“And if you ever... even think about running off... like that again, I'll...”
Toke was back on the Seventh Swordfish, confined to his cabin for bed rest per Captain Treyn's orders. His parents had barged in almost as soon as Zashiel had deposited him in his cot, shouting question after question at him without giving him the chance to answer any of them. Was he all right, were his bones broken, where had he gone, why had he gone there, why hadn't he told anyone, and why wasn't he eating anything when he clearly hadn't had any food for a week? The whole time, Wayli and Boam had been standing just outside the door, the cabin too small to fit them all. Wayli was bouncing up and down as if she were made of rubber, asking just as many questions as his parents, though hers were more along the lines of what kind of adventure had he gone on, and had he killed anyone, and had he found any treasure? Boam, he noted, was showing far more restraint than usual. While he was obviously happy to see Toke alive, if not unharmed, he merely stood there with his arms crossed, nodding to everything toke said. Eventually, they had all left, including Zashiel...
And then Inaska had appeared.
“I'll feed you to Dabba, and then... clean whatever's left from... his cage and throw it to the fish! Do you... understand me?”
It took her nearly two minutes to finish that one sentence. Toke didn't hold it against her. It must have been difficult to talk when she paused to kiss him after every few words. She had taken off her mask as soon as the door was closed behind her, and the moment he looked at her, he began kicking himself for the how stupid he had been. How on Fissura could he have even thought about leaving something so utterly beautiful behind?
“I'm sorry,” he said once she had disconnected her lips from his for the last time. “I just... I don't have an excuse.” He closed his eyes. “I don't blame you if y—mmph!”
His words were cut short when she kissed him again, and then she flashed a dazzling smile. “Don't even talk about that. I'm not throwing you away for something that stupid!”
With that, looking into her eyes, he felt the last bit of his shame melt away. He reached out to her, trying not to wince at the motion, and caressed her cheek. Inaska took him gently by his wrist and pressed his hand even harder into her skin.
“I actually thought I wouldn't see you again,” she whispered. “I thought that you'd changed your mind about me, and...”
“It had nothing to do with you!” Toke interrupted her. “It's... me and Zashiel are going through something.”
She raised an eyebrow. “Something like...”
Toke blushed. “Nothing like that.”
She burst out laughing, and that sound was enough to lift Toke's spirits back out of the gloom again. “I know. I just had to go two whole days without teasing you. I missed it.”
“Speaking of teasing,” Toke ran his hand down her cheek, her neck, and began to rub her shoulder. “How about—”
“Nope!” Inaska grinned wickedly at him, and pushed his hand away. “Captain Treyn says you're half dead in here.”
“There's one thing we agree on,” Toke said, laying his head back down on his pillow.
“Good! And since I don't want to risk hurting you even more, you're just going to have to wait until you're back on your feet again!”
She turned away with a flip of her hair. “Besides, you just went and ran away on me! I have to punish you somehow, don't I?”
Toke frowned and tried to prop himself up on his elbows, but couldn't. “Oh, come on! I thought you weren't mad at me!”
“Forgiveness is all well and good,” she said, examining her nails, “but you still have to face the consequences for your actions.”
With that, she slipped the mask back on and made for the door. “Don't keep me waiting!”
The door closed, leaving Toke alone for the first time since he'd come aboard. He laid his head down on the pillow, staring up at the ceiling. He had never been so exhausted, and yet when he closed his eyes and tried to sleep, he found he couldn't. The past forty eight hours haunted him. He could hear the water lapping at the side of the barge outside his window, and with his eyes closed he could almost believe that the soft cot he was lying on was the wet sand of the island he'd washed up on.
His eyes snapped back open. He didn't want to go back to that island, not even in his dreams. He looked at Zashiel's cot. It was empty, of course. It was midday, and they were planning on making port and putting on their show before nightfall. Every able-bodied cremember was on deck preparing.
Still, the mere fact that Zashiel wasn't here bothered him. Without her, without Inaska, without his parents or Wayli and Boam, he was alone again.
Don't be stupid, he snapped, closing his eyes again. You're not alone. They're all just somewhere else on the ship. Now go to—
A small strip of sand and water as far as the eye could see.
