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 Nine
Toke woke up to the warm caress of sunlight shining through his window, and Inaska... not there.
His eyes snapped open, fully awake in less than a second, and sat up in his bed. So strong was that wave of panic that he didn't even notice how his body was able to move without the slightest hint of pain.
“Inaska?” he blurted out.
“Shh!” someone hissed.
Toke blinked, and then looked to see Inaska standing by his bedside, slipping her shirt over her head.
Toke put his hand on his chest. “I thought you'd left me!” He ran his eyes over her. Her mask was back on her face, and the heavy looking bag she had been carrying the night before was hanging from her shoulder again. “Smite, you are leaving me, aren't you?”
“I have to,” she whispered. “Your doctor will be back soon. I'm... not supposed to be here, remember?”
Toke reached for her, but she stepped nimbly out of his reach. “It'll only be for a few minutes, I promise! Look,” she glanced worriedly at the door, as if she expected the doctor to come barging in any second, “they're going to check you out, and then they'll release you. I'll go and wait by the entrance, and we can go back to the ship together, okay?”
“Please don't leave me!” Toke begged. He knew he was being stupid, but there was nothing he could do about it. No way he could fight back the cloud of dread that threatened to take him back to that island every time he was left alone.
“Toke, relax!” the white-haired girl snapped. “It's just for—”
She cut off abruptly when a gentle knock came from the door. Toke blinked, and nearly missed her escape because of it. She leaped right over his bed, threw open the window, and then shut it behind her all in one fluid motion before vanishing as if she had never been there at all. It took less than a second, but there still seemed to be a sizable gap between her disappearance and when the doctor opened the door.
“How are you feeling?” he asked cheerfully, coming inside.
Toke, who was still staring at the window, snapped his head around to look at him. “How am I... oh, right! I'm feeling a lot better.”
The doctor nodded. “Glad to hear it. Let me just—”
“In fact,” Toke threw the covers off and leaped spryly out of his bed, “if there's nothing else, I think I'll be on my way.”
Inaska was waiting for him.
The doctor jumped, startled by his sudden movement, but to Toke's relief didn't order him back into his bed. “I can tell you're as good as new. I just need to do a few tests so that I can do the paperwork.”
Toke sighed, staring longingly at the door, but nodded. The tests went quickly, with Toke just being asked to move his arms and legs in certain ways to make sure he could use them properly, but they still felt like they took an eternity. Even so, he would have done a jig on the ceiling if it would get the doctor to let him out.
The doctor made a few more notes, and then nodded in satisfaction. “Perfect. Well, I suppose you're free to go.”
“Thank you!” Toke dashed for the door.
“Uh, just a minute!”
Toke froze, hand on the doorknob, and groaned. “What?” he demanded.
“I think you might want those.” The doctor pointed to where his clothes were piled on the floor. Toke froze, and his face started to burn.
“Right, thank you,” he said, grabbing his clothes and trying to throw them on as quickly as possible. Stupid, stupid, stupid...
“Did you rest well last night?”
“Uh, yes I...” Toke looked up, and was surprised to find the doctor looking at him with narrowed eyes. “Yes, I did. What's that look for?”
The doctor shrugged with false nonchalance. “You just seem to be very eager to leave. Was your bed comfortable?”
“The temperature all right?”
He nodded again.
“You didn't need to... go to the bathroom or anything?”
“Quit beating around the bush,” Toke snapped, tying his shoes. “What's this about?”
The doctor sighed. “Did you leave your room for any reason last night?”
“No.” Toke shook his head. “Why would I?”
The doctor looked away, suddenly seeming reluctant to say anything else to him. Finally, though, he squared his shoulders, and said, “We had a break in last night. Something was stolen. Something very valuable, and...” He paused. “Something you were showing a great deal of interest in last night.”
A chill ran down Toke's spine. “The Chiyu... I mean, the tajwyn cream?”
“No, no,” the doctor waved his hand, “something... else. Something related to that. I can't tell you what it is, but after the scene your friend put on yesterday...”
“You think I stole it?” Toke demanded. “Even after what you did for me?”
The doctor's face turned a shade redder. “Need I remind you that your friend was ready to kill me just for seeing the tajwyn's bottle?”
Toke deflated a little. He had a point.
“I swear, I didn't leave my room,” he said. “I was still in too bad a shape to do anything like that, remember?”
