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After what had happened up in the sky, Toke decided it would be best to walk back to the Seventh Swordfish. Unfortunately, the spot he'd chosen to land was on the complete opposite side of town, and Tad Moru was by no means a small town. As he jogged across the bridges and skirted the floating buildings, being careful not to overexert himself lest he be too tired to work when he arrived at the ship, he briefly considered taking to the walls and rooftops. Jumping from building to building would certainly be faster than winding his way around on the narrow, crowded bridges. He discarded that thought, though. He didn't much care if the people here knew his secret, but he was worried who else might hear it if their tongues started wagging.
All told, it took him nearly three hours to reach the docks again. Three hours to go the distance that he had covered in less than three minutes before. Toke frowned. Walking, being tethered to the ground by your own two feet, was so inconvenient. Irritating, even. If he kept this up, would he be content to walk at all anymore? Or would he feel compelled to take to the skies just to cross the street? If it came to that, keeping his wings a secret from Zashiel would become impossible.
Smite, he thought, reaching and scratching an itch on his back. It almost makes me wish I'd never thought up those wings at all.
Regardless, the sun was mere minutes away from setting. Treyn's promise to throw him and his family overboard echoed in his mind, and Toke took off down the docks at a sprint. Though far from deserted, they were much less crowded now, and he reached the barge a minute later. A small wooden hut had been erected by the gangplank, from which the customers were purchasing their tickets. Toke felt a twinge of uncertainty. Would whoever was selling the tickets recognize him and let him onboard, or would they—
“Hey, there you are!”
Toke blinked when he saw who it was sitting behind the counter.
“Boam?” he asked, incredulously.
“The one and only!” His friend grinned. “Treyn decided I was getting in everyone's way sitting around up there, so he told me to sit here instead and sell tickets!”
Toke nodded. “You’re... not going to make me pay to get back onboard, are you?”
Boam's eyes lit up. “You know, I wasn't, but now that you mention it...”
But Toke was already halfway up the gangplank. “I'll see you later tonight, Boam!”
“Hey,” he heard someone behind him complain, “if he gets on for free, then so should I!”
“Uh, sorry sir, no can do...”
Toke stopped at the edge of the ship, looking around. Now that he was onboard, it was obvious where the crowd on the docks had gone. He quickly scanned the ocean of white-headed people, searching for the flash of gold that would mark where Zashiel was in the crowd. It was no use. Even if she was up on deck, there were too many smiting people for him to find her before the show started. He knew she would want to hear about his latest power surge, but…
A hand grabbed his shoulder.
“Where the shlaklala have you been, boy?” Treyn demanded, appearing out of nowhere at Toke's side. “You're supposed to be working!”
The captain looked angry enough that Toke almost thought he would throw him over right then and there, but instead he made for the back of the ship, dragging Toke with him. The stern had a large roofed area that contained the cabins and the galley, as well as the stairs that led down to hold. It was no less crowded in there than it was on deck, but here the hallways were packed with clowns, musicians, and people in all manner of strange costumes. Toke spotted Inaska in the same legless outfit she'd been wearing the previous day, but she looked so preoccupied he wasn't sure if she even saw him as Treyn dragged him past.
Treyn shoved his way to the dining hall, where his crew wolfed down a quick meal, careful not to spill any on their costumes, before they were called on to perform. The smell of smoke and Vlangurtian spices was so thick it almost made a fog. Treyn pulled Toke all the way back to the kitchen itself, and kicked open the door.
A large man, larger even than Ludsong, spun around at the captain's shout. He was wearing a filthy apron and had a shaved head, and while Ludsong was a solid wall of muscle, Grascow... wasn't.
“Aye, Captain?” he replied, scooping another ladleful of chili from the big bubbling pot on the stove in front of him and pouring it into a waiting sailor's bowl.
Treyn shoved Toke forward. “Here. He's your help tonight. Make him sweat, got it?”
Grascow looked Toke up and down, and then nodded. “Aye, Captain. That I will!”
“Good. The show's starting in a few minutes. You know what to do.”
With that, Treyn spun around, red coat whipping like a flag, and strode from the galley with an urgent step. Toke watched him go and then slowly turned to look at the massive man before the stove.
“I'm guessing you're the cook, huh?” he said.
“Tonight I'm your captain,” Grascow grunted. “That's all you need to worry about.”
He spooned more chili out to another crewmember. Toke knew Grascow—everyone on the ship did. One couldn't eat without getting their food directly from the flabby, greasy, middle aged man in the kitchen. He never seemed to leave that kitchen, though, and Toke had never bothered to learn his name. He might not have Ludsong's muscles, but he was intimidating in his own way.
