AUTHOR’S NOTE: Remember, if you guys ever get tired of waiting for new chapters, the entire book is for sale on Amazon. Now back to your regularly scheduled insanity.
Chapter Thirty Two
When Toke came to, he was greeted by bright sunlight, a splitting headache, and an angry Sorakine.
Smite, he thought, closing his eyes again. I changed my mind. I'll take the coma, please.
He was back in his cabin, lying in his cot. Zashiel sat on her own, arms crossed, and an icy glare on her face.
“So you're up,” she said. “Good.”
“If it's all the same to you, can we pretend that I'm not? I've got the worst headache, and lying here for a week in complete silence feels like the best way to get rid of it.”
Zashiel rose and stepped up to his bedside. “Oh, you have a headache? You poor thing. Here, let me help!”
She put two fingers on Toke's forehead, and his eyes shot back open. “What are you—”
She pressed down. Her Sorakine strength, combined with the way his head already felt like it was being split in two, was enough to make Toke stop talking and gasp in pain. She was being gentle, by Sorakine standards, but it still felt like she was driving a nail straight into his brain.
“Does that help?” she asked, and then pressed down harder. Toke's legs began to spasm from the pain. “No? Sorry, it's the best I can do since I don't have any Chiyuka ointment!”
“I- I- I'm s-sorry!” Toke managed to croak.
“What's that?” She pushed down even harder. Lights were flashing in front of Toke's eyes. “I can't hear you over all the betrayal!”
Zashiel hesitated for a second, and then finally, begrudgingly, raised her fingers. Toke gasped with relief, though his head pounded even more painfully than ever. Zashiel glared down at him, and for one frightening second, Toke thought she was contemplating killing him.
Then he realized she had tears in her eyes.
“After everything we've been through,” she whispered, backing away from him. “How could you do this to me?”
“I was going to give it back,” he said. “I just wanted to—”
“You wanted to what, Toke? To steal from me?”
A flash of irritation crossed Toke's mind, and he struggled to sit up. His body protested every move he made, but after a few seconds he managed it.
“I wanted to use it to help someone,” he snapped, “so quit acting like a smiting victim!”
Zashiel's eyes widened in surprise. She had obviously been expecting Toke to roll over and accept the blame for everything that had happened last night. The fact that he might defend himself hadn't even crossed her mind. That gave Toke a small amount of satisfaction, and then a heaping pile of shame for feeling that satisfaction.
It was your fault the ointment got stolen, he reminded himself.
Even so, he wasn't about to let Zashiel walk all over him for this.
“Yesterday,” he said, “one of the actors got injured because I was distracting him. Don't you think I owe it to him to fix that?”
“With my Chiyuka ointment?” Zashiel demanded, balling her fists, face turning red.
Toke threw his arms open. “Well, seeing as how you're the only one here who has the stuff, yes, I wanted to use your Chiyuka ointment!”
“And you didn't even think to smiting ask?”
Toke looked her in the eye. “What would you have said if I did?”
Zashiel hesitated, and Toke could see emotions in her eyes. Anger, betrayal, and... guilt. Inaska was right, he realized. She fought so hard to look like she didn't care about anything, but in truth she felt everything just as much as everyone else did.
“No,” she admitted quietly.
Toke nodded sharply. “So yeah, I took it from you. But I was going to give it—”
“I don't give a smite what you wanted to do with it!” she yelled, all her rage coming back to her in an instant. “It was my ointment. I get to decide what to do with it! You had no right to—”
Before Toke knew what he was doing, he was on his feet. “I saved Hashira! Doesn't that entitle me to use your miracle healing goop whenever I want?”
Zashiel froze, pure horror etched onto her face, and she stumbled away from him. In a rare moment of clumsiness, she actually tripped over her cot and sat down hard on it. Toke looked down at her, face red, head pounding... and then he realized what had come out of his mouth.