The doctor considered this, and then nodded. “But the Sorakine...”
Toke actually laughed at that. “Sneaking around isn't Zashiel's style. If she'd wanted something from you, she would have broken the doors right down and taken it without giving a smite who saw her.”
At least I hope so, he thought, trying to disguise how hard his heart was beating. As bold and reckless as Zashiel was, he couldn't deny that she wasn't entirely above using stealth to get what she wanted. Wasn't that the whole reason she had enlisted his help in the first place?
To his relief, the doctor seemed to buy his excuse. He tapped his chin for a few seconds, humming in his throat, and then nodded again.
“Yes, I suspect you're right,” he relented. “Besides, with those wings I don't think she'd have an easy time of sneaking around anywhere.”
You have no idea, Toke thought, swallowing his uncertainty. Zashiel wouldn't stoop so low as to steal medicine from a hospital. She just wouldn't!
The doctor finally let him go, and Toke hastily made for the main doors leading outside, thanking the doctor with every step until he rounded the corner and lost sight of him. Then, turning and facing the doorway, he took a deep breath and pushed them open...
A speeding blur of white hair and exuberance catapulted toward him, wrapping its arms around his neck and tackling him to the floor.
“Hi, Ina—mmph!” he grunted as she pressed her face firmly against his.
A familiar laugh came from behind them. “Careful! He just got out of the hospital. He doesn't need you sending him right back.”
The white-haired girl rolled off of him, giggling like a child, and pulled Toke to his feet.
“So, how are you feeling?” she demanded.
“A lot better,” he answered, stretching some of his still-sleepy muscles. “What's with you? You're acting like you haven't seen me in—”
He had to stop when she pulled him in for another kiss.
“Shh! That's our little secret,” she whispered, and then more loudly said, “Almost three days! First you run off on me, and then you get carried away to the hospital for another day! Honestly, Cassitoka Gnasher, you are the worst husband ever!”
Toke blushed. “Sorry! It wasn't like I...” He paused, and then nearly jumped out of his skin. “Wait, husband? We're not married!”
Inaska stared at him, openmouthed. “Toke... do you honestly mean to tell me that...” Her voice trailed off.
“Tell you what?” Toke's voice sounded strangely numb in his ears.
Inaska shook her head. “I cannot believe you. I cannot believe you!”
Panic shot through Toke's veins like liquid fire, making his breath catch in his throat and his heart stop dead in his chest. Did he mean to tell her what? Her husband? Did that mean that, somehow, somewhere, the two of them had actually gotten...
She was laughing.
“Smiting woman!” Toke snapped, but couldn't keep himself from grinning anyway.
“Oh, you should have seen the look on your face!” she cackled, bending over and slapping her knee. “Toke, I am never, ever going to get tired of that!”
“Come on,” Zashiel said, standing a few feet away with her hands in her jacket pockets and a satisfied smile on her face. “Let's get back to the ship.”
“Yes, lets!” Inaska agreed happily, grabbing Toke's hand in both of hers and pulling him after—
“Ow!” Toke complained.
Zashiel and Inaska both froze, looking at him with wide eyes.
“Ow?” Inaska echoed. “You just spent the night soaking up tajwyn cream. There is no such thing as ow for you!”
Gingerly, Toke took his hand from hers and held it up to his face. There were no discernible marks or wounds that he could see, but...
“It still didn't work,” he said, lowering his hand, his spirits falling with it.
“What do you mean?” Inaska asked. “You look good as new!”
He turned to Zashiel, who was looking at him with solemn understanding. Toke sighed. It had been a vain hope anyway, he supposed. Vlangur's tajwyn cream was obviously inferior to the Sorakines' Chiyuka ointment, so the fact that his arm remained injured even though the rest of his body had been healed wasn't at all surprising.
“It's nothing,” he finally told Inaska. “I just... I guess even miracles have limits.”
They set off again, this time Inaska taking his hand much more gently. When she did so, though, Toke noticed something. Her arms were empty. Whatever had been in that bag earlier, she had gotten rid of it.
Toke's heart sank into his stomach. No, it couldn't be...
He swallowed hard, and then, trying to sound as nonchalant as he could, said, “So, the doctor mentioned there was a break in last night. Apparently, something was stolen.”
