Chapter Twenty Five
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“Where are they?”
“I don't know.”
“Where would she take her?”
“I don't know, Toke!”
The wind whipped Toke's hair into a frenzy as Zashiel carried him over Tad Moru. The city flashed by underneath them, invisible to the Juryokine since he'd left his jacket back on the ship. He had no choice but to clench his eyes shut and trust that Zashiel would take him where he needed to go.
“Finch must have been watching us last night,” he yelled over the wind. “Even after the show ended. How else would she have known to kidnap Inaska of all people?”
“Toke, calm down,” Zashiel ordered him. “We don't even know for sure if Finch has her.”
“What else could it be?” Toke demanded. “You said it yourself, Finch doesn't care about humans. Inaska wouldn't be anything but bait to her.” His chest constricted, and he would have pulled his hair if Zashiel hadn't been pinning his arms to his sides. “Oh, smite, if she's done anything to her, I don't know what I'll...”
He couldn't force himself to finish that sentence. The wave of emotion that came with it surprised him. He'd only known Inaska a little over a week, and he'd only been courting her for a couple days, but thinking about her meeting an early demise at the hands of Zashiel's sister... someone could have told him the world was about to end and it wouldn't have terrified him as much.
“Calm down,” the Sorakine girl said again. “You're not going to be any help to anyone if you're strung as high as noose.”
Before he could say anything else, he felt her tilt downwards, descending back toward the city. The wind roared even more loudly in his ears as they fell, but he could still catch the odd exclamation as Zashiel streaked past the unsuspecting citizens of Tad Moru. He waited until she started to level out and slow down, and then snapped his eyes open to see...
“The warehouse?” he asked in surprise just as her feet touched down on the roof. “What are we doing here?”
Zashiel set him down and lowered her hood to look around.
“This is the last place we saw her,” she answered. The hole Toke had smashed through the roof was still there, the workers not having had a chance to fix it yet, and she set off toward it. Toke was by her side a moment later, instinctively reaching behind him for the axes that weren't there.
“You don't think she'd still be here, do you?” Toke asked, watching the hole warily.
“After the number you did on her, I'm not sure she could have gone anywhere.”
“But- But people work here, right? They wouldn't have just left her here, would they?”
Zashiel's lips quirked up in a wry smirk. “Injured or not, if Finch didn't want a group of humans carrying her off, she wouldn't be going anywhere.”
They reached the hole and knelt down to peer through it. The inside of the warehouse was still a mess from the fight it had seen the other day, but other than that it was empty.
“Looks like she's not—”
“What's that?” Zashiel interrupted him. Without waiting, she leaped through the hole and into the building. Toke opened his mouth to call after her, but decided against it and jumped in as well. He weakened his gravity and touched the ground as lightly as if he'd only walked down a flight of steps. Zashiel was over by the door, on her hands and knees. “I knew it!”
“Knew what?” Toke asked, hurrying over to her side.
In answer, Zashiel pointed at the floor—and the streaks of blood leading out of it. At once, Toke's heart leaped into his throat, and he clenched his fists, desperately wishing he had a weapon. Any weapon.
“What did she do to her?” he demanded, stomping his foot near the blood as if he could frighten an answer out of it.
Zashiel, however, was as calm as ever. She shook her head. “I don't think that's Inaska's blood. It's too dry, too old. If it was Inaska's, it would still be wet.”
“That means it's Finch's blood. She left it when she dragged herself out of here.”
Toke gave her a sidelong look, surprised. She had just described her own sister, beaten, bruised, and bloody—and by him, no less—having to drag herself out of an empty warehouse all alone, and yet her tone of voice hadn't changed the slightest bit.
“This doesn't mean anything,” he snapped, standing back up. “So she left after I beat her up. She could have kidnapped Inaska and brought her somewhere else.”
Zashiel folded her arms, thinking. “I'm starting to doubt that, Toke. I took her Chiyuka ointment, remember? Even a Sorakine needs time to heal after taking a beating like you gave her. I don't think she's in any condition to go kidnapping people.”
“Then where the smite is she?”
“I don't know, Toke!” she yelled back, getting to her feet. “Maybe nothing happened. Maybe she just went for a walk around town, and hasn't come back yet.”
Toke shook his head, making for the door. “No, something's wrong. She knows we're casting off today. She's been doing this her whole life. There's no way she'd just forget when the smiting ship is going to leave.”
