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“Are you ready for this?”
Toke looked at Inaska, leaning against the wall of the storage area beneath the Seventh Swordfish's deck. She stood before him dressed in the flowing dress of Lady Valdo, its train trailing almost five feet on the floor behind her. He, himself, was wearing the ragged vest and baggy pants of Saldo Gunn, and despite having had worn it all day at Treyn's insistence, he still felt like a complete and utter fool in it. A white wig adorned his head, hiding his black hair. A rope was tied around his waist as a belt, and he couldn't stop tugging at it every couple of minutes, convinced that it's knot was going to come undone and his pants would fall down around his ankles. That would be bad enough down here, with only Inaska and the rest of the crew to see. If it happened while he was onstage, in front of hundreds of people he didn't know, he felt like he would probably take a running dive off the tightrope—without using his powers.
“Do I have a choice?” he asked.
“Of course you do. You could always not go out there, stop the show from going on, leave the audience unsatisfied.”
“And get kicked off the ship,” he finished for her.
Inaska shrugged. “It's a choice.”
Laughter. Toke looked up. Even down below the ship, with several inches of solid wood separating him from the audience, Toke could still hear the show going on up above. Limbasko was telling the story of King Noterra, who had tried to build a kingdom at the bottom of the ocean, complete with his signature yarn puppets that he created even as he told the story. Noterra had spoken to a particularly tricky fish, who had convinced him that underwater real estate was the deal of a lifetime. Noterra, being the foolish king he was, had paid an outlandish price—“Literally!” cried Limbasko, to the crowd's delight—for a large field of sand so deep under the lake that the sun was but a glimmer in the sky. So stupid was he that he ordered his subjects to pack their bags and follow him there, where they would rebuild their kingdom from the ground up. No one obeyed him, and the last anyone saw of their king was him riding his horse straight into the lake, his royal robes billowing up around him, shouting curses to his people until they had to rise up to the surface in bubbles before they could be heard. The crowd roared with laughter.
Toke looked down when he felt Inaska's hand take his own. “You'll do fine,” she reassured him. “Just stop telling yourself that you won't!”
He smiled at her, and leaned in for a kiss, but stopped when she put her gloved palm right in his face.
“Nuh uh!” she snapped. “You'll ruin my makeup. Wait till after the show.”
The audience began to cheer, signaling that Limbasko's act was over. Toke took a deep breath. They had roughly five minutes before the stage would be set for their play. Treyn would keep the crowd entertained in the meantime, but he and Inaska needed to get ready.
“Come on,” the white-haired girl said, taking his hand and leading him back up the stairs.
“Inaska...” he said once they reached the corridor that led onto the deck. “What about us?”
She paused and looked back at him. “What about us?”
“I mean, I...” He blushed, and cleared his throat to hide it. He sounded like an idiot. “I've never done this before, you know?”
“You rehearsed your part all day with Captain Treyn,” Inaska laughed. “I'd be surprised if you didn't have your lines engraved in your brain by this point!”
“Not the play, I mean us,” he insisted. “Our relationship, our... marriage. What happens now?”
Inaska blinked in surprise, and let his hand fall out of hers. “Well, I've never done this before either, you know. Before you came along I didn't think I'd ever get the chance.”
“We're in your country,” Toke said. “So how does this normally go?”
“I guess at this point, the suitor usually proposes to the woman,” she said, blushing. That was such a rare thing that Toke tried to take a mental photograph of it. “I mean, that is, if the suitor... you know... actually wants to marry her.”
Slowly, Toke nodded. “I think I do.” The words felt so surreal coming out of his mouth. “D- Do you?”
Inaska looked at him, her eyes locking on to his, and nodded back.
Toke cleared his throat, and found himself shaking. “Okay. Okay, I- I think then, that...”
What did people do when they proposed? It was such a stupid question, and yet his brain was running as slow as a ship through icy waters—smite it, there he went again! Eventually, he took Inaska's hand in his own and began to get down on one knee... until she stopped him.
“Wh- What's wrong?” he asked dumbly.
To his surprise, she actually giggled. “Maybe we should wait until after the show to do this.”
