Chapter Forty One
To someone like Toke, who had taken punches from Sorakines, a bag of tallynuts to the face hurt only slightly more than a warm spring breeze. But the fact that they had hit him here, now, shocked him enough to spring to his feet, reaching for his axes that weren't there.
“What's going on?” he demanded a split second before a half eaten plate of fried cake hit him square in the chest. “What are you—”
His confused protests were immediately drowned out when the audience, in perfect unison, rose up from their seats and shouted, “Boooooo!”
A hailstorm of tallynuts followed, thrown individually now instead of the entire bag. They pelted Toke, not hard enough to hurt—not physically, at least—but something deep inside him snapped all the same. He had just proposed to Inaska. This was supposed to be the happiest moment of his life. And instead of celebrating with him, the crowd was booing and throwing food at them!
“I don't understand,” he mumbled, too stunned to dodge as half a mug's worth of beer splashed over him. He could vaguely feel Inaska's hand on his arm, and he turned to look at her. “What's going on?”
Inaska looked close to tears. The barrage of food wasn't just hitting him, he realized. Inaska was right in the middle of it too, as was Treyn on his other side.
“Please, ladies and gentlemen!” the captain was shouting, frantically waving his hands, “remain calm and in your seats! The show will resume in just a minute.”
The audience refused to be placated, though.
Inaska flinched visibly, and Toke realized with a start that that insult had been directed, not at him, but at her. Immediately, anger rose up inside him. His face turning red, he put a protective arm in front of Inaska, stepped forward, and—
Abruptly stopped when Treyn's hand caught him by the ear.
“Don't even think about making this worse, you scalla!” the captain growled. More loudly, he called, “Ludsong, get the Spudallas out here!”
With that, he stormed off the stage, dragging Toke behind him. His grip was like a steel vice, and Toke had no choice but to follow, or else get his ear ripped off. The crowd was still screaming, the food was still falling, and Toke caught a glimpse of empty seats—at least half of them. People were leaving, making for the gangplank in a steady stream. Treyn was yelling. Inaska was crying. The world was spinning. Nothing was right. Everything was wrong. Toke was—
With a grunt, Treyn swung Toke around, and he stumbled forward a few feet before tripping and landing face first on the floor. He stayed like that for a minute, trying to sort things out. None of this made sense. The crowd had come for a show. They had gone wild when Saldo Gunn had kissed Lady Valdo. Why, then, would they go berserk like this just from seeing one propose to the other?
A series of tiny, frantic footsteps raced past him, and he glanced up to see the Spudalla siblings hurrying toward the stage, plates and poles carried under their arms in the hopes of calming the riotous crowd. Nearly all the seats were empty now.
Toke's heart sank into his stomach. What did I get us into?
The music began to play again, and Toke guessed the Spudallas were beginning their act. Less than an eighth of the seats still had people in them, and most of those customers were still yelling. Toke got the horrible feeling that the Spudallas were having food thrown at them as well.
Ludsong emerged a minute later, and froze when he saw his daughter. Toke, who had been so absorbed into the chaos that he'd nearly forgotten about her, looked as well—and cried out in shock! Inaska was kneeling on the floor, doubled over, with her hands and her hair covering her face, sobbing her lungs out.
“I- Inaska,” Toke stammered, reaching a hand toward her. “I'm sorry, I didn't—”
“Get away from my sinkin’ daughter!” Ludsong yelled. Toke felt the first mate's meaty fist wrap around his throat, but he didn't bother fighting as he was lifted off the ground and thrown out of the way. He soared nearly ten feet before hitting the ground and rolling, coming to a stop in the perfect position to see Ludsong pick Inaska up with all the gentleness of a mother cradling her infant child. She was still crying, and didn't even look up as her father carried her inside. Treyn stayed where he was, hands on his hips, looking at his stage like a general surveying a battlefield after an unexpected and devastating defeat.
Minutes passed. Eventually Toke got to his feet and stumbled over to the captain's side.
