Chapter Twenty Six
“I have something a little different planned for you today.”
Toke and Zashiel stood facing each other on opposite ends of the Swordfish's ring. It had been a whole day since the circus barge had cast off from Tad Moru, and now there was nothing to see in any direction but water, water, and more water. There was water above them too, apparently, since a blanket of dark gray clouds had crept in to cover the sky overnight, bringing with them the occasional burst of rain. Treyn had worried for a little while that they might be sailing into a storm, but now seemed confident that light rains were the worst they were going to get.
They were in the middle of one of those downpours now, and the raindrops pattered noisily against Toke's hood. Today, the crew seemed to be divided into three groups: those who were forced to be on deck to work, those who were off duty and retreated to the inside of the ship... and those seated on the benches to watch Toke and Zashiel spar.
Toke gritted his teeth, but made himself ignore them. It felt wrong somehow to have them all there, staring. He and Zashiel's training was... special. Almost sacred, in a way. When they were in the arena fighting each other, it felt to Toke like he was in a fast flowing river. It was difficult to stand, but the current washed him clean of all the dirt and grime that had accumulated on him. It gave him a chance to clear his mind, shed all the meaningless worries and troubles that clung to him like mud. It reduced him down to his purest form: a creature of swift, fluid movements and split-second decisions. Like fire, or the wind, something that could be guided but not controlled.
But having an audience bothered him. This wasn't a show put on by the circus for their entertainment. If sparring was like cleansing himself in a river, then having a third of the crew watch him was like being watched while he was taking a bath. He had raised those concerns to Zashiel, but she had dismissed them.
“What's your solution, then?” she'd asked. “Stop training?”
“It's their ship, Toke. They can watch us if they want.”
Toke sighed, but did his best to put the people seated around them from his mind. Inaska was with them, wearing her new silver mask. That thought, along with his earlier comparison to bathing, made him blush—a fact that made him extremely thankful for his hood.
The acrobat had arrived shortly after Toke and Zashiel the previous day. Good thing, too, because when they'd come back alone Ludsong had looked ready to murder Toke. She had scampered onboard, quite conspicuously missing the shawl and long dress she'd been dressed in earlier in favor of her normal skirt and sleeveless shirt. When asked, by both Toke and Ludsong, what she had been up to, she'd declined to answer. All she'd done was pat the flat, square bundle under her arm—the bundle Toke was sure she hadn't had before—as if to unconsciously remind herself that it was there, and then disappear belowdeck.
“Go Toke!” someone yelled from the seats, and Toke spun around to see Boam. The large man was practically dancing in his seat with excitement, and Wayli danced right alongside him. “I've got a bet riding on you, so kick her—oof!”
“Watch your mouth,” Wayli snapped, shaking her hand after the gut punch she'd just given him. “Now kick her teeth in, Toke!”
Toke groaned a little. If there was anything worse than having an audience watch you bathe, it was having your friends cheer for you whenever you grabbed the soap. Zashiel didn't seem to be the least bit bothered by any of this, though, so Toke did his best to emulate her and block the interlopers from his mind.
“I have something different in mind today,” Zashiel said again once the noise had died down a little. Reaching into her jacket, she pulled out a long, thin strip of black cloth and tossed it across the ring to him. It landed on the wet floor a couple inches away from Toke's feet. “Put that over your eyes.”
“Um, okay,” he said. He picked it up and gave it a quick look, but couldn't find anything out of the ordinary about it, save for the fact that she was giving it to him right before a fight. Lowering his hood and exposing his tangled hair to the rain—I really need to get someone to cut that for me, he thought—Toke hurried to tie it around his eyes.
“A blindfold?” Inaska exclaimed with amusement in her voice. “That's supposed to be my job, Zashiel!”
Toke spluttered, the blindfold nearly falling from stunned fingers while the other crewmembers in attendance laughed.
Zashiel, however, sounded confused. “Why would that be your job?”
“Don't answer that!” Toke and Ludsong yelled at the same time.
Inaska laughed. “Well, when a man and woman love each other very, very much...” She let her voice drift away teasingly, and Toke swore he could feel her eyes on him even though he couldn't see her. This time, he didn't have his hood and visor to hide his blush.
“I'm only borrowing him.” There was a hint of playfulness in Zashiel's voice now too. Toke clenched his fist, ignoring the pain it brought. Smiting women!
This is starting to feel less and less sacred by the second, he thought.
