Toke’s fingers twitched, sending the battery clattering to his desk for the third time in ten minutes.
“Could you keep it down?” the student next to him asked irritably. “I’m trying to concentrate.”
“Sorry,” Toke mumbled, picking up the cylinder again. He bit back a rude remark about the other student’s project, some sort of breakfast bowl with wheels screwed to the bottom.
If my battery didn’t impress Adal, none of these people have a chance.
The thought made Toke pause. It, and the rush of emotion he’d gotten, surprised him. Was he really so bitter that his invention hadn’t been accepted? He couldn’t blame the Permissor for rejecting him after what had happened. Why was he still so angry about it, then?
It’s just nerves, he told himself. You’re nervous and lashing out. And that’s okay. Who wouldn’t be nervous when planning… He gulped nervously. High treason?
His hands started to shake, threatening to make him drop the battery again, so he set it down and put his palms flat on the desk. His stomach felt like there was a Gravity Storm raging inside it. He made himself take deep breaths.
What am I doing? he wondered frantically. This whole thing is a bad idea!
But what could he do at this point? He’d swallowed the feather. He’d promised to help Zashiel. She wouldn’t let him back out. And if he tried… he shuddered when he thought back to the apathetic way she’d spoken of killing the Nail. No, there was definitely no going back.
Toke picked up the battery again. Just sitting there brooding was only making it worse. He needed to do something, even if it meant dropping the smiting thing a hundred more times. He took a deep breath, staring hard at his invention, trying to block out everything else. The void refused to come, though. His fear chased it away every time. Still trying to keep his hands from shaking, he picked up his tools and started working again.
An hour later, when the bell finally rang, Toke felt he had made no worthwhile progress on the battery. Professor Navras, judging by the look on his face as he made his way over, seemed to agree.
“You only have a couple more weeks, Toke,” he said under his breath so the other students wouldn’t hear. “I would have thought that, more than anything else, would spur you to work faster.”
“I’m sorry, Professor,” Toke replied, unable to meet his teacher’s gaze as he put his tools away. “I’ve just got a lot on my mind.”
“I can see that. You look like a soldier about to go into his first battle.”
Toke gave Navras a wary look, but reminded himself who he was talking to. Navras had been a soldier, after all. A very influential one. Comparing Toke’s current state to a new recruit was probably second nature to him.
Navras stepped in closer and put a hand on Toke’s shoulder. “Want to tell me what it is, son?” he asked.
Toke wanted to. Even though he knew he couldn’t, Toke wanted to spill all of his secrets to Navras right then and there. The old inventor was almost like a father to him— the right kind of father, not the money grubbing, overly controlling kind like Brin. If anyone could help him out of this mess, it was Dranibor Navras. If he put it the right way, maybe Navras would even be willing to…
Toke cut that line of thought off. It made too much sense. If he listened to it too much, he’d give in… he’d give up.
“Sorry, sir,” he said, shaking his head and stepping out of Navras’ reach, “but this is something I have to deal with myself.”
Navras frowned. “And what makes you think you can’t ask for help?”
“Because that’s what being an adult means,” Toke answered before he fully realized what he was saying. “Being able to take care of your own problems. Not having to ask for help with everything.”
The professor looked at him for a few seconds, and then shook his head. “Toke, you couldn’t be more wrong,” he said softly. “Just because you’re a grownup doesn’t mean you have to deal with everything alone. That’s why you have friends. That’s why you have family. You don’t lose your ability to trust the day you turn twenty.”
“I know,” Toke agreed, still not able to look his professor in the eyes, “but I have to learn to figure things out on my own. I won’t have you and my parents around to dig me out of trouble all my life.”
“No, I suppose you won’t,” Navras agreed at last, and walked back to his desk. He sat down and picked up his pen, but then glanced back up at his student again. “But if you ever find yourself in over your head, I’ll be here to help.”
“Thank you, professor,” Toke said and made his way out the door. His words sounded grateful, but inside all he could think about was how he’d been in over his head ever since Zashiel had noticed him that night on the way home from the sandwich shop.
