Toke woke up bright and early the morning of his twentieth birthday. As soon as the first few rays of dawn poked their way through his blinds, he was practically leaped out of bed, and twenty minutes later he was showered and dressed. This was it. This would be the day he changed Yasmik.
He didn’t find out until later that there had been another Gravity Storm that night.
“It was northwest of Jaggin Heights,” Wayli told him, sounding so giddy he almost thought she was happy about it.
“Did they feel it inside the city this time?” Toke asked. He knew he shouldn’t think about it too much, what with his presentation only an hour away, but he couldn’t help but be curious anyway.
“No,” she shook her head, “they say it didn’t even touch the mountain. They only knew about it because someone got caught in the very edge of it.”
This time, Toke dropped his fork onto his plate in shock. “Somebody actually got caught in one again?”
“Well, only the edge of it,” Wayli clarified. “It threw him right out, so he turned and ran back to Jaggin Heights. Nothing but a couple cuts and bruises.”
Toke nodded, sighing a little in relief. Even if he didn’t know him, it was good to know he had made it out all right. The last one hadn’t been so lucky.
“I think it was the mountain,” Wayli went on, scooping up her eggs and making a toast sandwich with them. “The Storm was at the base of it, but the city was so high that it was out of range.”
“Yeah, that makes sense,” Toke nodded his agreement.
“But you’ve gotta admit, it’s pretty scary.” If Wayli actually thought it was scary, her smile didn’t show it. She looked positively thrilled with the whole situation. “They’re getting closer and closer to towns. What will happen when they finally hit one?”
“A big mess,” Toke said, ruefully.
“By the way, happy birthday!” she exclaimed, all of a sudden. Her face lit up even brighter, as if they hadn’t been discussing such a morbid subject only moments before. “When’s your presentation?”
“In an hour,” Toke answered, a grin rising to his face. “I have to meet Professor Navras in about fifteen minutes.”
Before he could react, Wayli lunged across the table to give him a hug— or, as close to a hug as she could manage from that position.
“Good luck,” she said when she’d released him and sat back down. “Don’t you dare move out without coming to say goodbye first!”
“I won’t, I promise,” Toke said, his face turning red behind his smile. He scooped up the last of his eggs. “I should go.”
“Good luck!” Wayli called after him.
Once he was out in the hallway, he clenched his fists as his heart skipped with excitement. He hurried back to his room to brush his teeth, trying to ignore the way his stomach turned nervous back flips. Maybe he shouldn’t have eaten so much breakfast. No, no, Professor Navras would have insisted that a proper meal was necessary. It would give him plenty of energy, and keep his stomach from growling during his presentation. Speaking of his presentation, perhaps he ought to go over it one more time for— oh smite, was it that time already? After rinsing his mouth out so quickly that he almost choked, he ran out of his room without even bothering to lock the door behind him.
He dodged and weaved his way through the crowd of students, cursing at them in his head. They didn’t understand how important today was. They weren’t turning twenty today. He cut off that line of thought halfway to the workshop. Getting angry would only distract him from the task at hand.
When he finally broke free of the crowd, Toke took off at a jog for the invention classroom, intending to ignore Virkhul completely and go straight in. It was with surprise, then, that he almost ran straight into Professor Navras himself, who was unlocking the classroom door.
“Professor,” he gasped, skidding the last few feet over the slick tile floor and running into the wall.
“Oh, Toke,” Navras said, turning to look at him with bleary eyes. “Good, you’re here. I was beginning to think you’d forgotten.”
“I couldn’t forget today, Professor,” Toke said with a weak laugh. “But are you just now getting here?”
Navras nodded and finished unlocking the door. “I’m afraid I had a rather stressful night. Don’t worry, though. I can still attend your presentation.”
“You don’t have to do that, sir,” Toke said hesitantly, only because it was polite. In truth, he couldn’t imagine going in front of the Permissor for the first time alone. “You can stay here and get some rest, if you need it.”
“Don’t be ridiculous, boy!” the professor shook his head, leading the way into the workshop. “Today is just as important to me as it is for you. I wouldn’t miss it for the world!”
Toke sighed with relief and went to his locker. When he held the battery in his hand, a pulse of energy ran through him. This was it. The big day. The day when his childhood ended, and adulthood began. He drew a raspy breath, and for just a moment was tempted to drop his invention and run away. Was he really ready for this? Taking a moment to calm his nerves, he banished those feelings and turned to face Navras.
