Important thing of importance: Just a heads up, guys, Juryokine: Exile of Heroes will be taking a break after December. In the downtime, I'll be posting the remaining chapters of The Gray Ranger: Unforgiven. There will be no change in schedule, the updates will still come on Saturday mornings. See you there!
Chapter Twenty Seven
Toke managed to walk all the way to the door leading into the back of the ship with a stiff back and sure steps, but as soon as he shut the door behind him, he punched the wall as hard as he could. His injured fist lit up with agony, so overwhelming that he nearly fell over. He managed to keep his balance by putting his other hand on the wall, but, in truth, be barely noticed the pain.
“Smite!” he yelled. “Worthless smiting son of a—”
“Are you okay?”
With a jolt, Toke looked up and saw Inaska standing in front of him. Her eyes shimmered with worry behind her mask.
“I- I'm fine,” he stammered, standing up straight and trying to make his expression calm and uncaring, just like... smite!
The white-haired girl frowned. “Punching the wall isn't fine. What's going on?”
“It's nothing, really.” Toke shook his head and tried to go around her. “I'll be in my cabin if you—”
“I need you now!” she snapped, grabbing him by the wrist and pulling him back over to her. The momentum spun Toke around, and he looked at her in surprise. Inaska looked back, nonplussed, for a few seconds, but then her eyes widened. “Oh, maelstroms, no! I didn't mean it like that!”
Toke couldn't say for sure, but he thought this must have been the first time he'd ever seen Inaska blush. It was strange. She'd worn next to nothing in front of him more than once—smite it, she barely wore more than that for complete strangers when she performed—and her cheeks had only ever colored when she'd laughed at his reaction. She'd even made a suggestive joke in front of half the crew just minutes ago. And yet here, now, the mere suggestion that she wanted Toke... like that... had her blushing as hard as... well, as hard as he did when she danced around half naked. The thought managed to bring a bemused smile to Toke's face, but it quickly vanished beneath his sour mood again.
“It's...” He shrugged, but sighed. She wasn't going to let him go anywhere until he told her. “Zashiel and I had a fight.”
“About my friends.” Toke could feel his temper starting to rise again just thinking about. “She wants me to dump Wayli and Boam the next time we make port. Just... Just abandon them!” His face was as red as fire now. “Can you believe that?”
Inaska, apparently having overcome her embarrassment, folded her arms and glanced at the door. “From her? Yeah, I could totally believe that. But I'd also believe she did it for a good reason.”
Toke glared at her, and Inaska met that glare with a look of concern. In the space of an instant, all of Toke's anger leaked out his heels, and he slumped back against the wall, ashamed.
“I- I'm sorry,” he said, looking down at his feet. “I didn't mean to take it out on you.”
Even though he wasn't looking at her, Toke could hear the smirk in Inaska's voice. “You didn't. You complained about Zashiel and then gave me a dirty look. I hardly call that 'taking it out on me.'“
“I just... gah, I'm such an idiot!” He put his fists against his forehead. “I can't believe I said those things to her! After everything she's done for me...”
Inaska shrugged. “So go apologize.”
“I can't! If I do, she'll think I'm admitting she's right. She'll throw Wayli and Boam overboard before we even get to the next city.”
The white-haired girl hummed in her throat, and the next thing Toke knew, she was leaning against the wall as well, pressing her side against him until he obliged and put his arm around her shoulders. She sidled up next to him as if their bodies were meant to be pressed together.
“Why does she want to get rid of them in the first place?”
Toke groaned. “She thinks they're a distraction, and either they or I'm going to get hurt because of it.”
Inaska went a little bit rigid, but Toke cut her off before she could say anything, “No, she's not going to get rid of you too. She said so. I wouldn't let her even if she tried.”
Inaska relaxed, and Toke frowned. She was growing attached to him at an alarmingly fast rate. Or rather, had grown attached to him, he thought, remembering the way they had kissed two days ago—and now she was developing even stronger feelings. He remembered what Zashiel had said the other day, about how she would probably be willing to get married by the end of the week. He still wasn't sure how he felt about that. Inaska was an amazing woman, and beautiful to boot. Toke laid awake for a little while almost every night trying to figure out what she saw to make her so obsessed with him. Scars or not, mask or not, he couldn't imagine that she would have trouble making any man she batted her eyelashes at fall head over heels for her. She was the kind of woman that men would be content to share with another man if that was the only way to be close to her. And yet here she was, practically glued to his side like she was trying to merge with him like some kind of giant amoeba...
