“Try not to order anything too expensive,” Mr. Gnasher advised his family as they sat down to look at their menus.
The restaurant Evanya had seen on arriving in Jerulkan was called Tivinski Kolo, one of the finest, and most pricey, places to eat in the whole city. A waiter stood by their table, even as they decided what to order, ready to fill their glances with champagne at the first given opportunity.
“Brin,” Mrs. Gnasher chastised him, “Toke is graduating tomorrow. The least we can do is let him order what he wants.”
“I’m sure there’s something he’d like that’s reasonably priced,” his father argued, flipping through the pages. “How about the chicken? It’s the cheapest thing on the menu.”
Toke gave their waiter an apologetic look, but if he was annoyed by his father’s stinginess he was too professional to show it.
“Fine, I’ll get that,” Toke grumbled. In truth, he didn’t care one way or the other. His mother claimed their dinner at Tivinski Kolo was to celebrate his becoming an inventor, but the way she kept going back and forth in the menu, comparing the different dishes it displayed, it was clear that she had wanted to come for her own reasons.
“Darling, you and I can split a meal,” Mr. Gnasher said, gently putting a hand on her menu to close it. “We’ll save money that way.”
“Brin!” his mother snapped for the second time. “We can afford to buy something special once in a while. I will order what I please!”
Mr. Gnasher grimaced, as if his wallet already felt lighter, but he didn’t argue.
“I would like the lobster soup, please,” Mrs. Gnasher said, handing the menu to the waiter.
“Very good, madam,” he said, placing the menu in the crook of his arm. “And you will be wanting the chicken, sir?”
Toke nodded silently, and handed his menu over as well.
“I’ll have the steak, then, I suppose,” his father said with a resigned sigh.
“Which steak, sir?” the waiter asked.
Mr. Gnasher hesitated a moment, and then held his menu up to point at which one he wanted. He thought he was being discreet, but Toke could still see well enough to know his father had just ordered the most expensive slab of beef the restaurant offered. He tried to remind himself that he hadn’t wanted to come in the first place, but it was difficult while watching his father ignore his own urgings not to spend a cent more than was necessary.
“Very good, sir,” the waiter said again, taking his menu. With his free hand, he skillfully extended the bottle of champagne.
“No, thank you,” Mr. Gnasher said quickly, putting his hand over his glass. “None for us.”
“Very well, sir,” the waiter acknowledged with a polite nod. “Your food will be here shortly.”
“So, tell us about what life is like here in the big city,” Mr. Gnasher said, sipping from his water glass as delicately as if it was the champagne he had just turned down.
Toke shrugged. “Nothing really happens around here,” he admitted. “It’s a lot noisier, and there are people everywhere you look, but other than that it’s not much different from Kassfar.”
“Hmm,” his father hummed doubtfully. “You haven’t been spending all your free time in your room, have you?”
“No,” Toke lied. He did spend most of the time he wasn’t in class in his dorm, but he couldn’t very well tell his father that.
“Good,” Mr. Gnasher said, holding his glass up a bit higher to examine the swirling pattern that had been engraved into it. “How many friends do you have?”
Toke lowered his eyes so he was looking at his father’s red tie, crisp, new and probably expensive, and tried to keep from scowling. He’d grown up with his parents and their insufferable, probing questions. When he didn’t answer right away, his father set his glass back down on the table and folded his hands in front of himself sternly.
“You’ve been attending this school for the past three years,” he said. “Surely even you can’t be around other people that long without making friends with a couple of them.”
Toke immediately bit back the scathing remark he wanted to respond with, and instead answered, “I have two friends.”
Mr. Gnasher nodded approvingly, and then motioned for his son to go on. “And their names are?”
“Wayli and Boam,” Toke answered, feeling his face begin to turn pink. He remembered the conversation he’d had with Boam that morning, and desperately hoped that his parents wouldn’t ask to meet them.
“Wayli is a girl’s name,” his mother spoke up, her eyes suddenly alight with interest. “Is she your—”
“No,” Toke cut her off, his face turning from pink to scarlet. “No, she is not.”
Mrs. Gnasher smiled in the sadistic way only a mother can when she wants to embarrass her son. “I’ll bet she’s pretty.”
“She’s…” Toke replied, stumbling over his own words, feeling as if his face would burst into flames it turned any redder. “She’s okay, I guess. But we’re just friends.”