“Oh, smite,” he moaned. He reached his hand toward her. “Zashiel, I'm sorry. I didn't mean to...”
He stopped. What had he not meant to do? Take the debt he knew she took very seriously, the one he had claimed time and time again didn't exist, and throw it right in her face? Hurt her with one of the only weaknesses he knew she had?
Slowly, she shook her head. “No, you're right. I've been letting myself forget what you did lately.”
“Zashiel, don't!” He took a step toward her, but then hesitated. “I take it back. I was wrong to steal your ointment. I should have asked!”
“You saved my entire race,” she went on as if he hadn't spoken. “I suppose a tube of Chiyuka ointment isn't that high a price to pay. And I... I've been trying to...”
Toke could see how hard she was fighting to keep herself composed—and she was losing that fight. Tears were running down her cheeks in tiny waterfalls, and her voice shook with every word she said.
“Who was I,” she asked herself, reaching up to rub her eyes, “to tell you your friends can't stay? Who was I to say…”
Seeing her like this, the strongest woman Toke had ever known, beaten down to a whimpering mess by cruel words—his cruel words, no less—something snapped inside of Toke. Just like his body moved by instinct when he was fighting, so now did it move by instinct when he crossed the room, sat down next to Zashiel, and wrapped his arms around her. For a second, he worried that she would punch him for trying to treat her so tenderly, but to his surprise, she let him do it.
“I,” he whispered into her ear, “am a pile of drops.”
She shook her head. “You saved—”
“I don't give a smite what I did a year ago. What I did thirty seconds ago was horrible. I just... I don't know what came over me. I'm sorry.”
“Don't apologize to me, Toke. Don't ever apologize.”
“I'm sorry anyway!” he insisted. “We... We've been growing apart ever since we came to Vlangur, haven't we? Why?”
Zashiel answered without hesitation, “Because I keep forgetting who you are, Toke.”
He gave her a sharp look. “Don't—”
“I keep thinking that you're some soft, helpless little child who needs me to protect him from everything and everyone. I keep forgetting what you did up on the Terracaelum that day, when I... when I was too weak to be there with you. And it's only been getting worse because...” Her voice trailed off.
“Because of what?” Toke asked gentle.
“Because you keep proving that you don't need me.”
Toke sat upright in surprise. “Don't need you? What's that supposed to mean?”
Zashiel rubbed her eyes again. “It means... you can take care of yourself. Without me. All I've been doing is getting in your way.”
Anger rose up in Toke again, but this time it wasn't directed at her. Or, rather, it was directed at her, but not in a way that made him want to lash out at her. Instead, he hugged her tighter.
“That's a load of drops and you know it,” he insisted. “Remember what happened the day we boarded the Swordfish? That bounty hunter would have killed me if you hadn't been there.”
He didn't let her finish. “And when Finch attacked me back in Tad Moru. If you hadn't found me, I would have laid there until she healed, and then she'd have killed me!”
“I still should have killed her...”
“And,” Toke raised his finger in her face, “let's not forget what happened back in Yasmik. I may have fought Navras and turned the Terracaelum out of the way alone, but I would have died in the crash if you hadn't rescued me. Zashiel Kal'Brynden, I would be dead a hundred times over if it weren't for you, so quit acting like you're some peasant groveling in front of a king!”
Zashiel raised her head to look at him, but then dropped it. “That doesn't make us even, Toke, and you know it.”
“Of course it doesn't. And do you know why?” He looked her in the eye. “Because you don't have to repay someone for doing the right thing! There is no debt, Zashiel!”
They sat like that for several minutes, Zashiel weeping softly in Toke's arms. Toke began to feel uncomfortable very quickly, but he didn't move or say a word. He was in a relationship with Inaska that was growing more serious by the day. It felt wrong to hold another woman like this, even if he didn't still harbor romantic feelings for her. Zashiel needed this, though. He could feel it in the way she shook just the slightest amount in his embrace. Those tears would have been a mild show of emotion for anyone else, but for the usually cold and aloof Zashiel... she may as well have been bawling like a baby. He would let her stay like this as long as she—
A knock came from the cabin door, and it swung open before either of them could say anything.