“I- I don't understand,” he croaked. “What did I do?”
Treyn let out a long, suffering sigh and, without looking at him, said, “You should have learned more about Vlangurtian culture before ever getting into a relationship with her.”
All Toke could do was nod. “But what did I do?”
“Things here aren't like they are in Yasmik. For instance, did you know that anything pertaining to marriage is supposed to be kept strictly between the bride and groom and their closest family members?”
“I... no. But—”
“Toke” Treyn rounded on him, eyes blazing, “marriages here are sacred! Intimate! What you just did... it was like having Inaska do a striptease in front of the entire audience!”
“You probably just humiliated her worse than she's ever been in her life! Zel balak! What were you thinking? Did you even ask her before doing this?”
Toke shook his head. “I thought she would like it. She's an actress, and there was an audience, and...”
“And you're the biggest idiot on this entire ska tang zor planet.”
Toke nodded. Treyn glared at him, as if expecting Toke to defend himself. He didn't. He might have doubted the captain an hour ago—why would a marriage proposal be considered as intimate as stripping?—but now, having seen Inaska's reaction... He groaned and sat down heavily, hanging his head.
He didn't have to look up to know it was Zashiel. Her hand touched his back, her wings lighting up the area around them a bit.
“Are you okay?” she asked. “Did anyone hurt you?”
He shook his head. Zashiel's hand moved down to grab his arm, and she gently hoisted him to his feet.
“Come on,” she said, putting his hand around her shoulder. “Let's go.”
Toke glanced at Treyn, but the captain didn't stop them as Zashiel led him inside. Even more people were fighting to get off the ship, and the show wasn't even supposed to be halfway over. A round of fireworks shot into the sky, but nobody cheered.
“So,” she said once they were out of earshot of Treyn, “I hear Inaska...”
Toke moaned, and his legs gave out beneath him. Zashiel didn't even pause, content to drag him off the deck if she had to.
She sighed. “I'll take that as confirmation.”
“It's over,” he said. “I screwed up. I embarrassed her in front of the entire town. She's never going to speak to me again!”
He expected Zashiel to tell him to stop being ridiculous and remind him how much Inaska loved him. He didn't want to hear it, but he expected it anyway. Instead, Zashiel just looked guiltily away, as if knowing the truth somehow made her responsible for it. That was even worse.
They reached their cabin, and Toke collapsed face down on his bed. His face was buried in his pillow, making it hard to breathe. He didn't bother moving.
“Nuh-uh!” Zashiel snapped, grabbing him by his hair and raising his head up. With her other hand, she forcibly flipped him over. “None of that!”
Toke didn't respond. Rolling onto his side, he curled into a ball and stared at the wall. It was over. Really and truly over. He had acted without thinking, without considering Inaska’s feelings, and as a result he had ended up adding to her already horrifyingly long list of scars. She was probably curled up in her room just like Toke was, crying herself blind, cursing the day she had ever so much as looked at him. And it was exactly what he deserved.
He didn't sleep. He was too worked up to sleep, even though his nerves were frayed and his emotions exhausted. Without the merciful embrace of sleep to distract him from his own stupidity, though, he was left to wallow in shame. The hours crept by slowly, the moon passing into view outside his porthole, and then vanishing again. Zashiel didn't try to say anything. That was just as well. Toke didn't want to talk.
He was on his way back to that tiny island. His body might stay here in his cabin with Zashiel to look after him, but his mind was soaring through the open night sky, making a beeline for that godforsaken strip of sand, those ravenous crabs, and the loneliness that was worse than starvation, dehydration, and being eaten alive put together. This time, he didn't try to stop himself. Without Inaska... after what he had done to her... what else did he deserve?
He began to hear the lapping of water. He closed his eyes and—
A furious rapping came from the door, and his eyes shot back open.
“Who is it?” Zashiel demanded angrily rising from her cot.
“Captain says he wants Toke in the mess hall,” one of the crewmembers—Toke didn't know his name—said from outside. “Now.”