“That’s a shame,” she mock pouted, and Toke fought off the urge to glare at her.
“See that it stays that way,” his father ordered him in a tone of voice that left no room for argument. “You don’t need to be in a relationship at this point in your life.”
“Why not?” Toke demanded before realizing that wasn’t a wise thing to say. If it didn’t convince his parents that he and Wayli were indeed together, it would undoubtedly bring one of his father’s lectures on the importance of money.
“Because it takes money to be in a relationship,” he answered, confirming Toke’s second fear. “If you don’t have money, how in the world are you going to show her you care for her?”
Toke declined to answer. After all, he and Wayli weren’t together in the first place. Maybe his parents would actually realize this, and stop harassing him about it.
Then again, maybe Toke would sprout wings and fly with the Sorakines…
“Without money, you can’t take her out to eat at nice places like this,” his father went on, heedless of his son’s lack of interest. Mrs. Gnasher put a fond hand on her husband’s shoulder. “You can’t buy her flowers, or jewelry, or anything. You would be disappointing her the whole time, even if she was too nice to say so.”
Toke bit his tongue to keep from saying anything he would regret. But, looking from his father to his mother, it was easy to see why he had come to think this way.
He was saved from further awkward conversation by their waiter’s reappearance. He flawlessly distributed their food, refilled their glasses, and then left after asking if he could get them anything else. Mr. Gnasher’s steak was mouthwatering to look at, while Mrs. Gnasher’s bowl of lobster soup was sending up mouthwatering clouds of steam. Toke looked down at the piece of chicken his father had ordered for him, the cheapest thing on the entire menu, and gave a silent sigh. The meat cut smoothly beneath his knife, though, and he couldn’t deny that it tasted good. But at the same time, he couldn’t help but feel left out, and he forced himself to repeat, “I didn’t want to come here in the first place. I didn’t want to come here in the first place,” inside his head.
“That was delicious,” Evanya said several minutes later after swallowing the last bite of her meal. “Thank you for the wonderful meal, darling.”
“You’re welcome,” Brin replied with a contented smile, as if he had come with every intention of buying two of the most expensive meals the restaurant offered. “Anything for my family.”
The waiter came by shortly afterwards. “May I interest you in some dessert?”
“Oh,” Mrs. Gnasher exclaimed, turning to her husband, “don’t you think we could afford some dessert, dear?”
“Absolutely not,” Mr. Gnasher answered without hesitation, all traces of generosity vanished. “We’ll take the bill now, please.”
“Yes, sir,” their waiter conceded, and produced a slip of paper on which he wrote what they owed. When he handed it over, Toke’s father winced as if he had been punched in the stomach.
“Very well, very well,” he moaned, pulling the money out of his coin purse and laying it on the table.
“Thank you, sir,” the waiter said, collecting the money into his hand. “Have a good evening.”
Mr. Gnasher wasted no time putting his suit jacket back on and getting up from the table. Toke and his mother had to hurry to not be left behind in his haste to leave the “money swallowing pit,” as he kept muttering to himself.
The sun was just beginning to sink towards the horizon when they came back out onto the street. His father tugged his jacket, already feeling uncomfortably hot in the early afternoon heat.
“Why don’t you take us around town, son?” he suggested. “Show us the sights?”
Toke hesitated, trying to think of something he could show his parents, but the heat made it difficult to concentrate. His father asked to see something new every time they came to visit, and Toke was running out of things to show them. They had already been to General Mronivang’s memorial, the Undying Gardens, and the Diggev Whirlpool. That only left…
“Well” he said at last, “if we go to the east end of the city, there’s a spot where you can see Hashira.”
“The Sorakine city?” Mr. Gnasher asked incredulously. “All the way from here?”
“You can’t see much of it,” Toke admitted. “And only on clear days. Mostly, you just see the light reflecting off of it.”
When Toke had first learned that he could see the floating, pillar-shaped city of the Sorakine all the way from Jerulkan, he had made it a priority to go and do so. Just looking at the floating city from so far away, with its palpable air of mystery, had been enough to make his stomach do backflips.
“The east side is a long way away, though,” his mother said. “And it’s hot out here. I think I’d like to just go back to the hotel.”
Mr. Gnasher considered this for a moment, and then nodded his agreement. “All right, then. Toke, I suppose you’ll be heading back to the school, right?”