“Hey!” Inaska's chipper voice entered the room. “Is he up... yet...”
Her voice trailed off when she saw the two of them, eyes widening behind her mask.
“Should I come back later?” she asked, already closing the door.
“W- Wait!” Toke yelped, leaping to his feet. “It's not what it looks like!”
The door clicked shut, and Toke stopped, cursing under his breath. His hand reached for the doorknob, itching to go after her, but he paused. After what he’d just done to Zashiel, was it really right to just leave her behind to go—
The door flew back open, making Toke jump, and Inaska came back in, laughing.
“Gotcha!” she yelled, her cheeks pink with glee.
She went to sit on the edge of Toke’s cot. Toke gave Zashiel a confused look, who shrugged, and they both turned back to the white-haired girl.
“It… wasn’t what you think,” Toke said again, lamely.
“I know it isn't,” she confessed, still grinning from ear to ear. “You're just too much fun to mess with!”
Toke took a deep breath, let it out, and then groaned. “Smiting woman.”
That, of course, only served to send Inaska into another fit of laughter. To Toke’s dismay, even Zashiel snorted a little. He gave the acrobat a flat stare until she finally calmed down, and then he asked, “So you're all right, then?”
The smile fell from Inaska's face in a second. “Why wouldn't I be okay? I should be asking you that after—”
“After that man... whoever he was...” Toke clenched his fist as memories of the emotions he'd felt last night rose up in him again. “He threw you into the benches. You even broke a few of them! How are you up and walking right now?”
Inaska shrugged. “I got lucky. Just a couple scrapes and bruises.”
She was wearing her mask again, but Toke noticed the way her eyes shifted to look away as she said that. Beside him, Zashiel's eyes narrowed. She had seen it too. Toke wasn't sure what he was so suspicious of, though. He'd already known Inaska could hold her own in a fight. It hadn't been until she taken off the mask...
A chill ran down his spine.
Before he could say anything, though, Inaska asked, “What about you, Zashiel?”
Without a moment's hesitation, Zashiel raised her shirt up to show an ugly bruise on her stomach. Toke cringed. A direct hit from a kaosuryo blast was one of the most painful things he had ever felt, and Zashiel wasn't able to heal herself.
Because of him.
“Maelstroms!” Inaska exclaimed, rising a little out of her seat. “Are you all right?”
“I've had worse,” she said. Toke's mouth made a flat line. From anyone else, he would have taken that as bragging. Not from her, though. He had seen with his own eyes what kind of pain she'd been through.
“And you, Toke?” Inaska asked, looking at him.
Well, I can't very well complain after what Zashiel just showed you, can I? he thought. Pointing at his head, out loud he said, “Headache. I'll live.”
“We have other things to talk about,” Zashiel interjected. Her face was grim again. “Do you feel like explaining who that man was?”
She was looking at Toke, but it was Inaska who answered, “That was Blackbane Kuerlo, one of the most infamous lake pirates in Vlangur. He's supposed to be an unmatched swordsman, and nearly psychotic in his brutality.”
“His sword was nice, though,” Toke chimed in.
Inaska smirked and nodded. “Blackbane's Fortune. Most pirates bury their treasure. Kuerlo kills with it. Legend says he took all the most valuable jewels and metals he'd plundered over twenty years and had it all forged into a sword. It's supposed to be so valuable that you could by an entire city with it, and still have enough left over for your great, great grandchildren to never have to work a day in their lives. He wears it everywhere he goes, hoping that someone will see it and challenge him for it. Then he gets to kill them.”
Toke decided to take a chance. “He didn't look too intimidating last night when you—”
Inaska looked sharply up at him, but Zashiel interrupted them. “That's good to know, I suppose, but he's not who I was talking about.” She turned to Toke.