Toke opened his eyes as a cold sweat broke out on his forehead. “Well, smite,” he whispered, voice wavering. “Now what?”
He looked at Zashiel's cot again. Still empty. He wanted it to not be. He wanted her in here with him, with her wings lighting the dingy cabin up while she glared at him, pretending not to care. Or Inaska, with her radiant smile and quick wit, teasing him just to see him blush. Wayli and Boam would chatter endlessly about whatever ridiculous topic popped into their heads, bouncing off the walls hard enough to make the entire ship rock. He would even welcome his parents, even if it meant an endless list of all the ways he wasn't living up to their expectations. Smite it, he wouldn't complain if Treyn and Ludsong decided to cram themselves in here. Anything to chase away this smothering sense of loneliness.
That was why, when a knock came from his door a few minutes later, he immediately shouted, “Come in!”
The door opened a little, and Zashiel peeked her head in. “Can I come in?”
“I just said you could.” As happy as he was to see her, Toke couldn't help but raise an eyebrow. “Why are you knocking on your own cabin anyway?”
Zashiel came all the way in and shut the door behind her. “I didn't think you'd be alone. When I saw Inaska come in, I figured it'd be a few hours until it was safe to come in.”
“She's...” Toke blushed and turned away. “Waiting until I recover.”
Zashiel nodded and sat down on her cot. “That makes sense. So, I figure now's a good time to do what we should have done from the start.”
Toke turned his head to look at her, careful to move his body as little as possible. “Meaning?”
She looked him square in the eye. “Talk to each other.”
Toke laid there for a minute, not saying anything. Finally, he nodded. “All right. What do you want to know?”
“Why did you take my Chiyuka ointment?” she asked.
“I...” Toke paused, then sighed. “The day we had our argument about Wayli and Boam, I went to watch Inaska rehearse their Saldo Gunn play. One of the actors saw me sitting on the ceiling, and ended up falling down the stairs because of it. I just...” He looked away again. “I felt responsible, so I wanted to help him, but I knew you wouldn't just loan out our Chiyuka ointment, so...”
“So you took it from me while I was asleep,” she finished for him.
“I'm sorry, all right?” he exclaimed, his voice sounding suddenly raw.
Zashiel shook her head. “No, don't apologize. I'm not doing this to make you feel bad. I just want to understand.”
Toke pressed his lips together. Whether she'd meant to make him feel bad or not, he felt pretty smiting bad.
“Anyway, I understand,” she went on. A strange look came into her eyes. “We haven't been helping many people lately, have we?”
Toke shook his head.
“Maybe we should change that.”
Toke nodded. Zashiel nodded back, and they both lapsed into silence.
“So,” Toke said a minute later, “you're all right with the wings I built onto my jacket?”
“No,” she said, as blunt as ever, and then hesitated. “But if it makes you happy... well, I guess I can't get any more damned than I already am.”
Without thinking, Toke tried to sit up, and then groaned when what felt like every bone in his body lit up with pain. Zashiel was there in a flash, her hand pushing him back down gently, belying the incredible strength he knew it contained. Somehow, even with all his bruises and cracked ribs, she managed not to hurt him in the slightest. He let her lay him back down, and then took a few seconds to catch his breath.
“You're in bad shape, and if you haven't noticed, I don't have any Chiyuka ointment,” she said. “You're staying in that bed even if I have to tie you down.”
“Don't say that,” he finally said once she sat back down on her cot.
Zashiel cocked her head. “Don't say that I'll tie you down?”
“No. Don't say you're damned, or condemned, or whatever. You're not.”
Zashiel looked at him, and then bowed her head, her expression darkening.
“Toke, I know you're just trying to help,” she whispered, “but you don't know what you're talking about.”
“I'm not sure you do either.” Toke fixed his eyes on her, trying to make her feel one of her own trademark glares. “You told me your gods said not to pass on your powers to anyone who isn't worthy, right?”
She nodded, barely visible in the dim light.
“Well, are you saying I'm not worthy?”
“Of course not,” she said, looking at him. Her voice was a little stronger now. “But... I'm not sure it's my opinion that matters.”
“Whose does, then?”
Zashiel opened her mouth, then something seemed to occur to her, and she hesitated. “Klevon, I guess,” she said at last.
