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Chapter Twenty Eight

Ten minutes later, Toke stood in front of a small crowd, barefoot and dressed in an unbuttoned vest, baggy cloth pants, and enough makeup to make his face feel like an oil painting. His hair had been tied in a traditional Vlangurtian knot, and for the first time in weeks he was able to see without it taking up an inch of his vision.


“Hmm,” Treyn said, tapping his chin in consideration. He walked a circle around Toke, humming every couple seconds. “Not bad.”


“I feel ridiculous,” Toke huffed. The pants were too loose and felt like they were going to fall down every time he took a step. And the vest... he had caught Inaska ogling his chest as he put it on. He felt like he should have been flattered, but instead it made his face turn as red as Treyn's coat.


Treyn nodded. “You should, because you do.”


“Oh, thanks,” Toke snapped.


“You're welcome. You won't look the part until we get your haired dyed.”


Toke stopped short, raising a hand to his head. “Dye my hair? Why?”


“Because Saldo Gunn didn't have black hair, you idiot!” Treyn rolled his eyes.


“So what? It's a play. The audience knows I'm not the real Saldo Gunn.”


“Quit your whining!” Treyn finished his inspection and walked to the front of the makeshift stage, where he liked to stand when he directed plays. “We're professionals, not some kids playing pretend. You're doing a Vlangurtian play in front of a Vlangurtian audience, and that means you're going to go out there looking like you were born and raised in Vlangur. Got it?”


Toke sighed. “Yes, sir.”


“Good. Somebody get him a script! I want to rehearse the first scene in ten minutes.”


Inaska was at Toke's side in an instant, grabbing him by the arm and hauling him away. “Come on, you can go over your lines a few times with me before we start.”


For once, Toke felt uncharacteristically spiteful toward the white-haired girl, and he yanked his arm away from her. “Is this your idea of a joke?” he hissed.


Inaska blinked at him, nonplussed. “A joke? What makes you think this is a joke?”


Toke gave an exaggerated shrug. “Oh, I dunno, maybe the fact that you volunteered me for a play I've only seen once when we're going to perform it in a matter of smiting days!”


“So you'll learn! You already memorized one act in a single night. What's so different about this one?”


That gave Toke pause, but since he wasn't feeling particularly compliant he scowled at her and folded his arms. “All I had to do was move around in that one. There wasn't any line reading.”


Inaska smirked. “Trust me, you won't have any trouble memorizing the lines.”


“You think so, huh? Well, I hope you're—”


He stopped when Inaska thrust a small booklet at him. No, booklet wasn't the right word. This couldn't have had more than ten pages. Hesitantly, Toke took it from her.


“That's it?” he asked in disbelief.


Inaska nodded. “There are lots of versions of this play. Our version is... abridged, I guess you could say. We want to put on other acts before and after it, so we shortened it so that it would only last half an hour, but still cover all the important bits.”


Toke wanted to look at her, but he was having trouble pulling his eyes away from the not-booklet he was holding.


“I...” His hand began to shake, and he looked away. “I'm sorry.”


Inaska arched an eyebrow at him. “You’re sorry for what?”


“For talking to you like that!”


To Toke's surprise, the acrobat laughed at this.


“I'm going to have my work cut out for me, aren't I?” she asked.


Toke blinked, confused. “What do you mean?”


“I mean,” she said, rolling her eyes, “that I have to find a way to make you stop guilt tripping yourself. If that's all it takes to get you wallowing in shame, I'll...” She paused and gave him an appraising look. “Actually, I might just keep it this way. It could be fun.”


She flashed him a grin that Toke swore was scarier than all the glares Zashiel had ever given him, and he swallowed hard.


“Five minutes!” Treyn called.


“All right!” Suddenly Inaska was all business. “Act one starts on the first page. Don't worry about acting yet. Captain Treyn will take care of that. Just read your lines and I'll do mine.”


“Okay,” Toke agreed, flipping the book open to the first page... and then stopped.


Inaska looked at him expectantly. “Come on, what are you waiting for?”


Toke's cheeks reddened. “I, um... I don't know how to read Vlangurtian.”


That seemed to catch Inaska off guard more than anything else today had. “You're kidding! You've lived for, what, a year? And you never learned to read our language?”


“Cut me some slack!” Toke snapped. “I didn't have anyone to teach me.”


