“Welcome to the Seventh Swordfish Circus!”
Toke stood where he was, still holding the acrobat girl, staring incredulously at Treyn.
“The Seventh... what now?”
Treyn smirked. “Oh, please! Are you really trying to tell me you don't know who we are?”
Zashiel came to stand beside him. “We're not exactly from around here,” she snapped.
“And the seating? The tightrope? The juhl-kai lion? None of that seemed out of the ordinary to you?”
Frowning, Toke looked around. The ship, painted a dazzling rainbow of colors, and the way there were seats set up in a gigantic ring...
“Zashiel?” he said after a minute. “I think we're both idiots.”
Zashiel grunted but didn't say anything.
Treyn folded his arms. “Anyway, welcome to our happy little family! We're setting sail tomorrow, so—”
“Wait!” Toke cut him off. “Why are you hiring us?”
“Isn't that what you came here for?”
“W- Well, yes, but...” Toke hesitated. They had come here looking for work. Why was he arguing with the captain now that he was getting what he wanted?
Probably because he's a smiting psychopath, he thought, looking at the near-manic look in Treyn's eyes.
“We just attacked you, your lion, and two of your crew,” Zashiel butted in, apparently thinking the same thing as him. “We weren't exactly expecting a warm welcome after that.”
Treyn chuckled. “Yes, indeed you did. Anyone else, I would have fed to Dabba here for lunch.”
The lion, now acting strangely pacifistic, growled its agreement.
“But you two,” Treyn pointed at them, “managed to impress me. You,” his finger moved to hover over Zashiel, “are a Sorakine. Those are incredibly rare here in Vlangur. I'll think of an act for you later, but it shouldn't matter. Whatever you do, people will flock here just to see you!”
He turned back toward Toke. “And you, young man... you wouldn't happen to be Cassitoka Gnasher, would you?”
Toke gasped, and Zashiel's chakrams were drawn in an instant. Treyn barely glanced at her.
“Good reaction!” he chuckled, stroking his chin. “I'll take that as a yes.”
“How did you know?” Toke demanded.
“This might be a Vlangurtian circus, but news still gets around. Oh, relax! I'm not going to turn you in.” A greedy gleam came into Treyn's eyes. “Not after that little show you just put on.”
Toke and Zashiel exchanged glances.
“So,” Toke said slowly, “you want us to—”
Toke looked down—just as he took a fist to his face.
“WOULD YOU MIND PUTTING ME DOWN?”
Toke staggered back from the punch, unceremoniously dropping the masked girl he'd completely forgotten he was holding. Despite the awkward angle he was holding her at, she landed lithely on both feet. Treyn and Ludsong burst out laughing.
“Uh, sorry,” Toke said, his face burning, half from embarrassment and half because she packed a solid punch.
She turned to glance at him, and to Toke's surprise she smirked like someone who'd just pulled a prank on her friend. Mischief glittered in her purple eyes, and after smoothing her skirt she walked away as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened.
“That young beauty is Inaska,” the captain said once he'd stopped laughing. “She's one of our acrobats. You’ll be seeing her a lot.”
Rubbing his jaw where Inaska had hit him, Toke tried asking again. “So, you want me and Zashiel to be performers in your circus?”
“People will come from miles to see you two!” Treyn declared, raising his fist. “This will be the most famous show in Vlangur!”
Toke looked at Zashiel. She looked back at him with her cold, uncaring eyes, but didn't voice an objection.
“I don't know,” he said after a minute of thought. “If you know who we are, then you know we're criminals. Performing in a circus doesn't exactly help us keep a low profile.”
Treyn shrugged. “We'd pay you well, and offer you our protection.”
Zashiel scoffed at this. “How much protection could a circus offer us?”
“We know how to protect ourselves.” It was Ludsong who spoke this time. He cracked his knuckles. “A circus ain’t got anybody but each other.”
Toke wanted to protest, but no arguments came to mind. Instead, he turned to Zashiel. She nodded, and the two of them took a few steps away.
“What do you think?” he asked quietly while Treyn and Ludsong watched.
“I think we should take them up on their offer,” Zashiel answered.
Toke jumped. Hearing her say that was almost as shocking as finding Treyn fighting a lion.
“You're serious?” he asked. “What if we put them in danger?”
