees and leaped into the air. The crowd gasped as he flew above their heads, higher than any mortal man could have jumped—and then froze in midair. The masts, on which the two ends of the tightropes had been tied, made for perfect anchors, and throwing out two at once left him suspended between them as if he were standing on thin air. Every person in the audience followed him with their eyes, as if he were anchored to all their faces as well.
Just like Treyn had predicted, it was like they'd been hypnotized. Toke strengthened one of his anchors, making himself drift forward, and then strengthened the other one, floating backwards. Down below, completely unnoticed by the crowd, a stagehand ran into the ring and deposited something on the ground. Toke instantly recognized Wayli, and nearly burst out laughing when she gave him a thumbs up before dashing away.
Altering his anchors without looking, Toke fell farther up into the air and landed neatly on one of the platforms at the end of the tightrope. Below him, he could hear the audience muttering in uneasy confusion. Was he using wires? A rope? Why couldn't they see it? What was it attached to? It made Toke smile mischievously to know that, no matter how many theories they made, they would never, ever guess the truth.
All right, time to really blow their minds!
Ludsong's spine-chilling melody rose higher as Toke leaned out over the platform. Gravity immediately took hold of him, but not in the way the crowd was expecting. He was anchored to the platform itself, not the ground, and so when he leaned too far he flipped upside down and ended up standing on bottom of the platform. The crowd gasped. With his powers, even his robe stayed hanging around his feet, rather than dangling around his head. He was tempted to jump, to show the audience that this wasn't a trick. Gravity truly did not have any power over him.
“Absolutely not!” Treyn had said when he'd suggested it. “The gaur stukan is a terrifying evil spirit that runs deep in Vlangurtian mythology. The gaur stukan does not hop around like a little boy on a sugar rush!"
So, instead Toke stepped off from the bottom of the platform and onto the mast itself. The long, narrow pole became the floor to him, and he walked on top of it back to the ground. Once he was there, he paused... and then he flew toward the audience!
More than a few people—men and women alike—screamed as his feet left the ground, and he glided across the ring straight toward them. He curved away at the last second, soaring above their heads, close enough for them to touch him. Nobody did, though. They were too scared, likely beginning to wonder if this really was the fabled gaur stukan.
Toke flew a complete circle around the ring three times. He wasn't really flying, of course. He didn't have his wings. No, this was just a very complicated type of freefall that he achieved by constantly changing his gravitational anchors. Not only did he have to worry about forward momentum, he had to switch his anchors at every other second to keep him falling forward, giving the illusion of flight. Toke had rehearsed this part of the act over a hundred times—far more than any other part of the act—before Treyn had finally been satisfied. Even so, Toke clenched his teeth, summoning the void to keep himself from getting distracted. Even one small slipup would send him crashing down into the audience cowering below him.
He managed it, though. After three laps around the ring, he swooped away, landing right in the center of the ring and throwing up another cloud of “fog”. Once again he raised his arms, as if in challenge, and—
“Maelstroms to this!” someone in the audience shouted. Toke resisted the urge to spin around, and instead turned slowly, as ghost-like as he could imagine, to see a full grown man leap from his seat. He hastily shoved his way to the bottom, and then took off toward the gangplank at a full on sprint.
A few people in the crowd chuckled, but Toke could tell the rest weren't far behind. He could see it in their eyes. He doubted they believed he was the real gaur stukan, but in a land so ripe with myths and legends, the vengeful spirit was one of the few that inspired fear rather than hope or encouragement.
Treyn's playing a dangerous game, Toke realized. If this act goes wrong, then he may end up alienating his own audience.
He forced him mind back on track. That wasn't his problem. All he had to do was follow orders.
Then, just like they had rehearsed, the second part of the act commenced. Ludsong's eerie melody ended, and for a few seconds there was silence while he changed instruments. The next song began loudly and abruptly, making the audience jump in their seats. This was a more upbeat song, the kind that made your heart pump and your blood roil.
It was a song fit for a fight.
That fight came in the form of Zashiel. Though Toke had his back turned, he could hear her plummet down toward the ring like a comet. She landed on one knee, right arm extended to her side, throwing up an even bigger cloud of “fog” than Toke had. The crowd let out another gasp, though this one was filled with awe and excitement, not fear. Slowly, he turned to face her. Her green tinfoil armor shimmered in the light of her glowing wings, and the slits cut in the helmet for her eyes made her look like a nightmare come to life. In her extended hand, she held a spear.
Something tickled the back of Toke's mind. Green armor... a spear...
He drew in a hissing breath as his pulse suddenly spiked.
It's not him. It's not him!