The white-haired girl looked at him for a long moment, and then nodded. “Well, you've got one. Come here.”


She didn't wait for him to do as she said, sidling up close to him herself instead, and they each took one side of the script so that they were holding it open between them. With her other hand, she pointed at a cluster of words that may as well have been gibberish to Toke's eyes.


'My ship is strong and my ship is swift,'” she translated for him. “'It deserves better waters than these ponds and puddles. With it, I shall brave the dark Lake Dexyn!'


Her finger moved from that paragraph to one almost the entire length of the page away. “'Accursed storm, I fear you not! I have faced those thrice your size!'


Toke held up a hand. “Wait!  None of those,” he gestured at the lines she had skipped, “are my lines?”


“You've seen the play,” Inaska reminded him. “Who does most of the talking?”


“The choir!” Toke snapped his fingers in realization. “So I... I really don't have all that many lines, do I?”


Inaska gave him a smug smile. “I said you wouldn't have any trouble learning them. We're acting out what's happening while the choir describes it to the audience. We only speak when the choir explicitly tells us to.” She pointed back at the script. “Now this one...”


To Toke's disbelief, Inaska was able to get through the entire script before Treyn's voice rang through the storage room again.


“Time's up! Places, everyone!”


“Smite,” Toke grumbled under his breath. “How does he expect me to do this after studying a script I can't read for five minutes?”


Inaska took his hand and led him back toward the stage. “I keep telling you, don't worry about it! Captain Treyn knows what he's doing.”


By the time they reached the others, the stagehands had already set the stage. Saldo's boat sat in the midst of an ocean's—lake's—worth of black streamers, which were undulating up and down even though the rehearsal hadn't even started. Treyn was moving in and out of them, correcting his actors where needed—which meant, for once, he was keeping his mouth mostly shut.


“On the boat,” he snapped, pointing as soon as he saw Toke. “Inaska, you know what to do.”


“Yes, Captain!” she chirped, and hustled to get into her place, leaving Toke to make his way to the boat alone.


Smite it, he thought. Everyone's looking at me!


They weren't really, of course, and Toke knew it. Not yet. In just a minute, though, every eye in this room would be locked on him, waiting for him to butcher his lines, or trip and fall. He gritted his teeth. No, that wouldn't happen. Life didn't waste its minor screwups on him. When Toke messed up, it would be on such a grandiose scale that the entire country's population would know about it within the hour.


Relax, he told himself. What would Zashiel do?


The answer came to him even through the flash of anger that accompanied it: she would take control of the situation. Stop worrying about what everyone thought of her and just do what needed to be done. Toke took a deep breath and, steeling his nerves, jumped. His weakened gravity carried him almost all the way to the ceiling, and then he arched back downward and landed on his boat. Even though he'd made himself as light as he could, a resounding boom echoed from within the hollow prop, and Treyn spun around, red in the face.


“If you break that,” he yelled, spittle flying visibly from his mouth, “you're sailing home on it!”


Well, so much for taking control.


The rest of the cast hastened to get in their places. Inaska, having donned the swirling green and blue dress of Lady Valdo, climbed atop a pedestal that rose out from the “lake” and took a seat in the chair that had been set on it. During the actual play, that pedestal would be decorated to look like a palace, and the chair would be a throne, but since this was just a rehearsal they made do with the bare essentials. Toke still wasn't sure why they had Lady Valdo's throne above Saldo's ship when they expected the audience to pretend it was underwater. The whole point of putting on a play was so the audience wouldn't have to imagine what was going on—it was right in front of them! He didn’t figure Treyn was in the mood for such criticisms, though.


“Ready, Captain!” she called.


Treyn glanced at her, turned away, and then did a double take.


“Ahem,” he said, folding his arms. He didn't clear his throat, he literally said ahem. When Inaska didn't move, obviously not understanding what he wanted, he pointed at his face. “Mask off, Inaska.”


“Oh!” Her hand went reflexively to her mask, but for once she didn't immediately obey. She glanced worriedly at Toke, and when she realized he was looking back at her she averted her eyes.


“Inaska,” Treyn said. His voice, Toke noted, was far more gentle now than he had ever heard it before. “You're with friends.”


“I- I know, Captain,” she stammered. “I'm sorry.”


