Toke burst into his cabin and hurriedly shut the door behind him. There on his cot, just like Ludsong had promised, was a set of clothes he had never seen before. With his heart beating in his throat, he slowly crossed the room and picked up the topmost garment with his good hand.
It was a robe. Long enough to brush the floor when he walked, and sewn out of dozens of colorful patches in what was perhaps the most chaotic pattern he had ever seen.
He cocked his head. Ludsong expects me to wear this to my own wedding?
And equally ugly pair of baggy pants lay underneath the robe, and beneath that was a second set of clothes. These ones were pure white, like snow... or his hair, he realized. It was a sleeveless shirt made of some thin material that shimmered in the light, so much smaller than the robe that he knew just by looking at it that it would be practically skin tight. The white pants offered a bit looser fit, but they would still cling to parts of his legs like a second skin.
“Ludsong, what the smite are you trying to do?” he muttered, throwing the clothes back down onto the bed. He could accept that his future father-in-law would never truly like him, but this? Trying to ruin his wedding with ridiculous clothes? That was low even for him.
Then he saw the note.
Curious, he picked it up and held it up to the light. The chicken scratch handwriting was barely legible, but after a minute of studying it, Toke got a vague idea of what it said.
Seeing as how you Yasmikans don't do nothing right, you're probably wondering if I've lost my sinking mind right about now. Well, I haven't! This here's a Vlangurtian wedding costume. Put it on and don't complain—all of it! Now here's what it means: the ugly robe, pants, and shoes, represent you, cuz you're a complete screwup. During the wedding, you and Inaska are going to go into the water together. Captain Treyn will conduct the ceremony, being the captain, while you two tread water at the end of the pier. When he's done, you'll both go underwater and take off each other's outer clothes. YOU WATCH YOU HANDS DOWN THERE, BOY, YOU HERE ME?! When you're done, come back up and walk out of the lake in your white underclothes. That represents the old you being washed away as you go into a new stage of your life. Anyway, just wear it and don't complain. And treat my little girl right.
The last part of the letter, Toke was surprised to see, was spattered with what he swore must have been tear stains. He took a deep breath, folded the letter as best he could with one hand, and when he looked at the outfit on his cot again he found himself feeling strangely... respectful.
“Right, let's do this,” he whispered, stripping down.
It took nearly ten minutes for him to put his wedding clothes on—a struggle he was going to have to get used to, with his right arm useless. The undershirt was easy enough, but he had to wrestle the coat like it was a living bear before he was able to get his arm through the sleeve. He growled at himself, glaring at the gray, lifeless limb, fighting back the sudden urge to tear the stupid thing off. What was point of keeping it if he couldn't...
No. He forced himself to stop and take another deep breath. This was just another obstacle, nothing he couldn't learn to deal with. Especially if he had Inaska there to help him. Once the robe was draped over his shoulders, uncomfortably hot in the muggy midmorning weather, he paused… and then turned to look at Zashiel.
The Sorakine girl was lying motionless on her back, eyes closed. The bright glow of her wings was the only source of light in the otherwise dark room, and Toke felt his heart beat a little easier every time he saw it. As long as that those feathers glowed, Zashiel lived. Weak, so weak that nothing they had done had woken her up, but alive all the same. For now, that was good enough. By the glow of her wings, Toke could see the wound Shen had inflicted on her throat the night before. Thanks to the Chiyuka ointment, not to mention Inaska's tajwyn cream, the gaping slash had scabbed over, but it was still a gruesome sight to look at. Just like the line of pink flesh on Toke's cheek, the ointment wouldn't keep Zashiel from having a nasty scar there for the rest of her life.
That was okay, though. Toke could live with a scar. And more important, Zashiel could live with a scar.
“Hey,” he said softly, like he was afraid he would wake her, “so, um... they buried Boam. Well, I guess buried isn't the right word for it. They tied his body up and sank it in the lake. I guess that's okay. It means they respected him. It's just... he has a family back in Yasmik, and they have no idea what happened. Who's going to tell them? It can't be me because I can't go home, but...” He shook his head. If he kept talking about things like that, he would sink back into gloom. There were happier things that needed thinking about.