“I have the lamp right here,” the professor said, pulling the contraption out from behind his desk. That was one of the first decisions they had made, to choose a simple, nonthreatening device to demonstrate the battery on.
“Good,” Toke said, nodding his approval. He had buried most of his fear, but his insides were still busy tying themselves into knots. Navras noticed this, and came to give Toke’s shoulder an encouraging squeeze.
“You’re going to do fine,” he insisted. “Just remember everything you’ve practiced. I believe in you, Toke Gnasher.”
“A- all right,” Toke said, trying to act like he was as confident as his professor thought he should be.
“My autocarriage is parked just outside,” Navras said. “Morning traffic is usually pretty bad, so we should leave now to make sure we get there on time.”
Navras made his way to the door, and Toke followed him, pausing on the way to wrap the battery in a length of cloth. The fewer fingerprints that showed up on the metal, the better. The sun was already bright and hot when he closed the door behind him, and Toke spotted Navras working the hand crank that would power up his autocarriage.
Most of Yasmik’s machines may have gotten their energy from local power plants, but others, like the autocarriages, couldn’t be plugged into a wall. These machines were powered by grindstones like at the plants, except much smaller. They also had to be cranked by hand. It was a clumsy process, and one that had to be repeated several times to keep the machine from dying, but it was the best anyone could think of… until today.
My batteries are going to change that, Toke thought, giving the metal tube an excited squeeze.
“Have you ever ridden in one of these, Toke?” Navras asked when the engine finally caught power and roared to life.
“A couple of times,” he answered, taking a seat on the right side of the vehicle. There was a loop of tough leather hanging from the ceiling, and Toke grabbed ahold of it and hooked it to another strip, tethering him to the seat.
As he drove, Navras had Toke recite his speech one last time. The city flew by outside Toke’s window so fast that he almost wasn’t able to focus on anything long enough to figure out what it was. His palms started to sweat, so he wiped them on his pants, but immediately regretted it. What if he left a big, greasy, wet mark on them? Would Adal take off points for something like that?
“We’re here,” Navras said just as Toke finished his speech. He pulled over to an empty spot on the side of the road and killed the engine. The Capitol building stood tall and proud in front of them, already difficult to look at in the light of the morning sun.
Toke got out of the autocarriage, perhaps a bit too quickly, and his legs wobbled underneath him.
“Perhaps I should invite you to ride with me more often,” Navras said as he came around the other side to join him. He put his hand on Toke’s shoulder until he managed to steady himself. “When you live in the city, travel by autocarriage is all but unavoidable. Even if you don’t drive, you’ll still have to ride in one sooner or later. Feel better?”
“Yes, professor,” Toke nodded. “Thank you.”
With that, the two of them made for the gigantic double doors that led inside. Those doors were famous, but Toke had never seen them except from the sidewalk. They were carved from the finest wood, and he knew that if he touched them it would be as smooth as river-washed stone. More impressive than that were the murals chiseled into the wood. They depicted scenes from Yasmik’s long history, beginning at the top and working their way down. They ended at Toke’s eye level, leaving the rest of the wood smooth, ready to record noteworthy events when they occurred in the future. There was one in particular that drew Toke’s eye. It depicted a single man standing in front of a large squad of others, holding a spear as he ordered them to charge.
“Professor,” Toke said, pointing to the mural, “is that…”
“Me?” Navras finished for him. “Yes, it is.”
Toke waited for him to explain, even though it was obvious what he was looking at. Dranibor Navras, bravely leading Yasmik’s military against the Vlangurtian invaders. To his surprise, though, the professor pulled the door open and ushered him inside.
“The Permissor’s office is on the second floor,” Navras said once he’d pulled the door closed behind him. “Follow me.”
Somehow, Toke managed to keep up as Navras weaved his way between an army of other people, all of whom were moving with just as much purpose as the professor. The hallways were long and often branched off into even more hallways, and Toke knew that if he were left on his own he would have gotten lost. Navras, on the other hand, walked with the confident swiftness of someone who was familiar with the place, and could have walked those halls blindfolded. When they finally reached the staircase, Toke was greeted by a loud voice.
“There you are!” his father shouted, pushing his way through the crowd with far less dignity than Navras had. His mother was right behind him, looking thoroughly uncomfortable in the midst of so many other people. “We’ve been looking for you for half an hour already. Don’t tell me you’ve only just arrived?”