Zashiel remained where she was, kneeling, motionless, waiting for him. The next part of the act couldn’t commence until he made the first move. Slowly but surely, Toke managed to calm his frantically beating heart and clear his mind of the unwelcome memories that had come flooding back. Though his knees wanted desperately to shake, he forced them to stay still and extended his own hand. The object Wayli had placed in the ring a few minutes ago, unnoticed by the crowd, leaped into the air as he pulled on it and landed directly in his hand.
An axe, far bigger than the ones he normally used. It was black, longer than his arm, with a blade that could take off a man's head with one swing. That was what it was supposed to look like, anyway, but in truth it was made of the same material as Zashiel's armor. Good thing too, because otherwise Toke would never have been able to lift such a massive weapon.
The audience began to mutter in anticipation as it finally dawned on them what they were watching: the gaur stukan and the Transtiktren in the midst of their eternal battle.
Toke hefted his axe in both hands and attacked first. Zashiel whipped her spear around and easily deflected it. Even though they were only putting on a performance, Toke couldn't help but feel embarrassed. A weapon like this was completely and totally worthless. In a real battle, it would have been far too heavy to wield with any degree of effectiveness, and the idiot who tried would likely end up dead. It looked intimidating, though, and since that was all Treyn cared about, Toke took another swing at the armored Sorakine.
Zashiel parried that blow as well, and then thrust at his chest with her spear. Weakening his gravity, Toke leaped backwards to avoid it, and landed in another cloud of “fog.” The crowd cheered. Zashiel flared her wings, the yellow light mixing strangely with the green armor, and spun the spear expertly from hand to hand. Her favored weapons were her chakrams, but judging by the way she wielded the spear, Toke got the feeling she would be dangerous with anything she got her hands on.
She rushed at him, spear drawn back over her shoulder. The shaft was made of wood, but the tip was a soft gray foam that wouldn't have threatened a crippled butterfly. Treyn wanted the fight to be convincing, though, and since Toke had yet to fight an opponent that could shrug off a spear to the chest, he dodged out of the way yet again. He kept his movements slow, and when he jumped he used his anchors to carry him around with lethargic slowness to preserve the illusion that he was a ghost. He swung again at Zashiel, she ducked, and he leaped backwards to stand on the side of the mast again.
This was the perfect act for them, Toke thought as he and Zashiel went through the motions they had practiced countless times the previous day and night. Treyn may have forbidden them to have a real fight on stage, but a fake one... that was both safe and entertaining. The captain was convinced that this would be his greatest show ever.
And, judging by the expressions of the people watching, Toke found himself believing that too.
Zashiel spread her wings and took off, blowing white “fog” away from her in a big, billowing cloud. She flashed through the air fast enough that Toke could see little more than a bright yellow afterimage, and he immediately jumped again. They passed each other in midair, and Toke swung his axe, only for it to be parried, and—
Pain flared in his wrist as Zashiel inadvertently twisted it wrong. He gritted his teeth, forcing himself to not cry out, but he couldn't stop his fingers from uncurling. The axe fell from his listless hand to land in the center of the ring.
Smite! Toke cursed inside his head... and then he hit the mast.
In his distraction, he had forgotten to weaken his gravity before landing, and so he slammed into the mast with all the force of someone who'd just fallen twenty feet. He crumpled, falling to his hands and knees on the side of the wooden pole, but somehow still managed to stay silent. All around him, the crowd cheered again as the Transtiktren seemingly scored another hit on the malevolent spirit. Groaning softly, Toke forced himself back to his feet.
Treyn's going to have my head for that, he thought. He flexed his hand experimentally, and dubbed it too weak to hold a weapon, even a fake weapon like the axe. He sighed, but steeled himself. He couldn't run out on the show now. He'd just have to finish his performance, and the fight, left handed.
Zashiel, standing on the tightrope platform on the other side of the ring, flared her wings and thrust the spear at him again in challenge. Toke frowned. She must have seen that he had dropped his axe, but Treyn's script demanded that they exchange blows again, so what could she do? She threw herself at him again, and Toke thought quick. He waited until she was just about to hit him, and then released his anchor on the mast. Falling softly to the floor, he anchored himself again to the other side of the ring, “flying” across the same way he had before. When he passed over the axe, he corkscrewed in midair, snatching it up, and then abruptly changed his anchor so that he flew up, and flipped over the top of the mast to the platform Zashiel had been standing on just before.