His feet clomped across one of Tad Moru's bridges, leaving Zashiel in the warehouse, and the stormy look on his face made people step out of his way as if he were a Sorakine himself. He immediately regretted yelling at her like that. If anything, he should have been grateful for Zashiel's reassurances that Inaska had not, in fact, been kidnapped by a psychotic flying killer. For some reason, though, the mere fact that he didn't know where Inaska was put his nerves on edge like few things in the past had.
Finally, with a sigh, he stopped and leaned on of the bridges' railings, looking down into the canal's murky waters. A minute later, a familiar yellow light washed over the bridge, and Zashiel stopped next to him.
“I'm sorry,” he grunted without looking up at her.
“There's nothing to apologize for.”
“There is nothing to apologize for, Toke.” When he looked up at her in confusion, she added, “I'm starting to feel like I made the right choice, setting you up with Inaska. Now come on, let's go find her.”
She took the lead this time, and Toke pushed himself off the railing to follow. “How are we going to do that? Tad Moru's not exactly a small place.”
“Everything is smaller from up above,” Zashiel answered, looking upwards.
Toke raised an eyebrow. “You want to fly? We might not be able to see her from up there.”
“Not flying,” Zashiel said without lowering her gaze. Then, without further explanation, she bent her knees and jumped. Her leap carried her almost all the way to the top of the nearest building, and once her momentum ran out she anchored herself to the roof and fell the rest of the up.
Toke watched her go, the surprise on his face no less evident than those of the townspeople around him. Not because she had just jumped over a building, but because she had decided to jump over a building.
“Are you coming?” she yelled back down at him.
“Uh, yeah,” he said, and leaped up after her. The crowd's startled gasps might have given him some measure of amusement—the only thing more surprising than a girl with wings leaping over buildings was a boy without them—but today it made his stomach churn with enough worry to temporarily distract him from Inaska's disappearance.
“Are you sure about this?” he asked when he landed beside her. “This isn't exactly being inconspicuous.”
Zashiel marched up to the peak of the roof, her weakened gravity keeping her from dislodging any of the clay shingles beneath her, and said, “I doubt it matters at this point. Your fight with Finch was pretty conspicuous too.”
“I didn't mean to—”
“I know you didn't. But everyone knows who we are anyway, or at least that we're here. We may as well use that to our advantage. Come on!”
With that, she took off at a run toward the end of the building and leaped to the adjacent one. Toke watched her, no less graceful leaping than she was flying, with golden hair rippling in the wind behind her, and then took a deep breath.
She's probably right, he admitted to himself, though it still went against his better instincts to reveal himself like this in public. Even so, he ran after her, and a jump of his own brought him to her side again. Toke's feet had barely touched the roof before Zashiel had taken off running again.
They went like this for several minutes, running across rooftops, jumping from building to building and occasionally clearing across the canal itself. The whole time, Toke kept his eyes trained on the bridges and boats beneath him. It didn't take long for him to feel discouraged, though. Cultural tradition or not, when everyone in Vlangur decided to dye their hair the same color, it made everyone look the same from up above. He felt reasonably confident that they hadn't passed her, but how could he be sure? They could jump right over her head and not even realize it.
“We still can't cover the entire town like this,” he shouted to her as they soared over Tad Moru's canal again to land on a wide, flat-roofed inn. He glanced over his shoulder. Even after all this running, they were still close enough to the docks that he could clearly see the Seventh Swordfish in all its garish colors.
“Don't worry so much,” Zashiel chastised him. “I wouldn't be surprised if we went back to the ship and found her there waiting for us.”
Toke knew she had meant for that to sound encouraging, but all it did was make him look nervously over his shoulder again. He and Zashiel were Treyn's newest and biggest act. He wouldn't leave them behind, right?
“Smite,” he whispered under his breath. Risk leaving Inaska in danger, or risk getting left behind? He was less surprised than he felt he should have been to find that his mind was made up even before he'd had time to think about it. Clenching his fists in frustration, he looked downwards—and then did a double take.
“Zashiel!” he exclaimed mid-jump.
She whirled around in midair, instantly alert. “What is it?”
He pointed at the bridge below them. “Loo—”
And then he flew face first into the oncoming building.
“Holy smite, Toke!” Zashiel's voice held a genuine note of alarm. “Are you okay?”
With some effort, Toke managed to reach up and haul himself onto the roof, groaning. Stars were dancing in front of his eyes, and pain was dancing in his bones. “I'm fine. I just...” A trickle of blood began to leak from his nose. “Smite!”