Zashiel gave him a curious glance, but Toke barely noticed it—because Inaska had gone as rigid as an icicle. It only lasted for a second before the young acrobat's acting experience came back to her, and she was able to bury her shock beneath a mask of calm, not all that different from what Zashiel did. He doubted the Sorakine girl had even noticed.
“What was it?” Zashiel asked.
Toke shook his head. “The doctor didn't say for sure, but I think it had something to do with the tajwyn cream.”
Zashiel's expression darkened. “He doesn't think we did it, does he?”
“He...” Toke sighed. “He suspected us, but I think I managed to convince him we were innocent.”
Inaska relaxed visibly at those words, and Toke fought not to look at her.
What did you smiting do, Inaska?
“That's good,” Zashiel said, nodding. “The last thing we need is for people to start thinking we're thieves on top of everything else.”
“Y- Yeah,” Inaska said, and then looked as surprised as anybody else that she had said anything. Luckily, Zashiel was too occupied with her own thoughts to notice.
They left the hospital behind and entered Thannaduk proper. It was a town, not a city, and smaller than Jerulkan by a large margin. Walking down the sidewalks should have been like standing in a river over people, either fighting the current or getting swept along with it, but here there was more than enough room for the three of them to walk side by side at their own pace. The lack of any autocarriages roaring up and down the cobblestone street struck Toke as strange at first, but then he thought back to when he had lived in Kassfar with his parents. Even in Yasmik, autocarriages weren't yet the norm, and most of the people who owned them flocked to big cities like Jerulkan, where a set of wheels was almost a necessity for their daily commute. How odd, that he'd only spent four of his twenty one years in that city, and yet it felt more natural to him now than small, friendly towns like Thannaduk.
Even so, there were plenty of things to like about small places like this... such as that sweet, succulent scent that was drifting lazily through the warm morning air.
“What's that smell?” he asked.
Inaska perked up, and gave a couple sniffs. “Oh, that? That's just seribread. There must be a bakery somewhere. Why?”
Toke didn't have to answer, because his stomach chose that moment to let out the loudest, most undignified growl it had ever made. Inaska doubled over laughing again, her earlier nervousness apparently forgotten.
“Either they didn't give you any breakfast,” she said once she'd gotten herself somewhat under control, “or they accidentally put a bullfrog in your stomach during surgery!”
Toke sniffed again. “Well, seeing as how they didn't operate on me, I'm going to assume it's the former.”
Inaska paused, her eyes scanning the Vlangurtian signs across the street, and finally pointed at one. “There! Come on, I'll show you.”
She took him by the hand and began to lead him across the street. Toke tried to stop when they reached the curb, his Jerulkan-born instincts telling him to look both ways to keep from being run over by an unobservant autocarriage driver. Inaska didn't so much as hesitate, though, and rather than let her yank on his injured wrist again, Toke went after her. After all, the only carriages around here were of the decidedly non-auto variety.
They stopped outside the building where the delicious smells were emanating from, making Toke's stomach growl again. There was a window so wide that it nearly took up the entire front of the shop, and through it Toke could see half a dozen racks set up to display various types of Vlangurtian treats he had never seen before.
“There's jellik’s delight, morpa, sweet teshin,” Inaska said, pointing them all out to him, “and the one you can smell right now is seribread. That one.”
The last one was round roll, a bit larger than Toke's fist, and... purple?
“It's a fruit bread,” Inaska explained before he could ask. “The baker sprinkles a bunch of different berries into the dough, and then mashes them all up when he folds it. All the juice mixes together and turns the dough red. When it comes out of the oven, it's purple.”
“It looks amazing,” Toke said, staring at it with wide eyes. With all the commotion, he hadn't realized until just now how smiting hungry he was.
Inaska gave him a coy look. “You want some? I brought a little money. Let's have breakfast!”
Behind them, Zashiel cleared her throat. “Toke can eat when he's back on the ship. Treyn told us to bring him straight back, remember?”
Inaska wilted a little, but Toke stepped up. “It's all right. You go on ahead. I... need to talk to Inaska about something.”
He was worried the Sorakine girl would ask what was so smiting important that he had to say it over fruit bread, but something in his voice must have told her that it was important, and she nodded.
“Just so you know,” she said, turning to leave, “that stuff is sweet enough to make even you fat, Toke. I'll be putting you through the wringer when you get back to work it off!”
“I'm trembling in my socks!” he called after her. She flicked her wings dismissively, and then was gone.