Toke blinked. The show. Saldo Gunn. Right. That thing he was doing. With a sigh, heart pounding, he got back to his feet. No sooner than was he up than did Inaska throw herself into a hug, nearly knocking him over and choking him at the same time.
“Thank you, though,” she whispered into his ear. “After the show. Promise me you won't forget?”
Toke laughed. “How could I smiting forget?”
“Then... Promise you won't change your mind?”
Toke looked at her. So beautiful. And there was so much more to her than just her beauty, too. She was smart, funny, and talented in ways no other woman he'd ever known could match. She was strong like Zashiel. They both had that same fire burning in their eyes whenever he looked. But Inaska was also happy. Not that Zashiel was a grouch... not usually, at least... but Inaska greeted each day with a smile on her face, as if daring the world to show her what it had in store for her.
And Toke loved her. He loved her for all of that, and more. He loved her for things he couldn't even put into words.
“I'll never change my mind,” he whispered.
“And up next, ladies and gentlemen,” Treyn's voice roared from outside, “I would like to present to you, the Seventh Swordfish's very own rendition of The Legend of Saldo Gunn!”
And then, just like that, Inaska had torn herself away from him and was hustling toward the door.
“Smite it!” she cursed. Toke took some small satisfaction in hearing her use that word, just like he was finding himself using Vlangurtian sayings more and more often. “You distracted me! Now I have to get back in character!”
She closed her eyes and hurriedly began to hum, occasionally muttering “Lady Valdo... Lady Valdo,” to herself under her breath.
Toke looked toward the door. Just past that thin slab of wood, there was a crowd of people waiting for him. The thought made him shudder, but... there was something else, too. A sense of excitement buried underneath the stomach churning dread. It was the same thing he had felt when he'd first done his Gaur Stukan act with Zashiel. A brand new challenge, one that actually frightened him. Those were the best kind.
And this time, he would do it side by side with the woman he loved.
He stepped up beside her and rested his hand on her shoulder, smiling. She was too busy trying to get into character to even look at him. Just a little while longer. All he had to do was make it through this smiting play, and then... and then...
Everything would change.
A shift in the gravity behind him caught his attention, and he turned around to find his parents standing at the other end of the corridor, watching him. His pulse spiked, and his first instinct was to yank his hand away before they could see him touching Inaska. He resisted that, though, and even tightened his grip a little bit. Inaska was his. He loved her, and she loved him. He wasn't going to pretend otherwise just because his parents didn't approve.
“I'll be right back,” he said, turning.
Inaska glanced at him. “You've got maybe a minute before we have to go out there.”
With that, he hustled down to where his parents waited, holding his sackcloth pants with one hand to keep them from falling.
“Hey,” he greeted them.
“Hey,” his mother replied flatly, folding her arms and looking down her nose at him. Toke glanced at his father, who shuffled uncomfortably before retreating behind his wife, hands in his pockets.
Toke sighed. “Look, I know you—”
“You're going to do it, aren't you?” Evanya cut him off. “Even after we told you not to, you're going to do it.”
Irritation rose up inside Toke, and he gave his mother a glare that made her jump in surprise.
“You never told me not to,” he snapped. Evanya opened her mouth to argue, but Toke cut her off, “You just wanted me to talk to you about it first.”
“A- And did you?” she demanded, clearly caught off guard. She scolded Toke, not the other way around!
“What would you have said if I did?”
Evanya's eyes widened. “I- I wouldn't have... I only wanted...”
“We don't want to lose you, Toke,” his father spoke up, surprising them both.
Toke looked at him. “What makes you think you would lose me if I married Inaska?”
“Well, everything!” Brin shrugged as if it were the most obvious think on Fissura. “Ever since you started following that smiting Sorakine girl around...”
“Dad,” Toke said warningly.
Brin ignored him. “… you've acted like you don't need your mother and father anymore!”
The irritation grew hotter. “And what makes you think I do, Dad?”
Brin stumbled back as if Toke had punched him.
“I'm not some stupid little kid anymore,” he insisted. “I've grown up, whether you like it or not!”
“Whether you like it or not!”