“The captain can go smite himself!” the Sorakine girl snapped.
The crewmember shuffled his feet anxiously behind the door. “Uh, he said that if you said something like that, he'd throw Toke's parents overboard.”
Zashiel went silent. Toke sighed and made himself sit up. His eyes were baggy, his skin as pale as if he hadn't slept or in a week. He felt like he had aged fifty years in the past few hours.
“Toke,” Zashiel said, putting her hand on his arm, “you don't have to if you don't want to.”
Toke shook his head and forced himself to his feet. Truth be told, he didn't want to go confront the captain right now. He didn't want to do anything except lie in bed until he died. But he supposed going to see Treyn would likely speed things up quite a bit, so it was with clumsy, uncoordinated steps that he staggered to the door, Zashiel followed, scowling. They made their way down the hallway, her hand on his shoulder the whole time, until they got to the galley and—
“Let's hear it for Toke, the biggest aftdragger on this ship!”
What followed was the loudest, most raucous roar Toke had ever heard, with the sound of mugs smashing together all around him. He blinked, his eyes not really taking in anything they saw, and looked around. What looked like the entire crew was gathered in the massive dining room, sitting at the tables with mugs of beer held out in a salute to him.
He blinked again. “Wh- What?”
Treyn was standing at the other end of the room, a wide grin nearly splitting his face in two. He had a mug in both hands, and with a laugh he crossed the room to stand in front of him and Zashiel.
“Toke, let me tell you something: there isn't a single person in this room who hasn't ruined a show. It comes with the job, you could say.”
Toke stared at him, uncomprehending. This was by far the last thing he would have expected the captain to say before throwing him over the side. It almost sounded like he was being... congratulated!
“I don't understand,” he found himself saying for the second time that night.
Shaking his head, though still smiling, Treyn put his arm around Toke's shoulder and pointed across the room to where Limbasko was sitting. “Limbo, tell him what you did!”
The old man had been taking a long pull from his mug, and he slammed it down onto the table with a cackle. “Thirty years ago, it was! I was doing the legend of Vlang, and one of the octopus' arms got caught in a torch. The entire thing caught fire! Everyone running, some even jumping ship!” He laughed again, and the rest of the crew joined in too this time.
Treyn pointed again. “Jom! Your turn!”
Jom Spudalla, the oldest of the Spinning Spudallas, stood up on his seat so that he could be seen. “Well, Tig here decided he was going to change the act without telling the rest of us...”
“Don't lie!” Tig yelled. “It was Yua!”
“... and so he let Dabba out of his cage and tried to ride on his back during the show. He couldn't control him, though, and the sinking lion jumped right into the audience!”
More laughter, and Treyn leaned in close to Toke and whispered, “They change who did it every time they tell that story. I don't think even they remember who it was!”
Slowly, Toke reached up and pinched his own arm. “I'm not dreaming,” he said, making the crew laugh yet again. He looked at Treyn. “So... you're not mad at me?”
Treyn raised his eyebrows. “Well, I'm definitely not happy about that stunt you pulled, but like I said: everyone's done it. Just don't make a habit out of it, and we'll be fine.”
Toke stared at the captain, still not convinced that he wasn't imagining all this. But, for once, he could see genuine sincerity in Treyn's eyes. He wasn't mad. Suddenly, it felt like a boulder Toke had been carrying around all night had been cut free, and his legs turned to jelly beneath him. Only Zashiel's hand on his shoulder kept him from falling to the floor. Even so, he imagined he must look smiting ridiculous to the rest of the crew, dangling from the Sorakine girl's hand like that.
“Uh, you okay?” Treyn asked, lowering his now half-empty mug.
“I thought you were going to fire me!” Toke gasped. He was breathless, like he'd just been punched in the gut by Ludsong, then followed up by Zashiel.
“Bah, you're the star of my big new show! I can't fire you!” Treyn raised a finger. “Don't test me on that, though.”