Toke nearly burst out laughing, but the sudden movement in his chest turned it into a series of painful coughs and wheezes. When they finally subsided, he lay flat on his bed like he wanted to sink into it, gasping. Zashiel was on her feet again, but he waved to her that he was all right, and she sat back down.
“And since when do we care about that idiot's opinion?” he asked once he was able to speak again. “Smite him!”
“He's a seraph,” Zashiel shot back, sounding strangely defensive. “They're the only ones who know the real facts about our gods.”
“I still say that's a load of drops,” he paused when Zashiel's face darkened again, and then quickly added, “but you know whose opinion you should be worried about?”
Zashiel's eyes slid right, then left, as if she thought someone might be listening in, and then asked grudgingly, “Who?”
“Yours gods. Whoever they are. You said they rewarded you this power because of your strength and valor or whatever, right? Well, then can you honestly say they wouldn't be happy with what we did a year ago?”
Zashiel went as still as a statue. Though her expression didn't change, something in her eyes did. Toke smiled in satisfaction.
“You have no idea what you're talking about,” she insisted, but Toke could tell from the tone of her voice that she was only saying that out of stubbornness.
Time to change the topic, Toke decided. “What about Wayli and Boam?”
Zashiel's mouth quirked down, hinting at a frown. “I still think they're a danger to themselves and to us, but...” She sighed. “But they're your friends. If you want to keep them around, that's up to you.”
Toke nodded his thanks, and the conversation lapsed again. Not because he didn't have anything else he wanted to talk about, but because he felt strangely reluctant to ask. Luckily, Zashiel knew him well enough that she could read him like a book.
“You want to talk about your transformation, don't you?” she asked.
Toke hesitated, but then nodded. “What does this mean for me?” His voice was hoarse again.
Zashiel shrugged. “Does it have to mean anything? Do you think I'm going to leave just because you have a pair of wings? Or your parents? Or your friends?”
Toke imagined how they would react when they found out. Wayli and Boam would probably be ecstatic, but his parents...
“Mom and Dad won't leave,” he said a minute later. “But they're not going to be happy about this.”
Zashiel snorted. “Have they been happy about anything over the past year?”
“Can you blame them? Besides, this is different. I'm not sorry for what we did, Zashiel, but this is having more of an effect on them than I ever wanted. They lost their home just like we did. And...” He closed his eyes and sighed. “And they're losing me too. I'm not the same stupid kid I was a year ago. I'm someone they don't know, and they feel like they should. I'm still their son, but...”
“But you've moved on without them,” Zashiel concluded, “even if you're right here with them.”
Toke nodded. “And this is just going to make things even worse. What will they think when they find out their son is losing his smiting humanity?”
“If they love you, they'll—”
Before she could finish, a knock came from their door.
“Who is it?” she called.
“Ludsong,” the first mate's voice said from the other side. “We just made port. Bring him up.”
Toke raised an eyebrow as Ludsong's heavy footsteps carried him away. “Port? We're there?”
“Treyn didn't stop the ship just for you,” Zashiel answered, getting up. “We're arriving just like he predicted.”
“And he wants me up there... why?”
“So you can see the doctor, of course.” She knelt down and put her hands underneath him. “Now hold still.”
With that, she lifted him up. Toke could tell that she was still being as gentle as she could, but this time pain still lanced up and down his body, and he gasped.
“All you all right?”
Toke gritted his teeth and forced himself to nod. Slowly, Zashiel turned and carried him out the door.
“This is going to do wonders for my reputation,” he muttered as they made their way onto the deck. Though the pain made it hard to focus, he swore every person they passed was staring at him as he was carried across the ship, cradled in a woman's arms like a baby that couldn't walk on its own.
Treyn was standing at the edge of the ship while the gangplank was being lowered. He barely spared the two of them glance before turning his attention back to the wide slab of wood that bridged the gap between boat and dock.
“I thought we were here for Pruyal,” Toke grunted.
“We are,” Treyn said without looking him. “But it turns out another idiot got himself hurt on the way here, so we may as well get him patched up too.”
“I'm sorry.” Treyn finally looked at him, as if surprised to hear that. “I wanted to help Pruyal, since this is my fault. But I... lost it during the pirate attack.”
