Toke swallowed a nervous groan as he read the letter, trying to focus on the words while his hand shook.
“Great,” he whispered, setting it down on his nightstand. “That’s all I need.”
Sleep had been a long time coming the night before, as the mugging replayed itself over and over in his mind. When he’d finally dozed off, the knife wearing man had invaded his dreams. He woke up just as the sun was peeking over the horizon, and had barely enough time to get dressed before the mailman was knocking on his door. Still queasy from his encounter with the Nail, the letter had only served to make him feel even worse.
We will arrive in Jerulkan at noon the day before your presentation. Please be at the school gate to greet us, and we will discuss the details of what you will do after you graduate. Remember, if Professor Navras expects great things of you, it is your responsibility to exceed his expectations. Make us proud, son!
Sincerely, your Father and Mother.
The day before his presentation— that was today! The groan he had swallowed before burst free of his throat at last as he tied his shoes. Couldn’t they have given him more than five hours’ warning? Leaving his dorm, he locked the door behind him and made his way to the cafeteria.
“Toke!” Boam shouted the moment he got into line, waving and pointing towards an empty seat next to him.
“Yeah, I know,” Toke called back. “It’s not like I ever sit anywhere else.”
A few minutes later, he sat down across from his friend, setting a plate full of eggs and bacon down in front of him.
“Okay, what’s wrong?” Boam asked, swallowing a big mouthful of toast.
“Nothing,” Toke replied, salting his eggs. The cap fell off, dumping salt all over his plate, and he slammed the empty shaker back onto the table. “Smite it, now I have to go get more.”
“Yeah, sure,” Boam nodded sarcastically. “You cuss at the seasonings every morning. There’s obviously nothing wrong.”
“It is nothing,” Toke insisted, pushing the plate away from him in irritation.
Boam sighed, and then passed his half empty plate to him. “Here, just eat mine. I’m not all that hungry anyway.”
Toke looked at the food for a moment before shaking his head and leaning back in his chair. “I’m sorry, I don’t mean to be like this. My parents are coming to see me today.”
“Aah,” Boam said, nodding in understanding. “That would explain it.”
“You’ve never met my parents,” Toke reminded him, taking up his spoon to eat the eggs Boam had given him.
“No, but I hear you complain about them all the time. Not sure I want to meet them.”
Toke’s face turned red, and glanced around to see if anybody else had heard the scatterbrained writer badmouthing his parents.
“You always know just what to say,” he grumbled, scooping up another spoonful of eggs.
He ate in silence for the next few minutes while Boam sat with his arms folded lazily on the table. Toke found himself wishing Wayli was there, but her early morning classes always prevented her from meeting them until noon. She may have been every bit as eccentric as Boam, but at least she had less of a tendency to stick her foot in her mouth. That had been one thing he’d quickly learned about his two friends. Wayli always knew how to make somebody feel better. Boam was a talented writer, but a poor speaker. Anything he wanted to say would probably come out much clearer if he had access to a pen and paper.
“So, what are you going to do?” Boam asked at last, as Toke scraped the last few pieces of egg off his plate.
“Gotta make sure I have something decent to wear when they get here,” he answered, looking down at his wrinkled, oil stained work clothes. He never saw the need to wear anything else, but his parents wouldn’t appreciate it if he greeted them in such a grungy outfit. Life is a special occasion, they were always fond of telling him. One worthy of dressing up for.
“You’ve got that fancy blue shirt in your room, right? Just put that on with a clean pair of pants.”
Toke shook his head. “That won’t be enough for them. I’m graduating tomorrow, and they’ll think that warrants a brand new outfit.”
Boam shrugged. “They’re your parents, I guess. You’ll be going shopping, then?”
Toke nodded. “You want to come?”
“You’re joking, right?” Boam said, rising from his seat and bringing his tray to the dish crew. Toke followed him. “Fancy clothes are for people who don’t have anything to show off on the inside. Um, no offense.”
Toke rolled his eyes. “None taken.”
Boam slapped him on the back hard enough to make the young inventor stagger. “Good to hear it. See you at dinner!”