He made his way to the alley, his feet weighing him down like concrete with every step. For once, Zashiel wasn’t already there. He sat down behind the bags of trash and waited for her, wishing he’d thought to get a drink of water before leaving the school. The Sorakine girl didn’t arrive for another ten minutes, and he immediately noticed she was carrying a strange cloth strap in her hands.
“What’s that for?” he asked, motioning towards it.
“It’s for in case you get spotted,” she answered, handing it to him. “You wear it under your shirt.”
Toke fumbled with it for a few seconds before finding a way to hold it that made an X shape. “Wear it under my shirt,” he quipped, “sounds like a great plan.”
“Where you wear it isn’t important,” Zashiel shot back, snatching it from him, “it’s what you do with it. Look, see this right here? It makes a pouch if you wrap it around yourself right. If you get caught, you run away. When you’ve broken their line of sight, you take off the jacket, fold it up, and tuck it into the pouch underneath your shirt. When they catch up, they’ll never know it was you.”
“Unless they decide to search me.”
“If they’re chasing a spy, I doubt they’ll take the time to stop and search a citizen on the street who doesn’t match the spy’s appearance.”
“I guess,” Toke said reluctantly, taking the strap back. He pulled his shirt off and let Zashiel show him how to put it on. When he replaced his shirt, he got the jacket from the storm drain and folded it into the pouch just like Zashiel had told him. To his surprise, the jacket’s material was so thin that when he hid it, it barely made a bump in his shirt. Anyone not in the know would probably mistake it as just a wrinkle in the fabric. Even the cold glass visor on the hood wasn’t enough to be noticeable.
“Just to be safe, though,” Zashiel spoke up again, “you’ll probably want to try to stick to more crowded areas if you get caught. I don’t want to risk the mission on the assumption that they won’t stop and search you. If there are more people there, they almost definitely won’t.”
“It’ll be harder to take off the jacket in the middle of a crowd,” Toke said, pulling the jacket back out and unfolding it.
“How many times do I have to tell you that this isn’t going to be easy before you believe me?”
“All right, all right,” Toke said. “So, when do we start?”
“Not until after sundown. Until then, I want to go over a few different plans with you.” She sat down on the curb.
“What kinds of plans?” Toke asked, sitting next to her.
“I’ve been doing a little spying of my own, from a distance of course. I know where all the officials are most likely to be and what times they’re likely to be there.”
Zashiel got out a crudely drawn map of the Capitol and began pointing out the windows Toke could find the officials behind. Anxiety continued to gnaw at his stomach as he listened, and he kept his hands stuffed in his pockets to keep Zashiel from seeing them shake.
She had, indeed, gone to a great amount of effort to discover the movements of Yasmik’s politicians, and she had several different plans to cover whatever might happen. He would start with Trin Macrosh, the Secretary of Defense, and then move on to Maesh Milmon. If Maesh wasn’t there, he would climb to the window directly above his and observe Wheldon Jut, and so on. It took Zashiel until sunset to go over all her tactics, and though Toke did his best to remember them all, he quickly lost track of the different paths he should take and which circumstances warranted each one. That made him feel even worse. Going into this without a plan was a surefire way to get caught.
To his surprise, he heard Zashiel chuckle. When he looked up at her, she was smiling.
“You look as pale as the moon, Toke,” she teased him.
Toke looked away, his face turning red. Did she not understand how dangerous this was? Wasn’t she scared, or at least nervous?
When he didn’t say anything, she leaned in closer to him. “You’re not losing your nerve, are you?”
“That would mean I had some nerve to begin with,” he said back.
“You had enough to swallow my feather when I handed it to you,” she reminded him. “You had no reason to trust me, but you did it anyway.”
“This is different, though. Back then, I was only thinking about what we were going to do. Now we’re actually doing it.”
“Were you scared when I asked you to become a Juryokine?”
Toke shrugged. “Yeah, I guess.”
“But now you’re over it.” Zashiel grabbed his chin and forced him to look at her. “That’s because you’re actually doing it. The unknown has become the known, and it’s less frightening because of it.”
Toke was quiet for a minute. “That’s almost poetic,” he said at last. “Where did you hear it?”
“How do you know I didn’t make it up myself?” She asked smugly.
“I don’t know. Words just don’t seem like your strong point.”
“And what is my strong point?”
Toke chuckled. “Hitting things, maybe?”