Inaska pressed herself up against his side. “My hero! Now come on, you're not the only one who's hungry!”
She pulled him into the bakery, where the delicious scents were so thick it almost felt like running into a brick wall. Inaska produced a small handful of coins and put them on the counter.
“Two seribread rolls, please,” she said, giving the rotund baker a smile almost as sweet as the breads he was selling.
The baker reached out to take the money, but then paused, narrowing his eyes at her.
Oh smite, Toke immediately thought, his grip tightening on Inaska's wrist. He knows what she did last night, and now he's—
“What's with the, uh, mask?” he asked, drawing circles around his eyes with his fingers.
Inaska jumped a little. “Oh, uh... I'm with the Seventh Swordfish. I forgot to take it off. Is... that a problem?”
“Nah,” the baker said with a wave of his hand, finally pocketing the coins. “I'm going to see it tonight. What're you putting on?”
Inaska beamed at him. “Something amazing! You'll just have to wait and see.”
The baker laughed, and then handed them two paper-wrapped seribread rolls. Inaska thanked him, and then hastily pulled Toke back out with her.
“That was close,” she whispered as soon as the door shut behind her. With her free hand, she reached up and felt the glittering mask that hid her face. “I wear this thing so often that sometimes I forget I have it on at all.”
She was hurting. She tried not to show it, the same way Zashiel always did, but Toke was getting to know her well enough that he could see the pain in her posture, in the stiff line her lips made.
Toke frowned, his hunger suddenly feeling a little less demanding. “Do you really have to wear it everywhere like that?”
She nodded. “It's the only way. Everyone in Vlangur has heard the stories about the Calix Cura. They would know what my scars mean even if they'd never seen me before. Makeup is too unreliable. The minute I start to sweat, it comes right off.” She paused, and then her face lit up with a smile. “It's okay, though. I'm used to it.”
Toke's frown deepened. “I don't think you are. It hurts too much for you to be used to it. And even if you are, you shouldn't be!”
Her smile faltered a bit, and she squeezed his wrist just hard enough to send a tiny jolt of pain up his arm.
“That's just the way things have to be, Toke,” she whispered.
Toke sighed, but nodded. Dense as he could sometimes be, the message here was clear: I don't want to talk about it, I don't want to think about it, I just want to pretend to be a normal circus girl for as long as I can. He raised his seribread roll to his mouth, took a bite, and...
“Holy smite, this may be the sweetest thing I've ever tasted!” he exclaimed through a full mouth.
“It had better be,” Inaska said, taking a bite of her own. “That guy charged almost three times as much as they're worth. He practically robbed us.”
Toke frowned again, the succulent, fruity flavor of the bread going dull on his tongue.
Just do it, he thought to himself. This is what you sent Zashiel away for. You'll never be happy until you know.
“So,” he said slowly, “speaking of robberies...”
Inaska's fist clenched, crushing the seribread and sending a few purple trails of juice spilling down her hand. Toke sighed, shaking his head.
“You're a terrible liar, you know that?” he asked.
“I haven't lied yet,” she responded.
“Did you break into the hospital last night and steal something?”
“You're a terrible liar.”
Inaska didn't say anything at first. She turned away from him, walked a few steps, and threw her seribread into a nearby trash can. Toke mentally kicked himself, and then kicked himself for kicking himself. She had stolen from a hospital—she'd all but admitted it. That wasn't something Toke could simply let go.
“Why did you do it?” he asked softly, coming up behind her. She was still standing in front of the trash can, huddled into herself despite the warm weather.
She turned a little at his words. “You're not going to ask what I stole?”
Toke shrugged. “The way I see it, what you stole doesn't matter as much as the fact that you stole something in the first place. So...”
“I can't tell you.”
“If you think I'm going to turn you in or something—”
“No, I don't think that.” Inaska sighed. “I just can't tell you. This is something I have to deal with alone.”
“You're not alone, though!” Toke insisted, trying to take her hand. She pulled it away.
“Please, Toke,” she whispered. “I need this secret.”
“Why do you...” Toke's voice trailed off. He still hadn't told her that he was turning into a Sorakine, had he? Who was he to tell her off for keeping secrets? He shut his mouth, all his indignation leaking away, leaving him feeling deflated. “All right. I understand.”
Inaska had obviously been expecting further argument, because she finally turned to look at him. “That's it?”