With a growl, he raised his hood again even though he couldn't see through the blindfold. “If you're finished, do you mind if we get started?”
He could tell by Zashiel's tone that she was immediately back to business. “You told me before that you've learned how to see, in a manner of speaking, with your powers.”
“I don't really understand how you're doing it, but it's a good skill to have. Today we'll be practicing that skill.”
Understanding blossomed in Toke's mind. “You want me to fight you without being able to see you?”
“In a way.” She paused, and Toke heard her wings flap, taking her into the air. When she spoke again, her voice came from a different place. “You could never beat me in a real fight if you couldn't see me, so—”
“Bet me!” Toke snapped.
“You can't even beat me with both eyes open!” Zashiel snapped back. “You know it's true, so shut up and listen! Here's what's going to happen: I'm going to circle around the ring and throw my chakrams at you. Your job is to feel the shifts in gravity when I do, and dodge them. Got it?”
Toke didn't answer immediately. He reached out with his powers, not anchoring himself to anything, and felt his surroundings. Slowly, a hazy picture formed in his mind of the ring, the benches and the people sitting in them, and a blurry image that flitted from one area to another before he could focus on it. Zashiel.
“All right,” he said with a nod. “Let's do this!”
In an instant, he felt the gravity field shift, and he dove out of the way. He was rewarded with the solid thunk of metal on wood as Zashiel's chakram struck the deck. He had less than a second to feel satisfied, though, before the first chakram's sister came flying at him next. He didn't have time to dodge, so instead he leaned wildly to the side, so much that he would have fallen over if he hadn't weakened his gravity to help his balance, and the ring-like weapon flashed past him an instant later. He felt the first chakram fly back up into the air as Zashiel pulled it back to her, and focused his attention on it to get an idea of where the Sorakine girl was. There! He spotted her for half a second before she was gone again. She was moving so quickly that, while he could feel her field of gravity, it all blurred together, like a ring hovering around the inner edges of a larger ring. The only way he could pin down her location was—smite!
He leaped into the air, doing a backflip as the second chakram rose from the ground and hurtled straight for him. It passed harmlessly beneath him, returning to Zashiel's hand, but then the second came at him while he was still in midair. Cursing, he hastily increased his gravity and fell back to the deck hard enough to make the floor shake. His legs shook as well from the struggle of holding him up, and he gasped a bit with relief when he banished away all the extra weight. Zashiel sensed his momentary distraction, and flew around behind him to hurl another chakram at him. Toke jumped again, spinning so that the chakram passed between his legs. He felt the second chakram coming too late, though, and it slammed right into the back of his head before he could move. His hood protected him, but stars still lit up the darkness behind his eyelids. Dazed, he didn't feel the first chakram coming back at him until it connected with his right foot, sweeping it out from under him and sending him tumbling to the deck with a painful thud.
Smite, he thought, and fought the urge to curl into a ball against the hailstorm of chakrams that was undoubtedly coming. He might have shown that kind of weakness in front of Zashiel, but not the entire crew of the Swordfish. Not in front of Inaska...
To his surprise, though, the spinning halo that was Zashiel stopped circling the ring and touched down right beside him.
“Not bad, for your first time,” she said. Toke felt her strong hand on his shoulder, and let her help him up.
“If you say so,” he grumbled, brushing unseen dust from his jacket. “I didn't even last a minute.”
“The fact that you didn't get clocked by the first chakram I threw is impressive.” Zashiel's voice was uncharacteristically chiding. “Take the blindfold off and take a break.”
Sighing, feeling more disappointed than he knew he had a right to, Toke lowered his hood and untied the blindfold. He squinted when he lowered it, expecting the midmorning sun to blind him after covering his eyes for almost five minutes, but the overcast sky was gentle on them. A thin layer of perspiration coated his forehead, though he barely noticed it through the drizzle that had already soaked his hair. Likewise, when he walked over to the bench where a few cups of thastyrkul had been set out, he wondered how much rainwater had already been mixed into the bright orange liquid. That didn't stop him from snagging a cup and draining it in a couple of big gulps, though. He'd spent the last year living on the streets—any drink that didn't come out of a filthy canal was fine with him.
A series of loud thumps signaled Boam hopping haphazardly down the benches, coming close to slipping and breaking his neck with every step.
“So,” the writer said, “who won?”
“Nobody won, Boam,” Toke answered. “It wasn't a fight.”
Boam put his fist to his chin in thought. “Hmm... does that mean I won my bet?”
“He didn't win,” Wayli interjected. “That means you lost.”