A pit formed in Toke's gut. “I... I don't know who that guy was. I'm pretty sure I've never seen him before.”
“He seemed pretty familiar with you,” said the Sorakine.
Toke nodded. “That's what I can't figure out. He knew me, and...”
“So you are experiencing changes, then?”
Toke was on his feet in an instant. “And he knows what's happening to me!”
His body was moving on its own again. He crossed the room in two long, angry steps, reached for the door, and—grunted in surprise when Zashiel pulled him back to her cot.
“Where do you think you're going?” she demanded.
“He knows!” Toke shot back. His face was red, his heart hammering in his chest. “I don't know how, but he must be the one behind everything! I have to find him, and—”
“How are you going to find him, Toke?” It was Inaska who challenged him this time. Her eyes were hard behind her mask, her voice grave. “Kuerlo's ship is long gone. Are you going to pick a direction and swim until you find him?”
“I... I...” Toke deflated as the rage leaked out of him. “I don't know. But I have to find him!”
He looked to Zashiel, expecting her to agree with him, perhaps even fly him out over the lake to try and find Kuerlo's ship. Instead, she shook her head.
“Why?” she asked. “What good will that do?”
Toke's mouth fell open a little. “Excuse me? Did I just hear you correctly? Zashiel Kal'Brynden doesn't want to help me chase down a bad guy?”
She looked away, but Toke caught the flash of guilt in her eyes. “Whatever's happening to you, finding that old man isn't going to change anything. I doubt he could reverse it, or...”
“But he knows!” Toke slammed his fist down on Zashiel's cot. “And if he knows, then I want to know too!”
Zashiel’s frown deepened. “Toke—”
“He had a piece of Navras' armor.”
Zashiel froze at this, just like he'd known she would. Professor Navras' kaosuryo armor, the thing let him control the Gravity Storms.
“You know we can't just let him run around with something that powerful,” he said.
Zashiel's fist clenched in anger, though her face didn't show any of the anger that had risen up in her.
“Navras?” Inaska chimed in, looking from Toke to Zashiel. “Isn't that the guy you fought back in Yasmik?”
Zashiel gave Toke a sharp look. “She knows?”
“Ah,” Toke scratched his head awkwardly, “I might have told her a little bit of... everything.”
Zashiel looked taken aback by this, but when she didn't raise any objections Toke went on.
“Yeah, that was him. I have no idea how he got hold of a piece of that armor, much less got it working again, but... he did.”
“It should have all been destroyed in the crash,” Zashiel noted.
Toke started to nod, but then shook his head instead. “Actually, I doubt that. He made that for the soul purpose of being immune to the Gravity Storms. It makes sense that that would survive the crash.”
Zashiel considered this for a second, and then nodded as well.
“Then we agree,” Toke concluded. “We have to go after him.”
Toke, who had already been rising from his seat, froze and turned to look at the Sorakine girl. “What more do I have to say to convince you?”
Zashiel didn't answer immediately. She looked down at her knees, her wings giving a nervous twitch behind her every few seconds. Toke, in his urgency to get up and go, found his fists clamped so hard around the edge of her cot that it made his injured hand twinge.
Something's going on, he thought, looking at her. A year ago, she would have chased Kuerlo down already, even without the threat of Navras' armor. Now she seems too scared to even leave the ship.
He unconsciously leaned a little closer to her. What aren't you telling me, Zashiel?
“In any case,” she said, suddenly turning to look at Inaska, “it's your turn.”
Inaska jumped a little, and then immediately went pale. “M- My turn? My turn for—”
“Inaska,” Toke interrupted her, “we both saw what happened last night. I heard what Kuerlo said. Who...” He paused, remembering what she had said to the pirate captain. “What is the Calix Cura?”
Inaska was sitting so rigid she looked like a pole had been tied to her back. Her eyes slid from Toke, to Zashiel, to Toke... and then toward the door.