Zashiel shrugged. “Their wellbeing isn't what I'm concerned with, Toke. Yours is.”
Toke scowled at that. “Zashiel...”
She rolled her eyes. “If there's trouble, we'll run away like we always do. In the meantime, why not take advantage of this? We were willing to work for free in exchange for passage to Stal Atrieda. Treyn's willing to pay us!”
She had a point there, Toke had to admit. They had gotten by on stealing what they needed for the past few months, and effective as it was Toke didn't like it. Not to mention that if they kept doing it, sooner or later it was inevitable that they would get caught. They were already outlaws in Yasmik. Toke didn't want to become outlaws in Vlangur too. That money would help them live within the law, at least for a little while.
Zashiel cracked a smile. “Besides, it's a circus! It might be fun!”
Toke gave her a sidelong glance and narrowed his eyes. “Fun? Who are you and what have you done with Zashiel?”
That earned him a punch on the arm—a Sorakine strength punch.
“I may not be human, but I'm still a person, Toke,” she grumbled. “I like to have fun now and then too.”
Toke hesitated, looking from her to Treyn. “All right, then,” he finally said. “I guess that settles it.”
Going back to where Treyn and Ludsong waited, Toke said, '“We accept. Thank you, Captain.”
Treyn grinned as if there had never been a doubt in his mind. “Excellent! We set sail tomorrow. Be here an hour after dawn.”
Toke nodded. “We will. By the way, my parents are—”
“Sure, bring them too.”
“A- All right, then.” Toke began to back away. “Thank you, Captain! We'll see you tomorrow, then.”
Treyn nodded distractedly, looking away as if he'd already forgotten who he was talking to.
“Ludsong, get a new tightrope set up,” he was saying, pointing to the two masts. “I want...”
“Let's go,” Zashiel said while the captain droned on. Toke nodded eagerly. Things had gone far better than he'd had any right to hope for, and he got the distinct feeling that if he stuck around too long he'd do something to mess it up again. Following his Sorakine friend down the gangplank, he left the Seventh Swordfish behind.
“So, we're performers now,” he said, stuffing his jacket back into the pouch beneath his shirt before they got back to the busier parts of the docks. “I wonder what my parents will have to say about that?”
“It doesn't matter what they think. They would starve if it weren't for us.”
Toke narrowed his eyes. “I know that. I just...”
His voice trailed off, and he stopped dead in his tracks.
Zashiel sensed his tension and immediately was on high alert. “What is it?”
“There!” he hissed, jerking his head in the direction he was looking.
Zashiel followed his gaze, and cursed when she saw the hunter wading through the crowd—straight toward them! How had he managed to find them again? Zashiel grabbed him by the arm, and he turned to look at…
Her wings were still out, their bright yellow light marking them in the crowd even in broad daylight.
“Come on,” she said, and pulled him into the crowd. The hunter immediately vanished in the sea of faces, but the going was slow. This part of the docks was even more packed than the others, so even with Zashiel's superior strength she was having trouble moving the sailors aside.
“I don't know if we're safe here,” Toke said to her. “That guy's crazy. He might actually attack us right here in broad daylight.”
“Then we'd better not give him the chance.”
Toke let Zashiel lead him in silence. He glanced over his shoulder with every few steps, but if the hunter was still there, Toke couldn't spot him. A chill ran down his spine at the thought. His enemy could be anywhere, and he might not know until he was already on top of him. It wasn't until five more minutes had passed that he realized he didn't recognize the scenery around them.
“Wait a minute,” he exclaimed, looking wildly around. “Where are you taking us?”
“Somewhere he can't catch us,” Zashiel answered.
“What do you—whoop!”
Before he could finish his sentence, Zashiel shoved him into the canal. He hit the water with a splash, his head going under, and he came back up spluttering. Just as he was about to yell at her, she jumped in with him.
“Head under the water,” she said, cutting off his questions. “Follow me.”
With that, she took a deep breath and dove. Toke watched her for a couple seconds, and then did the same. The noises of the docks were immediately muffled, and Toke looked ahead to see Zashiel motioning for him to follow her. Then she zipped off through the water, like a fish caught on a line. For a moment Toke's eyes opened wide in surprise, but then realization dawned on him. She had anchored herself to something in the distance, letting gravity pull her through the water.