He could kill me just by sitting on me, Toke thought, cringing. He couldn't think of many deaths worse than that. He nervously scratched his back.
The last of the chili went into a sailor's bowl, and Grascow hefted the huge metal pot and dumped it into a sink. Without a word, he pointed at a crate sitting against the far wall. On top of that sat a wooden tray, a little wider than Toke himself was, that had leather straps running out of it. Beside it was a bag filled with smaller paper bags.
“That there's your job tonight. The box is full of tallynuts. You fill the little bags with them, wander around the ship, and sell them to anyone who wants them. Simple enough?”
Toke blinked. “Tallynuts?”
“That's what I said, boy. Too hard for you?”
Toke frowned, but pushed his irritation away. All things considered, selling tallynuts was about as easy a job as you could ask for around here. If that's all it would take to satisfy Treyn, then who was he to argue? But at the same time, it bothered him. He was capable of so much more than his. He could manipulate gravity as easy as other people could breathe. He had single handedly saved Hashira, smite it! How long were they going to keep ignoring him?
He took a deep breath and nodded. “Fine. No problem.”
“Then get the tray put on and get out of my kitchen.”
Nodding, Toke slipped the tray's straps over his shoulders. A minute later he had a dozen bags of the salty, crunchy tallynuts loaded up, and he scuttled out of the kitchen. The galley was nearly empty now, save for a couple crewmembers who obviously weren't in the show, but there was a tension in the air even thicker than Grascow's stew smell. He emerged into the hallway, and—
“Ladies and gentlemen!” Treyn's voice echoed cut through the air, somehow carrying farther than it had any right to. “Welcome to the Seventh Swordfish Circus Extravaganza!”
Toke's breath caught in his throat. The show was starting! Holding his tray as steady as he could so as not to spill any nuts, he dashed through the corridor and onto the deck. A quick glance confirmed what he already knew: the sun had set, leaving Tad Moru lit only by the moon's soft glow and the torches and lanterns the crew had set up around the ship.
“If you would, please find your seats,” Treyn went on from within the ring. “The show is about to begin!”
As soon as those words were out of his mouth, the cannons went off, shooting more of those brightly colored explosives into the sky. A deafening cheer rent the air, nearly drowning out the fireworks.
Right. Time to get to work, I guess, he thought, and made for the seats. “Tallynuts! Get your tallynuts here!”
“Hey, I'll take some of those!” someone yelled. Toke looked and saw a man a halfway up the stair-like benches, waving his hand. As soon as Toke spotted him, the man held up a bronze coin and tossed it to him. Toke caught it, tucked it into his pocket, and then grabbed one of the bags of nuts. He curled the top of the bag down, and then tossed it back at his customer. “Thanks!”
“Enjoy the show,” Toke replied, though he could tell the man had already forgotten about him. Another customer flagged him down before he'd taken two steps, and the airborne exchange of money and nuts happened again.
“Now, ladies and gentlemen,” Treyn went on, “I would like to introduce one of the oldest and most beloved members of our little family. He has been with the Seventh Swordfish even longer than I have. So long, in fact, that sometimes I don't think he joined the circus so much as the circus joined him.”
He paused to let the audience laugh at his joke, though all it got was a weak chuckle. Toke sold two more bags of nuts, and paused to scratch his back again before turning and heading back to the outside of the ring.
“Everyone, for our opening act tonight, please give a big hand to welcome Limbasko the Yarnmaster!”
Toke stopped and looked back into the ring as Treyn backed away, bowing, and the limelights tilted up to reveal a man hanging from the tightrope by his toes. With a start, Toke realized he recognized him from the day he'd boarded the Seventh Swordfish. Limbasko was every bit as old as Treyn had claimed, his papery old skin clinging to his bones like... like... Toke couldn't think of a good comparison, and decided the old man's skin wasn't the type of thing he wanted to dwell on for too long anyway. Even so, Limbasko's toes grasped the tightrope with ease, and when he looked at the audience he spoke with the confidence of someone who was comfortable enough to fall asleep where he was.
“My friends, my family,” Limbasko said, his voice cracked with age but still easily audible, “I bid you, listen well. This tale has been passed down through my family for generations beyond measure, and tonight I shall pass it on to you. But of course,” he reached behind him and drew two large sewing needles, each half as long as Toke's forearms, “what is a story without pictures?”
He began to knit. The needles moved in a silver blur, reflecting the limelights and almost seeming to transform into a single solid object. And in the midst of that storm of motion, something began to take shape. The audience murmured in awe as a long, green, and narrow thing was born from the old man's frantic knitting, growing larger with every passing second.