The captain merely shrugged. “One way or another, I don't let my crew go around with cuts and boo-boos longer than they have to. Makes it hard to perform.”
Toke shared a glance with Zashiel, who shrugged—not the most comfortable thing she could have done while carrying him.
“Thanks,” he said to the captain.
He could see a couple of stretchers being carried down the dock toward the ship. Treyn must have sent someone ahead to let the doctors know why they were here.
“So, do everything the doctor tells you,” Treyn said, his voice rising high with sarcasm. “Open your mouth, say 'aww,' and when it's time for your shot you'd better drop your pants and—”
“Thank you, Captain,” Zashiel said loudly, and set off down the gangplank.
“I want you performing tomorrow night!” Treyn called after them. “Don't forget, you're still playing Saldo Gunn!”
“Tomorrow night?” Toke exclaimed even as Zashiel lowered him down onto one of the stretchers. “I can barely walk! How does he expect me to act in a play?”
Zashiel shrugged again. “Is there anything else you need before you go?”
Toke blinked. “Before I...” Suddenly, panic rushed up inside him, and his hand lashed out to grab Zashiel's wrist. “Don't leave me!”
Zashiel was so caught off guard by his sudden mood swing that she stepped back and nearly tumbled into the lake. “Don't... why? What's wrong?”
The men around him—they were dressed in white so he figured they must be doctors—began to lift the stretcher, but Toke increased his weight so that it went right back down onto the ground. The doctor's paused, muttering in confusion.
“I- I just don't want to be alone,” he spluttered, talking as fast as he could. “It's... I don't know what it is, but I was alone out there on that island, and...”
And being alone again was quickly becoming the most terrifying thing Toke could imagine. His grip on her wrist tightened and he gave her a pleading look. It didn't even occur to him how embarrassed he was going to be once he calmed down. Zashiel squinted her eyes at him, as if wondering if he was the real Toke or not, and then looked at one of the doctors.
“Is it all right if I come too?” she asked.
The doctor shrugged. “As long as we're able to do our work.”
Toke breathed a sigh of relief, his heart instantly slowing down from the frantic gallop it had been doing, and he let go of Zashiel's wrist and lightened his gravity. The doctor's tried again to lift the stretcher, obviously expecting to have to compensate for some kind of extra weight, and so Toke was nearly catapulted right off of it as a result. He didn't care. All that mattered was that Zashiel was going to come with him to the hospital, which meant he wouldn't have to be alone for at least a little while longer.
The white-coated men carried him away, their steps brisk and the stretcher steady. Toke was impressed. He, himself, would have had a hard time walking this quickly without shaking whatever he was holding, and yet the trip caused him significantly less pain than when Zashiel had picked him up in her arms. He glanced in between the doctors, just as they were about to turn the corner and enter the town proper, and caught sight of a second figure being carried down the Seventh Swordfish's gangplank.
Pruyal, he thought. Looks like I'm in the same boat as you now. Hopefully that makes you feel a little bit better.
Wait... in the same boat? Did that count as a Vlangurtian saying?
He lost sight of the ship as buildings rose up around them. Taller than the buildings in Tad Moru, but not as big as he expected they would see when they finally got to Stal Atrieda. And there was something else different, he thought. He couldn't quite put his finger on it, but it gnawed at the inside of his skull like...
“This town is on land!” he exclaimed, nearly sitting up in his surprise.
“That's right,” the doctor leading the stretcher replied. “Thannaduk is one of only twenty or so cities in Vlangur that was actually built on land.”
Toke tried to look around as best he could, but that was difficult while lying on his back. They were standing on a sidewalk, with a cobblestone road that stretched out in between them and another sidewalk twenty feet away—an honest to goodness road! Wagons and carts rolled up and down it, with people dodging in between them, pulled by bison and the occasional horse. There were no autocarriages, but Toke couldn't help but stare all the same. He had become convinced he would never see wheeled vehicles again, his future spent on one boat or another. If it weren't for the fact that everyone had white hair, he could almost believe he was back in Yasmik.
He looked at Zashiel, and could tell she felt the same way.