Without another word, he left in the direction of his dorm. Toke watched him go, and despite his best efforts couldn’t keep himself from chuckling. In a way, Boam’s almost-childish lack of tact was his most endearing trait. It was just a wonder he hadn’t been punched yet for saying the wrong thing to the wrong person. With a shake of his head, Toke turned and made for the door.
The sun was shining bright again that day, reflecting off the walls of the polished stone buildings and forcing Toke to stand still for a minute while his eyes adjusted. He may have grown accustomed to the noise of the city, and even somewhat used to the crowds, but there was no way to prepare one’s eyes for how bright Jerulkan was on a clear day.
He blinked until he could see clearly again, though he still had to squint when he looked directly at the buildings, and set off into town. There were several nearby shops where he could buy clothes, but he ignored them and kept walking. Those stores sold clothes that could be worn in places like Professor Navras’ workshop— exactly the kinds of clothes that his parents would turn their noses up at.
In the back of his mind, he felt a little bad for thinking such thoughts about his parents. After all, they weren’t all bad, they just tended to be… Toke thought for a moment before settling on “disagreeable.” A fitting word, and one he could use without quite as much guilt. They both had a tendency to be disagreeable, and often at the worst possible times. It came, he supposed, from being accustomed to always getting their way.
Toke was snapped out of his thoughts when he rounded a corner on the sidewalk and realized that he was in the same spot he had been last night when the mugging took place. He hesitated, but then shook his head.
“It’s not like he’s still going to be here,” he muttered to himself. “Even if he was, he wouldn’t try anything in broad daylight.”
Even so, he found himself peering anxiously into the alleyway just to make sure.
“You’re not going to find him there,” a voice said from behind him.
Toke yelped in surprise and spun around, tripping over his own legs in the process. Looking up from the sidewalk, he realized that the person who had spoken was none other than the young Sorakine woman he had seen the previous day. From his vantage point the morning sun was directly behind her head, making her look as if she had a halo. He realized he was staring as he picked himself up, and looked back down at his shoes.
“Hm,” she mused under her breath as he stood in front of her. “Clumsy.”
“Sorry, what?” Toke asked. His mind was racing. Why was she here— and talking to him, at that? Was that disappointment he heard in her voice?
The Sorakine turned to look back into the alley. “The thief who was here last night. He’s gone now.”
“You- you were there?” Toke stammered. Even in the bright morning sunlight, her wings gave off an easily visible glow. How could she have possibly hidden at night? And, he wondered, why hadn’t she done anything?
“I was on a rooftop several buildings away,” she confirmed. “I saw what he did, and I saw you do nothing to stop him.”
Toke blinked in surprise. That had sounded like an accusation, but her voice revealed no emotion. If she was angry at him, she wasn’t showing it. What would he do if a Sorakine was mad at him? Their strength was legendary, and they were supposed to be trained from childhood to…
“The thief is dead,” she said suddenly. “When you fled, I went after him.”
“You killed him?” Toke asked, and an icy wave of fear washed down his spine.
“And returned what he stole.” The way she was able to speak so plainly about it was perhaps the most disturbing part. “He took nothing of value from you, so I didn’t look for you.”
“Just my sandwich,” he murmured, and then quickly wished he had kept his mouth shut. The Sorakine gave him a sharp look, but then turned to look into the alleyway again.
“You did nothing last night,” she said for the second time. “So why are you here now?”
“I was just…” Toke began, but then quieted himself. She had been watching him last night, and now she just happened to be at the same place as him a second time? She was behaving as if it was nothing more than coincidence, but he wasn’t sure he believed that.
“Yes?” she asked expectantly, turning to look at him. Her eyes felt like drills into his mind, commanding him to reply before she bored deep enough to find the answer on her own.
“Nothing,” he managed to say. What business was it of hers what he was up to? “Just passing by.”
He said it with sincerity. After all, he was passing the alley on his way to the clothes store. Yet, under the piercing stare of the Sorakine woman, he found he had a hard time believing it, himself. But… it was the truth, right?
“Perhaps you came back to make amends for your cowardice last night?” she suggested, as if he had not spoken at all. “To find the thief and bring him to justice?”
“I- what?” Toke stammered, caught off guard yet again.