Wow! Toke thought in disgust. Of all the things you could compare her to... a smiting amoeba?
“So what are you going to do?” she finally asked.
“I don't know,” he answered with a sigh. “This isn't the first time we've fought. Smite, it's not even the hundredth time we've fought. And one of us always comes around in the end.”
“So just wait, then.”
Toke shook his head. “I don't know if that'll be enough this time. She wants me to abandon my two best friends. Well...” he gave her an embarrassed look. “My best friends from before I met you. And Zashiel.”
“I know what you mean.”
“Well, that means that this argument isn't going to end until I do that. Every day I let them stay on this ship will just be a reminder to Zashiel that I'm not doing what she wants. And I can't really blame her for wanting them gone, I suppose. She wants to protect me. And yesterday, when the two of us were flying all of Tad Moru looking for you, I... panicked.”
“That's sweet of you,” Inaska said coyly.
She snuggled up even closer to him, pressing her chest against Toke's side, and he realized he could feel her heartbeat. A blush started to rise to his cheeks, and he quickly cleared his throat and tried to think about the matter at hand.
It wasn't easy.
“She says it's only a matter of time before someone tries to use them against me. And since she's acting as my bodyguard, I get how frustrating that must be to her. If someone were to kidnap Wayli and Boam, you know I'd go chasing after them in a heartbeat. I might end up getting beaten to a bloody pulp because of it.”
He sighed. “But I still can't do it. They were there for me when nobody else was. And then they gave up everything they had to follow me here to Vlangur. And do you know why they did it? Because they were worried about me! They had nothing to do with what was going on, but they threw themselves right into the fire just for me! And Zashiel wants me to repay them by...”
“By running off without them,” Inaska finished for him.
“And I can't.” Toke shook his head and looked down at his feet. “I just can't smiting do that to them!”
He fell silent, holding Inaska closer to him as he felt the gentle sway of the Seventh Swordfish beneath his feet. The silence stretched on for several minutes, and Toke eventually looked down at the girl in his arms.
“Well?” he asked.
“What do you think I should do?”
Inaska looked up at him with those dark violet eyes of hers and shrugged. “It's not my decision, it's yours.”
“I know, but I was hoping for some advice.”
She chuckled under her breath and lowered her head to lean on his shoulder again. “That explains a lot.”
“What's that supposed to mean?” he demanded.
“You've got no self-confidence, Toke! Every time something happens, you're like,” she lowered her voice and put on a crude imitation of his Yasmikan accent, “'Zashiel, what should I do?' 'Inaska, give me advice!'“ Her voice went back to normal. “A guy like you should make his own decisions, no matter what other people think.”
“But that's so illogical!” Toke protested. “I am... I was a scientist. I need to collect as much information as I can. Anything less, and I run the risk of making the wrong choice. And if I make the wrong choice, then...”
He paused when he realized Inaska was humming again, and looked down to see a sly smirk on her face.
“What?” he asked.
“So you're a scientist, huh?” she asked, sounding remarkably pleased with herself.
“Yeah, of course I was. I told you tha...” His voice trailed off when realization struck him. No, he hadn't told her that, had he? In fact, thinking back to the day they'd spent together at the Shikurahan, he had made every effort to avoid telling her anything about his past. Finally, with a sigh, he admitted, “Yes. An inventor.”
The words were so heavy on his tongue he felt like he was having to drag them out by force. Even so, Inaska perked up visibly when he actually gave her a straight answer.
“Oh?” she asked. “What did you invent?”
Toke shook his head. “Something bad. Very, very bad.”
Inaska pursed her lips, pouting. “Oh, come on! Why won't you open up for me?”
“What was in that bag you smuggled onto the ship yesterday?”