Zashiel laughed at this, and slapped Toke on the back. “Good observation! But you’re right, I didn’t make that up. It’s one of the lessons they teach us back in Hashira. Everything seems scarier before it actually happens. A soldier is always frightened before his first battle.”
“Always?” Toke asked. “Even Sorakines?”
“Even Sorakines,” Zashiel said, nodding. “But here’s the thing: when the battle actually starts, it stops being so scary. Well, it’s still scary, I guess, but it’s a kind of fear you can handle. Am I making sense?”
Toke shook his head.
Zashiel sighed. “You were right, I’m not good with words. What I’m trying to say is that you should stop worrying and just do it. Once you’re in the middle of the battle, you stop thinking and start acting. No more time for imagining, you have to survive. And when it’s happening right there in front of you, you realize that you can handle it. You just have to keep moving, keep fighting, keep surviving. And…” she paused. “And I’m still not making my point, am I?”
Toke laughed. “I think I understand what you mean. Once I’m up there spying on them, I’ll be too busy to be scared.”
“There you go!” Zashiel congratulated him. “Once the mission begins, you leave your fear behind. I’m living proof of that.”
She got to her feet, and Toke stood up with her, but he couldn’t ignore the nagging feeling in the back of his head.
“Wait,” he said, holding out his hand, “what do you mean you’re living proof of that?”
“I was terrified before I came here and started looking for someone to become my Juryokine,” she answered without looking at him. She was scanning the sky above them, watching the sky grow darker. “Once I actually started, though, it went away. I had my mission, and accomplishing it was the only thing I cared about.”
She probably meant for that to be comforting, to let Toke know that he shouldn’t be ashamed of being afraid. Instead, he felt panic rise up inside of him, and he grabbed the front of Zashiel’s jacket and spun her around to face him.
“You mean this is your first mission?” he demanded, unable to believe what he had heard. “You’ve never been on one before?”
Zashiel brushed Toke’s hands away and scowled at him. “Yes, this is my first mission. So what?”
“So what?” Toke echoed. “Your superiors told you not to come here, and you ignored them. I thought you must have had enough experience in the field to take care of yourself, but now you’re telling me this is the first time you’ve ever been out on your own?”
“I can take care of myself,” she retorted, offended. “And I can take care of you, too!”
Toke groaned and leaned against the wall. “Pardon me if I don’t trust you on that.”
Zashiel closed her eyes in frustration and then looked Toke in the eye. “Okay, fine, maybe I should have told you that before. But you don’t have to worry, really. Go and start your mission. We’ll talk more about it when you get back, I promise.”
Toke gave the Sorakine girl a scathing look for almost a full minute before pushing himself away from the wall and putting his hood up. Without a word, he anchored himself to the wall he’d been leaning on and ran to the roof. The Capitol loomed in the distance.
You’d better believe we’ll talk later, Zashiel, he thought angrily as he jumped from that rooftop to the next. And you’d better be able to take care of us both!
Five minutes later, Toke perched atop the roof of the building adjacent to the Capitol. Streetlights lit the road beneath him, but on the roof it was dark enough that he didn’t feel exposed. A couple of pedestrians passed below on the sidewalks, and occasionally an autocarriage would roar down the street between them, but apart from that this part of the city was quiet. That was good. Fewer people to see him.
That also means fewer people to blend in with if I get caught, he thought. He wiped his hands on his pants, drying the sweat off them, and backed a few steps away from the ledge. The building he was standing on was twenty feet from the Capitol, and one story shorter. For a second, he considered trying to jump all the way to the roof, but discarded that idea. It was possible he could jump that far, but he wasn’t sure. Now wasn’t the time to be taking unnecessary risks. Jumping onto the wall and then running to the roof was a much more reliable course of action. Taking a deep breath, he got a running start and leaped across the gap. His weaker gravity propelled him farther than any human should have been able to jump, and he weakened it even further after he anchored himself to the Capitol. Holding out his arms slowed his descent, and he touched down on the wall with a barely audible tap.
Light as a feather, he thought as he scurried up to the roof. Ironically, he knew better than anyone else just how dangerous a feather could be.