The woman narrowed her eyes. “My people have a saying: It is better to be dead than a coward, because even a corpse can fertilize the grass.”
Toke went pale and took a step backwards. Had that been a threat? He tried to tell himself that it wasn’t. She wouldn’t threaten him right out here in the open, would she? The roads were far from deserted, and even though everyone gave the Sorakine a wide berth, her glowing wings were far from inconspicuous. But Sorakines were held to different laws than humans. If she was willing to kill a thief in the middle of the night, would she be willing to kill a coward in broad daylight?
She put her fists on her hips, waiting expectantly for a reply.
“Um, yeah,” he said at last, a cold sweat running down his forehead. When she didn’t look convinced, he hesitantly added, “Yeah, that’s why I came.”
The Sorakine stared at him for a minute, then finally turned away to look into the alley again. “Well, like I said, you’re too late.”
Toke waited for her to continue, but when she didn’t say anything he began to back away.
“Since you failed to come to your fellow man’s aid last night,” she said suddenly, “you’ll need another task.”
Toke stopped in his tracks when her gaze met his again. What was she talking about? Why wouldn’t she leave him alone? Why was she even here? He wanted to ask all these questions at the same time, but all that managed to come out of his mouth was a strangled, frightened, “What?”
“If you abandon your kinsmen,” she answered, suddenly advancing on him, “you are placed in debt. You must complete another task, one that is twice as difficult, if you ever want to pay it off.”
She was standing less than a foot away from him now, and Toke found himself with his back against the wall.
“Th- that’s a Sorakine custom,” he stuttered. “I’m a human.”
The Sorakine’s eyes narrowed dangerously. “A coward to the core. Better to be dead than to be a—”
Toke didn’t allow her to finish. “I’ve got to go!” he said, dodging around her. She said something in surprise, but he didn’t stop to listen. He just ran.
He didn’t stop for several minutes, but when he did he was relieved to see that the Sorakine girl hadn’t followed him.
“What was that all about?” he wondered as he came to a stop. He put his hands on his knees, puffing and wheezing as he tried to catch his breath. There was a reason he never ran anywhere. He waited a few more minutes just to make sure she wouldn’t show up before wiping the sweat from his forehead and setting off once again. After his unplanned run, it only took him another minute to reach the store.
“Shampfir’s Fine Wears,” the sign announced to everyone on the street, displaying a picture of a man wearing an expensive looking suit and leaning casually on a polished cane. It was the most expensive clothing store this side of Jerulkan, and the only place that sold clothes Toke knew would be able to impress his parents.
He pushed the door open, jingling the bell above him, and stepped inside. The store was almost empty, with only two other customers browsing the selections. A white haired old man with a pinched expression, who Toke guessed must have been Shampfir, stood behind the counter looking him over with a disdainful eye. Suddenly, Toke realized just how sweaty his run had made him, and how that sweat was showing through his already filthy clothes.
“Sorry,” he apologized softly. “I just need to get some new clothes.”
“I can see that,” Shampfir sniffed, loudly enough for his other customers to hear. “Do try not to get grime all over my merchandise, will you?”
“Yes, sir,” Toke agreed, making his way further into the store. He could still feel the store owner’s suspicious gaze on the back of his neck, just waiting for him to drip sweat onto one of the many fine linens displayed throughout the store. He made himself move carefully, determined not to give the grouchy old man reason to throw him out.
A minute later, he spied a dark green shirt folded neatly on a table. It had a long collar, and black buttons down the front. More importantly, the price was only a little more than half what the other shirts cost. Toke picked it up and felt the fabric. It was light, so he would be able to walk around in the bright summer sun without breaking into a sweat quite as easily. Nodding in satisfaction, he carried it delicately over to the dressing rooms, pausing to grab a pair of dark pants along the way.
The door clicked shut behind him, blocking any prying eyes, and Toke pulled his off his sweaty clothes. Setting them on the bench, he picked up the new pants and looked at them. How could he try them on without getting them dirty? If they fit, it wouldn’t matter. If they were too small or too big, though, his sweat would get all over them and Shampfir would probably force him to buy them as damaged goods. The shirt may have been cheaper than the others, but he still couldn’t afford more than one.
