Chapter Twenty Five
“What is a dream?” Professor Navras asked. He stood looking at the clock at the front of the workshop, and with a dramatic sweep of his black robe he turned to face his class. “Are they merely visions from our unconscious mind when we sleep?”
“No, Professor,” the class said together. Most of them had heard this speech before, but Navras repeated it for the sake of a new student who had begun the class only that morning. Toke looked at him from his spot. The young man, only a day past sixteen, was watching Navras with a mixture of awe and uncertainty. Toke understood that look only too well. Everyone here was sitting in the presence of a legend, the father of the age they lived in. How did one behave in his classroom? What did one expect from Professor Navras? It reminded Toke of his own first day of class, when he’d been so intimidated he hadn’t even been able to hold a screwdriver. Luckily, the Professor’s kindness had soothed his fears before long, and he had begun work on his battery— the next natural step in Dranibor Navras’ legacy. Toke was confident that the new student would come around before too long as well.
“A dream is a puzzle,” Navras continued. “It begins as a vision, and we must find the way to bring it forth from our own minds and into the real world. That is the goal for artists, for authors, and, most of all, for inventors. For we do not simply put paint on a canvas, or write words on a page. We create objects that can be used for more than mere entertainment. Our goal is not just to bring reality to our own fantasies, but to make them everyone else’s reality as well.”
With that, the bell rang, and the class began to disperse. The new student stayed where he was until the rest of the students had already left, leaving only him, Toke, and Professor Navras in the room. The poor kid looked like he was about to have a heart attack.
“You may go now, Mr. Stetchil,” Navras said, sitting down behind his desk. “I would like to have an essay detailing whatever invention ideas you might have by tomorrow morning.”
“Y- yes, sir,” the new students said, and pried himself off of his stool. With a sigh, Toke got up as well and placed his battery back into his locker.
“Toke,” Navras said, stopping him as he headed for the door. “I would like to speak with you later about… certain matters.”
A shiver ran down Toke’s spine. “Yes, sir,” he said, knowing without having to ask which “certain matters” the professor was referring to. When Navras didn’t say anything else, Toke left the room, and found the new student, Stetchil, talking to Virkhul.
“— failure written all over your face,” the secretary was saying. “Should I go ahead and fill out a withdrawal sheet for you?”
Stetchil was looking at Virkhul with a ghostly pale face.
“Don’t pay attention to him,” Toke interrupted. “He’s just a bully.”
Virkhul gave him a venomous glare, and Stetchil glanced at him, gave a quick nod of thanks, and then hurried away.
“A regular Sorakine in white, aren’t you?” Virkhul sneered, and then withdrew a folded up piece of paper from his desk drawer. “This came while you were in class. Mommy and Daddy dearest are coming for a visit today.” He held out the letter with a smug smirk on his face. “Isn’t that nice?”
“You read my mail?” Toke exclaimed, snatching the paper from Virkhul’s fingers. “I can get you in trouble for that, you know.”
“I am the professor’s loyal secretary,” he replied, putting on an innocent look. “Everything I do is for his—”
“Whatever,” Toke grumbled, walking away. “I hope you get fired.”
As he walked, Toke unfolded the letter.
“Son, your mother and I will be in Jerulkan by noon the day before your presentation. Be ready to meet us, and tell us any improvements you’ve made to your betaray.
“My betaray?” Toke read aloud before crumpling the letter into a ball and throwing it into a waste basket. He’d only said the word “battery” in front of his father a thousand times. One would think that… no, that wouldn’t be Brin Gnasher’s style. Until it was on his store shelves, bringing in money, it wasn’t worth knowing anything about.
With a sigh, he made his way to his dorm and changed into his best outfit— which happened to be the same one he wore to his first presentation with Adal. He would have to wash it before morning, but it would be worth it to subtract one item from his parents’ list of things to nag him about.
I wonder what Zashiel’s planning, he thought, buttoning up the shirt. Dozens of possibilities flashed before his eyes, and he felt a little worse with every one of them. His parents’ stubborn self-righteousness and Zashiel’s complete unpredictability would be a volatile mixture. He wouldn’t be surprised if one of them didn’t make it out alive.
“Don’t think about that,” he muttered, and, bracing himself for the worst, headed outside.
The summer heat was as unrelenting as ever as Toke stepped outside. Rather than stand by the side of the road and wait for his parents’ carriage to arrive, he opted for the shade of one of the nearby trees. It wasn’t even relatively cool under there, and he couldn’t sit down for fear of getting grass stains on his nice pants, but it still beat standing in the sun.