Zashiel, hanging with an arm wrapped around the pole Toke had just been on, looked up at him, and Toke could feel her confusion. He had broken the script. The script was the plan. Without a plan, Zashiel froze. That was one of her very few weaknesses: she had to—had to—have a plan. She even had plans for when her plans didn't work. But when the plan fell apart so badly it couldn't be recovered, so did Zashiel. He knew she hated being out here in front of so many strangers. Hated it even more than he did. Their script had been the only thing keeping her going. Just like Toke, she'd been going through the motions, desperately struggling to just get it done with so she could flee from the hundreds of eyes following her every moment.
Zashiel couldn't improvise, so it fell to Toke.
He spied the part of the ring he was supposed to be in right then, and quickly worked out a plan in his head. Bending his knees, he sprang at Zashiel, flying across the ring in a blur of white. He didn't swing his axe, but instead extended a leg to kick her. Zashiel, just like he'd known she would, spread her wings and dove out of his way. That was fine. Toke hadn't intended to hit her anyway. Instead, he planted his foot on the mast, bent his knee, and launched himself into a backflip—and landed exactly where he was supposed to be.
Zashiel went rigid as she suddenly understood what Toke had done. She tucked her wings against her back, falling down to the deck below her with another cloud of “fog.” There they faced off against each other, angry spirit and the personification of death itself. The audience held its breath in eager anticipation. They seemed to have gotten over their initial fear, and were now simply enjoying the show. Enjoying it very, very much.
The Transtiktren twirled her spear and charged at him. Toke jumped, flipped, and swung his axe as if to cleave her head open, but had it batted out of the way. He landed rightside up and skidded a few feet behind Zashiel's back while Ludsong's song rose to a crescendo. Zashiel spun around and attacked him again, and then again, swinging and thrusting her spear relentlessly. Toke fended her off a couple times, and she allowed him to, but she didn't give him a chance to attack back. It was more difficult than before. While Zashiel had trained him to fight with an axe in both hands, he still primarily relied on his right hand. His left played, essentially, a supporting role in the fight, blocking attacks and only attacking when absolutely necessary. The prop weapon he was fighting with now was also longer, though the thin and flimsy metal meant it weighed roughly the same as his real axes, and the strange combination made his attacks clumsy and unfocused. He didn't care, and he doubted the audience did either. He had made enough of a spectacle already. All that mattered now was finishing the act.
Zashiel was obviously thinking the same thing, because she hooked her spear under the axe's blade and twisted. Just like before, the motion tore the weapon right out of Toke's grip, though this time he let it go willingly so that he didn't hurt his other wrist. The axe went flying away, and landed on the other side of the ring. Toke held up his hands as if trying to ward the Transtiktren away, but Zashiel swung her spear again, heedless. This attack was low, aiming at his legs, and Toke threw himself to the floor just before it actually hit him. Zashiel twirled the spear again, pointed the tip downward, and plunged it into his chest.
Or, at least that's what the audience saw. To Toke, the squishy spearhead felt like someone was pressing a sponge against his chest. Even so, the crowd erupted into applause louder than he had ever heard before. Down there on the floor, Toke found himself grimacing.
They're cheering my death, he thought while Zashiel raised her spear and looked down at her fallen enemy. And hopefully that’s the only time I'll have to say that.
If the Yasmikan government caught him, or Sir Klevon, next time the death would probably be real...
No, he told himself, banishing those thoughts from his head. Not only was worrying about those things entirely pointless, he still had a performance to finish.
Not that there was much for him to do anymore, since the gaur stukan was dead. He simply laid there as Zashiel bent down to pick him up, hanging as limply as he could. One last time, Zashiel spread her wings and took off, taking Toke with her. They rose up above the barge, up, up, up, until it looked like a big, brightly lit board floating in the lake. From here, the light from her wings would blend in with the limelights and fireworks.
“Ready?” Zashiel asked.
Toke nodded, and she shifted him so that her elbow acted like a hook around his waste, keeping him from falling. He hurriedly took off the gaur stukan robe and, after taking a second to gauge his aim, dropped it. It fluttered downwards, like a flag torn from its pole, and was soon lost to view. That didn't matter, because the cry that rose from the audience when it fell into the ring was audible even from up here.
He grinned. “I think we both did pretty good for our first time.”
Zashiel shifted so that she was hugging him to her again, and with her other hand removed her helmet. Toke blinked in surprise. Her face was almost as green as the helmet itself had been.
“Zashiel, are you all right?”
She didn't reply at first. She stared down at the barge, and the ring full of people. Then, slowly, she shook her head and whispered, “I've fought more battles than I can count, Toke, but this... none of them frightened me more than this.”
For a few minutes, the two of them just hung in midair together, Zashiel's wings keeping them in the same place. Down below, they watched as Treyn thanked the audience for coming and dismissed them. Slowly but surely, the barge emptied. The lights went out, and the music stopped. The show was over.