Acting quickly, obviously trying to do it without thinking, Inaska pulled the mask off, revealing her full face. She wasn't wearing her makeup, so her twin C-shaped scars were plainly visible by her right eye. Toke's heart began to hammer more forcefully inside his chest. She was just so... smiting... beautiful! And to think someone like her was—


“All right, everyone, from the top!” Treyn called, taking his place at the front of the improvised stage.


The choir was all lined up at the back of the stage, spreading outward from Inaska's throne, dressed in white robes and dresses that were similar to Lady Valdo's but also far less elegant, marking them as her subjects. Inaska had told him that was a way to put them on the stage without them looking too out of place.  On either side of Toke, the stagehands began gently waving their streamers up and down, giving the illusion of a calm lake surface. And then, to Toke's surprise, the boat lurched underneath his feet. He let out a startled yelp, regained his balance, and looked down to see two more stagehands rocking the ship back and forth, like it was actually bobbing up and down in the water. To his right, Toke saw Treyn point at the choir.


They sang. No music accompanied their words, but the energy of the song still struck Toke like a bolt of lightning.


“Saldo come, Saldo come, Saldo come a frothin',


Bored of peace and harmony, his heart a seekin' somethin',


He gazed out from his happy home, his wife behind his back,


And saw that which he hungered for, a lake of death and black,


Nothing but the poison lake could quench brave Saldo's thirst,


To cross that void which no one had, the pride of being first.”


And then, everything stopped. The streamers continued to undulate beneath him, the ship continued to rock, but the choir went as silent as the grave, waiting for something.


“Toke!” Treyn snapped. “That's your line!”


Toke blinked. His line? His line! In the few seconds it had taken the choir to sing their verse, he had completely forgotten himself, and had settled in to listen to the catchy song. The line, though... what had it been? He racked his brain, trying to dredge up what Inaska had read to him only minutes ago...


“Sometime today, please, Saldo.”


“My boat is strong,” He blurted out. “And I deserve better than this! I'm taking it onto Lake Dexyn!”


“My ship is strong and my ship is swift. It deserves better waters than these ponds and puddles. With it, I shall brave the dreaded Lake Dexyn!”


Toke paused, and then looked at the captain. “W- What?”


“That's your line. Repeat it.”


“Okay, uh... My ship is strong and my ship is swift. It deserves better waters than these ponds and puddles. With it, I shall brave the dreaded Lake Dexyn.”


The words felt lame as they spilled from Toke's mouth. His face burned red with embarrassment, and he expected Treyn to lose his temper and throw him off the stage. Instead, to his surprise, he merely nodded.


“Say it with more emotion,” he instructed him, waving his hands vaguely. “Like you're a famous explorer about to set out on the adventure of a lifetime!”


Caught off guard, Toke looked from the captain to the choir behind him, half expecting to see them smirking and muttering to each other. He felt like a complete fool. Someone who had never been in so much as a school play, trying to act alongside veterans of the art who had been doing this since they were old enough to speak. Again, he was surprised, though, when he saw their faces completely expressionless. A few of them even gave him encouraging nods. They weren't laughing. But... how was that even possible? Seeing him struggle to fill the lead role of a play he'd only seen once must have been like seeing a baby trying to stand on its own feet for the first time. And their livelihood depended on whether it managed to learn to walk by the end of the day. Cute at best, frustrating beyond words at worst.


“Come on, Saldo! We don't have all day for this.”


Toke swallowed hard, but did his best to banish his unease. More emotion, Treyn had said. Like an adventurer. He took a deep breath, and...


“My ship is—”


“And put your hands on the helm!”


Toke deflated like a punctured balloon. “What?”


“The wheel.” Treyn pointed at it, and then mimed steering the boat himself. “Saldo can't control the ship if he's not holding the helm. Come on!”


“Fine.” Toke took the wheel in both hands, trying to visualize what a swashbuckling sailor would look like guiding his ship through treacherous waters. “My ship is strong and my ship is swift. It deserves better waters than these ponds and puddles. With it, I shall brave the dreaded Lake Dexyn!”


“Good! Good!” Treyn was clapping for him—smiting clapping!


“R- Really?” Toke asked in disbelief.


The captain shrugged. “Well, it still needs work. Obviously. But we'll have time to work on that later. Choir, next verse!”