Once on the roof, he crouched low to avoid being seen by any wandering eyes and ran to the other edge. The first name Zashiel had given him to spy on was Komil Faer. As the National Treasurer, Faer would stand to gain a lot by increasing taxes, and rebuilding a city would serve as the perfect excuse for doing so. That was Zashiel’s opinion, anyway, and as Toke didn’t have a better alternative he decided to humor her. His office was on the opposite side of the building, so Toke paused on the ledge and then crawled down the wall on his belly. As he laid there, suspended two hundred feet above the ground, he suddenly realized how exposed he was.
A white jacket, he thought, his face turning red underneath his hood. She just had to give me a white jacket!
There was no use worrying about it now, though. He tried to block it from his mind and, to his surprise, found he was able to do it. With a little more effort, he was able to make the void form, blocking out everything except for the mission. It was just like Zashiel had said: now that he was in the midst of everything, focusing was a lot easier.
Two floors down and five windows from the end, Toke reached Faer’s office. A quick glance inside revealed the Treasurer sitting at his desk with his back to the window. Faer was a large man, and his girth made it impossible for Toke to see anything on his desk. The window was cracked open a bit, though, which allowed him to listen to what was being said.
Faer placed his pen back in the inkwell, and leaned back in the chair, groaning as he popped his back.
Come on, Toke silently urged him, give me something to work with!
The prodigious man yawned, rubbed his eyes, and called, “Muko, bring me some coffee. It’s going to be a long night.”
Toke lay there, watching, until the Treasurer’s secretary came in and delivered his coffee. Faer took a couple of sips, set it down, and pulled out his pen to begin working again.
Say something suspicious, Toke thought, clenching his fist in frustration. Anything that’ll satisfy Zashiel.
He forced himself to stay still for another half hour, moving only to look for guards that might spot him. When Zashiel had mentioned spying, he had imagined it being high tension, dangerous work. While he was definitely tense, and the side of a heavily guarded building wasn’t exactly the safest place on Fissura, he felt strangely underwhelmed. Lying down, watching a fat politician write letters and drink coffee wasn’t anything like what he was expecting. Finally, when Faer took the document he’d been working on and filed it away in his desk, Toke rolled away from the window with a quiet groan.
“Forget him,” he whispered, getting up and walking further up the building. Whether Faer was innocent or guilty, Toke obviously wasn’t going to find out by sitting outside his window at night. Smite Zashiel’s plan, it was time to move on to the next target.
Toke crossed the building again, trying to move slow enough not to catch people’s attention, but fast enough that he wasn’t wasting time. The second person he was supposed to spy on was on the opposite side from where Faer worked. Trin Macrosh, the Secretary of Defense. Zashiel had pointed out how strange it was that the Gravity Storms kept striking, and yet the military had never once tried to interfere. That, in her mind, made Macrosh a suspect. Toke wasn’t so sure about that. Besides sending rescue crews to the areas that were struck, what exactly did she expect the military to do? Still, if Zashiel wanted him to spy on Macrosh, he would spy on Macrosh.
Toke crawled to her office as quickly as he dared, but stopped short when he saw the window was dark. He cursed under his breath and punched the wall. Macrosh wasn’t there! Zashiel had said she kept regular hours going long into the night, but it looked like she had decided to clock out early today.
What now? Toke thought, his heartbeat picking up. A patrol came around the corner, almost three hundred feet below him, and he froze. Don’t look up. Don’t look up…
He breathed a sigh of relief when they passed by without noticing him. He tried to think back to Zashiel’s plan. Where had she told him to go after Macrosh? Names and places spun around inside his head, and with his heart still pounding from the earlier scare he couldn’t pin down exactly what she had said to him.
I’ll just go back to Faer, he decided, getting up and heading for the roof again. He’d spy on the Treasurer for a while longer, and then report back to Zashiel and explain that Macrosh had been absent tonight. How the Sorakine girl would take the news, he wasn’t sure, but—
“Give me some good news.”
Toke stopped short, halfway up the building, and tracked the voice with his eyes. One floor above him was an open window with light streaming out of it. Toke knew that voice. It sounded so familiar. Why would he recognize a voice in the Capitol, though? He had only been in there once before, and that had been to…
Toke froze, and a chill ran down his spine.