“Ludsong just decided to let me and Inaska get married anyway,” he went on. He knew he couldn't hear her, but it felt... right, somehow, to tell her these things. Like a mission update. “We're heading for a city so we can have the wedding today, and I...” He reached down and took her hand in his own, squeezing it. “I wish you could be there. I wouldn't be getting married today if it weren't for you, so it doesn't seem fair that you should miss it. I- I'll tell you all about it when we get back, but... I guess I won't be sleeping in here with you anymore, will I? I'll be moving into Inaska's cabin, sleeping with her, and...” His voice trailed off.
“Land ho!” he heard someone shout from up on deck, his voice coming through the open porthole.
Toke's heart began to race again, but when he looked down at Zashiel's prone, helpless form, he still found his spirits dampened.
“You were right,” he whispered. “About everything. And it's high time I started listening to you, isn't it?”
With that, he laid her hand on top of her breast and backed slowly out of the room, into the corridor. Moving in this gargantuan robe was harder than he’d expected. It was heavy, cumbersome, and he could already feel himself sweating underneath it as he made for the deck. He considered tapping into his Sorakine strength a little to help him carry it, but quickly discarded that idea. This was something special. Sacred. Making it easier felt like cheating somehow, and he wanted to do this right.
Besides that... he wasn't entirely sure if he could still access his strength.
He closed his eyes as he walked, letting the shifting fields of gravity keep him from bumping into anyone, and sought out the well of power. Yes, it was still there, but he could barely feel it. It felt empty, like by opening it that one time to turn into a Sorakine, he had used up all the power it held. The idea that all that power was just gone made him nervous, though he wasn't sure why. He could still change his gravitational anchors just like always. Besides, he thought, squaring his shoulders, he had a feeling it would come back. Slowly, bit by bit, it would build up until he could...
Could what? Turn into a Sorakine for five minutes again? What did he plan to do with this? He shook his head and opened his eyes. That was a puzzle for another day.
Des Romal was clearly visible in the distance, and getting closer by the minute. His anxiety returning, Toke hurried to the side of the ship where the gangplank would be lowered when they docked, and found Treyn there already, leaning lazily on the railing.
“Eager to get hitched?” the captain asked without looking at him. He shook his head. “I never saw the appeal. It's like dropping anchor without a way to pull it back in. You'll never be free again.”
Toke took a deep breath, watching the city draw closer with wide eyes. “Maybe. But in my experience, Captain, sometimes it's the anchor that shows you new types of freedom you'd never imagined could exist.”
Treyn snorted. “Very poetic. Can't argue with that logic.”
A stray thought tickled the back of Toke's mind, and he turned to look at the captain. “How did you do that last night?”
“Do what? Sleep all night while my d'yargo ship got attacked? Well, it had something to do with a sleeping drug mixed into Grascow's chili. I admit, I may have had a double helping last night.”
Toke narrowed his eyes. “That's not what I meant.”
“Fine, fine, it was a triple helping.”
“Captain,” Toke put his good hand on the railing, leaning out so that their heads were even, “I heard your voice last night. While you were still up on deck, fast asleep. You told Dabba to attack Finch, and then the lock on his cage came open.”
Slowly, Treyn finally turned to look at him. There was a dark look in the captain's eyes that Toke had never seen before, and a force that suddenly seemed to be radiating from them made him want to take a step back. Or two. Or however many it took to scurry back to his cabin where Treyn couldn't see—
“What the shulk are you talking about?”
Just like that, the darkness was gone from his eyes, and in its place was a look of utter confusion. Toke stared at him for a second, and then shook his head. Had he just imagined that? That couldn't have been real...
“I was hoping you could tell me,” he said with a noticeable quiver in his voice.
“If you want my professional opinion, you banged your head on a fist last night. An angry fist. Multiple times. What you're suffering is some kind of hypoallergenic delusion caused by severe trauma to the northwest lobe. I recommend—”
Toke held up his hand, blinking. “Wha- hypoallergenic? Do you have any idea what you're talking about?”
Treyn gave a quick shake of his head. “Nope. And neither do you. Don't bring it up again, Toke.”
“Don't. Bring. It. Up. Again.”