“Can you stand?” When Toke did so, she sighed. “Be more careful. If you think Finch is mad now, imagine how she'll be if you kill yourself before she gets a chance to.”
Toke raised an eyebrow, wiping his bloody nose on his sleeve. “Did you just make a—”
“I'll give you some Chiyuka when we get back to the ship. Now what were you trying to show me?”
Toke stiffened, his sudden introduction to the wall having distracted him, and spun around. For a second he worried she was gone, or that he hadn't seen her at all, but then he jabbed his finger at a lone figure in the crowd. “There! That's her.”
A woman, wrapped from head to toe in a Vlangurtian shawl, walked across a bridge in their direction. She stood out from the crowd so much Toke was surprised he hadn't spotted her a mile away. The shawl was bright purple, with gold and emerald patterns etched into it. It wasn't unusual for a Vlangurtian woman to wear a shawl—he could pick out at least three more in the crowd—but they were usually an older woman's fashion. This girl, judging by the speed with which she walked and the straightness of her back, was at least five decades too young to be wearing it. Her steps were hurried, nervous, and even from here Toke thought he could see her eyes shifting.
Zashiel followed where he was pointing, and this time it was her turn to raise her eyebrows. “Are you sure? You can't even see her face.”
That was true. The shawl covered her entire face except for her eyes. Not so much as a strand of white hair poked out of it. Even so, he nodded. “It's her. I recognize the way she walks.”
Zashiel froze and looked at him incredulously. “You what?”
Toke’s face reddened. “She... has a nice walk, okay?”
Zashiel stared at him for a few seconds, and then burst out laughing.
“I swear,” Toke grumbled, “if you tell anyone I said that, I'm going to... hey, where'd she go?”
Toke and Zashiel spun around, the Sorakine girl's laughter dying as her weapons came out, to see Inaska clamber up onto the roof with them. She was still wearing the shawl, but she'd taken it off from around her head so that her pure white hair shimmered in the sun.
Toke's heart leaped. “You're all right!” he yelled, and lunged to wrap his arms around her.
Get a grip! His sensible side told him. You're acting like you haven't seen her in a month!
Inaska flinched a little when he came at her, but then laughed and hugged him back. “All right? Of course I'm all right. Why wouldn't I be?”
Toke squeezed her again—why did his chest feel like one of Treyn's fireworks?—before letting go and taking a step back. His cheeks were flushed, and he knew Inaska must be able to see it because of the way she laughed when she looked at him. To his surprise, he realized she didn't have her mask on, though she'd put makeup on her face to cover her scars again.
“If I'd known you were going to miss me this much, I might've left a couple days ago!” she chuckled. She looked at Zashiel, and the grim look on the Sorakine's face made her smile melt away. “What's going on? Why did you think I was in trouble?”
Toke blinked, all of his wild, terrified speculation suddenly sounding completely stupid.
“It was... uh... just...” He stammered.
“Your father nearly killed Toke when he found out you weren't on the ship,” Zashiel interjected. “We thought something might have happened.”
To Toke's surprise, Inaska laughed at that. “Oh, Daddy’s always a worrywart. Anytime I step out of his sight, he thinks...” She paused, her smile fading again. “Never mind. I'm fine.”
“Obviously,” said Zashiel. “What I'm more concerned with now is how you found us.”
The acrobat rolled her eyes. “I'm pretty sure everyone in town knows you’re up here,” she nodded toward Toke, “thanks to him.”
Toke's nose flared with pain again, reminding him of the faceplant he had just made into the wall.
“Smite,” he muttered, but when he wiped his nose again he was relieved to not find any more fresh blood.
I must look terrible! he realized. Unbathed, wearing old clothes, and dry blood smeared all over his face. It was a wonder Inaska had even let him hug her.
“Your turn.” Inaska put her hands on her hips. “How did you two fine me?”
Zashiel smirked. “Tell her, Toke.”
Toke's cheeks burned again. “I- It was nothing. We just happened to see you.”
Inaska cocked her head in confusion.
Zashiel's smirk grew. “Tell her, or I will.”
“I- I just...” Toke spread his arms. “I was just looking in the right—”
“Say it exactly like you said to me.”
Toke clenched his fist, his wrist tingling, and glowered so hard at Zashiel he almost thought it must have matched one of her own glares. The way her smirk never wavered told him he was severely overestimating his glaring abilities. To his right, Inaska chuckled a little.