Where is all that yarn coming from? Toke wondered. He stopped walking to watch, eyes glued to the show.
Up on the platforms at either end of the tightrope, he realized. Five massive, multicolored spools of yarn dangled from them on pulleys that let them turn in midair. The yarn trailed across the tightrope to where Limbasko hung, and, though Toke had trouble seeing it from this distance, he could just make out a special belt around Limbasko's waist. The yarn was fed through loops in that belt, keeping it near at hand while also not letting it get in his way while he worked.
The first part of whatever Limbasko was knitting touched the floor. It looked to Toke like a snake, forty feet long with bright green skin. It had taken the old man less than a minute to knit the whole thing, and it didn't seem he was done yet.
“Hey, mate, throw me one of those!”
Trying not to take his eyes off the Yarnmaster, Toke tossed the guest a bag of nuts, and snatched the coin out of the air in return.
“Tonight,” Limbasko continued, “I shall pass on the story of Vlang the Embracer. Once, thousands of years ago, Fissura was nothing but an endless ocean...”
He began to knit again, this time using blue yarn. Though Toke yearned to keep watching, he knew he had to get back to work. He could watch the show and sell nuts at the same time, he told himself, but if he stopped everything and just watched, Treyn wouldn't be happy with him come morning.
“Vlang was an octopus of size unimaginable! He sat within the darkest depths of the sea, where the sun never shone and the glungaths and the shadowfish swam.” Limbasko continued to knit, and a second long, serpentine thing took form between his needles, exactly like the first, except blue. “With arms hundreds of miles long, he hugged the planet the way a drowning man hugs a lifeplank. For untold ages, many times longer than we have lived here, he embraced Fissura, sitting in darkness and contemplating. For he was a wise old fish, Vlang, and though he tolerated the gurgling of the glungaths and the babbling of the babbatows, he did not join them. He sat in silence and in thought, wondering about things that were not known.”
The second serpentine thing was completed, and with deft hands Limbasko joined it with the green one. Toke watched, trying to figure out the point of all this. The old man was both a talented storyteller—Boam would probably chase him down later for advice—and an incredibly skilled knitter. But why put them both together? What did one have to do with the other? Tossing out another bag of nuts, he decided not to worry about it and just enjoy the story.
Toke's nuts weren't the only snack the audience was enjoying. Many of them held plates in their laps, with food that looked odd even by Vlangurtian standards. Some sort of breaded meat on a stick, a powdered cake made of dozens of individual strings, and giant neon-colored clouds of pure sugar. Toke got the distinct feeling that none of it was the least bit healthy, and yet his stomach still growled softly at the sight of it.
“One night-dark day,” Limbasko said, “Vlang was visited by Selek, high lord of the shadowfish. 'Great armed one,' said the slithering demon, 'there is none as old as you but I. We swam together when the great ocean was but a puddle. Tell me, why is it that you sit here in such silence?'“
Limbasko paused and gave the audience a dark look. “And as we all know, Selek was a sly eel with a heart as black as the dark depths itself. He ruled over the bottom of the sea, playing dastardly tricks and singing wicked songs full of lies. And if our children are not good and kind, he may... just... appear!”
Before Toke realized what he was doing, Limbasko had set aside his two larger tendrils and knitted a smaller creature in the blink of an eye. Still long and serpentine, but only a couple of feet long, and sewed from black thread this time with bright yellow eyes and sharp white teeth, Limbasko threw it out into the audience. The children near where it landed shrieked and scrambled to get away from it, and their parents laughed at the reaction.
Limbasko waited until the noise had died down before continuing. “But Vlang was good and wise, and knew that Selek sought to cast a shadow over his heart, and so said to him, 'I sit here because I am waiting for something.'“
“'What is it you are waiting for?' asked Selek. Selek ground his teeth in excitement, for if something was worth waiting for as long as Vlang had then it must be something truly magnificent indeed! He would find out what Vlang was waiting for, and then steal it!”
The third tendril of yarn was yellow. Toke came to the third of the walkways between benches and sold three more bags of nuts.
“Now, Vlang began to think very quickly, for even he was not sure what it was that he waited for. 'I am waiting for the day that we can go above the surface of the water and swim in the sky!' he said.”
“At this, Selek laughed. 'When we can swim in the sky? What foolishness! Tell me what it is you are waiting for!'“
The fourth tendril was complete now. This one was blue.
“When Vlang insisted that was what he was waiting for, Selek grew angry and left. Howling with his haunting voice into the darkest depths, he summoned the other shadowfish, the glungaths, the babbatows, the zelzalz, and even the gobblejaws! They came to him for he was their king, and he said to them, 'Alas and woe unto us, my friends!'“
“'What is wrong, our king?' asked his subjects.”