“We still have twenty minutes, Dad,” Toke responded, fighting down the sudden rush of irritation that accompanied his father’s greeting.
“That’s no excuse,” Brin snapped. “Important men like the Permissor expect punctuality!”
“I assure you, Mr. Gnasher,” Navras cut in, as cool as ever, “that your son still has ample time to get to Permissor Adal’s office.”
Mr. Gnasher hesitated a moment, and then nodded. “Would it be possible,” he said slowly, “for you to give my wife and me clearance to come with you? They say they don’t allow visitors on the second floor.”
“The second floor is for Yasmik government officials,” the professor said, “and those who have appointments to see them.”
“Yes, of course,” Brin agreed, “but I would very much like to be there when my son finishes school and becomes an adult.”
Navras looked to Toke. “It’s up to you,” he said.
Toke wished he hadn’t done that. If Navras had sent his parents away, the blame would have been on him. Now that the choice rested with him, though, his parents would feel betrayed if he told them to wait outside, even though that was exactly where he wanted them.
“Come on, son,” his mother urged him. “We’re getting into people’s way down here.”
“Okay, they can come,” Toke decided on the spur of the moment. A few more minutes with his father was better than alienating them for who knows how long. He just hoped he wouldn’t regret it later.
“Very well, let’s go,” Navras said, waving his hand to usher them all up the stairs. His parents went up first, as if they owned the place, and Toke followed with Navras by his side.
“Sorry, Professor,” he said quietly.
“Don’t worry about it,” Navras said with a half amused, half annoyed smirk. “They won’t be able to go into the Permissor’s office with you.”
The second floor was far less crowded than the first, and Navras took the lead once again, navigating the hallways as if they were in his own house. Less than a minute later they came to a wooden door that bore a plaque with the word “Permissor” engraved on it. Navras led them through it, revealing a large room with several chairs lining the walls.
“Good morning, Professor,” a middle aged woman said from behind a desk at the opposite end of the room. “You’re here for your student’s presentation.”
It wasn’t a question, Toke noted. He didn’t know how often Navras came here to present new inventions, but his must have been a familiar face.
“Indeed, Missa,” Navras said, gently pulling Toke by the shoulder to stand next to him. “This is Cassitoka Gnasher.”
Toke flinched when Navras used his real name.
“Pleased to meet you,” Missa said, nodding politely. Then she turned to look at Toke’s parents. “And they are?”
“His mother and father,” Navras answered, “here by my invitation.”
“All right,” Missa said, jotting something down on a sheet of paper. “I’m afraid you two will have to wait outside while your son presents his invention to Permissor Adal.”
“Nonsense!” Brin blurted out. “I want to be there to see—”
“Mr. Gnasher,” Navras interjected, a rare note of exasperation in his voice, “even I am not allowed in the room while your son gives his presentation. That is just how things are done.”
Brin shut his mouth like a trap, looking thoroughly abashed, and nodded.
“We may as well take a seat,” Navras said, sitting down with his back rigid and his knees straight. Toke sat down next to him, amazed by how the professor could sit like that and still appear comfortable.
“Just remember,” he said, “speak clearly, and leave out no details. You’ve practiced this plenty of times with me, so there’s nothing to be nervous about.”
“And try to throw in a little pizzazz,” his father butted in. “Men like Adal aren’t easily impressed, so you have to completely blow his mind!”
Toke gave Navras a sidelong glance, and tried not to laugh when the professor rolled his eyes. He had no intention of doing what his father said. If there was one thing he knew about Brin Gnasher, it was that he would struggle to sell a slice of bread to a starving man.
There was silence for a minute, and then there came a knock from the door behind Missa’s desk.
“Mr. Gnasher, you may go in now,” she said with a smile.
Mr. Gnasher. That was his father’s name. If he passed his presentation today, he would be an adult. Mr. Gnasher… he liked the sound of that.
“Good luck, son,” Brin exclaimed, jumping up to grab his son by the shoulders. “Make us proud!”
Navras got up more slowly, and extended his hand for Toke to shake.
“Remember,” he said in a low voice, so only the two of them could hear, “it’s not about flamboyance. It’s about imagination. You can do this, Toke.”
“Thank you, Professor,” Toke said, his stomach suddenly feeling as heavy as a bag of rocks. He swallowed his unease. It was time to do this— to become a man.
Navras handed Toke the lamp. With battery in one hand and the machine in the other, he turned to Missa.