I hope she’s not planning on pranking them, he found himself thinking as he waited, sweat starting to bead on his forehead. Knowing her, they’d probably wake up somewhere in Vlangur.
The thought was worth a chuckle, but it still made his insides churn. What was she planning to do? Twenty minutes of anxious worrying later, Toke finally saw a black buggy pull up to the school’s courtyard. There was no question of who it might be, so he reluctantly abandoned his shady spot and went to meet his parents. Sure enough, the door opened and Brin stepped out to help Toke’s mother down.
“Ah, son,” Brin said, turning around and seeing Toke. “Good to see you’re on time today.”
“Good to see you, Dad,” Toke replied. Fortunately, Brin was too busy trying to haggle the price of the trip down with the cabby to notice his sarcasm.
“Toke,” his mother greeted him, coming in for a hug, “you look… different.”
For a moment, a white hot flash of panic seared through Toke’s body, but he managed to keep his face neutral. Of course he would look different, he realized. After training with Zashiel, his muscles had become much more noticeable. He was in the best shape of his life. How had he not expected his own parents to notice?
“Yes, you do,” his father agreed, begrudgingly putting a handful of coins into the carriage driver’s palm. “You have a…” he ran his finger along his own cheek, “right there.”
“Oh, that?” Toke asked, fighting the urge to feel the scar. “That was, um, an accident in the workshop.”
“You should have been following your teacher’s safety rules,” Brin snapped, and motioned at his son’s face. “I hope you learned your lesson.”
Toke’s face started to turn red, which he knew would only highlight the bright pink scar even more. “That’s not what…” he made himself stop talking. How was he supposed to explain things to these two? Better that they believe the first thing that popped into their heads.
“Let’s get out of the sun,” Evanya said, tugging her husband towards the shade of the trees. “A black carriage in the middle of the summer. Who thought that would be a good idea?”
“And he charged far more than he should have,” Toke’s father grumped as he let his wife lead him away from the road. Toke followed them. “It cost a whole two coins more than the last time. Now, Toke,” he turned around once he was out of the sun, “tell us how you’re not going to mess up this time.”
“Dear,” Mrs. Gnasher broke in, but Brin held up his hand to silence her.
“I’m serious, Evanya,” he said. “I need some sort of assurance that Toke isn’t going to fail this time around. We raised him better than…” He paused, and shielded his eyes as he looked upwards. “I say, is that a—”
His words were cut off when a bright yellow flash came from the sky, and a gust of warm air buffeted Toke from behind. Both of Toke’s parents cried out and flinched, but Toke was far too used to this to be caught off guard anymore. He did suck in an alarmed breath, though.
Zashiel, what are you doing here? he yelled inside his head, turning around to confront her. Are you trying to blow our cover? Why would you visit me when my parents are right here?
And why are you dressed like that?
To Toke’s utter disbelief, Zashiel had shed her white jacket and pants in favor of… something else entirely.
“Do you like it?” she asked, giving him an uncharacteristically shy smile as her blue dress swayed a little in the breeze. “I figured I should put on something special to meet your parents.”
Toke was sure he could hear his brain sizzling as it melted, and the only thing that managed to make it out of his mouth sounded something like, “Urghabumframbugga…”
The dress was made of a thin, light material. If her jacket had blended in with the clouds, then the dress was the color of the sky itself. It was loose and billowy around her legs, but tight across the chest, and tapered to a pair of thin straps at the shoulders that ran down her otherwise bare back, leaving plenty of space for her wings. Not only that, but she had tied her hair back into a braid. The changes were so much that Toke almost had trouble believing it was Zashiel Kal’Brynden standing in front of him, and not some innocent, non-warrior Sorakine he’d never met before.
“Toke?” his father said from behind him, sounding more confused than Toke had ever heard before. “Who is this young, ah, lady?”
“Oh, um,” Toke stuttered, unable to take his eyes off of Zashiel. How did he explain this? What the smiting smite did Zashiel think she was doing? Gathering his wits as best he could, Toke slowly turned around to face his parents. “This is Zashiel. She’s my, um…”
“We’ve been seeing each other for the past few weeks,” Zashiel interrupted him. Toke had thought things couldn’t get any weirder before, but he was proven wrong when the clearly insane Sorakine girl came to stand beside him and tenderly took his arm in her own. She gave him a more affectionate smile, making Toke’s face burn so hot he thought it would explode. “Haven’t you told them about me, Toke?”
“I can’t say that I have,” Toke replied. His mouth had to speak on its own, because his brain was still trying to process everything that was going on.
Zashiel smiled apologetically at the Gnasher parents. “I’m sorry, I don’t mean to just drop in like this. I thought this would a good chance to meet Toke’s family is all.”