“But he didn't lose, either! That should mean I won!”
“Your logic is as backwards as your brain, Boam.”
Toke rolled his eyes as he took another drink, but he couldn't help but smile. Hearing these two playfully bicker reminded him of better, simpler times. When so many of his thoughts seemed to revolve around figuring out who was trying to kill him and how to keep that from happening, Wayli and Boam's silly arguments offered a welcome reprieve from all the death and darkness.
“Oh yeah?” Wayli was saying, hands on her hips. “Well if you ever did make the world's biggest pancake, I'd let every single one of those penguins poop on it!”
Boam eyes widened with indignation. “You take that ba—”
“Hey, guys?” Toke asked. He spoke in a quiet voice, but somehow that managed to cut Boam off midsentence, and they both turned to look at him.
“Yeah?” they asked in unison.
Toke's cheeks flushed a little, and he looked down into his cup. “Don't... Don't ever lose this, okay?”
Wayli and Boam shared a look. “Lose what?” Wayli asked.
Toke gestured to them. “This... that! What you're doing right now. Don't...” He hesitated when he realized how stupid he must sound. “... lose it.”
“Are you okay?” Boam asked. “She didn't, like, give you brain damage when she—”
“He means your innocence,” Zashiel interrupted, making all three of them jump. How did someone with glowing yellow wings mange to be so sneaky? She didn't give any of them even a passing glance on her way grab a cup of thastyrkul. “And he's right. That's the most valuable thing either of you own right now. Hold onto it for as long as you can.”
Boam cocked his head. “I don't follow.”
Zashiel didn't answer immediately. She faced away from them, sipping her drink with far more self-control than Toke had. Once she was finished, she set the cup down and looked at the three of them.
“Toke,” she finally said, “remember what I told you the night you killed Adal's son?”
Toke's eyes widened. “I didn't—”
“Fine, accidentally killed him. Do you remember?”
Toke frowned at her, still not happy with her choice of words. He hadn't killed the Permissor's son. He'd done everything in his power to avoid just that! Lampa's death had been the result of his own actions, his own stupidity. Just because Toke happened to be with him didn't make it his fault.
Even so, he forced himself to nod. “You said that a person's last shred of innocence dies when they take someone else's life.”
“What would you do to get it back?”
Toke opened his mouth to answer, but to his own surprise found his words trapped in his throat by a ball of emotion. He shut his mouth, clenched his teeth together, hoping the sudden, unwelcome emotion didn't show on his face. Boam and Wayli were watching him, waiting for his answer.
“Anything,” he finally forced himself to say. His voice sounded as raw as if he had a sore throat.
Zashiel nodded her understanding, and looked back at Wayli and Boam. “Once you lose your innocence, it's impossible to get it back. Do what Toke says. Do whatever it takes to keep it.”
Boam gave a nervous laugh. “I don't plan on killing anyone, if that's what you mean.”
“Not many people do,” Zashiel countered. “If you stay with us, eventually you're going to have to fight for your lives.”
Wayli's face paled. “Wait, are you saying that...” Her voice trailed off.
Zashiel, however, knew exactly what she meant to say. “Yes. Sooner or later, you're either going to become murderers like the two of us,” she motioned at herself and Toke, ignoring the outraged sound that Toke made, “or you'll get murdered.”
“Zashiel!” Toke yelled, stepping between them. “What the smite do you think you're doing?”
The Sorakine girl turned and gave him a hard look. “I'm doing what you should have done days ago.”
“What are you talking about?”
Zashiel looked at him, and then over his shoulder at the two friends standing behind him. “They need to go, Toke. We never should have let them come with us.”
“N- No, they don't!” Toke spluttered. “They're my friends. They can come with us if they want!”
“You'd let them stay?” Zashiel challenged him. “Even at their own risk?”
“If anything happens, we can take care of it! That's what we do!”
Zashiel pressed her lips together, and shook her head. “My job is to protect you, Toke. Only you.” She turned her eyes on Wayli and Boam. “Not them.”
Toke spun around to see that both of his friends had turned so pale and were standing so still that they looked like a pair of statues carved out of white marble.
“If they want to live, they need to leave,” Zashiel said as if that closed the matter.
For a long minute, nobody moved or said anything. Half of toke was fuming at Zashiel for saying what she had—and right out of the smiting blue, too! He couldn't blame her for thinking that way, but why hadn't she come to him with these concerns before simply ambushing Wayli and Boam with them? His other half was actually divided in half itself, one side desperately grappling for any reason, legitimate or otherwise, to debunk Zashiel's claims. The other was gloomily countering every argument he came up with the cold, sad reality that she was probably right.