“Just go through the door,” she said with an encouraging smile. “Permissor Adal knows you’re coming.”
“Th- thank you,” Toke said, steadying his shaking hands, and walked behind her desk. He fumbled for a second, trying to figure out how to open the door with his hands full, before finally setting the lamp down. The door opened silently, its hinges well oiled, and Toke retrieved the lamp and stepped inside.
The room was smaller than he had expected. When Professor Navras had said “Presentation Room,” Toke had imagined a stage, as if the Permissor expected him to perform tricks. It had been a childish assumption, he realized as he closed the door behind him. The presentation room was nothing more than Permissor Adal’s office. Twenty feet wide, and twice that long, Toke faced an ornately carved wooden desk. Behind the desk sat the man he had come to see: Permissor Adal.
Adal’s elbows were perched on his desk, his hands folded so that they hid the bottom half of his face. Stern eyes without a hint of laughter in them glared at him from underneath a dirty blonde half-halo of hair.
“My name is Cassitoka Gnasher, sir,” Toke said, trying to keep his voice from quivering. “I’m here from the Jerulkan Academy to present my first invention to you.”
Toke tried to calm the frantic beating of his heart. Permissor Adal could probably hear how heavy he was breathing. He wished his voice sounded bolder, if only to provide the illusion that he was in any way confident.
“Very well,” Permissor Adal said, lowering his hands. “What have you brought?”
“I call it a battery, sir,” Toke said, setting the lamp down and holding up the metal cylinder so Adal could see it in the light. “I took inspiration from my professor, Dranibor Navras’, discovery of jidoryo. His energy source has led Yasmik into a new age, but there are still so many things I think we can do with it.”
“Like what?” Adal asked, and Toke cringed. He didn’t sound at all impressed.
Well, just you wait! Toke thought defiantly, and far more confidently than he felt. This is going to knock you out of your chair!
“All of the machines that Professor Navras has invented to run off jidoryo either have to be connected to the power grid or hand cranked until enough power has been built up. My batteries will solve this problem.”
Adal’s eyebrows rose, but this was the only sign he gave that he was impressed.
“It contains a small jido crystal inside,” Toke went on, pointing to the cap he had welded on top. “When connected to a machine, it will—”
“Wait a minute,” Adal interrupted him. Toke froze midsentence, stunned. Professor Navras had said that the Permissor would ask questions, but he had promised Toke would not be interrupted. It not only broke Toke’s train of thought, it left him clueless about where he should begin when Adal let him speak again.
“A jido crystal?” the Permissor asked. “Those things are extremely dangerous.”
“They are, sir,” Toke said, relief flooding through his body. Whether he’d meant to or not, Adal had led him into exactly what he’d meant to bring up next. “But I have all but eliminated that danger.”
He held up the battery and pointed at it. “I have molded the inside of the cylinder to fit the crystal perfectly. It doesn’t matter if I drop it, roll it, or even throw it across the room— it will never be shaken enough to explode.”
He fought back the urge to smile. That last bit had been good. It sounded like exaggeration, but every word had been true. Still, Adal eyed the battery in his hand with suspicion. Toke launched himself back into his presentation before the Permissor could dwell any longer on the danger.
“This battery only holds a crystal the size of my thumb, but the amount of jidoryo it contains is enough to power an autocarriage for a week.”
And now was the moment of truth. He reached down and picked up the lamp.
“Professor Navras has helped me to alter this lamp to run off my battery. With your permission, I would like to demonstrate how safe and effective they are.”
Adal hesitated a moment, but then nodded. He reached out and lifted a stack of papers, leaving a clear spot on his desk just big enough for the lamp to sit on. Toke hefted it up, and set it in front of the Permissor.
“All I have to do,” he said, turning it around so the back faced Adal, “is insert the battery right here.” He placed it into the cylindrical cavity, making sure it was snug before turning it back around. “Now, with my battery powering it, all I have to do is turn it on.”
He flipped the switch, and the machine came to life. There was a weak vibration, but Toke knew it wasn’t anything to worry about. He heard the hum of the wires inside of it. The lightbulb gave a feeble blink, and then went out again. Before Toke even had time to consider it, though, it lit up again— and stayed lit.