“Okay, you have to tell me now!” she urged him.
Toke sighed and fixed his eyes firmly on his shoes. In as quiet a voice as he could manage without whispering, he muttered, “Youhaveanicewalk.”
Inaska's face lit up. “I have a what?” she exclaimed, even though Toke was sure she'd heard him just fine.
He took a deep breath. “I said... that you have a nice walk.”
Inaska leaned her head back, her laughter echoing across the rooftops. Before Toke could protest—though he had no idea what he could say—she had turned around and was sashaying about with an exaggerated sway of her hips that would have thrown her off her own feet if she wasn't such a talented acrobat.
“I've been complimented for a lot of things, Toke,” she said, still struggling to hold in her laughter, “but you're the first person to compliment my walk!”
Toke was dismayed to see that even Zashiel was laughing again.
“All right, all right!” he yelled. “Is this the thanks I get for coming to help you?”
Inaska made her way back over, still giggling. “I already told you, I wasn't in trouble.”
“Well, what are you even doing out here?” Toke demanded. “Treyn's going to set sail any minute, with or without you.”
The laughter evaporated from Inaska's face in an instant, and she looked away like she was ashamed. “N- Nothing. Just something I need to get done before we leave.”
“I'm sure it's nothing you can't do in the next town,” Zashiel said.
Inaska shook her head, white hair waving behind her. “No, I have to do it here. Today. Now.”
“Did I mention how Treyn's going to leave you behind?” Toke thrust his thumb back in the direction of the waiting barge. “And how Ludsong nearly smiting killed me?”
“Captain Treyn would never leave me behind. I'm too important to his show, for one thing.” She smiled a little. “And Father would throw him overboard if he even tried.”
Zashiel frowned. “What's so important that you have to do it here and now?”
Inaska frowned back at her, and then shook her head. “Go back and tell my father I'll be onboard in less than an hour. I've got to go.”
She turned to go, but stopped when Toke grabbed her by the wrist. “If you're not coming back to the ship, then we're coming with you!”
To his surprise, he saw a flash of anger in Inaska's eyes. “No, as a matter of fact, you're not.”
“It's dangerous out there. You need us!”
Inaska's eyes narrowed further. “I can take care of myself, Toke. Now let go!”
“I can't let you just—hey!”
Contorting her arm in a way Toke thought shouldn't have been possible, Inaska slipped her hand free of his and leaped right over the edge of the building. A drainpipe and a stack of crates helped her reach the ground in true acrobatic fashion, and the shawl was already wrapped back around her face by the time her feet touched down. She glanced back up at the roof to make sure he and Zashiel were still up there, and then hurried out onto the bridge. Toke and Zashiel exchanged a look, and the Sorakine girl shrugged.
“Should we go after her?” he asked.
“It doesn't sound like she wants us to.”
Toke grimaced. “True. But that's not what I asked.”
Zashiel shrugged again. “You're the one falling in love with her. It's your decision.”
“I'm not falling in love with her!” He shot back, cheeks reddening again.
Zashiel snorted. “Whatever, Toke.”
Toke looked down just in time to see Inaska gaining distance on them. He tensed his body, ready to leap down and follow her whether she wanted him to or not... but then he didn't. He watched her go—she really does have a nice... no, focus!—until she rounded a corner and was lost to sight.
“Zashiel?” he asked softly.
“Is it okay to pry into someone's life just because you care about them?”
Zashiel turned to look at him. “What do you mean?”
He sighed. “I mean that I'm worried about her. I want to go with her and make sure she's safe. But she doesn't want me to. If I forced her to do what I wanted, even if I think I have a good reason for it, it would push her away from me. And...”
“And you don't want that.”
“Smite no, I don't! But...” He paused and put his hands in his pockets. “But what if she gets hurt or kidnapped because I'm not there? Then it won't matter how far away I pushed her, because she'll be...” He turned to the Sorakine girl. “What's the right thing to do?”
He expected her to shrug indifferently again, the way she did for so many of the problems she faced, but instead she looked him directly in the eye and held his gaze with steely intensity.
“Only you can decide that, Toke. Do you give her safety or freedom? I think the longer you do this, the more you'll find that the two are as separate as war and peace themselves.”
Toke clenched his fist again, ignoring the growing twinge of pain it brought. “That's not good enough! Neither one of those gives me a clear answer.”
“That's life, Toke.”
“What if I choose one, and it turns out to be the wrong choice? What then?”
“That's up to you.”