Toke nodded, relieved that he was being spared of any further sightseeing with his parents. Relatively speaking, this visit had been one of the less painful ones.
“Have a good night, Toke,” his mother said, leaning over to kiss him on the cheek, making his face burn again.
“Get to bed early,” his father instructed him. “Nine o’clock, at the latest. I know you think you’re an adult now, but an early bedtime is still something a young man like you needs.”
I only think I’m an adult? Toke thought, trying to keep how offended he was from showing. A young man like me?
If Mr. Gnasher saw how much he had just upset his son, he didn’t show it. He clapped Toke on the shoulder before hooking arms with his wife and walking in the direction of their hotel. Toke turned the opposite direction, which would take him back to the school, and stopped short with a gasp.
“Were those your parents?” the Sorakine girl asked, her face less than three inches away from his. Toke scrambled backwards, almost falling on his rump again.
“What are you doing here?” he demanded.
Instead of answering, she looked past him at the retreating figures of his parents. “Seeing them has answered a lot of questions I had about you.”
“You’ve been spying on me?” Toke asked, trying to sound outraged. In truth, he wasn’t surprised. She had been watching him last night too, hadn’t she?
Again, she ignored his question. “Weak parents can only raise weak children. I suppose you’re not to blame for your cowardice, then. At least, not totally.”
Toke made an exasperated noise in his throat, and pointed at her. “Don’t talk about my parents like that, okay? You have no right to—”
“I came to give you the offer again,” she interrupted him.
Toke’s muscles went tense, preparing to run away again if he had to. “I told you already,” he said. “I’m not in anybody’s debt. Whatever it is you want me to do, I won’t do it!”
“You’re weak.” The way she said it didn’t sound like an insult. It was just something she had observed, as casually as if she had told him that his hair was black. “If you help me, I’ll help you become stronger.”
Toke blinked in surprise. “What do you mean?”
The Sorakine girl’s hand whipped out and grabbed his arm, squeezing it. “You have hardly any muscle. You’re clumsy, and you don’t know how to see things that aren’t right in front of you. That’s how I’ve been able to keep sneaking up on you.”
“I’m not a soldier,” he said defensively, yanking his arm back. “I’m an inventor. There’s nothing wrong with me.”
“And you obey orders from people like them,” she went on as if he had not spoken at all, and nodded her head in the direction his parents had just gone.
“They’re my parents,” Toke argued. “I’m supposed to do what they say.”
“You’re an adult,” she countered, and Toke stood up straight in surprise. His parents had never thought of him as anything but a child. Even Professor Navras seemed to think that he wouldn’t reach adulthood until he got his inventor’s license.
“An adult should honor his parents’ wishes,” she continued, “but still be able to think for himself.”
Toke narrowed his eyes skeptically. “And you’re saying whatever it is you want me to do will help me with that?”
The girl shook her head. “No. For what I need you to do, you’ll have to already be that way. I’ll help you reach that point.”
To his own shock, Toke found that he wasn’t immediately rejecting the thought of helping her anymore. If she could teach him how to be someone his parents could trust to make his own decisions, then maybe it’d be worth it to…
“No,” he interrupted his own thoughts. “I can’t. I’ve got a big day tomorrow. I’m graduating from the academy. I have to get everything ready. I don’t have time to help you.”
Just like before, the Sorakine girl’s eyes went narrow in anger. “If you don’t help me, whatever you’ve been studying at school won’t matter anymore.”
“I… what?” Toke asked, taking a step back from her. That look in her eyes— it wasn’t just anger. It was fierce, burning rage. When she didn’t answer, he said, “Look, just find somebody else to help you. I’ve got to go.”
Without giving her time to argue further, Toke dodged around her and ran back in the direction of the school. He kept looking over his shoulder as he ran, risking tripping or running into somebody, but she never pursued him. She just stood where he had left her, watching him go. He imagined he could still feel that glare on the back of his head, burning a hole through his hair. He shuddered and ran even faster until he turned the corner, breaking her line of sight.
He breathed a sigh of relief when the front door of the school closed behind him, and he wasted no time heading for his dorm. It had been a long day, and all the stress was taking its toll. He still had a couple hours of sunlight left, but he felt like he could lay down in bed right at that moment and sleep till morning. That might be a good idea, despite how much he hated his father being right. Tomorrow was the day he’d been working toward all his life. He would need a good night’s sleep.