And so it went. Inaska had told him that the play was only meant to last half an hour, but nearly three hours had passed by the time they finished the final act—and it was all because of Toke.  Everyone else clearly had their lines were engraved in memory, but every time Toke was supposed to say or do something, the entire thing would come to a screeching halt. Treyn would walk him through what he was supposed to do step by step, and the fact that he never once displayed a single hint of irritation was enough to make Toke wonder if he was dreaming. And the captain wasn't the only one. The rest of the crew didn't seem to mind stopping to let Treyn coach Toke, even shouting out their own advice from time to time.


Finally, though, Toke hugged his—or Saldo's, rather—wife and child, and Treyn congratulated everyone on a job well done and dismissed them. The crew set to work immediately, chatting amiably amongst themselves as they put away their costumes and props. Toke slipped between the workers, keeping his eyes down, until he reached where Treyn was standing, talking to another actor. He waited, fighting the urge to wring his hands, until their conversation was finished, and then stepped forward.


“What do you need?” Treyn asked, as blunt as ever.


“I just wanted to say I'm sorry, sir,” Toke answered. He tried to speak as loudly as he could, but the words still came out as barely intelligible mumbles. Even so, Treyn seemed to understand them perfectly.


“You already said that. About half a dozen times, if I remember correctly. Accidents happen, so don't beat yourself up about it.”


Treyn turned to leave, but Toke stopped him with a hand on his shoulder. “No, I meant... for wrecking the rehearsal today. Are you sure you want someone like me playing the lead role in something like this?”


Treyn raised an eyebrow in surprise at this. “You did fine, kid. Now quit moping. It's depressing.”


“I know. I just...” Toke stopped short, eyes widening. “What?”


Treyn sighed and rubbed his forehead. “Do you really think I'd expect you to have your entire role down pat the first time you looked at the script? Jisemehka, kid, what kind of a sadist do you think I am?”


“I told you,” said a new voice, and Toke jumped and spun around to see that Inaska had come to join them. She was still wearing her Lady Valdo costume, but she'd put her mask back on the moment the rehearsal had ended. “Captain Treyn knows what he's doing.”


Toke's face began to turn red again. “But I... I just...” He thrust his arms out at the stage. “Look at all of you! When you go up there, you're not just pretending to be someone else. You become them. I can't do that!”


Treyn snorted. “Of course you can't. You've only rehearsed the play once.” Toke opened his mouth to argue, but the captain pointed at Inaska, speaking over him, “Can I trust you to go over it with him a few more times? Get him comfortable playing the part. We'll rehearse again tomorrow.”


“Sure thing, Captain!” the acrobat answered with a smile that was even whiter than her hair. Her arm shot out and looped around Toke's. “Come on, we have to put our costumes back.”


“Oh, right.” Toke looked down at the vest and baggy pants. He'd been so distracted by his stress that he'd actually forgotten he was wearing the ridiculous outfit.


“Not that I'm complaining or anything.” Inaska flashed him a wicked smile. “I kinda like it.”


Before Toke could react, she had reached out and run her smooth, delicate fingers down his exposed chest. Toke's face tried to turn ghostly pale and fiery red at the same time, and he instinctively jumped to get away from her. The leap carried him halfway to the ceiling, and he landed on top of a stack of crates before the fact that he'd jumped had even registered in his brain.


Down below, Inaska was laughing so hard Toke thought she would pass out. “Maelstroms, Toke! You're as jumpy as a netted fish!”


Toke, uncomfortably aware of just how many people were now looking at them, stepped off the crates and landed softly on the floor beside Inaska. She giggled again, which Toke did his best to ignore, and they continued on their way to where the costumes were kept.


“You Yasmikans aren't very touchy feely, are you?” the white-haired girl asked, still grinning from ear to ear.


“Not really,” Toke muttered. “Most people consider it inappropriate for unmarried people to... touch each other.”


Inaska raised an eyebrow. “So, you can't even hold hands?”


“Well, no,” Toke admitted. “We can do that.”


“What about kissing?”


“Yeah, we can do that too.”


Inaska snickered. “Your parents didn't seem to think that way the other night.”


Smite it, my face is going to explode if it turns any redder!


“Well... it's usually done in private. And with people you've known for more than a couple weeks.”


They reached their destination, and Toke wasted no time in whipping the vest off of him. It might have been a piece of clothing, but it was clothing designed to be revealing. It drew attention to his chest, and the fact that he wasn't wearing anything beneath it. Somehow, being completely shirtless felt more modest. His shirt, pants, and jacket were all folded up nearby, and Toke picked them up, preparing to slip in between two stacks of crates to change.