“Don't try to run,” Zashiel blurted out. “We can—”
Toke put his hand on the Sorakine girl's shoulder, and, to his own surprise, she immediately quieted. Inaska looked more on edge than ever, so Toke put on his most non-threatening face and looked her in the eye.
“If you don't want to tell us, that's fine,” he said. “But whoever or whatever you are, you obviously have a reputation. One bad enough to send the most feared pirate in Vlangur running like a... a thing from... another scarier thing.” He grimaced. “Smite it. I need to run these past Boam before I say them out loud, don't I?”
To his relief, that actually brought a smile to Inaska's face. Just like he had hoped. Tell a joke, put the girl at ease, hope that she trusted him enough to tell him the secret behind those scars she was obviously so ashamed of.
“It's fine,” she said after a minute of thought. “I guess if we're going to be... together... then you'll need to know sooner or later.”
To Toke's surprise, she reached up and took off her mask, exposing her C-shaped scars to him and Zashiel. Her eyes flicked toward Zashiel again, even more obvious now that her face wasn't covered.
Zashiel took the hint and began to rise. “Do you need me to go?”
“No, no!” Inaska exclaimed. “I just... I trust Toke, and if he trusts you, then...”
“If you don't feel comfortable talking about it to me, there's no shame in only telling Toke.” Zashiel gave him a sidelong look. “You're going to marry him, not me.”
Toke's face immediately lit up as bright as one of Treyn's fireworks. “We haven't decided that yet!” he shot back, his voice nearly rising to a shout.
Zashiel flipped her hair nonchalantly. “If you say so.”
Inaska hesitated for another few seconds, but then finally nodded. “If you really don't mind, I guess I'd rather only tell Toke.”
“Sure.” Zashiel was up in a second, and halfway out the door another second later. “Toke, come find me when you two are... done.”
She gave him a look as she shut the door, and... Toke jumped. Had she just winked at him? His cheeks burned a little, but then the door clicked shut—and Toke was alone in the room with Inaska. In his bedroom. Movement came from the other side of the cabin, and Toke jumped so hard he was surprised he didn't hit his head on the ceiling before he realized it was just Inaska shifting to be more comfortable. Right. Inaska. In his room.
“S- So,” Toke said, clearing his throat, “you, uh, wanted to tell me something?”
He expected the white-haired girl to giggle at his obvious discomfort—the smiting woman took sadistic pleasure in that—but to his surprise she was looking down at her feet, ashamed. He waited a few seconds, and was about to ask again when she finally looked up at him.
“How much Vlangurtian history do you know?” she asked, eyes as cold and hard as steel.
“Not much,” Toke admitted. He kicked himself mentally for that. He'd lived here almost a year now, and it had never occurred to him that maybe he should learn more about the country he had made his home.
“Well, I guess you couldn't really call this history,” Inaska went on, shaking her head. “It only happened about eight years ago, but you won't find a single history book that doesn't already talk about it.” Her voice trailed off again.
“What happened?” Toke asked gently.
“The Man in the Empty Room,” she said, “has only been in power for the past eight years.”
Toke didn't have to ask what she meant. The Empty Room was what Vlangurtians called their king's throne room, and the identity of their king was a closely guarded secret. If asked, any Vlangurtian would claim they had no ruler, merely an empty room in the castle in Stal Atrieda. Since coming here, Toke had begun to wonder if it was truly an act or not.
“He came into power because his father, King Nalseanor Quorn, was assassinated.” She stopped again, taking a deep, shaky breath.
Her hands were trembling.
“Are you all right?” Toke asked, raising a hand toward her.
“I'm fine.” Her voice was breathless, but still determined. “King Quorn. The king's guards are always on the lookout for potential assassins, but the one who killed the king was able to walk right into the palace in plain sight. Everyone could see h—it, but nobody gave it a second glance. It blended right in, the last person anyone would ever suspect. That's why sh… it was chosen.”