Toke hesitated, but then finally nodded. Treyn nodded as well, and stood up straighter, waving at someone. Confused, Toke turned around—and realized the barge was pulling up to Des Romal's docks.
Ten minutes later, though it felt like an eternity, Toke was on the ground. Rather, he was on what constituted as ground here. Des Romal was another one Vlangur's floating cities, all its buildings propped up on stilts that reached down to the bottom of the lake. His feet burned with the desire to run, to get to wherever he was supposed to go as fast as possible, but the small crowd of people that surrounded him prevented him from going faster than a slow walk. Captain Treyn, Ludsong, his parents, Wayli and a few more people on the crew who Inaska was close to were all gathered around, firmly blocking anyone from looking in and seeing him. Weddings, he had learned, were just as private as courtships and proposals, and letting people ogle the bride and groom on their way there would have been embarrassing to everyone involved. Ideally, they would have ordered a pair of boats with private cabins to carry them, but nobody—Toke included—seemed to want to wait that long.
Ludsong walked directly behind him, and Inaska was behind her father, proving that the massive first mate had missed his true calling in life as a wall. Though Toke craned his head backwards every few steps, he was never once able to catch a glimpse of his bride...
“So... where are we going?” he finally asked, about ten minutes later.
“A church, obviously,” Brin said, facing straight ahead. “Where else would a wedding be held?”
Toke glanced at his father. He could tell by his and his mother's postures that neither of them were happy about this. Still, the fact that they didn't voice those complaints meant a lot to him.
This isn't going to be easy, He thought. Not the wedding, though that did feel like a heavy stone weighing down his gut. What came after...
“Sinkin' Yasmikans,” Ludsong grumbled from behind them.
“Well, where are we going, then?” Toke asked.
“You'll see when we—”
“We're going to this town's Shikurahan,” Inaska cut him off.
Toke almost froze, and had to be shoved forward by Ludsong to keep the party moving as he twisted his head around to look. Of course, her father still blocked his view of her, but just hearing her voice made Toke's chest feel several pounds lighter.
“Des Romal has a Shikurahan too?”
“Don't be daft, boy,” Ludsong snapped. “What idiot would build a town where there wasn't a Shikurahan?”
“These people think they're places blessed by Vlang himself,” Treyn said. “People used to seek them out and build around them.”
Ludsong growled. “What do you mean think? We—”
“Excuse me!” Inaska interjected again. “Would you mind not fighting at my wedding?”
Ludsong immediately fell silent, while Treyn gave an elaborate shrug of indifference. They walked the rest of the way in silence, which was just fine with Toke. The last thing he wanted was for this special day to be ruined by his parents bickering with Inaska's.
Just this morning, this was the worst day I've had in recent memory, he thought. Now it's one of the best. What... What would Boam think of that?
He didn't need to think overly long on that. Just like he'd told Wayli, he firmly believed that Boam would be far happier knowing that his friends weren't sitting around being miserable on his account.
The group arrived at the Shikurahan a few minutes later, and the minute he saw the pool of crystal clear water, Brin stopped short.
“What is this?” he demanded, arms outstretched. “This is no church!”
“Even better,” Ludsong grunted, eyeing Toke's father with undisguised hostility. “It's where somethin' like this should happen.”
“But it's... it's just a...”
“A pool of water,” Toke interrupted him. “And it's a really important place to Vlangurtians, Dad. It makes sense they'd want us to get married here.”
“But you're not a—”
Toke silenced him by spinning to face him, and pointing at the mop of white hair on his head. Brin paled, but then, thankfully, backed down—though he did still hear his mom mutter something about “barbarians.”
The Shikurahan was almost exactly like the one back in Tad Moru, which struck Toke as strange. While Des Romal and Tad Moru were both floating cities, this town was built in the center of the lake, instead of at the edge. The stilts holding up the buildings had to be dozens, if not hundreds, of feet long, and yet the Shikurahan, right in the center of town, was barely ten feet deep. The canals were murky the way lake water always was, which only served to make the crystal clear Shikurahan look even more surreal.
Toke's scholarly side kicked in the moment he saw it. How do they do that? The canals literally flow right in and out of it! What keeps the dirtiness out? Is it a net? Wires? It's almost like it stays clean just because it's not allowed to be dirty!