Toke beamed. It had worked! Not that he had doubted it would, but… it had worked! There was no way Permissor Adal could turn down him down now. He was going to get his inventor’s license. His mom and dad would be so proud. Professor Navras would be so proud! He could…
But then, as if sensing Toke’s joy, fate intervened and spat in his eye. A loud, irritating buzz came from the lamp. The machine seemed to jump a little, and only barely avoided falling over. Toke sucked in a frightened breath.
“What’s happening?” Adal demanded, beginning to rise from his chair as a trail of smoke came out of the battery’s hole. As soon as those words left his mouth, the entire thing exploded in a bright blue flash.
A scrap of metal struck Toke in the face, and he stumbled backwards until he collided with the wall behind him. Permissor Adal was thrown back into his chair, which in turn tipped over backwards, spilling him head over heels onto the floor. A small fire now burned on the Permissor’s desk, quickly growing larger as it consumed the stack of papers beside it.
The door burst open, and Professor Navras rushed inside. The moment he saw the fire he swept his arm across the desk, scattering the papers onto the floor, and proceeded to stomp on them until the flames went out.
“Toke, are you all right?” he demanded, coming over to check on his student.
“I- I’m fine, Professor,” Toke spluttered, his face as white as chalk. “I’m sorry. The battery exploded. I’m sorry!”
“Don’t try to stand up,” Navras advised him. “You’re in shock.”
The professor stood up and went to check on Adal as Toke’s parents came hesitantly into the room.
“Toke,” Brin said, hurrying over to his son. “What happened, are you okay?”
“Battery exploded,” Toke mumbled, his face feeling strangely numb. “Didn’t mean to.”
“Oh my!” Evanya gasped, putting her hand to her mouth.
“Come on, let’s get you on your feet,” his father said, putting his arm under Toke’s shoulders and hauling him off the floor. Toke swayed, on the verge of falling down again, but his father’s hand steadied him. Hadn’t Navras said something about not standing up? He was in shock, or… something.
“You!” Adal shouted, scrambling to his feet. One hand grasped his head, where an angry red knot was forming, and the other pointed accusingly at Toke. “Get out of my office right now!”
Toke’s heart sank into his stomach. That was it, then, wasn’t it? His invention had not only failed, it had exploded in the Permissor’s face. There was no way he was getting his license now. He turned to Navras, who had a pained expression on his face.
“Go on, Toke,” he said gently. “I’ll speak to the Permissor myself.”
Toke nodded dumbly, and allowed his father to lead him from the room. His legs were like jelly under him, and it was hard to keep from collapsing. Outside, Missa grimaced at him, but he couldn’t tell if it was in pity or disgust.
As they retraced their steps through the hallways and down the stairs, a bit of feeling started to return to Toke’s body. He began to shiver.
“I’m sorry,” he said again. “I didn’t mean to.”
“Hush, son,” his mother clucked, licking her thumb and using to wipe a soot smudge from his face. Toke became uncomfortably aware of the stares his family was drawing. Did they already know there had been a fire in the Permissor’s office, or were their eyes just drawn to the boy being half-carried out of the Capitol while his mother spit-shined him? Either way, he wished they would stop looking. Didn’t they know staring was rude?
Not as rude as making a lamp explode in a government official’s face, the cynical part of his brain reminded him. He gave a single weak laugh that carried no humor.
“Are you having trouble breathing?” his father demanded, mistaking his laugh for a cough.
“I’m fine,” Toke answered. “Let’s… Let’s just go.”
A minute later, Brin pushed open the massive wooden door, bringing his whole family back out into the blinding sunlight. They made their way to a shady tree just off the sidewalk, and Toke sat down with his back against it.
“Well,” Mr. Gnasher said, putting his hands into the pockets of his suit jacket, “what now?”
He began to pace back and forth, five steps one way, and five steps back. Usually when Brin Gnasher was angry, it came with shouts and threats and hastily dealt out punishments. Toke had only seen his father at a loss for words once before, when he had accidentally set fire to the expensive rug in the living room. More than half of it had been reduced to ashes, and the only thing they could do was throw it in the garbage. Brin had paced that day, too, without a single shouted word coming from his lips. It had ended with Toke being sent to his room with a stinging bottom and the promise that he would not be allowed to leave the house for a whole month. The threat had been carried out, and it was the worst punishment he had ever received. Maybe, Toke thought dumbly, his father just had a strange way of reacting to fire.
“What now?” Brin demanded again, turning to glare at his son. “I thought you said that thing wouldn’t explode!”