Toke raised an eyebrow. He didn't need to be a writer like Boam to piece together what he was hearing. He cut off that line of thought, though. No jumping to conclusions. He would wait until Inaska had told him everything.
“It was... a twelve year old girl,” she said. She almost sounded like she as choking on the words. “Disguised as a maid. She just walked right up to the Empty Room's doors. The guards tried to stop her there, of course. Even a maid couldn't just waltz right into the Empty Room. There were eight guards. Four on both sides of the door. She...” Inaska took another deep breath. “She killed all of them.”
Toke started, eyes wide. “Eight guards? A little twelve year old girl?”
Inaska nodded, eyes closed, head bowed. “They didn't stand a chance. The girl... she had been raised from birth to do this one thing. She had eight daggers hidden under her dress. All it took was a flick of her wrist, and all eight guards were dead before they could blink.”
“And she killed the king?” Toke asked. He felt numb, but he could tell that was nothing compared to what Inaska was feeling. Hunched over on his cot, he could see the occasional tear roll down her nose, spattering on her legs. He thought she was going to break down and cry right there. He almost told her to stop. Who was he to make her go through this kind of torment? But then she nodded to him.
“She burst into the Empty Room and threw another dagger into King Quorn's eye. There were about a dozen of his advisors in there with him. All but one of them died. Per her instructions, she left one alive, and collected her daggers while the survivor shouted for more guards. The girl let them come, and then they died too.”
Toke’s stomach was tying itself in knots.
“She let them chase her through the whole castle, killing another guard every couple of minutes. By the time she burst out through the front doors, more than forty people in the castle were dead. She could have escaped in the crowd that was gathered outside, but…” Inaska drew in a ragged breath. “She didn’t. She had been ordered to let herself be caught.”
“That's horrible,” Toke whispered. If Inaska heard him, though, she didn't show it.
“There was talk of executing her, but the courts decided against it. Assassin or not, they couldn't bring themselves to kill a child. What they did, though, might have been even worse.” Absentmindedly, she traced her fingers along the side of her face, curving them around her eye, along the scar. “They... branded her. CC, Calix Cura. Vlangurtian for Killer of Kings. And then, rather than keep her in the dungeons for the rest of her life, they released her. The thought was that people would see her brand, and execute her for them. It probably would have worked, if not for... for...”
She finally broke down, bringing her knees so she could bury her face in them, sobbing like a child a quarter of her age.
“It was you,” Toke said. It wasn't a question. Suddenly, half the questions he had about her were answered, and the other half seemed downright trivial in comparison to the revelation he'd just received.
Inaska nodded without looking up. Toke didn't feel numb anymore. Now, it felt like a knife was spinning on his chest, slowly drilling its way down into his heart. He got up, sat down on his own cot next to her, and for the second time that morning wrapped his arms around a crying woman.
“I'm so sorry,” he whispered.
“No,” Inaska said back, finally raising her head. “I'm sorry, Toke. I'm sorry I didn't tell you sooner. I'm sorry I asked you to court me. I'm sorry I even let you think we could be friends.”
Toke froze, ice filling his veins. “W- What?” he exclaimed. He nearly let go of her, but instead squeezed her even harder. “What's that supposed to mean?”
Inaska scoffed, a vain attempt at hiding her grief. “Oh, please! I'm the Calix Cura, the only criminal with a worse reputation than Blackbane Kuerlo. Nobody could ever choose to love me. I accepted that a long time ago, but when I saw you... I forgot what I was for a little bit, and let myself get carried away... get us both carried away.”
“You know I'm not exactly held in high esteem in my own country, right?”
“That's different. You were wrongly accused. You're a hero, even if nobody knows it. I'm not. I'm a criminal though and through!”
Toke ground his teeth together. Smite. She was right—at least about him not really being a criminal. What could he say to that? He couldn't accept the blame for everything Navras had done just to make her feel better. Such a claim would reek of desperation. But he had to say something!