The white-haired girl blinked in surprise, and then pulled away from Toke. The minute her body was no longer pressed up against his, regret hit Toke like a cold iron hammer. Smiting idiot, he was going to drive everyone away from him at this rate!
“Fair enough,” she said, trying to sound nonchalant. Toke noticed the way her hand twitched, though, like it reflexively wanted to touch her mask.
Groaning to himself, Toke ran a hand over his face. He hadn't felt this stressed when he'd gotten out of bed. When had his day turned so smiting terrible? Secrets, secrets, secrets. He was keeping them from Zashiel, Zashiel was keeping them from him, and now the same could be said for him and Inaska. He felt like he was standing on a flimsy rope bridge, and all the secrets and arguments were shaking the bridge, making the already weak threads creak and groan. How long would it take before they snapped? And when that happened, would Toke find himself trapped and alone on the other side of the gorge... or would he be falling into that dark, bottomless abyss?
This can't go on.
He made a decision. “Inaska?”
Though she tried to act composed, Toke clearly saw the way her eyes lit up with hope behind her mask. “Yes?”
“Maybe... Maybe you're right. Maybe it would be good for me to—”
“There you are!”
Toke and Inaska both jumped a mile in the air—Inaska figuratively, Toke almost literally—and they whirled around to see Treyn charging down the corridor toward them. Toke felt a momentary flash of panic when he saw the look in the captain's eyes, but he quickly realized that glare wasn't for him. His eyes were fixed on Inaska.
“You're supposed to be down below rehearsing!” he snapped.
The masked girl's eyes widened. “Oh, maelstroms! I forgot! I'm so sorry, Cap—”
“Save the apologies. Just get down there!”
He reached out, grabbed Inaska by the wrist, and was already turned around before his fingers had closed. The young woman yelped a bit when her arm was suddenly pulled taut, and she stumbled after him. Toke's eyes went wide with indignation. His anger, which he had managed to hold back up till now, came rolling back over him like a tidal wave. He jumped before he knew what he was doing, anchored himself to the other end of the hallway, and went streaking right over Treyn and Inaska's heads. Anchoring himself back to the floor, he landed in front of them, skidded to a halt, and then walked angrily up to the ship's captain.
“Can I help you?” Treyn asked, eyeing Toke with irritation.
Toke reached up and slapped Treyn's hand away from Inaska's wrist, and both of them went rigid with shock.
“You don't get to drag my betrothed around like some barnyard animal,” he said, pointing a finger directly in Treyn's face. “Do I make myself clear?”
Treyn looked passively at Toke's finger for a second, and then turned to Inaska, whose skin had turned as pale as her hair. “Betrothed already, are you?”
“N- No, sir,” Inaska stammered. “We're just courting!”
“Hmm.” Treyn narrowed his eyes at Toke. “Quite a temper on this one.”
“Captain, please,” she said, stepping up to him. Her voice sounded strangely frantic, Toke thought. “Don't... Just let it go, please!”
Toke raised an eyebrow in confusion, but then understanding dawned on him. He had just struck the Seventh Swordfish's captain. Not a crewmember, not the first mate—the smiting captain! He'd be lucky if Treyn only had him thrown overboard, and not his parents, Wayli, Boam, and Zashiel along with him. The anger fled from Toke as if blown away by a gale force wind.
“I didn't mean to,” he said, lamely.
Treyn's look became dangerous, and Toke took a hesitant step backwards. Could he round up his family and friends, plus their meager possessions, and get them all away before the captain ordered them thrown overboard? No, that was stupid. They were in the middle of a lake the size of a small ocean. Trying to escape would just be doing Treyn's job for him.
Am I going to have to take over the whole ship because of this? he wondered frantically. It wasn't that he didn't think he could do it. With Zashiel's help, the barge was practically theirs already. But that didn't mean he wanted to.
“Say you're sorry,” Treyn said.
Toke's thoughts cut off sharply. “Say... what?”
“That you're sorry,” the captain repeated, speaking slowly like Toke was a stupid child.
“I- I'm sorry?”
“Good. Don't do it again.”
With that, Treyn pushed past him none too gently and continued on his way toward the back of the ship. Toke turned to watch him go, wide eyed, and a moment later Inaska followed him.