Toke managed to get his feet under him again, but he was still feeling weak so he had Zashiel help him over to an open seat at one of the tables. He looked around, saw all the friendly, smiling faces around him. Smiling at him... because of him. He tried to smile back at them—it was the least he could do—but found that his mouth stubbornly refused to obey. Even with the threat of being thrown overboard gone, the cloud of gloom in his chest was still too thick for the light to shine through.
“But Inaska...” he whispered, slumping forward.
The room immediately quieted. Treyn sucked in a breath and rocked back on his heels, pointedly not looking at Toke.
“I- I didn't know,” Toke tried to explain. Suddenly, the other crewmembers' faces looked hostile to him. That was just his imagination, right? “I'm sorry. I didn't mean to embarrass her. She...” He looked down at his hands. “She must hate me now, doesn't she?”
“That's up to her, not us,” Treyn said. He was completely solemn now in a way Toke had never seen before. “I told you, marriages are intimate things here. You may as well have torn her clothes off—”
“I know, I know.” Toke moaned, and then slammed his injured fist on the table.
“Careful!” Zashiel snapped, grabbing him by the wrist. “You're going to ruin your hand so you can't even move it!”
Toke ignored her and looked back at Treyn. “Do you think there's a chance that... that she...”
Treyn didn't answer, but the way he looked away told Toke everything he needed to know. Typical. The most amazing woman in the world had decided she wanted to spend the rest of her life with him, and he had promptly ruined the entire thing. And, if the stories were true, he’d just humiliated the most fearsome assassin in all of Vlangur, too. How many knives would be embedded in his skull by the time the sun rose? That is, if her father didn't get ahold of him first.
“There are actions, and there are consequences,” Treyn was saying. “The only two facts of life you can always count on. Even if it was an accident, the consequence comes anyway.”
Toke groaned, and set his head down on the table.
“Someone get this man a drink!” the captain yelled. A moment later, a full mug of beer was set in front of him.
Toke stared at it. “I don't drink.”
“Maybe you should start. It's a good habit.”
He shook his head. “I'm not twenty three yet.”
Treyn actually laughed at that. “Look around you! Does it look like anyone's gonna go running to the Yasmikan police?”
Toke didn't have to look. He watched the thick amber liquid bubble in the thick glass cup, a stream of suds running down the side. He had no illusions that drinking it would make his pain go away. Even if he got himself drunk, Inaska would still hate him when he woke up the next morning. But right now the pain was sharp, like a knife heated over a flame. If the beer could dull it, even for a couple of hours, then...
Zashiel seemed to know what he was thinking, and put her hand on his shoulder. “That's not a road you want to go down, Toke.”
Toke nodded. “I know. But it's just for tonight, I promise.”
“That's how it always starts.”
Even so, she didn't stop him when he reached out and took the beer in both hands, dragging it closer to him. Then he picked it up, put it to his lips, and tilted it back. The beer rushed into his mouth, and—
“Guh!” he spluttered, nearly spitting the entire mouthful across the table. The rest of the crew laughed. With some difficulty, he managed to swallow it. “This stuff is terrible! How do you all drink it?”
“Nobody likes the taste of beer,” Treyn said, the smile evident in his voice. “It's what it does for you.”
Indeed, a warm feeling was spreading out through Toke's stomach. Was he drunk already? No, he didn't think so. His thoughts were as sharp as ever. But... hadn't he heard somewhere that drunk people didn't know they were drunk until they were about to pass out? In any case, he doubted a single gulp would be able to do it. And since the pain of losing Inaska hadn't gotten any duller, he raised the cup and took another drink. Smaller this time, but no less disgusting.
“It's so bitter!” he exclaimed, shaking his head and sticking his tongue out. “And it... it burns, too!”
“You'll get used to it,” said the sailor beside him.
“No, he absolutely won't!” Zashiel said, putting her fist on the table. The motion was soft, but her Sorakine strength still rocked the table enough to nearly spill everyone's drinks. “This is just for tonight.”