“I don’t know what happened,” Toke protested, but in truth he had a vague idea of how it had occurred. The image of his father tossing the battery up and down the previous day came to mind, and a wave of anger accompanied it. This was his father’s fault! With difficulty, he managed to quell the urge to stand up and say exactly that. Professor Navras wouldn’t approve of such displays of anger. If the battery was so weakly constructed that a few bounces could make it dangerous to use, that was a defect that he, as the inventor, should have foreseen. The thought did nothing to make him feel better, and he curled up a little in the shade of the tree.
“You don’t know why it happened,” his father echoed back to him, his arms spread wide. “Great, that’s just great, Toke! Your little gadget blew up, started a fire, and could have seriously injured you and the Permissor. The Permissor, of all people! Do you have any idea how bad this is?”
Brin looked like he was at the point of pulling his hair out. He was, Toke realized, taking this even worse than his son.
“Brin,” Evanya said, more sharply than Toke had ever heard before, “this is not the time. I think the poor boy feels bad enough already.”
“He feels bad?” Mr. Gnasher repeated. “He should feel bad! There’s absolutely no way he’s going to get his license now. He just made the entire last four years of his life a complete waste of time!”
“Brin!” his mother snapped, standing up to face her husband. “That is quite enough. I don’t know what Toke will do next, but all you’re going to do now is make him feel even worse. Leave him be. For all we know, Mr. Navras could be up there setting things right as we speak.”
“You think there’s anything that man can do to—” Brin’s voice trailed off, and he sucked in an exasperated breath. Shaking his head, he shoved his hands back into his pockets.
“Fine,” he spat. “Fine. We’ll sit tight and hope for the best, I suppose. But Cassitoka Gnasher,” he pointed an accusing finger at his son, “whatever happens, you had better be ready to stand up and deal with it like a man!”
A man? Toke thought, his stomach tying itself into painful knots. I flunked my course. I’m twenty years old, but can I still call myself a man?
Yasmik culture demanded that a child be ready and able to begin a career on their twentieth birthday. They were sent to school on their sixteenth birthday to give them four whole years to prepare for it. Those who failed their classes, or seemed to have no practical talents, had only one option: to throw themselves at the mercy of whoever was willing to give them a job. These jobs were usually disgusting, and paid the bare minimum that was required to survive. Toke shivered, feeling like a shadow was closing in to blot out all the light in his life. Was that all he had to look forward to? His parents would probably give him a job at Sensible Spending, but that only made him feel worse. Even if his father wasn’t busy doing his best to drive his own store out of business, it would mean spending the rest of his life with his parents. He felt like he would almost rather die.
Brin paced back and forth a few more times, and then shook his head and held his arm out to his wife.
“Let’s go, Evanya,” he said briskly. “I need to get out of this heat.”
“But what about Toke?” she asked, eyeing her miserable son with concern.
“He will wait here until his professor comes out to give him the news,” he answered, sternly. “And then he will come find us at the hotel, and we’ll decide what to do then.”
Mrs. Gnasher looked uncertainly from her husband to her son. “Toke, sweetie, will you be all right by yourself?”
Toke looked up at her, his eyes red with unshed tears of frustration, and nodded.
“I’m sorry this happened,” she said, and knelt down to give him a kiss on the cheek. “Come find us after you’ve spoken with your teacher.”
Giving him one last sympathetic look, Evanya hooked her arm with her husband and they made their way down the sidewalk. Toke watched them go until they disappeared around the corner.
“What am I going to do now?” he asked himself. Despite his mother’s halfhearted protests, he couldn’t imagine that Navras would come out of those doors with good news. His father was right— he had made a lamp explode in Permissor Adal’s face! What hope could he possibly have of redemption now?
What would a responsible adult do in this situation? The answer was clear, even if it wasn’t at all desirable. He would have to do whatever it took to get himself a job, even if that meant living the rest of his life with his rude, overbearing parents. He shuddered.
As he was brooding, a shadow momentarily blocked out the sunlight above him. He looked up, and was somehow unsurprised to see the Sorakine girl from before descending towards him. She landed gracefully and tucked her gleaming wings in against her back as she made her way straight towards him.
Great, he thought, looking pointedly in the other direction. Just what I need. As if today couldn’t get any worse!
“What are you sitting around sulking for?” she asked curtly, standing over him.
Toke turned his head to glare at her, wishing more than anything that he could shoot arrows out of his eyes.