It wasn’t until Toke had unlocked his door and stepped inside that he noticed that a piece of paper had been stuck to it. He took it down and unfolded it. Professor Navras’ neat handwriting greeted him.
Toke, please come to the workshop as soon as you get this note. I would like to go over your presentation with you one more time, and there is no harm in giving your battery a last minute check.
For a moment, Toke was tempted to just crumple the note into a ball and toss it into his trash bin. His mind was already in a haze, exhausted from having to deal with his parents after living apart from them for so long. Instead, he folded the letter up neatly and put it into his pocket.
“Part of being an adult,” he said to himself, “is doing things even when you don’t want to.”
With that, he backed out of his room, shut the door, and set off for Professor Navras’ workshop. Students milled around the hallways near the dorms, but the crowds became thinner the closer he came to the classrooms.
“What do you want?” Virkhul demanded, stopping him at the door again. “You’ve already broken in once today. I’m not letting you in again.”
“I have a—” he paused, his hand halfway to the note in his pocket. “Broke in?”
“Turn around,” Virkhul said slowly, waving his hand as if Toke were a dimwitted child, “and go back to your room. Go on, now. Bye bye.”
“I have a note,” Toke protested, finally taking the letter out of his pocket and showing it to him.
“If you think I’m going to—” Virkhul began pompously, but was cut off when the professor’s voice rang through the classroom door.
“Tannis Virkhul, stop antagonizing my student! Let him in right now.”
Virkhul’s face clenched in on itself and turned so red that it was almost purple in his anger. Without a word, he leaned back in his chair, away from Toke, and jerked his hand toward the door. Toke took this as permission to go inside, and wasted no time in getting out of the surly man’s sight.
“Ah, good,” Navras greeted him as Toke shut the door behind him. “You’re here. Let’s get to work.”
“Yes, sir,” Toke agreed, already working to open his locker. He paused before turning around when his hand wrapped around the battery’s cold metal shell. “Professor, I want to apologize for earlier.”
“You have nothing to apologize for, dear boy,” Navras said, waving his hand dismissively. “What your father says and thinks has no reflection on you, as far as I am concerned.”
“Thank you, sir,” Toke said, placing the battery on his customary work table. “My dad says I’m going to be a good businessman someday.”
“Well, there’s certainly nothing wrong with that,” Navras replied, getting up from his desk to stand across from Toke. “He is right about one thing: money is a necessity for living. If you’re going to be an inventor, you’re going to have to know how to market what you make. Problems only arise when you let the love of money overtake your love of creating.”
Toke stared forlornly at the battery for a few seconds before saying, “I don’t know how he’s able to think he can give me advice. He’s a terrible businessman!”
“Oh, I noticed,” the professor responded grimly. He reached inside his robe and produced the business card Mr. Gnasher had handed him earlier, and tossed it unceremoniously into his waste basket. “That man has obviously let the love of money overtake his love of… whatever it was he did before.”
Toke shook his head. “As far as I know, making money is the only thing he’s ever cared about. If he’s not talking about the family store in Kassfar, he’s telling my mother and I what we can and can’t spend our money on.” He paused, and sighed, “Honestly, I don’t think the store is going to last another two years.”
Brin’s store, Sensible Spending, had been slowly declining since before Toke was born. It sold almost anything somebody could want for daily living, but never the best brands, and always for at least twice as much as it was worth. Ironic, Toke reflected, what with the name his father had given it. Those customers that were willing to overlook the prices Brin charged were few, and most of them were only there because his was the closest store. Mr. Gnasher called himself a genius salesman, but it was clear to everyone else that the store would go bankrupt if he didn’t change his tactics soon.
“Well, enough of that,” Professor Navras said, bringing Toke back to the present. “Your big day is tomorrow, Toke, and I want you to be ready!”
He paused, and Toke could see the professor’s eyes running over him. “You’re covered in sweat, boy!” he exclaimed suddenly. “Have you been running?”
Toke’s face turned pink, though not as much as if had earlier, and he nodded.
“Why on Fissura were you doing that?” Navras asked. “A man could have a stroke running in this kind of weather.”
Toke hesitated. He hadn’t mentioned the Sorakine girl to anybody yet, but this was Professor Navras. He trusted the professor more than anyone else in Jerulkan— even with his parents staying in the hotel down the street.
“A Sorakine has been following me,” he admitted at last.