“Just for tonight,” Toke agreed, nodding. Then he took another drink. Now that he was getting used to it, it actually wasn't a completely unpleasant taste. He might be able to learn to like it if—
He froze, and so did everyone else in the room. Slowly, he turned in his seat to see who had spoken—and then dropped his half-empty mug, spilling beer all over the floor.
“Inaska?” he asked in disbelief.
The white-haired girl stood at the doorway, dressed in her regular clothes again. Her mask was back on her face too, though her hair was in disarray and a few streaks of makeup still marred her face. Trails had been carved through her blush and mascara, like dry riverbeds, where the tears had run down her cheeks. She didn't say anything, just stood meekly at the door.
Toke sprang to his feet, but then hesitated. What did he do? Run to her? Get on his knees and apologize a hundred thousand times? Stand here and wait for the knife that was inevitably going to come flying across the room to kill him?
In the end, he settled for simply saying, “I'm sorry.”
Inaska nodded, as if she'd expected that. “It's okay. Y- You didn't know.”
“No, it's not okay,” he insisted. “This wasn't just some stupid mistake, I embarrassed you out there so much that... that...” He couldn't think of how to end that sentence. “I should have asked you. I shouldn't have wanted to show off like that. I was thinking of myself, and not you, and you paid the price for it, and so I understand if you just want to call it quits right now because of it.”
He suddenly felt drained, out of breath, and had to put a hand on Zashiel's shoulder to keep from falling over. There. He'd said it. If she still held any reservations about ending the engagement, then he'd given her permission. Now he just had to survive the breakup.
“Actually,” she said hesitantly, “I wanted to say... I forgive you.”
Toke blinked, and then reached up to pinch himself again. Before he could, though, Inaska's self-control finally ran out, and she dashed across the room to throw her arms around him. Toke gasped. If the party hadn't been a hallucination, this had to be. He was probably lying with his head on the table, drunk out of his mind, dreaming about this happy yet completely implausible outcome.
Then he looked in her eyes. No. This was real. And she had really forgiven him!
In an instant, all the gloom was gone, and a wall of white hot joy crashed through his body. With a whoop, he returned the hug, lifted her off her feet, and spun them both in circles. The rest of the crew seemed stunned at first, but then they all stood up as well. They cheered again, but this time it wasn't because something had gone wrong. It was the opposite. Something, for once in Toke's life, had gone completely and utterly right! He set her back down, giddy with delight. She was laughing as well, with fresh tears running down her face.
“Why, though?” he had to ask. “Why would you forgive me after something like that?”
In answer, Inaska kissed him. Her soft lips, her warmth... Toke had convinced himself he would never feel either of those again, so he let the world slip away for a few seconds, reveling in their closeness, in her.
“Because you mean more to me than that,” she said when they separated.
Another question came to him, but he shoved it back down. He wouldn't ask. Not here, not now. He had learned his lesson. And besides, forgiven or not, he still couldn't imagine her answer would be one he liked.
Inaska, however, seemed to read the question in his eyes without him having to ask it out loud. She took a deep breath, and ran her hand across Toke's cheek. He could feel how hard her heart was beating.
“What you did out there...” she began.
Toke's heart sank into his stomach again. Smite. Here it comes.
“...was as far from traditional as things could get.” She paused, and then, to his surprise, smiled. “So I guess it's only fair to end it that way too.”
She stepped back and took both his hands in hers.
“Yes! Yes, I will marry you!”
First there was silence. Toke stood there staring at her, stunned. Then, as one, the crew raised a roar that put all their others to shame. Not one of condemnation this time. One of happiness, of support. Toke smiled, his own eyes watering now. He pulled Inaska close to him again, and kissed her like he had never kissed her before.
Outside, someone set off a round of fireworks, but they couldn't compare to the ones inside his heart.
NEXT TIME: A wedding! I love weddings! Drinks all around! …yes, I just quoted Pirates of the Caribbean. Do you know how hard it is to come up with jokes for these things every week?