“That was stupid,” she hissed, pausing beside Toke. “He could have accused you of mutiny!”
Toke nodded, feeling strangely numb. “I don't know what came over me. I saw him grab you like that, and...” His voice trailed off.
“As sweet as that is, Toke, I don't want you getting thrown off the ship!”
“Inaska, get moving!”
“Coming, Captain!” Inaska called back. Then she took Toke's hand in her own. “Why don't you come with us?”
She started walking, and Toke let her pull him down the hallway with her, though he hesitated. “Are you sure that's a good idea after what just happened?”
“You can watch me rehearse,” she told him just as they reached the stairway that led to the massive storage room directly beneath the ship's deck. “It'll give you some time to cool down.”
As they descended the stairs, Toke couldn't help but wonder, “Why are we going down here? The tightrope and trapeze are all up on deck.”
“I do other acts besides that one, silly. Besides, the captain doesn't want us up on the ropes while it’s raining. Makes it too easy to slip and fall.”
“You? Fall?” Toke chuckled. “The sky would probably fall before you did.”
Inaska flipped her hair proudly. “The last time was almost five years ago! But it broke both my legs and I wasn't able to perform for nearly six months.”
Toke cringed. “So what are you rehearsing, then?”
“The Legend of Saldo Gunn. Treyn wants to do that one on our next stop.”
They reached the bottom of the stairs, and entered the ship's hold. It was massive, filling almost the entire underside of the barge. Toke had never gotten an exact measurement of it, but he estimated that someone could build at least four houses in here, maybe five. Everything that the circus used was kept down here, from props and backdrops, to food rations, to the sail that Toke had cut the replacement patch for his wing from.
To his surprise, he found that the entire left side of the gigantic room had been cleared, leaving the floor completely bare. All the crewmembers in attendance were flocking in that direction, setting the stage or getting into costume.
“I'll see you when the rehearsal's done, okay?” Inaska said, slipping her hand free of Toke's. She surprised him with a quick peck on the cheek, and then dashed away, giggling at his expression.
Smiting woman, he thought, smiling.
He looked back, and jumped out of the way just in time to avoid being trampled by five crewmembers carrying Saldo's boat over their heads. It wasn't a real boat, and didn't weigh anywhere near as much as one, but the men still puffed and grunted their way across the room before depositing it in the middle of the “stage.” Toke caught sight of Treyn giving directions amidst the chaos, and quickly ducked behind a large stack of boxes before the captain could see him.
A narrow pathway, barely wide enough for him to fit through, ran through the haphazard pile of crates and props. Toke had only come down here a couple of times, but he could tell that things were far more disorganized now than they usually were. Treyn, for all his nonsense, liked to run his circus like a well-oiled machine. However, due to being chased inside by the rain, the crew had been forced to haphazardly pile everything on the left side of the storage room on top of the things on the right side. Toke didn't mind. Everyone was out on “stage,” making the maze of crates and props Toke's personal hideaway. This would be the perfect place to watch Inaska—
A thunderous growl nearly made Toke jump out of his skin, and he spun around to find himself face to face with Dabba. His hands reflexively went behind his back to draw his axes, but then he realized that he and the lion were separated by a wall of iron bars.
“Smite! You about scared the drops out of me!” Toke said to him. The lion growled, but since the overgrown cat was safely in its cage, Toke decided to ignore it. Choosing a spot where he could peer between two boxes for an unobstructed view of the “stage”, he sat down and...
Something thumped him on the back.
“What the...” Toke muttered, and turned to see that Dabba had reached his front paw in between the bars and was busy swatting Toke's back like some kind of cat toy. “What do you want?”
Dabba growled again, and the next smack knocked Toke onto his side. Smite, that animal was strong! Groaning, Toke picked himself back up, making sure to keep out of Dabba's reach this time. Seeing that he'd gotten Toke's attention, Dabba pulled his leg back into the cage and looked at his hindquarters, where the cut Toke had given him just over a week ago was still scabbed over.
Toke frowned. “You're not still mad about that, are you?”
Dabba glared at him, and then bared his teeth with another snarl.