Hearing this, Navras’ expression turned grim.
“Being followed by a Sorakine is bad,” he said. “That usually means that you’ve done something wrong.”
It is better to be dead than a coward, because even a dead man can fertilize the grass.
“I’m not sure why, sir,” Toke lied. “She kept asking me to help her with something, but wouldn’t leave me alone when I told her no.”
Navras slowly moved away from the work table, a foreboding shadow Toke had never seen before darkening his face.
“You would do well to stay away from their kind,” he said, making his way back to his desk. The grace of a predator was evident in his every step, even with his hands clasped rigidly behind his back. Looking at his teacher like this, it reminded Toke of Navras’ other legacy— the one he’d forged before becoming an inventor. His discovery of jidoryo was only the most recent reason he was so famous. Years ago, before Toke’s parents were even old enough to speak, Dranibor Navras had led Yasmik’s military against the armies of Vlangur. He never spoke of it, but everyone knew the story of how he and his men had repelled the rival nation’s forces at Zetheran Pass, single handedly turning the tide of the war.
“Sir?” Toke asked, surprised by the professor’s sudden change of mood.
Navras sighed, and put a steadying hand on his desk. “I’m sorry, Toke. I shouldn’t have said that.” He paused for a moment to take a breath. “The Sorakines and I have had disagreements in the past. I do not think highly of them.”
Toke was about to ask why, but Navras held up his hand to silence him. “None of that is important right now. So long as you make the effort not to get involved in their schemes, you will be fine. What matters is that we get you prepared for your presentation tomorrow morning.”
“Yes, sir,” Toke agreed, and turned his attention back to the battery in front of him. For the next thirty minutes, he recited his speech, starting over occasionally to incorporate changes Navras recommended. Even as he spoke, though, he couldn’t help but notice the tension with which the professor held himself. He did not shake, he was far too professional for that, but Toke got the impression that he was on the verge of doing so. Finally, when he ended his presentation for the third time, Navras clapped his hands decisively.
“It’s perfect, my boy,” he said, giving Toke a smile. “You’re ready.”
“You think so?” Toke asked, still holding the battery.
“I do,” the old man answered, coming back across the room to join him. “It is getting late. I recommend you go to bed early so you will be wide awake tomorrow morning.”
A quick glance out the window told Toke that the sun was about to sink below the horizon, and he nodded his agreement. Navras’ telling him to go to bed early was different than his father doing so. From Navras, it was advice given for Toke’s own benefit. From his father, it was just another way to make sure his grownup son knew who was in charge. But as he went to put the battery back in his locker, he noticed the grim expression on his teacher’s face.
“Professor,” he said, slamming his locker door shut, “are you all right?”
“I’m afraid this talk of Sorakines has upset me,” Navras admitted. “It brings up old memories that I had hoped never to be reacquainted with.”
Toke was sorely tempted to ask what memories those were, but stopped himself. As amazing as he found his instructor, it was not his place to pry into his personal life.
“I’m sorry, sir,” he said instead, making his way to the door.
“It’s not your fault, Toke,” Navras replied with a small, sad smile. “Good night.”
“Good night, Professor,” Toke said, shutting the workshop door behind him.
Virkhul was not at his desk when Toke stepped into the hallway, so he was able to leave without being chased away by the secretary’s snarky comments. He couldn’t help but smirk as he made his way back to his dorm. What good was life if he couldn’t appreciate those small mercies it gave him?
The hallways were no less packed tonight than they were any other night, so Toke had to weave his way in between crowds of laughing students and the more studious ones that glared at them from behind their books for ruining the peace and quiet. Toke wished for a moment that Wayli or Boam would appear and give him some company that would ease his anxiety, but eventually decided it was for the best when they didn’t. He needed his sleep, like Navras had said. And, after taking three runs and spending an entire afternoon with his parents, he was certainly ready for it.
Toke unlocked the door to his room and wasted no time in getting in bed. He didn’t even bother to take off his clothes. There would be time for showering and changing in the morning. For now, he just wanted to rest. His body responded eagerly, and within minutes he was fast asleep.
NEXT TIME: Man, Zashiel doesn’t give up easy, does she? You’d think she needed Toke’s help for something important. I think Navras’ advice is probably the best Toke could have gotten, don’t you think? But none of that is important right now, because in just a few short hours Toke is going to become an adult, and change Yasmik forever in the process.