With a groan, Toke looked at the place where Inaska had vanished, and then sat down heavily. “Smite!”
Zashiel stood over him for a minute, but then, to his surprise, sat down crosslegged next to him.
“You're forgetting something,” she said. “You're not the only person in this relationship.”
Toke looked at her out of the corner of his eye. “What's that supposed to mean?”
“It means that you're only considering what you want. Do you want Inaska safe, or do you want her to be free? Have you stopped and considered, even once, what she might want?”
“I already know. She wants me to leave her alone.”
“Then maybe that's reason enough to do it.”
Toke opened his mouth to retort, but froze when he realized he didn't have one ready. Zashiel took that as an opportunity to keep talking.
“You want her to be safe,” she said. “That's understandable. You're worried she'll get into trouble without you. That's understandable too. Maybe it's right, maybe it's wrong, but you already know that she won't be happy if you force your protection on her. She's a grownup just like you, Toke.” She turned to look at him. “That means she has the right to make her own decisions just like you do. If you really want her to be happy with you, you need to learn to trust her to do just that. Otherwise...”
“Otherwise she'll leave me,” Toke finished for her, hunching his back and looking at the ground.
“If she's smart she'll leave you.” Zashiel's words were sharp, and they stabbed at Toke like knives. “But she might stick around too, and that would be even worse. She's a free spirit, like the wind itself. Maybe she would decide she loved you enough to put up with your constant badgering. If she did that, she would spend the rest of her life miserable while you followed her everywhere, never letting her leave your sight, keeping her in a cage.”
“I would not put her in a cage!” Toke shot back, his voice rising to a shout with the unexpected wave of anger that her words brought.
Zashiel met his glare, unflinching. “To her, you might as well be.”
Toke wanted to argue, tell Zashiel she was overexaggerating, but the words died in his mouth before they'd even reached his lips. With another groan, he hung his head. She was right.
And he was a smiting idiot.
“If it's any consolation,” Zashiel said, putting her hand on his back, “she really does know how to take care of herself. I saw her fighting you the day we joined the Seventh Swordfish. Trust me, she'll be fine.”
Slowly, Toke forced himself to nod. It felt wrong to just let Inaska do whatever she wanted when there were people out there who wouldn't hesitate to hurt or kill her—and all to get to him, he reminded himself—but what else could he do? Zashiel was right. She would see his efforts to protect her as controlling, a way to take away her free will. He would lose her if he tried. And smite it, that was the last thing on Fissura he wanted.
“Maybe this was a mistake,” he said. “Should we really be dragging people into our problems like this?” Zashiel shrugged, and he cut her off before she could say anything. “I know, I know, it's my choice.”
“Actually, I was going to say that it's okay. You've...” This time, Zashiel hesitated. “You've got a lot going on. We all do. You need something, someone, who can take you out of all that, remind you that there's still good in the world. Someone you can love, and she can love you back.”
Toke fell still, staring at his shoes, and then nodded.
“All right, then,” he said, and stood up.
Zashiel stood up beside him. “What did you decide?”
“I don't think I've decided anything. I need time to think about it.”
Zashiel nodded as if this were the most obvious thing in the world. “So what do you want to do?”
Again, Toke looked at the corner where he had lost sight of Inaska. It hadn't even been five minutes. They could still catch up...
He shook his head. “Let's go back to the ship.”
Zashiel nodded again, a gleam of satisfaction in her eyes. No matter how many times she said this was Toke's problem, he could tell she wanted him to succeed. But just like Toke would have to give Inaska her freedom even if she was hurt because of it, so she had to give Toke the freedom to make the wrong decision and ruin his relationship with the white-haired acrobat.
“Let's go, then.” She reached out to wrap her arms around him, but Toke shook his head.
“No. Let's walk.” He said.
Zashiel raised an eyebrow, but didn't argue. Toke didn't bother to explain. He needed time to think about things. Time he wouldn't have if Zashiel flew them over the city. Inaska had said she would be onboard within an hour, so Toke felt confident that they had time to walk back before she returned.
And if she does get there first, he thought, climbing down the same wall Inaska had, I won't have to explain to Ludsong why I didn't bring her back.
NEXT TIME: Inaska’s going on a shopping spree she doesn’t want anyone to know about? Isn’t that *waves hands* MYSTERIOUUUUUUUS? What’s she up to, and why can’t Toke and Zashiel know about it? At least she’s, you know… not dead. That’s always a good thing.