“That’s, um, quite all right,” Brin said, clearing his throat. He looked at least as stunned as Toke did, which might have been a good thing if Toke himself didn’t think he was about to die of embarrassment. “I’m Brin, and this is my wife, Evanya.”
He awkwardly held out his hand to shake, and Zashiel accepted it. Brin winced a little, and Toke knew that Zashiel wasn’t holding back her superior strength. For a moment, he almost wanted to laugh. The situation was so absurd, he had to stop himself from pinching his arm to make sure he wasn’t dreaming.
“And you two have been,” Toke’s mother spoke up, clearly as flustered as her husband, “seeing each other? As in…”
“Yes, ma’am!” Zashiel face lit up with an even brighter smile, and she hugged Toke’s arm even harder. “We haven’t known each other that long, but I think we’ve already made a really deep connection.”
She’s going to get me killed after all, Toke thought, his head spinning. Mom and Dad are going to murder me for this!
Brin cleared his throat, bringing the attention back to him. “Well, we were just about to get some lunch with our son. Would you care to join us, Miss…”
“Zashiel,” she reminded him, giving him another blindingly white smile. “And I’d love to!”
After sharing a brief, albeit uneasy, glance, Mr. and Mrs. Gnasher hooked elbows and turned to lead the way out of the courtyard. Toke held back a few seconds until they were out of earshot before following. He immediately gave Zashiel a withering glare.
“What are you doing?” he hissed. “Have you lost your mind?”
Zashiel smirked and gave him a conspiratorial wink. “I told you I had an idea that would blow your parents’ minds, didn’t I? Just play along!”
“You’re going to blow our cover.”
“You think I would do something like this if there was even a chance it would put us in danger?” She rolled her eyes. “I told you, Klevon and the others already know we’re friends. Seeing me have lunch with your family might look weird, but it’s not going to make them think you’re the Juryokine.”
Toke sighed and looked at his parents, who were shooting concerned glances over their shoulder. When they saw he was looking, both their heads snapped forward again.
“Well, it’s working,” he admitted. “I think you’re on the verge of giving them both heart attacks.”
“I’ll try not to do that,” Zashiel chuckled. “But they need to figure out that you’re not their little boy anymore. You have your own life. If finding out that you’re courting a Sorakine doesn’t drive that into their skulls, nothing will.”
Courting a Sorakine… Toke’s face started to burn again. How far was Zashiel planning to take this joke?
This time, Evanya had selected another fine restaurant a twenty minute walk from the school. A Taste of Vlangur, it was called, and it specialized in the spicy foods that Yasmik’s neighboring country was famous for. To add to the atmosphere, Vlangurtian ornaments and paintings hung from the walls, and a band in the corner played mokkuyko, a popular type of Vlangurtian music. The waiters even went so far as to wear white wigs to imitate the bleached Vlangurtian hairstyle. It was ironic, Toke thought as they were seated, that with all the odd things to look at, Zashiel was still what drew every eye in the restaurant.
After they had made themselves comfortable, Brin picked up his menu and immediately flinched. “Everyone try to order something inexpensive,” he said. Toke gave him a flat stare. Some things just never changed.
Zashiel, however, had other ideas.
“Toke is about to become a world famous inventor,” she said, picking up her own menu. “I think he deserves a steak for that.”
Brin opened his mouth to argue, but fell silent when she gave him a look over the top of her menu. Toke had to raise his own menu so Brin wouldn't see his grin. Maybe this was be a good idea, he decided.
“Well, if you think I should get a steak,” he said, leaning in closer to her so their shoulders touched, “what do you think about that one?”
He pointed at the most expensive piece of beef the restaurant had for sale, making sure his father could see. Brin’s face went pale.
“You just get whatever you want,” Zashiel replied. “But you’re going to be doing double time for it later.”
Everyone at the table froze, and the menu fell from Mrs. Gnasher’s hands.
“Ah, double time?” Toke’s father asked.
Going a little too far there, Zash, Toke thought, drumming his fingers nervously on the table.
“For training,” Zashiel clarified. She took one of Toke’s arms and ran her hand admiringly along it. “I’ve been helping Toke get in shape. Turns out, he’s even more handsome when his muscles start to show.”
Toke could hear his parents both let out a sigh of relief, but Zashiel’s comment only made him even more nervous. From the moment he’d met her, he’d thought she was beautiful. Stubborn, demanding, and possibly insane, yes, but still beautiful. The two of them had become close friends since then. Could it be, he thought, feeling his elbow brush hers, that she felt that same way?