“Are you going to be okay?” Toke finally asked.
Zashiel gave a curt nod.
“I'm serious, Zash. You know this wasn't a one time thing. Treyn's going to want us to close every show like this from now on.”
Zashiel hesitated, her eyes widening and face turning even greener, but then nodded again.
“If that's what has to be done, then I'll do it,” she said, her voice as determined as ever. “Don't worry about me.”
Toke was worried, though. Even as the Sorakine girl began to descend in wipe, looping circles, she still looked like she was about to vomit from stage fright. He knew Zashiel well enough to know that if nothing would come of pressing the matter right now, though. Only time would tell if she could truly keep going out on stage the way she had tonight.
Of all the things for a Sorakine smiting warrior to be afraid of, he mused, who would have thought it'd be getting on stage in front of a few strangers?
Together, they swooped down toward the Seventh Swordfish, and Zashiel flipped them upright, tucked her wings in, and fell the last few feet to land on the deck. She let go of Toke, who raised a hand to straighten his hair—and was promptly tackled to the floor.
“Oh! My! Smite!” Inaska screamed, landing on top of him when he fell. “You were amazing! I can't believe it. I was watching from the door the whole time, and... and.... smiting smite, Toke, that was the most incredible thing I've ever seen!”
Toke's head buzzed, partly from being tackled, partly from having a beautiful girl’s face only a few inches away from his, her body lying on top of his.
Next time, Zashiel's voice echoed in his mind, kiss her first.
They'd only just met, though. He couldn't do that... could he?
Inaska looked a bit taken aback when he didn't immediately react. “What's wrong? Is there something in my teeth? Is... Is it the slang? I heard you Yasmikans say 'smite' all the time, so I thought, maybe—”
Her eyes widened behind her mask when he put his hand on the back of her head, and pulled her down to his lips. She stiffened, and for a second Toke panicked. He'd gone too far, too fast, and offended her.
But then Inaska melted against him like a stick of butter in a hot frying pan, sighing into his mouth. Toke brought his hand back, stroking his thumb along her cheek just below her mask. Her own hand came up to caress his face. She shifted her weight so that they both rolled to their sides, and raised her leg to rub her thigh against his...
Both of them froze, and broke from the kiss to find both of Toke's parents standing over them. Brin simply looked confused, but his mother's face was livid.
“Cassitoka Gnasher,” she hissed, “you have a lot of explaining to do.”
Face burning red, Toke scrambled back to his feet, leaving Inaska lying on the floor. “Uh, M- Mom, it's not what it looks like. It's- It's just—”
“I think I know exactly what it is, young man,” she snapped. “Don't you even think of lying to your mother!”
“Now, honey,” his father said, surprising both of them, “let's not jump to any conclusions. I'm sure he has a reasonable—”
“What's all this ruckus?”
Everyone turned around to see Ludsong lumbering out onto the deck. He looked at Toke, his parents, and then Inaska, who was hurrying to get off the floor. He raised his eyebrows.
“Nothing that concerns you, sir,” Brin said. “We just found our son, ah... on the floor kissing this young lady.”
Ludsong's eyebrows went even higher, so that they looked like they would fly right off his face. “Oh, you don't say?”
“Now, Daddy,” Inaska sputtered when the huge man turned his eyes on her, “I- I was going to tell you.”
Ludsong threw his arms wide. “When? The day of the wedding?”
“Wedding?” Brin and Evanya exclaimed together.
Toke raised a finger. “Um, I can explain...”
“I can't believe you, girl!” Ludsong said, slapping his forehead. “Going and getting engaged without even telling your pa...”
“We're not engaged, Daddy!” Inaska snapped, her face at least as red as Toke's. “He's just courting me.”
“And you didn't think to tell us about this either?” Evanya demanded, rounding on her son.
Toke spread his hands. “Why? Would you say no?”
“I didn't say that!” Evanya was shouting so loudly now Toke bet they could hear her all the way in town. “But getting married is a very big decision, Toke—”
Toke grabbed two handfuls of his hair. “We're not getting married, Mom! We're just—”
She cut him off. “I don't care! Courtships end in marriages, Toke. I can't believe you did this without telling me.”
“Or me!” Ludsong agreed, beefy arms folded in front of his chest.
Evanya nodded, as if she and Ludsong were on the same side. “I'm not saying I'd say no, Toke. It's just that... that...”
“It's like we're not even your parents anymore,” Brin finished, whispering.
Everyone fell silent. Toke looked from his mother to his father, trying to think of something to say, but his mouth remained empty of words. In the momentary ceasefire, Ludsong clomped over to stand between Toke and his daughter.