“Well, that's a habit I'm going to have to break you of,” Inaska said from behind his back.


“What is?” Toke asked without turning around.


“Your no touching rule.” She giggled. “Physical contact is important here. If you love someone, you shouldn't have any inhibitions about touching them.”


Toke took a deep breath and clenched his injured fist, trying to use the pain to distract him from all the images that suddenly sprang up in his mind.


“I can't—I mean, I don't want to—” he stammered. Smite it, did this woman know how hard it was for him to think straight around her? He had a feeling she did, and that was precisely why she did it. He turned to face her. “I'm just not used to...”


His voice trailed off, his words instantly devolving into a meaningless slur of noise. Inaska was changing out of her costume. Right in front of him. Without a hint of embarrassment.


And she was in her undergarments.


“Guh frumblegrustings durrrrr,” his mouth said, moving on its own since his brain had immediately shut down. Inaska gave him a strange look and, when she saw his slack jawed expression, burst out laughing again.


“'Scuse me.” He barely managed to force those words out of his mouth before spinning around and throwing himself between the two stacks of crates where he couldn't see her.


“I'm flattered, Toke!” she called after him, still laughing. “I really am! But this is exactly what I'm talking about! If we're going to get married—”


“We're not married yet!” he yelled, pulling off his costume as quickly as he could.


“Well, if we're going to consider marrying each other, this is something we're going to have to be comfortable with.”


Toke's face was burning again. How on Fissura was he supposed to respond to that? If he said no, Inaska would think he didn't like looking at her. And he did. Especially... like that... But he couldn't just allow himself to ogle her in good conscience.


Could he?


The way she talks, it actually sounds like she wants me to, he thought. His heart was hammering in his chest so hard it felt like it would come exploding out of him at any moment.


“Are you dressed yet?” she asked from the other side of the crate wall.


“Um, n- not yet,” he stammered.


She chuckled. “Mmm. Well, you got a good look at me. I think it'd only be fair if I...” Her voice trailed off teasingly.


“No peeking!” Toke blurted out before he realized what he was saying. He slapped himself on the forehead. If he had any less tact, he would probably club her over the head and drag her back to his cave. She didn't seem offended, though, since his outburst simply sent her into another fit of laughter.


“Another time, then,” she said once she'd gotten herself under control.


Toke thought for a second. She was making all these advances on him, and he was fighting every single one of them. Why? Wasn't it the girl's job to play hard to get? What would happen if he...


He forced his mouth to move. “Y- Yeah. Sometime...” He swallowed hard. “Sometime soon?”


Inaska didn't reply at first, and Toke fought off the wave of panic that threatened to drag a thousand apologies out of his mouth. When she finally spoke, he could practically hear the smug grin in her words.


“Yeah. Very soon.”


What did I just get myself into?


Toke finished changing as quickly as he could, and stepped back out to find Inaska back in her normal skirt and top. The moment she saw him, she batted her eyelashes.


“So,” she said, “earlier you offered to tell me your story.”


Toke jumped a little. Had he really... yes, he had.   His first reaction was to deny he'd ever said that. He technically hadn't, since Treyn had interrupted him before the words had actually come out of his mouth. But no, he couldn't let himself do that. Not only would that mean lying to Inaska, it would mean breaking a promise he'd made to her too.


Instead, he took a deep breath and nodded. “Okay, but... not here. Come with me.”


He took her by the hand, and this time he led her out of the storage room and back upstairs.


“Why not here?” Inaska asked as they climbed.


“Because I promised someone else I'd tell them this too.”


Inaska didn't say anything else as he led them down the corridor where the crew's cabins were located. He counted down the doors, hoping he remembered which was the right one, and stopped at the cabin two doors from the end. Pushing away his lingering trepidations, he reached out and knocked on the door.


“Who's there?” a deep voice boomed from the other side. The doorknob turned before Toke had a chance to answer, and the door swung open to reveal Boam. “Toke? What's wrong?”


“Nothing's wrong,” he answered. “Get your paper and pencil. It's story time.”

NEXT TIME: Yo dog, I heard you like reading stories, so I put a story in your story so you can read a story while you read a story.  Storyception.  There, I’ve already made all the jokes, so you don’t have to!

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