“Nothing yet, sir,” another voice replied.
What was the Permissor doing here this late at night? Toke knew he needed to move or else risk getting caught out in the open like this, but his curiosity got the better of him. He got down on his stomach again and inched his way closer to Adal’s window.
“It’s been three months,” he was saying. “How can you have gone that long without finding a single trace of him?”
“With all due respect, sir, Yasmik is a big place,” the other voice answered. “We’re doing all we can, but this is going to take some time.”
Odd, Toke thought, perched just above the Permissor’s window. Who could Adal be searching for?
“We’ve been keeping as quiet about this as we can, sir,” the other voice said. “But is it possible that Lampa may not want to be found?”
“Nonsense!” Adal snapped. “Why would he want something like that? My son has been kidnapped.”
He said that with complete confidence, and Toke brought his hand to his chin in thought. Adal’s son had been kidnapped? Lampa Adal… Toke knew of him, vaguely. He was the Permissor’s youngest child. Until a few months ago, he had attended Jerulkan University. The two of them hadn’t shared any classes, so Toke had never actually met him, though. When he’d disappeared, Toke had thought he’d merely dropped out.
Apparently, his father had other suspicions.
“We’ll continue doing the best we can, Permissor,” the other man said.
“See that you do, Renma. I will tear this country apart to find my son if I have to.”
Now that was something Toke could use. He got up and hurried to the roof as quietly as he could, Adal’s words playing through his mind over and over. The Permissor would tear Yasmik apart to find Lampa. The Gravity Storms were tearing Yasmik apart.
“Smite,” Toke said under his breath as he crouched out of sight on the roof. “Zashiel might have been right.”
He needed to tell her about this right now. Adal’s words were too perfect to just be a coincidence. Toke stood up, ran to the edge of the building, and jumped. His leap carried him all the way back to the building he had been on before, and he hit the roof running. He knew he should have been more worried about someone seeing him, but this was too important. If this proved to be the piece that solved the puzzle, then he’d never have to do this again.
And, besides that, Zashiel had promised him answers when he returned.
“Zashiel!” he called, anchoring himself to the wall and running down into the alley they always hid in.
Upon hearing her name, Zashiel shot to her feet, her chakrams already in her hands. When she saw who it was, she lowered he weapons and glared at him.
“Shut up, you idiot!” she hissed, and pulled him off the wall to hide behind the trash bags. “What are you doing back so early?”
“Okay, listen,” Toke said, rolling over to get to his knees, “I heard Permissor Adal saying something while I was spying, and—”
“You weren’t supposed to spying on Adal!” Zashiel snapped, her face turning red.
“I said listen!” Toke snapped right back. “He was talking to someone, and he said that his son has been missing for three months. He’s hiring people to look for him.”
“Three months ago, when the Gravity Storms started,” Zashiel finished for him, picking up on his train of thought.
“Exactly,” Toke confirmed. “He also said, and this is an exact quote, that he would tear Yasmik apart to find his son if he had to.”
The anger faded from Zashiel’s face at this, and she sat back against the wall to think.
“That can’t be a coincidence,” Toke said. “It fits too perfectly.”
“No,” Zashiel said, shaking her head. “Anything can be a coincidence. Don’t go jumping to any conclusions just because of one thing that came out of his mouth.”
Toke frowned, but Zashiel spoke again before he could say anything.
“But you’re right, this is too much for us to ignore. I’ll put Adal on top of our list of suspects. Now, get back to the Capitol.”
“Wait, hold on,” Toke said without budging. “You promised to tell me answers when I got back!”
“I promised to talk when you were done spying,” she corrected him, her tone of voice leaving no room for argument. “You weren’t supposed to come back for three more hours. Now get back there and see if you can learn anything else!”
“But I…” Toke groaned and stood up. There was no point in arguing with her when her mind was made up. “Smite.”
Toke reluctantly made his way back to the Capitol, where he stayed for another three hours just as Zashiel had ordered. Half the politicians he was supposed to be watching were gone, and the rest didn’t do anything worth reporting. When the clock tower finally chimed the hour, Toke felt like a schoolboy finally being dismissed from a long, boring class.