His father stopped, an injured look on his face, for once at a loss for words.
“I love you both,” Toke said, looking them both in the eye. “And you know I'll always be your son. But do you want to know why I've been keeping my distance from you?” He didn't give them a chance to answer. “Because you want to control me. You always have, and now that I'm doing things on my own, you think you'll never be able to do that again.”
“We're just worried about you, Toke,” his mother argued. “With everything that's been going on, you need us to—”
“What I need,” Toke said firmly, “is to be able to make my own decisions without you trying to contradict every word I say. And tonight...” He paused and took a deep breath. “And tonight, that decision is to marry Inaska.”
Brin turned away, muttering about disobedient kids under his breath, but his mother... His mother looked at him like she didn't even recognize him.
“You really have grown up, haven't you?” she finally whispered. A tear ran down her cheek.
“Do you love her?”
Hesitantly, as if she thought he was going to strike her, Evanya reached out and wrapped Toke in a motherly hug. When she pulled back, to Toke's surprise, she was smiling.
“All right,” she whispered, nodding. “All right. If you really love her, then... then go ahead. Go ask her to marry you, and...” More tears. “Whatever you do, just be happy, okay?”
Toke smiled back, tears pricking his own eyes. “I will, Mom. Thanks.”
“I'm proud of you, Toke.”
“We both are,” Brin added, coming to stand beside her. “Even if you are... something of a handful.”
He was crying too, Toke realized. Before he could say anything, though, Inaska's voice came from the other end of the hallway.
“Toke, come on! It's time!”
Nodding, Toke turned and raced away from them, holding his pants up, until he met Inaska at the doorway.
“What was that about?” she asked.
Toke shook his head. “Don't worry about it. You ready?”
She nodded, and the two of them headed out onto the deck. As soon as they stepped into the ring, the limelight swung around to illuminate them. Toke paused, and a moment later, a wave of sound struck him nearly hard enough to push him right back out again.
It was applause.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” Treyn called, standing on top of the Saldo Gunn's prop ship, “may I present to you, tonight's Saldo Gunn and Lady Valdo, Cassitoka Gnasher and Inaska!”
The captain leaped down from the ship, landing in front of them. “Took you long enough,” he muttered. “Thought I was going to have send a search party after you!”
“Sorry, Captain,” Inaska whispered.
“Just get out there and do your jobs!” Treyn spun away from them to face the audience again. “And with that, everyone, I leave you in their hands. This is... The Legend of Saldo Gunn!”
He backed away, taking Inaska with him, leaving Toke alone on the stage. The limelight went out, plunging the stage into darkness. Tense, eager silence filled the seats. Toke breathed deep and steeled his nerves. It was time to begin.
He bent his knees to jump, but stopped himself at the last second. No crazy superhuman jumps in front of the audience, Treyn had said. Save that for when he was doing the Gaur Stukan act. Instead, he raced up to the fake ship, and climbed aboard. As soon as he stood up, all of the limelights flared to life, bathing the stage in light. The orchestra, hidden from view, launched themselves into their song, and the stagehands began to wave the black streamers.
“Saldo come, Saldo come, Saldo come a frothin',
Bored of peace and harmony, his heart a seekin' somethin',
He gazed out from his happy home, his wife behind his back,
And saw that which he hungered for, a lake of death and black,
Nothing but the poison lake could quench brave Saldo's thirst,
To cross that void which no one had, to claim to be the first.”
Toke put his hands on the wheel the way Treyn had instructed him. “My ship is strong and my ship is swift. It deserves better waters than these ponds and puddles. With it, I shall brave the dreaded Lake Dexyn!”
“Saldo come, Saldo come, Saldo come a frothin'...”
And so the play went, exactly as Toke had rehearsed it. The longer he acted, the less frantically his heart began to beat. This really was just like in the rehearsal, he realized. Somehow, he had become convinced that doing the play on a stage with a real audience would be different. But this... he could do this! He knew the lines, he knew the motions, all he had to do was repeat what he had done a hundred times already.