“Do you think I care?” he found himself asking. “Even if I'm not a real criminal, I should know better than anyone what it means be seen as a label. To them, I'm Cassitoka the Juryokine, the terrorist who killed Permissor Adal and nearly destroyed the Sorakine city. Nobody sees Toke, the awkward, bumbling, idiot who's not nearly as smart as he likes to think he is.”
With gentle fingers, he took her by the chin and raised her head to look at him.
“Just like nobody sees Inaska, the amazing... beautiful... talented acrobat that I count myself lucky just to have met. So,” He forced himself to smile, “how about we both forget each others' labels and see each other for who we are. Toke.” He took her hands in his own and raised them up between themselves. “And Inaska.”
Inaska's eyes were open wide, glistening with unshed tears. Her mouth was moving though no sound came out. The look she gave Toke was one of absolute shock, bordering on horror.
Then her eyes fell. “Don't lie to me,” she whispered. “I know you could never—”
Toke leaned forward and kissed her.
Inaska stiffened with surprise, and Toke half expected her to slap him for being so forward. She didn't, but neither did she melt into the kiss the way she had before. She sat there, as stiff and cold as an ice sculpture, until Toke finally broke the kiss and smiled at her.
“What if I told you... that I already have?”
Inaska stared at him, and then began to shake. She raised a fist and pressed it against her chest, and those tears she had held back before came spilling down her cheeks.
“Y- You...” She gritted her teeth and sucked in a raspy breath. “Toke, do you mean to tell me that...”
“Inaska,” he said, leaning forward and resting his forehead against hers, “I love you.”
Toke wasn't sure what he expected to happen next, but he mentally prepared himself for the worst. She was pushing against him—emotionally, verbally, though not physically yet—and a few nice words couldn't possibly be enough to change her mind. The thought of her getting up and leaving, telling him their relationship was over, that from now on they were nothing more than coworkers... he found that Zashiel's fingers on his head earlier had hurt less.
Admit it, the bitter voice inside of him rose up, unbidden. You knew this was going to happen sooner or later. The reason why doesn't matter. No woman like Inaska would ever settle for someone like you!
Toke's fingers, which were still resting on Inaska's back, clenched against her skin. Shut up, shut up, SHUT UP!
Snapped from his thoughts, Toke jumped a little, but then pulled back and looked at her. He couldn't see himself, but he knew his eyes must be as big and pleading as a puppy dog's.
“Yes?” he asked softly, dreading the words that would surely come out of her mouth next.
“Do you...” She hesitated, and then looked him in the eye. “Tell me the truth, Toke. Do you really love me, or are you lying through your teeth?”
He nodded without a moment's hesitation. “Yes. I feel the same way for you that I used to feel for Zashiel, except... more. When I was in love with Zashiel...”
No! What are you talking about Zashiel for, you idiot?
“...there was always something missing. She never loved me back. Oh, she cared about me, sure enough, maybe even loved me like a brother, but she never loved me the same way I loved her... or that I love you.”
Inaska's breaths were shaky now, like she was on the verge of sobbing again. Toke watched her. Did she... yes, she believed him. He could see the acceptance in her eyes. But there was still something there, like a roadblock to her heart.
“Why?” she asked.
“Because...” Toke stopped. How did he answer that? If there was one thing he'd learned from his time pining over Zashiel, it was that love didn't make sense. It spat in the face of logic and reason, and laughed at those who tried to understand it. Asking him why he loved Inaska was like asking why moths flew into open flames. It was impossible to answer.
Which was why he was surprised to find the answer right on the tip of his tongue.
“Because I choose to,” he said.
Inaska lunged at him.
“Toke!” she practically screamed as they both toppled over backwards, landing with Toke on his back and Inaska lying on top of him. She gazed down at him, tears falling from her face to land on his. Toke didn't care. “I- I can't believe it! You... You actually...”
He grinned up at her. “I love you!”