“All right, you know what to do,” Treyn said, folding his arms and waving impatiently.
Toke nodded, and headed for the end of the dock. There, it split into a T-shape, and both sides had a short flight of steps that led down into the water. He kept his head facing straight ahead as he walked. His stomach was churning, his heart pounding, sweat sliding down his forehead. He could hear Inaska's footsteps coming from directly behind him, lighter than his own but somehow more graceful even in their sound, but he didn't let himself look. He came to the T, and took the path on the right, gently stepping down into the Shikurahan.
He hadn't give much thought to weddings during his life in Yasmik. Before he'd met Zashiel, he simply hadn't thought that he could ever care for another human as much as he did his work. He'd fully intended to remain a lifelong bachelor, happy to spend his days, nights, and years building newer and more amazing gadgets for the people of his country. But while he was a child living with his parents, Evanya had always been fond of cheesy romance novels, especially ones where the bride or groom would run away from the wedding. Toke had never understood that. Weddings were good. They meant that you could spend the rest of your life with someone you loved.
Today, though, as the Shikurahan's waters soaked his hideous baggy pants, he understood perfectly. It wasn't that he didn't want to get married, or that he didn't love Inaska. It was simply that this meant change. Gurus back in Yasmik liked to quip that change was good, but anyone with two brain cells could tell you that was drops. Change could either be good or bad, depending on what was changing, but the one constant thing was that the person it was happening to always resisted. It was human nature. The past and the present, as horrible as they could be, were at least familiar. To the unprepared, that made it hypnotically alluring compared to the dark, scary unknown of the future. He'd known people who had sat firm in their squalor, stubbornly refusing to seek out something better because of the change it would bring.
That was why Toke's legs wanted to lock up as he descended those steps, and that was why he forced them to keep moving. He had done too much, come too far, to simply give up now. This may not be the biggest thing he had ever done, or the most frightening, but it was by far the most important. He stepped down off the stairs, letting the Shikurahan have him entirely, and began to kick his feet underneath him. Treading water was difficult with only one arm, but he felt like he could at least keep his head above water. His robe billowed up around him, though, and he hurriedly beat it down again. Then, taking a deep breath, he turned around...
And saw the most beautiful woman on Fissura treading water across from him.
True to Ludsong's word, Inaska was wearing an outfit similar to his own, a dress made of a hideous pattern of patches sewn together with no rhyme or reason. Toke' heart skipped a beat, and he had to kick his legs harder to keep from going underwater. She was still wearing her golden paper mask, but Toke barely noticed that anymore. The mask was part of her.
Just looking at her, suddenly all his fears were chased away. He did love her. He did want to be with her. And together, those two things made him strong enough to face whatever changes this day might bring. He paddled out to meet her at the center of the T, where Treyn was standing over them. Their families and friends were spread out over the rest of the dock.
“You're sure about this?” he whispered when the two of them were floating right in front of the other.
Inaska reached out her hand, and Toke took it, intertwining their fingers.
“More than anything in the world,” she breathed.
“In the waters of Vlang the Landmaker, let these two lovers be united,” Treyn said from above them. Despite how dismissively he had spoken of marriage before, the words he spoke now were entirely serious. “Let them be interwoven, like two threads in a tapestry. Let them be conjoined as two rivers merging into a bigger lake. Let no distance, no separation remain between them. Cassitoka Gnasher, you have asked Inaska to be your wife. Do you make this request with a pure and loving heart?”
Toke nodded, his eyes still locked with Inaska's. “Yes.”
“Inaska, daughter of Ludsong, you have come to accept his offer. Are you here of your own free will, with love in your heart?”
“Yes,” Inaska said without a moment's hesitation.
“Then may the Shikurahan cleanse you of who you are, and may you emerge as new people. Joined together in love and responsibility, husband and wife.