Slowly, Boam raised a finger. “Can I say something?”
“Yes!” Toke barked before Zashiel could say anything.
He didn't get to finish, because the clouds chose that moment to finally burst, and the rain instantly turned into a hailstorm. Cursing, Wayli and Boam covered their heads and hastily retreated below the Seventh Swordfish's deck, leaving Toke and Zashiel alone out in the ring. Toke watched them go, heedless of the tiny chunks of ice pelting him from the sky. Eventually, he raised his hood... and rounded on Zashiel.
“You had no right to say any of that!” he roared, advancing on her as threateningly as he could.
Zashiel didn't even notice. She was too busy tucking her wings inside her jacket. It wasn't until the holes were both zipped up, separating her feathers from the icy downpour, that she finally answered him in a voice that sounded too calm for the rage burning inside him.
“Something occurred to me yesterday,” she said gently, “when I saw the way you panicked when you thought Finch had kidnapped Inaska. You know who's hunting us, and you know they're never going to stop. How long until they decide to use Wayli and Boam to get to you?”
A pit formed in Toke' stomach, and he looked away without answering. That was all the answer Zashiel needed.
“Exactly. That isn't an if, Toke, it's a when. When that happens... then what? They'll have two choices: either stand there and die, or fight back and lose their innocence the same way you did. Smite it, they'll probably die even if they do fight!”
“I'll protect them,” Toke insisted stubbornly.
“You won't always be able to, the same way you won't always be able to protect Inaska.”
Toke's face burned. “Are you going to tell me I need to get rid of Inaska too now?”
Zashiel shook her head. “Inaska may be a weakness, but I think she's a weakness you need to have. Wayli and Boam are nothing but distractions for you, Toke.”
“They're my friends, Zashiel!” Toke yelled. “What do you expect me to do?”
“Drop them off at the next port,” She answered without hesitation. “Tell them to go home. Make sure they can't follow us.”
Toke scowled at her. “And never see them again.”
“You accepted that the minute you went into exile. It's no different now!”
“It is different!” Toke insisted. He stamped his foot, splashing water onto his pants. “They're here now! I'd have to look them in the eye when I sent them away. You have no idea how hard that would be!”
In an instant, Zashiel's eyes turned as cold as the ice battering them both from above. “No, of course I wouldn't. When my sister tracked me down, I didn't have to send her away. I only had to nearly smiting kill her! How could I ever understand what you're going through?”
Toke froze, stunned. He... Those things hadn't really come out of his mouth, had they? Shame stabbed at his chest, and he opened his mouth to apologize.
The Sorakine girl looked at him and raised an eyebrow, but Toke stopped. If he said he was sorry, if he admitted that he had been in the wrong, then that would only strengthen Zashiel's argument. Leaving Wayli and Boam behind had been easier—not easy, but easier—the first time because he hadn't had to say goodbye. He had just assumed they would consider him dead, or a terrorist, or both like the rest of Yasmik. If he sent them away now... just the thought of the betrayal he would have to see in their eyes was unbearable.
“I'm not sending them away,” he said instead.
Zashiel's expression hardened, and she spun around to look the other way. “Fine, then. Why don't you go find your real friends, then?”
Toke's face reddened. “Don't talk like—”
“Just go, Toke!”
The hurt in her voice was so raw that Toke almost expected her to shatter into a thousand pieces. Zashiel froze, and Toke knew she hadn't meant to let so much of her true feelings slip into her voice. When she spoke again, her words were careful, controlled, and as cold as a winter storm's wind.
Toke clenched his fist, ignoring the pain, and fixed the back of her head with a glare he hoped she could feel burning through her hair. “Fine,” he spat. “Be like that, then!”
Without another word, he spun on his heel and stormed away. As he made for the door leading inside, the hail grew even heavier. It felt like an army of Sorakines was bombarding him with pebbles from up in the sky. He stopped halfway across the deck and gave a reluctant look back—but the downpour was so heavy that he couldn’t see her.
“Be like that, then,” he whispered to himself again, and went inside.
NEXT TIME: Ugh, Mom and Dad are fighting again! Hopefully they settle things without bloodshed this time. But what amazing adventures await Toke now in the… below deck of the Swordfish? Wow, this is a terrible outro, isn’t it?