She beamed right back down at him. “I never thought I would hear those words. Toke, I love you too!”
She pressed her lips against his in the most passionate kiss they had shared yet. In the space of a few seconds, the temperature in the cabin seemed to triple. She loved him too. She loved him too! He kissed her back, trying to pour all of what he felt from his heart into hers. His heart was hammering harder than ever. Or was that hers? He could feel both so clearly that he could barely tell the difference.
Then, suddenly, Inaska leaped off of him and made for the door.
“Wha—” Toke spluttered, head spinning. “Don't go!”
“Oh, I'm not going anywhere!” the white-haired girl giggled.
Toke blinked. What had that... His eyes widened as Inaska turned back to look in him, a look in her eye that he had never seen before. She was looking at him the way a predator looked at a piece of helpless prey, even down to the way she eagerly licked her lips as she sashayed back toward him.
She had locked the door.
Toke sat up slowly. Suddenly, everything became clear to him. This wasn't really happening. He was asleep, still under the effects of the old man's drug. Inaska wasn't here, and she certainly hadn't—
Crossing her arms, Inaska pulled her shirt over her head.
Toke's heart leaped into his throat, chasing away all thoughts of dreams and drugs. If this was a dream, he decided, then he would happily go into a lifelong coma.
She dropped the shirt on the floor, and then grinned at the way Toke's face was lighting up bright red. Nothing covered her chest now except the strip of thin cloth that wound around her.
“I- I- Inaska,” he stammered. “Are- Are you sure?”
Instead of answering, she hooked her thumbs down beneath her skirt. With a few slow, hypnotic shakes of her hips, that fell to the floor as well, leaving her in only her undergarments.
“More sure of anything in my life, Toke,” she whispered. Then she put a hand on his chest and, with surprising strength, pushed him over backwards so that he was lying on his cot.
“D- Don't you think we're going too fast?” Toke asked. “We only just... we barely... Don't you want to...”
His voice trailed off as Inaska got on her hands and knees and began to crawl up the cot toward him. Toke's eyes hungrily ate up everything they could see. He would have thought it impossible a minute ago, but the room was growing even hotter. Inaska stopped when she was level with him, her face handing just a few inches above his. Toke could feel her body pressing against his through his clothes.
“If you want me to stop, I'll stop,” she promised him, and then leaned down and gave him a quick kiss on the lips. “Just say so.”
I'm not asleep, he suddenly realized. I've died, and now I'm in the afterlife.
“No thank you,” he whispered.
“Good.” She grinned wickedly. “Then let's get rid of this!”
Before he could react, she had grabbed his shirt and whipped it up and over his head, leaving him bare chested—with her lying right on top of him! Inaska threw it away and then kissed him again. Toke regained his wits a moment later, and kissed her back, wrapping his arms around her in a tighter, closer embrace than any he'd felt before. He sat up, bringing Inaska with him, and shivered as her legs wrapped around his waist. He ran his fingers down her spine, making her gasp right into his mouth. His bare chest was pressed against... against her bare chest! Sometime when he hadn't been looking, she had removed her top. She writhed gently in his lap, like she was trying to make every part of her touch him at the same time. Toke let his pants slide down around his ankles, and kicked them free. Nothing else in the world mattered except to feel his naked flesh pressed up against hers. So warm, so smooth, so soft. Inaska moaned and pulled out of the kiss.
“Tell me again,” she whispered.
Toke looked her in the eye. “I love you.”
Toke couldn't remember much after that. Everything became a blur of sights, sounds, and feelings. The only thing he could recall with any clarity hours later, when he and Inaska fell asleep in each others' embrace, was that he had never been happier.
NEXT TIME: Woo, go Toke! But things aren’t all sunshine and roses yet. Shen is at large, Kuerlo knows Inaska’s secret, and Toke still doesn’t know what’s happening to him. Zashiel’s been acting like she knows more than she’s letting on. Maybe it’s time to have a nice, long chat with her.