Toke's breath caught in his throat, but he forced himself to suck in as much air anyway as Inaska wrapped her arm around his shoulders and pulled him down beneath the water. Together, they sank below the Shikurahan, its water warm and comforting like a blanket. He could still clearly see Inaska—his smiting wife—floating before him. She grinned, her eyes alight with life behind her mask, and lunged for him. Her fingers were quick and cunning, untying his robe and sliding it off his shoulders in a matter of seconds—she even knew to help him get his dead arm out of the sleeve. Toke's lungs hadn't even begun to burn by the time she got it free, tossing it aside and letting it float lazily to the surface again. His pants followed, and he didn't miss the coy wink she gave him as she left him in nothing but his pure white underclothes.
Just be patient a little longer, it clearly said.
Then, her job finished, Inaska turned around in the water, presenting her back to him. The laces of her ugly dress were thick and loosely tied, probably because whoever had tied it had known he would have trouble undoing them with one hand. Gripping one lace between his thumb and forefinger, he gave a quick tug, and the entire thing came undone at once. The dress sagged, already sliding down her shoulders, and Toke wasted no time in getting it the rest of the way off. He pulled it down one arm with his good hand, then the other, and Inaska obligingly kicked it off the rest of the way, revealing that she was wearing a short white skirt and a band of cloth around her chest.
That's it, then, Toke thought as she turned to face him again. We're ma—
His thoughts cut off when she grabbed him by the shoulders and pulled him in close, pressing her lips against his. For a split second, Toke panicked, but then he hugged her and kissed her back, plumes of bubbles rising up from their open mouths. They may have been underwater, down there in the Shikurahan, but as they floated there, kissing, he could have sworn they both erupted into flames.
Just as his lungs began to ache, Inaska pulled away, smiled, and then took his hand and kicked her way up toward the surface. Toke followed her obligingly, but as he rose he took one last look around the Shikurahan—and spotted something.
He only saw it for a split second, and he nearly passed it off as a figment of his oxygen deprived imagination... but no, it was really there. It hovered in the water at the very edge of the Shikurahan, where its crystal clear waters met the murkier water of the canals, almost out of sight. The floor of the Shikurahan, it seemed, was a tall cylindrical stone formation, which was why it could be so shallow when the lake around it was so deep. The thing was gripping the edge of that column, peeking over it like a nosy neighbor peeking over a fence. It was brilliantly white, just like Toke and Inaska's wedding clothes, and as soon as it realized he was watching it, it turned and swam away faster than Toke would have thought possible. It was long, about six feet, with two long, narrow fins just below its head, and two more splitting from the bottom of its body, almost like... No, not almost...
Exactly like arms and legs.
What the smite is that? he thought, watching wide eyed as it quickly vanished into the depths. But then, before he could think on it any further, his head broke the surface, and he instinctively took a deep breath. Cheers and clapping came from above him, and he saw everyone up on the dock applauding them. Weddings may have been private, but apparently they weren't so private that those who were invited couldn't celebrate. Even Ludsong was clapping, pausing only to wipe a tear from his eye.
“Did you see that thing?” he exclaimed.
Inaska raised an eyebrow. “See what?”
“That thing!” he insisted, pointing down underwater again. “There was something else down there watching us!”
She shook her head. “Just a fish, Toke.”
“Toke, the only thing I saw down there,” she paused and pulled him into a gentle hug, “was my new husband.”
And just like that, all thoughts of the strange man-fish-thing vanished as he looked into his wife's—his smiting wife's—eyes. He leaned in and kissed her, and she gladly accepted it. Fire. Burning fire, passion, love. He could hear Ludsong grumbling under his breath on the pier, but that only made him kiss Inaska even harder.
Finally, they broke apart to breathe, and Inaska smiled, cheeks burning red. “Let's head back to the ship, she said. Then, in a quieter voice, she added, “I have a feeling we're going to have an incredible night.”
Together, they scrambled out of the water, to more cheers and pats on the back from their friends. Evanya rushed in to hug Toke, her face nearly as wet as his own from the tears she had cried, while his father merely nodded his approval from a few feet away. Treyn provided towels for them to dry off with, as well as to cover themselves with as they made their way back to the ship. Even now that he and Inaska were finally married, Vlangurtian tradition still considered it unwholesome for them to show off their wedding clothes in the middle of town.