Toke sighed. “You're still mad. Look,” he held up his hands in a nonthreatening gesture, “how about we start over? I just want to sit here and watch the play. If you don't bother me, I won't bother you. Deal?”
Dabba watched him for a few more seconds, as if contemplating Toke's offer, but when Toke took a step toward him he bared his teeth and reached through the cage again.
“Fine!” Toke snapped. “I don't want to be your friend either. So there!”
He turned around, but hesitated. Since the spot in front of Dabba's cage was apparently off limits, he needed to find a new place to watch the rehearsal. Some place only he could get to, where other people wouldn't walk up and pester him while he tried to calm down from his fight with Zashiel. Somewhere...
Toke blinked, and then looked up. Right. I'm an idiot.
A quick anchor to the ceiling sent Toke falling upwards, drawing a few stares from the actors down below. He ignored them, flipped himself over before he landed, and then took a seat. Not the ideal way to watch a play, but he would make do. Once, a year ago, watching people scurry around while upside down would have made Toke sick, but these days he barely noticed the difference. Rightside up, upside down, sideways, none of it made any difference to someone who could control gravity.
“Eyes off him and on me, everyone!” Treyn barked, clapping his hands. “Props and set, are we ready?”
“Ready, Captain!” eight crewmembers called in unison. Four of them ran to the other side of the “stage”, carrying the black strips of cloth that would serve as their Lake Dexyn.
“Actors, are you ready?”
“Ready!” they declared, Inaska first and foremost among them.
“All right, then let's...” Treyn's voice trailed off, and he looked around. “Where in Shalyak is Pruyal?”
“Here, Captain!” someone yelled from the far end of the room. Everyone turned to see the handsome young man who played Saldo Gunn rushing down the stairs, taking them three at a time. “Sorry I'm late, I couldn't find—what the?”
With a jolt, Toke realized that Pruyal was looking at him. Even a trained and seasoned band of circus performers weren't used to seeing people sit on the ceiling, apparently. Toke wasn't overly surprised by this. People had always gawked at him when he'd defied gravity back in Yasmik too. He was surprised, however, when Pruyal, in his distraction, got his ankles tangled together and went tumbling head over heels down the last few sets of stairs.
A resounding gasp rang through the large room, as if the rehearsal had been preparing for this exact moment. Toke leaped to his feet, still standing upside down, wondering how many of them would blame him for this. Down below, everything seemed frozen in time. Then Treyn broke the spell, sprinting across the room with almost inhuman speed, vaulting over a stack of crates that was as tall as he was, and slid across the rough wooden floor on his knees so that he came to rest beside Pruyal's broken form.
“Nashyaka thremin!” he cursed in his strange language. “Pruyal, speak to me!”
Toke was too high up to see or hear what was going on down there, but after a tense minute Treyn's posture relaxed visibly. A few seconds later, he stood back up.
“He's unconscious, and at least one of his legs is broken,” he announced to his waiting crew, “but I think he's going to be okay. Someone go up top and tell Ludsong to take steer us toward the next town. I don't care how big a town it is, we'll perform there until a doctor's taken care of Pruyal. Go!”
Several of the crewmembers took off running at his command, and Toke got the feeling Ludsong would soon be hearing the report from ten different sources at the same time. A smaller crowd had finally worked up the nerve to go look at their fallen shipmate, who was still lying on the floor as motionless as a corpse. Toke clenched his teeth. This was his fault. He saw Inaska making her way toward Pruyal, and Toke could see the horror etched on her face from the ceiling.
Treyn looked sharply at her when she approached. “Leave him be, Inaska,” Toke heard him say.
“But maybe I can—”
“I said leave him alone! He needs a doctor!” Treyn moved to stand protectively between Pruyal and the rest of the crew. “Nobody is to lay a hand on him until I order otherwise, and that will only be to get him upstairs and into bed. Is that understood?”
“Yes, Captain,” said all the assembled crewmembers—save for one.
“Inaska!” He snapped.
“Yes... Captain,” she said, sounding as if she were having to force those words out of her mouth.
Treyn still didn't move from his spot until a few minutes later, when the same ten people who had went up to pass his orders to Ludsong returned, this time carrying a long and narrow rectangle of fabric. They stretched it out on the ground and, at an approving nod from Treyn, lifted Pruyal as gently as they could onto it.