“I thought he looked different,” Evanya said. “You’re the one who’s been helping him exercise?”
“Every day after class!” Zashiel chirped. “He’s still a little scrawny, but who am I kidding? I love him exactly the way he is.”
She took a moment to rest her head on Toke’s shoulder, and Toke’s heart began to race. It couldn’t be true, could it? She was just playing a joke on his parents. Still, though, he couldn’t deny that he wanted it to be true.
We’ve been through a lot together, he thought, discreetly wiping his sweaty palms on his pants. Maybe she actually has—
“If Miss Zashiel and you are truly, ah, together,” Brin said, “then I hope you are taking proper care of her.” He gave the Sorakine a nervous look out of the corner of his eye, as if he was afraid of offending her.
“Taking care of her?” Toke repeated back, slowly.
Brin sighed. “Last time we came to visit, I specifically told you that you didn’t have enough money to make a woman happy.” He turned to Zashiel, “I am truly sorry for—”
“I don’t care about Toke’s money,” Zashiel cut him off. Her voice sounded genuinely defensive. “What kind of relationship is based around money? Toke is an amazing man, and that’s all that matters. I don’t even care that he’s an inventor. I love Toke.”
Toke’s heart took that as its cue to start trying to hammer its way out of his chest. Under the table, where his parents couldn’t see, Zashiel’s fingers brushed his. Trying to keep himself from hyperventilating, Toke slipped his fingers in between hers, and…
Zashiel pulled her hand away.
In a fraction of a second, Toke’s heart went from feeling like it was about to explode, to feeling like it wasn’t beating at all. Across the table from him, Brin looked much the same way. He was sitting slumped forward, his usual air of self-importance nowhere to be seen. Suddenly, Toke didn’t find the joke all that funny anymore. He had wanted to startle his parents, not let Zashiel poke holes all through them.
The rest of the meal went by in near silence. Toke, still feeling guilty, opted out of the steak and ordered a soup and salad instead. Zashiel, as if sensing that he wasn’t enjoying himself anymore, kept her hands to herself from then on. When they had all finished eating, his father pulled the coins out of his pouch and laid them on the table without a single complaint. That, more than anything, worried Toke.
“Thank you two for a fine meal,” Zashiel said, flashing them another dazzling smile.
“Anytime,” Evanya replied, looking a tad more comfortable with the winged girl than she had been before. “I hope we get to see more of you soon, Zashiel.”
“I hope so too!” Zashiel said, tucking her wings in so she could fit through the door as Brin held it open for her. When Toke went to follow her out, his father grabbed him by the shoulder.
“Son…” he said hesitantly, letting the restaurant door swing shut behind them. He still didn’t look like he had recovered from Zashiel’s scolding.
Toke sighed. “Dad, look, I’m sorry. She can be a little, um, mouthy sometimes.”
“That’s not it, Toke,” Brin said. He looked at the two women further down the sidewalk, making small talk. “She’s… she’s a fine woman. She’s got a good head on her shoulders. That’s something I wish I could…” he paused for a moment to clear his throat. “That’s something I wish I could still say about myself.”
Toke blinked in surprise. Had his father just apologized? To him?
Brin clapped his son on the shoulder. “Take good care of her, son,” he said. “Your mother and I will see you tomorrow.” He kept his hand where it was and, after a moment, squeezed it. “I’m proud of you, Toke.”
“We both are,” Mrs. Gnasher chimed in, coming to stand beside her husband. She leaned in to give her son a quick kiss on the cheek. “You’ll do great tomorrow.”
“Indeed he will,” Brin agreed, standing up straight again. He smoothed the wrinkles out of his jacket, and seemed to regain his confidence. He held up his hands like he was framing Toke’s face. “Cassitoka Gnasher, the man who changed Yasmik!”
The man who changed Yasmik…
The MAN who changed Yasmik…
“Thanks, Dad,” Toke said. Then, for the first time in years, he stepped forward and gave his father a hug.
“Good night, son,” Brin said when they separated. “We’ll see you in the morning.”
“Good night,” Toke said back as he watched his parents turn and walk away. A few seconds later, Zashiel came to stand beside him.
“That went well,” she said.
“I didn’t ask you to insult him like that.”
“No, but he needed to be. Sometimes, the only way to build something new is to knock down what’s already there.”
It wasn’t your place to do that, though, Toke thought. Without a word, he turned and began to walk back toward the school.
“I think we had them convinced, though,” Zashiel piped up again. A wicked smile rose to her face. “They actually think you’re courting me!”
Toke’s heart skipped a beat inside his chest. Did that mean it really had all been an act? He glanced at her while he walked, and found that he had difficulty looking away.