The walk back to the Seventh Swordfish seemed to take forever, but for once Toke welcomed the sense that time was slowing down. He held hands with Inaska as they crossed Des Romal, and his heart soared, but at the same time it felt like it sank deeper into his stomach with every step he took.
Be strong, he told himself, fixing his eyes straight ahead. You can do this.
“Are you all right?” Inaska asked, concerned.
Toke was about to tell her he was fine, but then shook his head instead. She could read him better than that.
“I have to do something when we get back,” he whispered. “It's not going to be easy, though. Will... Will you stay with me while I do it?”
She gave his hand a reassuring squeeze. “Of course I will.”
After that, to his dismay, time seemed to speed up, and they arrived back at where the Seventh Swordfish was moored long before Toke felt like he was ready. Even so, he hesitated at the gangplank, letting Treyn and Ludsong go up first.
“Did you do like I asked?” Toke whispered as the captain passed.
Treyn paused to look at him, and then nodded. Toke stopped there and, just before his parents and Wayli were about to board, stepped onto the plank to block their way.
“Move, son,” Brin ordered him with the speed that only a lifelong habit could bring. “You're in the way.”
Toke closed his eyes, took a deep breath, and said, “No.”
Brin and Evanya went stiff with surprise. “Excuse me?” his father asked.
Toke opened his eyes and looked both his parents in the eye. “You're not getting on this ship. You're staying here in Des Romal. And you too, Wayli.”
Their looks of surprise, then horror, then betrayal nearly crushed Toke's heart in one fell swoop. Inaska stood beside him, though, her hand in his, and her presence gave him strength.
He kept going, his voice suddenly hoarse, “Zashiel didn't want any of you coming with us. She said you would slow us down, and...” He faltered, but forced himself to keep talking. “And you'd be in too much danger. She was right.”
“Nonsense!” Evanya snapped. “You're our son!”
“And my best friend!” Wayli added.
“We can't just let you—”
“I can't protect all of you!” he yelled, drowning them out. “I was stupid to think I could, and now Boam's dead because of it! Smiting dead!”
“And how do you think I feel?” Wayli demanded, going red in the face.
That look on her face... Toke nearly caved again.
“It doesn't matter,” he made himself say. “At least you'll still be alive to feel it.”
“Now, hold on just a minute!” Brin snapped, as indignant as ever. He raised his finger and pointed it at Toke's face. “Do you mean to tell me you're just going to abandon us, your own mother and father, here in a strange town in a strange country?”
“It's not like I want to!” Toke snapped, letting go of Inaska's hand to shove Brin's away. “But I don't want to see you get hurt even less. You're staying here!”
“To do what? Starve to death?”
Toke hesitated, but then turned and waved to the crewmember up top. The burly sailor began to carry down several bags and suitcases, depositing them at the bottom of the gangplank. Seeing them, Toke felt another stab of guilt. He had asked Treyn to have his parents' and Wayli's stuff collected and packed while the wedding was going on. Last but not least, the sailor handed him a sack that had its opening tied shut with good, thick rope. It jangled as he handed it to his father, who snatched it from him and looked inside.
“There's enough in there for you to buy at least five month's rent,” he said softly. “Plus food and anything else you need.”
“That's your answer?” Brin snapped, looking up and glaring at his son. “Money doesn't last forever, Toke! Sooner or later we'll run out, and—”
“You're a businessman,” Toke cut him off, “and Inaska's already given you the perfect business strategy.”
Despite himself, now that the topic had turned to money, Brin's eyes lit up with interest.
“Inaska showed you how to make tajwyn cream. Do that. Open a store and sell it, and you'll never have to worry about running out of money. People will pay any price you ask for it.”
Inaska stiffened a little bit, but then nodded.
“Well, I suppose I could...” Brin mused, but then glared at his son again. “Don't try to distract me, young man! I will not let you go running off on your own out there!”
Toke looked away from him, to the red haired girl who stood beside his parents.
“Wayli,” he said, “I just—”
She shook her head, flinging tears around her. “No, I understand. You- You don't want me to end up like Boam, and... and neither do I.” She shivered visibly. “Toke, I'd heard about what you did to fight Navras, but it never occurred to me how scary it was until last night... how real it was. Boam...”
“Boam died trying to protect everyone,” Toke said. “But I'd rather that not happen to you too.”