The doorknob for his dressing room jiggled, bringing Toke back to the present.
“Someone’s in this one,” he called out.
There was a pause, and then the knob jiggled again, more forcefully this time. Probably Shampfir trying to catch him ruining his merchandise, Toke thought. It would almost be worth buying two shirts just to see the old grump throw a—
Suddenly, the doorknob turned with a loud crack, and the lock holding it shut broke. Before Toke could react, the door was thrown open, but instead of the shop keeper on the other side, he found himself looking at the Sorakine girl again.
“Hey!” he shouted in alarm. “What do you think you’re doing?”
Without answering, the girl grabbed him by his shoulder and pulled him out of the dressing room, back into the store. The customers and the owner were all staring at them in disbelief, and Toke realized that he was still in his undergarments. His face turning scarlet with embarrassment, he tried to cover himself with the pair of pants he still held in his hands.
“Hmm,” the Sorakine girl hummed thoughtfully, running her eyes over him as if this were nothing out of the ordinary. “Scrawny, with hardly any muscle at all, but that can be changed. It might even work to our advantage.”
“What are you talking about?” Toke demanded, but she ignored his question and began squeezing his arms, as if feeling his muscles.
“That’s enough of that!” Shampfir hollered, banging his fist on the counter. “I will not accept this kind of behavior in my store. Out! Both of you, out!”
The Sorakine girl turned to glare at him. “This is Sorakine business. You should not interfere.”
“This is my store,” the man insisted. His face was livid, and he jabbed his finger at them in emphasis with every word. “If I tell you to get out, you get out!”
“Yes, sir,” Toke said, feeling strangely numb after all the humiliation. “I’m very sorry, sir.” He dropped the pair of pants and took a moment to reach back into the fitting room for his old clothes, which he slipped back on as he hurried for the door.
“And don’t come back!” Shampfir commanded just before the door swung shut behind him.
Toke’s face was still burning as he hurriedly made his way down the sidewalk before any of the nosy passersby could ask what he had done to be kicked out of the store. Behind him, he heard the bell jingle again as the Sorakine girl came outside too, and he quickened his pace even more. He wasn’t quick enough, though. Within seconds, his shoulder was caught in her firm grip yet again.
“You’ll do,” she said without waiting for him to turn around.
“Leave me alone!” Toke shouted, trying to pull away from her, but she was too strong. “What do you want from me?”
“Your help,” she answered bluntly. “Consider it a chance to settle your debt.”
“I don’t have a debt,” he argued. If anything, she owed him a debt after embarrassing him like that. He didn’t dare tell her that, of course.
“Better to be dead than—”
“That’s your saying, not ours!” Toke interrupted her. “I’m human, not a Sorakine! Stop trying to blackmail me into helping you!”
The angle she held his arm at made it difficult for Toke to turn and look at her, but when he finally did he wished he hadn’t. Her brow was creased with cold, steely anger, and her mouth was a thin line.
“Fine. Go back to your shopping, coward,” she said, her voice like a splinter of ice. She let go of his arm, but did not take her eyes away from his. “It’s obviously very important.”
Toke waited for a moment for her to leave, feeling like it would be a bad idea to turn his back on her if he could help it. She stayed where she was, though, her eyes, hard as stone and locked with his. He only managed to meet that stare for two seconds before ducking his head and looking at the sidewalk.
“Goodbye, then,” he mumbled, though he didn’t know why. There was nothing remotely good about any of this. He kept that to himself, though, and hurried the other way.
He didn’t run this time, still feeling more than a little winded from earlier, but he still walked fast enough to pass the people in front of him. The whole time, he strained his ears, listening for any sign that the Sorakine girl was coming after him. He didn’t turn around, though. He wasn’t sure where he was going, but he kept walking anyway just to get away from her. It wasn’t until the clock tower at the center of town began to ring that he stopped. Twelve chimes. Noon.
Smite it all, he was late!
NEXT TIME: What’d I tell you? Bestest best friends for life, am I right? The real question is, who’s worse? Zashiel, or Toke’s parents? Be back next week to find out!