Toke reached out with his powers, latched onto the same thing Zashiel had anchored herself to, and followed after her. The water was murky, but still clear enough that he could see Zashiel in front of him. Their anchor turned out to be one of the posts supporting the docks above them, and they both landed on its side, crouching like cats below the water's surface.
Toke's lungs began to burn. He looked at Zashiel. How long could a Sorakine hold their breath? He'd never had a reason to ask, but he wouldn't have been surprised to find they could last longer than a human. Sure enough, while the color of his face deepened to red, Zashiel looked perfectly comfortable planning her next move. The burning only grew worse, and Toke reached out to tug on her sleeve. Zashiel shot him an irritated look, long hair swirling around her face, but when she saw him her expression immediately changed. Grabbing him by his collar, she anchored herself to the underside of the docks, pulling both of them upwards. Toke's head broke the surface, and he sucked in a deep breath.
“Sorry,” Zashiel said while he gasped. She didn't bother lowering her voice, as the clomp of boots on the boards above her was more than enough to cover her. “I forgot.”
“You... forgot what?” Toke gasped, struggling to catch his breath and tread water at the same time. “That people have… to breathe?”
Zashiel looked away. “That you're not a Sorakine like me,” she admitted. “It's easier than you think.”
“Well, do me a favor and...” Toke stopped to breathe. “And don't forget again!”
The Sorakine turned to face the other way. “If we can get out of here through the canals themselves, the hunter shouldn't be able to follow us. You ready to go?”
After taking a few more breaths, Toke nodded.
“Good. Stay on my tail. I'll try to make stops so you can catch your breath, but tell me if I go too long again!”
With that, she ducked below the water. Toke went after her, and they both shot off down the canals. This part of the canal was darker, since they were in the shadows of the buildings, but when Toke focused he was able to feel his way around with his powers. Whenever he came too close to a field of gravity that he wasn't anchored to, he would move out of the way. It wasn't nearly as effective as using his eyes would have been, but he still made his way out of the docks without striking a single thing.
Zashiel wasn't so lucky. She collided with the posts several times during their journey, and eventually they ended up switching places so that Toke was the one leading the way. It didn't much matter, since all they needed to do was get out of the area, but Toke still couldn't help but grin as he sped through the water. They bobbed and wove through Doku's waterstreets, shooting underneath boats and rafts. What would the people above think if they saw them, he wondered? He felt like a shark, moving beneath them all in a world all his own.
A minute later Toke pointed upwards, and their path curved toward the surface again. They found an empty street and came up for air.
“This was a good idea,” Toke said once he'd caught his breath.
“Yeah,” Zashiel agreed. “Let’s walk the rest of the way.”
Toke blinked in surprise as she swam toward the side of the canal. “What, already?”
“We're at least a mile from the docks,” she said, wringing her hair out. “There's no way he could have followed us all this way. Now get out!”
What's the matter with her? Toke wondered as he climbed out beside her. Then it dawned on him. “You don't like getting wet, do you?”
Zashiel gave him a scowl. “Going for a swim is a lot different when you've got feathers.” She groaned, and Toke noticed the way her wings twitched, as if irritated. “Smite, they're going to be damp for hours now!”
Toke stared down into the canal for a minute while Zashiel fussed over herself. Finally, he stood up with a sigh. “Well, I guess we should go break the news to my parents. Let's head home.”
Not that it's much of a home, he thought with an unexpected wave of bitterness. He pushed it back and reached down to offer Zashiel a hand. Once she was on her feet Toke took the lead, walking back towards the abandoned candy shop at a relaxed pace.
“I could fly us back,” Zashiel offered a few minutes later. “We're almost halfway across the city, so maybe I should—”
“No,” Toke cut her off. “We're walking. In fact, put your wings away until we get back to the shop.”
“Why?” she demanded. “If I don't at least air them out, they're going to smell like sewer water by the time we get back!”
Toke turned around and looked her in the eye. “Because if people see a Sorakine, they'll start talking. If they start talking, the hunter will have a perfect trail leading straight to us.”
He leaned in closer. “Or even worse, Finch.”
Zashiel blinked, and Toke knew his words had had the intended effect.
“You'll get your chance,” he said softly. “But you have to be patient.”
A flash of anger appeared in Zashiel's eyes, and her expression hardened. “I don't know what you're talking about.”