“I know.” She nodded, and sniffled. “I know.”
“So, you're okay with...”
Before he could finish, she began opening the suitcases until she found the one with her stuff in it. She rummaged through it for a few seconds before standing up again.
“There's still a way I can help you, though,” she said.
Toke blinked. “Is... Is that my story?”
She nodded, clutching the thick stack of papers tight in her hands. “Boam tried to hide it from me, which just made me want to find it even more.” She smiled a little. “He did his part to help you. Now it's my turn.”
Curious despite himself, Toke asked, “How?”
“You know what I was going to Jerulkan Academy for, right? I wanted to open up my own newspaper. I know how to run a print shop practically all by myself.” She held the stack of papers out in front of her like some kind of magical weapon. “I think it's time the rest of Yasmik knew the truth about you.”
Toke felt a momentary spike of panic. If Wayli did that, she would be coming out as an accomplice of the Juryokine. Not only would the government come after her, but the Sorakines too! He pushed that fear aside, though, when he saw the look she had in her eyes. Bright and full of determination, like a fire had been lit inside them.
Those were the eyes of a Sorakine on a mission.
“All right,” he consented, reluctantly. “But... if you read that story, then you know...”
She raised an eyebrow. “I know what?”
He ground his teeth together. “That... Exton was destroyed because of—”
“Because of Navras.”
Toke blinked in surprise.
“You didn't do anything,” she said. “Navras may have stolen your batteries, but that doesn't make what happened to Exton your fault.”
Toke froze. Those words… They were simple, practically common sense, but when he heard them they struck him. He could feel something inside of him give way just a little bit. Almost like...
“None of it was your fault,” Wayli went on. “You invented something amazing, Toke. Just because Navras used it for something bad doesn't make it your fault.”
Crackle! The sound came from inside him, but he felt the thing... whatever it was... weaken just a little bit more.
“You're a great inventor, Toke,” she concluded, putting a hand on his shoulder. “That's what the world needs right now more than anything. Someone who can build and create, not just tear things down.”
And then, just like that, the wall Toke hadn't even realized was inside him came crashing down, and suddenly his brain was filled with...
So many ideas he couldn't even comprehend them. A roaring river of ideas bursting through a weak dam, and the inspiration to build every. single. one. He gasped, eyes unable to focus, and stumbled backwards. He would have fallen over the side of the gangplank if Inaska hadn't grabbed him.
“Th- Thank you,” he whispered, trying to blink the tears away. “Wayli, I... I needed to hear that.”
She grinned at him, and then backed away, still clutching Boam's story in both hands. That fire was still in her eyes. He felt nervous, allowing her do go off and do this, but at the same time he knew that arguing wouldn't do anything. She had discovered her mission, and he knew from personal experience how that felt. He would have had to load her up onto the Seventh Swordfish to make her stop—which would have been the most counterproductive thing he could do.
“Be that as it may,” Brin snapped, shouldering his way past Wayli with Evanya at his side, “Toke, we absolutely refuse to be left here while you—”
Toke hugged him. “I love you, Dad.”
Then he hugged Evanya. “I love you, Mom.”
“I… Toke, don't do this!” Evanya protested. “Please!”
“Bring us up!” Toke yelled.
Immediately, a few crewmembers grabbed the end of the gangplank and began to haul it onboard, bringing Toke and Inaska with it. Brin and Evanya couldn't do anything but watch as their son and his new wife were carried away from them. Up above, more crewmembers cast off the mooring lines. A collective groan came from the crowd that had gathered, hoping for a chance to get to see the famous Seventh Swordfish Circus. Toke ignored them, looking instead at the three people on the dock. His only family, and his remaining best friend. The ones he was leaving behind.
“Cassitoka Gnasher!” Evanya declared, reaching out toward him. “I... I love you too!”
“S- So do I, son,” Brin added, face turning red. “Be safe out there.”
“And don't you dare die!” Evanya yelled. “You write to us, you hear me? I want to get five letters from you a week, or I'm coming after you!”
Toke couldn't help but smile. “I will,” he promised. “I love you both.”
The crew finished pulling the gangplank onboard.