That was a huge waste of time, he thought as he bounded across buildings, hurrying to get back to their meeting place. At least now he could finally get some answers from Zashiel. And if she still didn’t want to talk, he would…
You’ll what? he chastised himself. Beat it out of her?
With one last jump, he landed on the edge of the building Zashiel was hiding below. He shifted his anchor so that he was walking on the wall— and stopped.
Zashiel wasn’t there.
A quick scan of the alleyway told him that his eyes weren’t playing tricks on him. Zashiel really was gone. For a few seconds, panic turned his blood to ice and he had to fight to keep himself from bolting.
“Calm down!” he whispered to himself. “She’s not gone. She just moved somewhere else.”
He backed up slowly onto the roof again and crouched low as he made his way around the perimeter. She wouldn’t have just left him here, right? Not when he was on a dangerous mission. Or, more likely, when she thought he might come back with valuable information. He caught sight of a bright yellow glow coming from the street on the opposite end of the building, and breathed a sigh of relief when he recognized the shape of the Sorakine girl and the light her wings gave off. Almost immediately, though, that relief turned into terror.
She wasn’t the only Sorakine down there.
“Who the smite is that?” he whispered, dropping onto his stomach. The second Sorakine was taller than Zashiel was, so Toke guessed he must have been older than her. He was standing with his back to Toke’s building, and was listening to what Zashiel was saying, though Toke couldn’t hear it from so far off. He had his hood up, keeping Toke from making out any other details about him besides his height, but the way he had his fists planted on his hips made Toke wonder if this was one of the higher ranking Sorakines. Judging by the look on Zashiel’s, this Sorakine’s appearance was both unexpected and unwelcome.
Zashiel glanced up and caught Toke’s eye. Though she gave no indication that she had seen him, he noticed the way she started jerking her hand to the side. It didn’t take a genius to figure out what she was trying to say.
GET OUT OF HERE BEFORE HE SEES YOU!
Toke nodded and stood up to leave. Before he could take a step, though, the older Sorakine turned around to see what had caught Zashiel’s attention, and Toke dropped back onto his belly. His heart was pounding so hard he could feel it in his throat as he lay there, waiting. Had he been too slow? Had the Sorakine spotted him? What would happen if he had? He didn’t dare peek over the side of the building to see, though. He could only lie there and hope that…
A yellow ribbon of light flashed by above him, followed instantly by another. The unexpected brightness blinded him for a few seconds, and he froze in place until his vision cleared. Breathing as hard as if he’d just finished one of Zashiel’s workouts, he slowly rotated his head around without getting up.
He was still alone.
Toke got to his feet, his legs feeling weak after the scare, and looked up to see two twin pinpricks of light in the distance, flying towards Hashira.
“What was that all about?” he wondered, letting himself fall down onto his backside. As he watched, the lights vanished in the night sky. What was he supposed to do now?
That look on Zashiel’s face… she had almost looked afraid of the older Sorakine. And the way he’d had his hands on his hips made Toke think that she had been getting a good tongue lashing. Any other day, the thought of his high and mighty mentor getting in trouble would have had Toke on the ground laughing, but tonight it only made his chest heavy with dread.
As he sat there, he began to mull over his options. Did he stay where he was and hope Zashiel came back for his report? He shook his head, and a yawn erupted from his mouth. No, that didn’t sound good at all. It was already late, and if he stayed up any later he would risk falling asleep in Navras’ class the next morning. He only had a couple of weeks left to finish making his battery, and previous experiences told him he would still be pushing his luck with that. Having made up his mind, he stood up and walked back down to the alleyway he’d started in. He shed the jacket and lifted the grate to hide it again, but then hesitated.
“I may as well make use of this thing,” he muttered, setting the grate back down and lifting his shirt up. A few seconds later the jacket was stored safely in the pouch under his shirt, and he walked back out onto the street. He paused when he came to the place where Zashiel had been getting chewed out by the other Sorakine, and grimaced when an unexpected wave of guilt washed over him.
“She said she can take care of herself,” he muttered, turning away and heading back in the direction of the school. “And if she wants my report, she can come ask for it.”
NEXT TIME: Uh oh, looks like Zashiel’s in trouble. Who’s this new Sorakine, and how much does he know? More importantly, how much is Zashiel going to tell him?