“Though Selek hid it well before the lesser monsters, he seethed with anger. How dare Vlang not share his secret with him? Well, if Selek could not have what Vlang was waiting for, then surely Vlang would not live long enough to receive it either!”
“'Oh, cursed day!’ Selek wailed. 'The oldest and wisest of us has fallen prey to his age and gone mad! Vlang sits upon the ocean floor speaking of a day when we shall all swim above the water and into the skies! Surely, we can not leave him like this. Come! Come and help me in putting the great Vlang out of his misery!'“
Five bags of tallynuts later, Toke ducked back into the galley again. The greasy faced cook had his arms submerged up to his elbows in the skin's soapy water, furiously scrubbing the dishes.
“Eh? What do you want?” he demanded when he saw Toke.
“Need more nuts,” Toke said, showing him his empty tray. His back itched again, and he scratched it.
Grascow's eyes narrowed. “What? Ain't no way you sold 'em all already. Show me the money!”
Rolling his eyes, Toke dug into his pocket and retrieved the coins he'd made from selling the nuts. Grascow snatched them away and then counted them one by one until...
“By Lady Valdo’s scales, you did sell them all!” Grascow exclaimed. “How did you...” He waved his hand. “Bah, nevermind. Here. Go get more and do it again!”
A minute later, Toke emerged with his tray full again. Limbasko was still in the middle of his act. Three more colored tendrils had been added to the four he'd had when Toke had last looked, all joined together at the corners.
“For eight long days and eight long nights, Vlang fought Selek and his minions! One day for every arm that had embraced the world. And though he fought brave and true, the great octopus was injured and grew weary. As the sun rose on the eighth day, Vlang sank back to the ocean floor.”
“'Now, old one,' Selek hissed, 'you shall tell me your secret or perish!'“
“But Vlang looked up at the surface of the water, at the sun that shone so high above, and he knew what he had to do. 'Selek, king of the shadowfish,” he whispered, 'you are too late. The day I have been waiting for... is here!'“
Limbasko's voice rose with excitement. “And with that, Vlang plunged all eight of his arms into the ground! So long were they that they nearly reached Fissura's core. A great earthquake shook the world as Vlang brought his arms back up, bringing mountainous piles of dirt, sand, and stone with them! Selek and his forces could not move fast enough, and so they too were caught as he rose up, up, up and broke the surface of the water!”
The eighth tendril had been finished, and Limbasko began to knit something that spanned the octagon between them all. No, Toke realized. Not tendrils. Tentacles!
“And for the first time, Vlang felt the sun shine on his thick wet skin. Though his wounds were severe and his body exhausted, he smiled. All eight of his arms rose up with him, bringing the sand, the dirt, and the stone up to the surface as well. Vlang died that day, his long life finally coming to an end, but he died happy. Selek died as well. The wicked shadowfish burned in the light of the sun, screaming and thrashing until he was not but a black mist that the winds soon scattered.”
“You might ask, where is Vlang today? Well, I tell you that he is still here! His head is up above us! Today it is called Yasmik. And his arms... his arms, so strong and so lengthy, are Vlangur. The water that flows between them are Vlangur's lakes. And so it was that Vlang's wish not only came true, but he helped it to become true. That, my friends, is why our country is named Vlangur, after the great embracer on which we live!”
With that, he finished the head of the octopus, and dropped it. It fell halfway to the floor before a series of string that Limbasko had tied around his fingers stopped it. Each string was attached to a tentacle, and when the old man wiggled his fingers the octopus broke out into a dance. The audience cheered, and Vlang swept off an imaginary hat and bowed deeply to his audience. Then, his act done, Limbasko walked to the end of the tightrope upside down, still suspended by his toes, and a few stagehands ran in to collect Vlang.
Toke smiled and collected his pay for another bag of nuts. He hadn't been sure what to expect from the old man, but he hadn't been disappointed. The Yarnmaster alone would have been worth the price of admission. Toke listened, making his way around the benches, as Treyn came back out and introduced his acrobats, Nibbla, Trowza, Hashi, Vikkrene, Pruyal, and Inaska. With Ludsong playing on his chickenhorn down below, the five nimble performers took to the air while the audience howled their appreciation.
Heading back the way he'd come again, Toke was about to turn to the next walkway when he saw Zashiel standing by the edge of the ship. She was leaning against the railing, watching the show, and for some reason had her wings tucked inside her jacket. Her face was as impassive as always, but the rigidness with which she stood told him she wasn't happy about something.