The polemen lined up on the side of the ship and thrust their poles into the water. Slowly, the massive barge began to move. Brin, Evanya, and Wayli stood there, lined up together on the dock, and began to wave. Tears prickled Toke's eyes, and he waved back.
“I can't stay here,” he blurted out.
“What?” asked Inaska.
“I can't look at them anymore.” He pushed himself away from the railing and made for the other side of the deck. From here, he could only see open, endless water. Somehow, that made him feel a little better. He couldn't look back. Looking back was a luxury he had given up as soon as he'd swallowed Zashiel's feather. But the future... the journey... those he could look dead in the eye and say give me all you've got!
“Are you all right?” Inaska—his wife—asked.
“I'm fine,” he said, and pulled her closer. “In fact, I think I feel better now than I have in months.”
“Getting married can do that,” she said with a smile.
“It can,” he agreed, “but there's more to it than that. What Wayli said down there... I didn't know how badly I needed to hear it until just now. Did I tell you I used to be an inventor?”
She pressed her side against his. “You might have mentioned it.”
“I stopped because I convinced myself everything Navras did was my fault.” He hugged her tighter, his pulse quickening. “But now I think that's passed. I want to invent again, Inaska! I have all these amazing ideas, and I can't wait to work on every single one of them!”
“What?” he asked, looking at her from the corner of his eye.
“Nothing. It's just nice seeing you this worked up about something. But...” She hesitated. “This isn't going to get between us is it?”
“What?” Toke jumped. “Of course not! Nothing could—”
He stopped when he realized Inaska was laughing at him.
“Smiting woman,” he grumbled.
“Oh, I am going to enjoy this a lot,” she cooed. “And just think! Now that we're married, it's never gonna stop!”
“Joy of joys.”
She looped her arm around his, and for a while the two of them contended themselves by staring out at the water. They didn't talk. They may have been married, but they knew each other enough by now that they didn't need to fill every second of silence with meaningless chatter. They were together, and that was enough.
Finally, though, Inaska broke the silence. “So, are you going after him?”
Toke frowned. “Shen?”
He didn't answer right away, but looked down at his reflection just beneath him. He could barely make it out, what with the way the Swordfish frothed the water. It was like his life, he thought. Always moving, always churning, never at rest. That's just the way it was. But there were worse things than churning, weren't there? If he went chasing after Shen, determined to get revenge on him for Boam and break up the cult that had been formed in his name, then the waters of his life wouldn't simply churn anymore. They would boil, they would freeze, whirlpools, tidal waves, underwater volcanoes... In light of all that, a little bit of frothing and churning was nothing.
“No,” he finally answered.
That didn't seem to be the answer Inaska was expecting. “You- You're not?”
He shook his head. “I'm happy here. I have you, I have Zashiel, I have the circus... sure, I'm smiting mad about what he did to Boam, but he can't touch me now. Whatever he decides to do in Yasmik isn't my problem. Let the government and the Sorakines deal with him.” He looked at her. “There are more important things than revenge.”
“Are you sure? If you did, then...” She hesitated, and then pulled her mask off to reveal her scars. “I'd become the Calix Cura again to help you.”
Those words weighed heavily in Toke's ears. She didn't make that offer lightly—not lightly at all. He could see the terror in her eyes, but also the love. The idea of taking up her old title again horrified her, but for Toke she would do it without a moment's hesitation.
So he kissed her.
“I would never ask you to do that,” he said when they separated.
“I am fine, Inaska! I've had enough fighting! I just want to live my life in peace with my wife. Is that too much to ask?”
Inaska blinked, and a tear rolled down her cheek. “No,” she whispered. “Not too much at all.”
“Good.” Toke turned to look out across the lake again. A thousand destinations, a million possibilities. He squeezed Inaska's hand in excitement. “Let's see where life takes us!”
“Good idea.” Inaska nodded—and then grabbed him by the collar, hauling him across the deck. “But for tonight, your wife is taking you to your bedroom!”
NEXT TIME: Aww! All’s well that ends well, right readers? Ha, not with these two! The question isn’t if things will get screwed up again, but how and when…which you can find out next week in Juryokine: Exile of Heroes’ final chapter!