“Of course you're still my parents,” Toke finally forced himself to say. “I brought you with me, didn't I? You think I'd do that for just anybody?”
“But you never speak to us,” Evanya insisted. Her voice was quivering, her eyes turning red with tears. “You just drag us all over creation because that smiting Sorakine tells you to!”
Toke turned to see Zashiel standing a few feet away, her face impassive. She didn't make any move to intervene, and Toke found he was grateful for that. This was something he needed to work out by himself.
“And now I find out you're making plans to marry this girl you've only just met?” Evanya groaned, exasperated. “Have you lost your mind?”
“I'm not a kid anymore, Mother! If you haven't noticed, I'm all grown up and getting accused of treason.”
“Even so, this kind of decision is big, Toke. It's huge! Do you really value your father and me so much that...”
Toke held up his hand. “Stop! Just stop, okay? I didn't mean to leave you out of this. I'm sorry. I just...”
He groaned, covering both his eyes with his hands and sitting down on the deck. What could he say? He hated when his parents tried to meddle in his life, but he didn't want to drive them away, either. As rigid, nosy, and infuriating as they were, they were still his mom and dad... and he loved them.
What to do? What to do?
An idea formed in his head. No, not so much an idea as common smiting sense. He stood up and, with a sigh, extended his hand to the white-haired girl.
“Mom, Dad,” he said, voice hoarse, “this is Inaska, one of the circus' acrobats. And we're... we're courting each other.”
Evanya turned sharply to look down her nose at Inaska, who, for her part, looked like she wanted nothing more than to sink into the floor and vanish.
It's over, he thought, his heart sinking into his stomach. There's no way she'll want anything to do with me after my parents humiliated her like this.
To his surprise, though, Inaska took a deep breath and looked his mother in the eye.
“Pleased to meet you, ma'am,” she said. “I think Toke is a wonderful man with a lot to offer any woman lucky enough to catch his eye. He's smart, he's kind, and I can tell he has a good heart in him. A heart, I assume, was put there by the people who raised him.”
Evanya and Brin both blinked in surprise.
Inaska took another deep breath. “With... With your permission, I would like to continue courting your son.”
Toke's mouth fell open. Inaska extended her hand, and Evanya looked down at it like a snake threatening to bite her. Her back was as stiff as a board, and her expression was as dark as a midnight storm. Toke's heart pounded in his chest. Inaska might forgive his mother for a few rude remarks, but what if she kept this up? She would never agree to a marriage knowing that was what her mother-in-law thought of her. Smite it, he wouldn't want to have a woman in his life if it meant subjecting her to his mother's cruel words for the rest of her life!
To his complete and utter shock, though, Evanya seemed to deflate a little, and reached out to shake Inaska's hand.
“I look forward to getting to know you,” she said, her voice still stiff, “and finding out what you have to... offer... my son.”
They both released each others' hands as if they were red hot. For a few seconds, nobody moved. Then Brin clapped his hands decisively, trying to take charge.
“Well, I think that wraps things up here,” he said. He thrust his thumb over his shoulder. “It's been a long night. I think it's best if we all go get some shuteye, eh?”
Reluctantly, everyone nodded. Everyone except Ludsong. One by one they all turned to make their way toward the cabins. First Zashiel, then Toke's parents, and then Inaska. The white-haired girl paused after taking a few steps, and looked back at Toke over her shoulder.
“I meant it,” she said, “I think your act was the greatest thing I've ever seen.”
Toke smiled, but Ludsong grunted. “Get to bed, girl.”
Inaska nodded and continued on her way. Toke watched her go until she vanished inside the door, and then took a step to follow. He froze in place, though, when Ludsong's massive fist wrapped around his shoulder and squeezed. Pain lanced through Toke’s arm, and he cringed, but at the same time he could tell the burly sailor was holding back. If he'd wanted, he could snap Toke's arm like matchwood.
“You and I are going to have a nice long talk too,” he growled into Toke's ear. “Get to know each other real well.”
Toke's heart was racing again, and all he could do was nod. “Uh, y- yes, sir.”
Ludsong nodded back, eyes dark. “Good. Now you better get to bed too.”
He released Toke's arm and passed him, shouldering him rudely to the side. Toke watched him go, a great lumbering shadow that seemed to block more light than it should have, until he vanished into the corridor as well.
NEXT TIME: Out of the frying pan and into the fire, huh? Ludsong might just have Inaska filing for divorce before they’re even married! In the meantime, though, I think it’s about time for Toke and Zashiel to have a serious talk about Finch…