He couldn’t live in this uncertainty. He had to know!
“It could be more than just a joke,” he whispered.
Zashiel turned to look at him. “What was that?”
Toke took a deep breath. “What if we weren’t just trying to trick them? What if it was for real?”
Zashiel stopped in her tracks, and Toke almost walked past her. When he looked at her again, her face was back in that unreadable expression she usually had.
“What are you saying, Toke?” she asked.
Toke groaned. “Oh, come on! Are you going to make me say it out loud?”
Zashiel didn’t reply, but the look on her face was all the answer Toke needed. After taking a moment to look both ways, Toke took her by the arm and led her into a nearby alley.
“Okay, fine,” he said when they were out of the road. “Zashiel, I… I like you, all right? You’re one of the best friends I’ve ever had. You’re strong and confident. You’re nice enough, once somebody gets to know you. And you’re- you’re very pretty, too!” His face was burning again now, and he pressed his back up against the wall as he waited to see his friend’s reaction.
At first, Zashiel looked bemused. Then, slowly, her expression changed to concern.
“Are you being serious, Toke?” she asked, crossing her arms over her chest. “Your parents are gone now. You don’t have to keep up the act.”
“It’s not an act,” Toke insisted. “You’re… you really are the most amazing woman I’ve ever met. And yes, I really do like you that way.”
Zashiel looked him in the eye for a few seconds, and Toke dared to feel a spark of hope. Maybe, just maybe, she actually returned his feelings. Then they could be a couple. Once this business with the spearman was over, maybe they could even—
“No, no, no,” Zashiel moaned, turning away from him and rubbing her temples. “Oh, Toke, if I had known I never would have tried this!”
“That you actually had feelings for me!” she turned to him, and suddenly looked very, very tired. “Look, Toke, you’re one of my closest friends too. I’ve got nothing against you, but…”
“But you don’t actually like me,” Toke finished for her, his heart sinking down into his stomach.
Zashiel shook her head. “It’s not like that, okay? I like you. Just not like… not like that. I’m kind of, of you know…”
“Involved with somebody else?”
Zashiel frowned. “Yeah, I guess you can say that. It’s complicated.”
Toke thought back on every conversation he’d ever had with her. Had she even once said anything about another man? Now that he thought about it, the only other Sorakines she’d ever mentioned to him were Klevon and…
“Is it that Miron guy?” Toke asked before he could think about it. Zashiel’s head snapped around to fix him with a surprised stare. “Your teacher, or whatever?”
Zashiel was obviously trying to keep her expression neutral, but Toke could still see the way her bottom lip was trembling. He felt a pang of guilt when he realized he had upset her, but he was more concerned with how he had upset her. Was she going to start crying, or throwing punches?
“Shut up, Toke,” she said at last.
“It is him,” Toke whispered, taking a step closer to her. “But he’s dead, right? You said the spearman killed him.”
“Yeah, he’s dead,” Zashiel snapped, every ounce of her earlier playfulness gone. “What does that matter?”
Toke shook his head. He was on dangerous ground here, and he knew it, but he cared too much about Zashiel to just let it go.
“Look, I won’t pretend to know what went on between you and him,” he said, raising his hands, “but you’re holding on to the memory of a dead guy. That’s not healthy!”
“You’re right,” the Sorakine girl shot back. “You don’t know what happened, so just stop talking about it!”
Feeling braver than he had any right to, Toke walked right up to Zashiel and took his hands on her bare shoulders and looked right into her eyes. “You need to let it go,” he said. “Start living in the present. With… with me.”
Anger immediately deformed Zashiel’s pretty face, and before Toke knew what was happening she had punched him in the stomach, throwing him to the ground.
“How dare you talk to me like that?” she yelled, standing above him. In the darkness, her wings lit up to give her a menacing look. “You don’t know what I’ve been through! You don’t know me like you think you do, Toke. Just…” her voice broke, and Toke realized she was close to breaking into tears.
“I’m sorry,” he mumbled, getting to his knees. “Zashiel, really, I’m sorry!”
“Just leave me alone!” she yelled, and took off into the sky. Toke sat on the hard pavement of the alley, watching her. He had seen her fly away dozens of times already, but this time was different. He had always known that somewhere, sometime, she would come back to him.
This time, he felt completely and totally alone.
NEXT TIME: Good job, Toke. You’re a real lady’s man. Couldn’t you have waited until AFTER you solved the mystery to try to break the gang apart? Tell you what, you focus on not screwing your presentation up tomorrow, and just hope that Zashiel will forgive you, okay?