“We have to plan for it, Zashiel. Make sure it happens on our terms, not hers.”
Zashiel's hands began to shake. “Why? So we can kill her?”
Toke's eyes opened wide, and he took a step back in surprise. “What? No! Zashiel, it's so we can avoid killing her!” He sighed and rubbed his forehead. “Look, she's on a mission. That means that if she's anything like you, she won't stop until she's completed it.” He leaned in closer to her. “That mission is to kill us both, Zashiel.”
Zashiel glared at him for a few more minutes, but then she seemed to deflate, all her anger leaking out of her. She closed her eyes and nodded. “I know. I'm sorry.”
He patted her on the shoulder. “Don't worry about it. I know this isn't easy for you. Now come on, let's get home.”
Zashiel tucked her wings into her jacket, and they started walking again, but this time Toke slowed down a little so that he and Zashiel were walking side by side.
“There's someone following us,” he whispered. “I saw him just now over your shoulder.”
“Is it the hunter?” she asked.
Toke shook his head. “I couldn't get a good look at him without being too obvious, but who else could it be?”
Zashiel nodded, her face grim, but neither of them slowed their pace.
This is fine, he thought as they made their way across Doku. Zashiel's here with me, so he won't stand a chance. We just have to find a secluded spot and take him down.
He tried feeling for their pursuer with his powers, but there were too many other people behind them that he couldn't single the hunter out. He wasn't worried, not really. Well, he was a little worried, but that wasn't because of the hunter. What had him on edge was the thought that if the hunter was right behind them, Finch might be too.
We can't fight her here, he thought, leading the way across a narrow bridge. If we don't plan this out, Zashiel will end up killing her. And that's if she doesn't manage to kill one of us first!
A few minutes later, Toke nodded toward an empty building on the other side of the canal. It wasn't cursed like the Dammon Hotel, as made evident by the For Sale sign nailed to the door, but there was still nobody inside. Perfect. He and Zashiel casually made their way over to it, and then, with their backs pressed against the wall, inched their way around the side of the building. There was only a few inches of solid ground before it dropped away into the canal, but all Toke had to do was weaken his gravity and he had no trouble crossing it.
They went about halfway across, and then Zashiel glanced around to make sure nobody was looking before smashing one of the windows in. She climbed inside, and Toke scurried in after her. They crouched down in the darkness, staring out through the broken window...
And then they waited.
They didn't have to wait long. A minute later, a man's voice drifted in through the window. “I swear, I saw them go this way.”
“Why would they do that?” asked someone else. It was a woman's voice this time.
Smite! So Finch is with him after all, Toke thought.
“Get ready,” Zashiel whispered to him. Her chakrams were already out, but she still had her wings inside her jacket to keep them from lighting up the room and giving them away. Toke pulled out his jacket and put it back on, raising the hood so that the room grew a little bit darker behind the visor. He gripped his axes in both hands. A slight tingle ran up his wrist...
If my hand gives out, I'm dead! he realized. Out loud, he said, “Zashiel, I—”
“Quiet!” she snapped just as a shadow wandered in front of the window.
Toke's breath caught in his throat. Zashiel held up her hand, telling him to wait for her signal. The shadow looked left, then right.
“Are they there?” the woman asked.
“I'm telling you, I saw them—”
“Now!” Zashiel yelled.
She and Toke sprang to their feet and, acting as one, anchored themselves to the hunter. With a yelp of fright, he came flying in through the window and landed hard on the floor. Zashiel was on him in a flash, her knee on his back, a chakram at his neck, and his arm held behind him so that it would break if he tried to escape.
“Don't move!” Zashiel commanded him.
“Ow!” the hunter yelled. “Ow, ow, ow!”
Toke paused. Had the hunter just said “ow”? And that voice...
“Wait a minute!” he exclaimed.
“Stay away from him!” Zashiel warned him, but Toke was already on his hands and knees, peering at the intruder's face. It took a minute for his eyes to adjust to the darkness after staring out the window for so long, but as soon as they did he stood up in shock.
It wasn't the hunter.
“Boam?” he yelled.
NEXT TIME: Boam! You know, Boam? That one guy from the last book? I’m pretty his first name is “Wayli And”. He’s the guy who did… that one thing… at the place. Ah, good memories! But how did he find them?