Toke folded his arms. “I'm still not happy about what this, but... I nearly drove Zashiel away the other day. I don't want to do the same to you. So if you really don't want to share this... whatever it is... then, fine. I won't force you to.”
The white-haired girl stared at him for a second, looking stunned, and then a smile broke out across her face, and before he knew what was happening, she had pulled him in for another kiss.
“Thank you,” she said once they had separated. “This means a lot to me.”
“I'd be lying if I said I was comfortable knowing that you were robbing hospitals,” Toke admitted, “but you're more important to me than that. So...”
She took both his hands in hers, raising them up between them. “It's important. Trust me, it is.”
Toke sighed. “All right. I believe you. Just... Just be careful, all right? I don't want to lose you because of this.”
Inaska laughed at that. “They couldn't catch me if I was blindfolded and my hands and feet were tied together.”
“Don't get cocky,” Toke said as they resumed their walk back to the ship. “Overconfidence is the first step to getting caught.”
The white-haired girl rolled her eyes. “You want to see how good I am?” she asked, taking a bite of seribread.
Toke raised an eyebrow. “Uh, you mean steal something? Here and now? I'm not sure that's a good idea.”
Besides, if he wasn't comfortable with the idea of her stealing, he definitely wasn't comfortable with the idea of her stealing for him.
She chuckled and gave him a smug smile. “Too late!”
“You already...” Toke paused, and then stepped in closer, hissing, “What was it?”
She turned that grin on him, and took another bite. “What indeed?”
Toke looked around wildly, panic rising up inside him. Had anyone seen? Were they watching them now? Following them? Going to the town guards to...
Wait. Hadn't she thrown away her seribread?
Toke looked down at his hand, still stained purple with fresh berry juice, and then up at Inaska. “How did you do that?” he asked, stunned.
“How did I do what?” she asked, putting on an innocent face. Then, seeing his expression, she cackled. “Don't look at me like that! I paid for them, didn't I?”
“Yeah, but you threw yours away,” Toke grumbled. When she didn't make any move to give it back, he sighed and made do with licking the sticky purple syrup from his hand.
They were in the docks again by now, and the Seventh Swordfish could be seen rising above all the lesser ships like a whale in a pond of minnows—if that whale had been swimming in paint. Just like in Tad Moru, the piers were packed with people hoping to somehow get a glimpse of the show that wouldn't start until nightfall.
“Smite,” Inaska muttered when the crowd began to get too thick for them to push through. She glanced at Toke. “That's how you use that word, right?”
Toke chuckled and nodded.
“Then, smite! We'll never get on board like this.”
Toke thought for a second, looking at Inaska and then up at the ship, maybe twenty feet away. He began to smile.
“Feel like giving them a show?” he asked.
Inaska flipped her hair as if that were the stupidest question she'd ever heard. “Always.”
“Then come here.” Toke put one hand on Inaska's back, the other beneath her legs, and hoisted her off the ground. She gracefully put one arm around Toke's shoulders, acting as casual as a stagehand during a performance. Then, just as people were beginning to look at them, Toke bent his knees and jumped.
People shouted in surprise as his jump carried him up and over their heads, over the water of the lake, and toward the ship. Toke grunted. Inaska couldn't weaken gravity's pull on her the same way he could, so he'd had to anchor himself to the ship before he had even jumped. That made their journey from dock to barge more awkward than he was used to, though he still had enough control that he was able to land them safely on the ship's edge rather than slam facefirst into the hull. Then, with a dramatic spin, he bowed to the watching crowd while Inaska waved and blew kisses.
“Think that'll satisfy them?” he asked.
“I hope not, or they won't come back later.”
Toke turned to carry Inaska out of the crowd's view—it didn't seem right to set her down while they were watching—and found himself face to face with Treyn.
“Good to see you back on your feet,” the captain said. He glanced at Inaska. “You didn't break her’s on the way back, did you?”
“Not this time,” Toke quipped. “I figured I should wait till Pruyal's better first.”
The captain gave him a smirk of amusement, a rarity in itself, and then motioned for Toke to follow him.
“Well, come on, then. You've got rehearsing to do for tonight, Saldo Gunn!”
NEXT TIME: Toke is turning into a Sorakine and Inaska is robbing hospitals. All we need now is Zashiel running a giant crab righting ring and the horrible, terrible secrets trifecta will be complete! But that’s not important right now, because next week… IT’S SHOWTIME!