“Well?” she asked expectantly, crossing her arms as if she had every right to demand such answers.
“If you must know,” Toke spat, his words dripping with venom, “I just flunked my inventor’s class.”
The girl’s golden blonde eyebrows went up, as if saying that answer wasn’t good enough for her. Details, boy, details.
“I tried to show the Permissor how my invention worked,” he went on, though he wasn’t sure why, “and it exploded. Set his office on fire.”
To his disbelief, the girl actually laughed at this! His eyes went wide at the sound— like chimes blowing in a cool spring breeze. If he hadn’t heard it himself, he wouldn’t have believed it. He’d come to think her face was permanently stuck on the grumpy setting.
“It’s not funny!” he shouted, knowing that he sounded like a pouting three year old. Still, the last thing he needed right now was for someone to laugh at his misfortune.
“I don’t like Permissor Adal,” she said, turning to look up at the Capitol. “He thinks far too highly of himself, and talking to him leaves a bad taste in my mouth.”
“You’ve met the Permissor?” Toke asked in surprise.
“Three times,” she answered, and when she looked back at him, her eyes actually gleamed with mirth. If she were older, it would have made it look younger. As it was, in contrast to the perpetual scowl she always wore, it actually made her look her age… and rather pretty, Toke admitted to himself.
“I tried to ask for his help on my mission,” she went on, “but he denied it every time.”
As she spoke, her face hardened again, remembering the conversations she’d had. If Adal had acted so brusquely with an inventor’s student, he didn’t want to imagine how he would treat an uninvited Sorakine.
“Did it hurt him?” she asked.
“Not much,” Toke answered. “It just knocked him out of his chair. He had a bump on his head when I left.”
“Too bad,” the girl said, sounding as if she sincerely meant it. “So, what will you do now?”
“I don’t know,” Toke admitted. “I should probably just go home and work at my parents’ store, but…”
“But you don’t want to live the rest of your life under their thumb,” she finished for him. He looked up and saw her nodding her understanding. “What if I could offer you something else?”
Toke sighed. For a minute there, he’d almost felt like the girl was just being friendly.
“You want me to settle my debt, I know,” he said wearily.
The girl hummed uncertainly in her throat, and then turned to lean casually on the tree behind him. Toke blinked in surprise. This was the first time he’d ever seen her in anything but the rigid, at-attention pose she always had.
“I might have been exaggerating when I said that,” she admitted. “I was trying to get you to help me by whatever means possible.”
“Why, though?” Toke asked, genuine curiosity threatening to overtake his irritation. “Why me?”
“Because you have the perfect build for what I’ve got in mind,” she answered, turning to look at him. “You’re slim, but you could still build a good amount of muscle if you tried.”
Toke looked down at his arms in astonishment, and tried to imagine them covered in burly muscles. He couldn’t.
“And you’re not too tall, not too short,” she went on. “You’re the first human I’ve seen who has just the right build for what I’m planning to do. All you need is for me to train you, and… something else.”
At this, she looked away, her expression uncertain.
“What else?” Toke prodded her.
“I can’t tell you that here,” she answered. “Will you help me?”
I…” Toke hesitated. “What is it, exactly, you need my help with?”
The Sorakine looked up and turned her head left, and then right. “I can’t tell you that here, either,” she answered in a quiet voice. “All I can say is that it’s important— more important than you can possibly understand. If you help me, you’ll be saving countless lives.”
“Um,” Toke said, struggling to find the right words to respond with.
The Sorakine girl leaned in closer to him, and when she spoke he could smell her breath— like the scent of honeysuckles carried on the wind. “It’s not like you have any better options, right?”
This gave Toke pause. He could either go back to work at his parents’ store, accept some disgusting job nobody else was willing to do, or help this Sorakine girl with whatever she needed.
“All right,” he answered after a minute of consideration. “I guess I’ll help you.”
“Good,” she stood up briskly. “Meet me at the east end of Jerulkan at midnight, in the field beside the road that leads to Hashira.”
And, just like that, she opened her wings and took off in a blast of wind and light, leaving Toke behind to wonder what in Fissura he had gotten himself involved in.
NEXT TIME: Toke set off a bomb in the Permissor’s face… can’t say I feel too sorry for him. But how’s Toke going to get his license now? Navras is still in there talking to Adal, so maybe he can work something out. Or maybe Zashiel’s offer is his only hope of having a Brin-and-Evanya free future.