The doctors loaded Toke's stretcher into the back of a white wagon. One of them stayed behind to watch after Toke, while the other went to the front to drive the horses. Zashiel leaped nimbly up as well, just as the doctor in front cracked the reins, spurring the horses into motion. The wagon lurched, making Toke wince, and causing Zashiel to instinctively spread her wings for balance. The glowing feathery appendages caught the doctor's eye.
“If you don't mind me asking, miss,” he said tentatively, “are you—”
“A Sorakine,” Zashiel said, more curtly than Toke thought was necessary, and then sat down on the bench opposite him. The doctor could obviously tell she wasn't interested in idle conversation, and dropped the subject.
Toke used the ride to look more at the city as it passed above him. The buildings were all made of wood, while Yasmikans had taken to building them out of brick and stone. That was probably the most natural thing in the world to them, since everything else in their strange country was made of wood. Wood floated, stone didn't. Even so, the sense of being home struck him like a sudden gust of wind. Wind that carried the scents and sounds of everything familiar. Odd. And here he had thought he'd stopped thinking about Yasmik as home.
We're not home, he told himself firmly. And we're not staying here. We're just here so I can see the doctor.
Even so, when the wagon turned the corner, he half expected to hear an autocarriage beeping at them and to see the ornamented spires of the Jerulkan Academy reaching up into the sky. There was nothing, though. Just more plain wooden buildings, painted blue and white as if they thought that by imitating the lake, they could make everyone forget they weren't on the lake.
“It really takes you back, doesn't it?” Zashiel asked, surprising him.
Toke nodded. “I'm trying not to think about it.”
“That's good. We don't need bad memories slowing us down.”
Toke looked at her, and then at the buildings they were passing. Bad memories? Sure. He definitely had a lot of those during his last few days in his home country. But they weren't all bad. He could still think back and smile at the time he had spent in the Academy with Wayli and Boam, chasing his dream of becoming an inventor and studying under...
Toke sighed. Maybe it was best not to think about it.
The wagon stopped a few minutes later outside a large building, painted so white that it was almost painful to look at. The two doctors immediately leaped into action once more, gently sliding Toke's stretcher out the back of the wagon and toward the door. Zashiel followed them, eyeing the building.
“Miss, we're going to need you to tuck your wings in,” the same doctor who had spoken to her before said. “We don't want you to... accidentally knock... something... I'm sorry.”
Toke looked, and found her giving the poor doctor one of her trademark scowls. Even so, she did as he asked and tucked her wings as tight against her back as she could. With that, they went inside.
“He's got room 175,” said the one in the lead. “Have a nurse bring the tajwyn.”
Toke perked up. “Tajwyn? What's that?”
“A special kind of medicine your captain specifically requested we give to you.” The doctor shook his head. “Maelstroms, but that stuff is expensive! We usually only give it to people who are going to die if we don't take immediate action. Over twenty years, I've never seen anyone actually ask for it!”
Toke and Zashiel exchanged a look, but the Sorakine girl just shrugged.
A minute later, Toke was brought into an empty room, and the doctors worked together to get him out of the stretcher and into the bed. As soon as he was moved, one doctor took the stretcher away while the other waited patiently by the door with his hands behind his back. Zashiel went to stand by the room's window, where Toke could see the sun beginning to go down outside.
“So what exactly is this tajwyn?” Toke asked again. “What makes it so special?”
The doctor opened his mouth to answer, but then appeared to reconsider and merely said, “It's easier to just show you.”
A few minutes later, the other doctor returned, and now he was carrying a bottle made of dark green glass. The liquid inside was thick, like some kind of cream. Toke watched, curious, as the white-coated man uncorked the bottle and splashed some of its contents on his hands. His back was turned, though, so Toke couldn't get a good look.
“All right,” the doctor said, turning to face Toke, “I'll need to apply this directly to all of your wounds, so if you could...”
He turned around to face Toke, and his voice instantly faded to a buzz in the back of Toke's mind. His hand... Toke blinked, unable to believe his eyes. There was a lump of cream—an ointment—dolloped in the doctor's hand.
A light blue ointment.
NEXT TIME: Oh, shoots and ladders! He got the thing! The stuff! The stuff that be Zashiel’s stuff! But how he get the stuff? And what Zashiel be doing to getting the stuff back and I’m giving myself an aneurism talking like this so I’ll just see you all next week. Jambalaya!
Chapter Thirty Seven