Toke glanced down at his tray of nuts, and then back up at her.
Treyn won't mind if I take a break, right?
Leaving the ring of seats behind, Toke made his way over to his Sorakine friend.
“Hey,” he said, turning around so he could lean against the railing with her, careful not to spill his crunchy payload. Zashiel nodded in reply. “So, what're you wearing your jacket like that for?”
“Treyn doesn’t want me distracting people from the show. He said Sorakines are so rare in Vlangur that nobody would even look at his actors if they knew I was here.”
Toke scowled. “Smite him! He can't make you do that!”
“He's the captain, Toke. His word is law.”
“It's not a big deal, Toke. A little uncomfortable, but I can deal with it.” Before he could argue again, she nodded toward his tray of nuts. “Looks like he found something for you to do after all.”
“Yeah,” Toke said with a sigh. Reaching behind him, he absentmindedly scratched his back again. “You'd think they'd find something more... I dunno, important for me to do than selling nuts. I can control gravity for smite's sake!”
“You'll get your chance. Treyn said he had some ideas for your act, didn't he?”
Toke stood up a little straighter. “Right, I'd almost forgotten about that. What about you? Has he told you what you're going to be doing?”
Zashiel shook her head. “Not yet.”
Toke sighed again and leaned back against the railing. His back itched, and he shifted a little to let the wood rub against it. Looking up at the tightrope, he watched as the six acrobats flew back and forth on their swings, spun in midair, and performed flips and cartwheels on the wire. It was easy to pick Inaska out of the group. While the others cut their hair short to keep it from flying into their eyes and getting tangled with their props, Inaska had let hers grow long. Not to mention that strange mask that never left her face...
“Are you looking at Inaska again?”
If Toke hadn't been firmly anchored to the floor, he probably would have leaped a dozen feet into the air. Face burning red with embarrassment, he looked at Zashiel—expression as unreadable as ever.
“N- No, I... of course not!” he spluttered. “Why do you keep asking me that?”
Zashiel shrugged indifferently. “I don't see why you're so embarrassed about it. There's nothing wrong with it.”
Toke blinked, and then shook his head. “Well, forget about it. I wasn't looking at her.”
That was a lie. He had been looking at her. But it wasn't... it wasn't like that.
“She's pretty,” Zashiel remarked.
Toke shrugged too, trying to emulate Zashiel's cool disdain, but the itch on his back made him grunt and reach over his shoulder to scratch at it. “Meh. She's all right, I guess.”
Another lie. Inaska was beautiful, but it didn't matter. He only had eyes for Zashiel.
To his surprise, though, the Sorakine woman's eyes narrowed suspiciously. “Toke,” she said warningly.
“Tell me the truth. Do you think Inaska's pretty?”
Toke's cheeks burned again. “I- I mean... I don't know. I guess?”
Zashiel's eyes hardened even further. “Do you like her?”
“Zashiel, what's gotten into—”
“Just answer me!”
Toke couldn't meet her eyes, so he looked up at the spinning, flying beauty on the tightrope. “She's been friendly to us. Friendlier than anyone else on the ship. So yeah, I guess I like her.” He gave Zashiel a sharp look. “As a friend.”
He expected Zashiel to argue, but instead she just nodded again, apparently satisfied.
“Shouldn't you be getting back to work?” she asked instead.
Toke groaned and pushed away from the railing. “Yeah, probably. I just... urgh!” He reached back to scratch the itch again. It was getting worse.
Zashiel raised an eyebrow. “Are you okay? You’re acting like you've got a rash.”
“I think I might be getting one,” Toke admitted. “My back's been itching all day!”
Scratching through his shirt wasn't good enough anymore. No matter how much he rubbed at it, it wouldn't go away. He reached his hand through the collar of his shirt to attack the irritation directly.
“Maybe I'm allergic to tally...” His voice cut out abruptly.
Sensing that something was wrong, Zashiel was immediately on alert. “What? What is it?”
Toke drew his hand back out of his shirt, his fist clenched around something. He didn't want to see what was in it. He felt like he knew, but he didn't want to confirm those fears.
“Toke?” Zashiel pressed him.
Slowly, like he was fighting his own body, he held his fist out, palm up, and uncurled his fingers. Zashiel's eyes went wide, and she gasped softly. That, more than anything else, told Toke how wrong this was.
Because in his palm, he held a handful of downy, softly glowing yellow feathers.
NEXT TIME: Ho… Lee… CRAP. Is this what I think it is? It’s what I think it is, isn’t it? Do you guys think it’s the same thing I think it is? What do you guys think that I think that you think that it is?