“Be careful!” Treyn snapped when the injured actor groaned, even though the stagehands were obviously doing their best. “His leg's broken, but I don't know about the rest of him. He may have more broken bones.”
“Get him into his cabin and give him some dullweed. I want someone with him at all times to make sure he's all right. How long did Ludsong say we have until we reach port?”
“Tomorrow evening, Captain,” one of the sailors reported.
Treyn groaned and rubbed his temples, obviously not satisfied. “Fine. If that's how long it takes, that's how long it takes. Get him to bed.”
With one last “Yes, Captain!”, the men slowly lugged their fallen brother up the steps and out of the storage room. Once they were gone, Treyn deflated visibly, and he leaned against a stack of boxes, making it teeter alarmingly.
“Well, now what?” he asked.
Nobody had an answer for him.
The crew's mood had dropped considerably, and Toke caught more than a few of them shooting him dirty looks. He sighed and, steeling his nerves, let himself fall back to the floor. The dirty looks only became that much more noticeable once he was looking at them rightside up, but Toke did his best to ignore them and made his way to where Treyn slumped.
“Sir,” he said tentatively. The captain raised his head, suddenly looking a hundred times more intimidating than Toke would have believed the scrawny, scruffy man was capable of. “I- I want to take responsibility for what happened to Pruyal. It was my fault. If I hadn't been on the ceiling, then he wouldn't have...”
He let his voice trail off, Treyn's icy glare threatening to freeze the blood in his veins.
“How very noble of you,” Treyn said, dryly. “Unfortunately, saying you’re sorry isn't going to fix things this time.”
Toke frowned and turned to leave—Treyn obviously didn't want to talk to him—but then stopped short.
“What if it could?” he asked slowly, an idea forming in his head.
To Toke's surprise, Treyn didn't immediately brush him off. “If you have a way to help Pruyal, then do it.”
“Captain, what if—” Inaska exclaimed, appearing by Toke's side as if out of thin air, but was silenced when Treyn held up his hand.
“I said no, Inaska! Don't make me say it a fourth time!”
Inaska looked like she desperately wanted to argue further, but she respected her captain's orders and bit her tongue. Instead, she looked pleadingly at Toke.
“Well?” Treyn demanded.
Toke put his fist to his chin in thought, and after a minute nodded his head.
“I think I can help him,” he said. “But not right now. It'll have to be later. Sometime tonight.”
Tonight when Zashiel's asleep and I don't have to ask her permission.
Treyn's eyes narrowed at him, and for a second Toke thought he was going to order him to do it right this minute. To his relief, though, he sighed and nodded his consent.
“Tell me before you do anything,” he said. “I want to be there.”
“Yes, Captain,” Toke agreed with a bow of his head.
“And now,” Treyn pushed himself away from the crates, making them teeter again, and elbowed his way rudely past Toke, “we need to figure out a plan. We're down our lead actor, and we'll get run out of town if we don't put on Saldo Gunn at least once at our next stop. So...” He spread his arms. “Astound me, people!”
For a long minute, nobody said anything. And then, before he knew what was happening, Inaska had grabbed Toke's hand and pulled him in front of Treyn again.
“Toke can do it, Captain!” she exclaimed, eyes alight with excitement.
Treyn cocked his head as if she'd just suggested that Dabba play the role. No, Toke thought in bewilderment, he would probably look less surprised if she'd said that, because he was fairly certain the lion would be better suited for that.
“Think about it, Captain,” she insisted anyway. “You already know he can handle being on stage, and his memorization is incredible. He can do it!”
Smiting woman, Toke thought, looking from her to Treyn and back again. This isn't funny!
To his dismay, though, Treyn actually looked like he was considering the idea! Toke opened his mouth to tell him Inaska had been joking—because she had to have been, right?—but the captain snapped his fingers decisively.
“Works for me. Someone get Saldo here a costume!”
NEXT TIME: Toke is just having the greatest day, isn’t he? Fights, mutinies, assaulting his coworkers, and now this! I’m sure nothing bad could possibly come of throwing him into an old and beloved play, right?