As his body fell into the routine, Toke found his mind wandering. Inaska... she was expecting him to propose as soon as the play was over. His heart leaped into his throat at the mere thought, nearly making him hiccup in the middle of one of his lines.
What was he supposed to do? He wanted to marry her, more than he could remember wanting anything in his life. But she was so amazing! Simply getting on one knee and asking sounded blasphemous in its inadequacy. Inaska deserved something better than that, bigger than that. But what?
The choir was singing again.
“Saldo come, Saldo come, Saldo come a frothin',
From 'cross the dark lake Dexyn, from the Waters of the Nothin',
From the grip of Lady Valdo, who eyed him as her prize,
She sought to wed the man above, and made his ship capsize,
Our names do rhyme, so you are mine, oh brutish sailor man,
Sink into the depths with me, and never seek the land.”
The “waves” grew higher, and the stagehands hiding beneath them began to rock Toke's ship back and forth. He counted the movements just like Treyn had taught him, and when the boat swung to the left for the fourth time, he threw himself dramatically from it. A small pad was hidden beneath the streamers for him to land on, and behind him Saldo Gunn's ship fell over, disappearing into the “lake.”
And with that, the deep chanting voices of the men narrating the story faded, and a heavenly choir rose up as the limelights moved to shine on Lady Valdo's castle. Toke stayed hidden beneath the streamers, which were undulating more calmly now that his ship had sunk, but he could see in between them well enough to spot his bride-to-be sitting primly in her throne, as beautiful in the long, flowing dress as... well as she would look in literally anything else.
“Adventurer of the drylands, rider of the skies of my kingdom, come to me,” she commanded. Her voice somehow managed to sound both pure and innocent, but arrogantly powerful at the same time.
Slowly, Toke got to his feet and stood at the bottom of the pedestal that served as the underwater palace.
“Welcome,” she said, beckoning for him to join her with an inviting smile.
Toke made his way up the stairs, heart fluttering. If the real Lady Valdo was anywhere near as beautiful as Inaska, Saldo Gunn must have been blind to even consider leaving her.
An idea occurred to him.
She does deserve something better than a normal proposal, he thought. What's bigger and better than a stage show?
Inaska loved to act. Nothing made her happier than to show off in front of entire crowds of people, hearing them cheer for her as she blew their minds with both her beauty and her acrobatics. What if Toke... What if he...
His eyes widened with excitement. Yes!
He couldn't do anything yet, though. Not until the play was over.
“I have watched you for a long time,” she said, elegantly extending a hand for him to kiss. “My grandmother always told me that my future husband would have name that rhymed with my own. My dear Saldo Gunn... my name is Lady Valdo.”
Toke recoiled in mock surprise. Treyn had made him redo that one single thing over a hundred times before he was able to make the emotion look convincing.
The play continued to progress, completely unaware of Toke's silent plotting. Lady Valdo showed him her dark kingdom and threw him a feast before all her subjects, and Saldo Gunn repaid her kindness by stealing her wedding dress, sewn from some kind of silver thread that reflected the limelights almost blindingly. He hastily tied it to his ship's mast with a stage knot Treyn had taught him while the chanting choir explained his every move. Then, climbing aboard, he took the helm in his hands again while the steamers began to shake more violently, signifying his daring escape. Somewhere offstage, Inaska screamed.
Smite! he thought, shivering. She's good at that!
He could hear the audience murmuring in nervous appreciation as the jelkar rose up out of the lake, guided by the puppeteers above them on the tightrope. The massive, slithery thing arched its back in front of Toke's ship, like a snake about to strike, and Toke threw his weight into the wheel, spinning it before jumping over the edge. With him back in the lake again, some more hidden stagehands began to pull the hollow ship off the stage, and the jelkar followed, snapping viciously at it. Toke, standing with his torso above the flapping streamers, began to mimic a breaststroke as he headed for the side of the stage, where land and home supposedly waited.
“Saldo come, Saldo come, Saldo come a'frothin',
His ship destroyed and hope betrayed, had this all been for nothin'?”
With hand and foot he struck out still, for home was right that way,
His wife and daughter, t'was his oath, he would see them this day!
But Lady Valdo of the deep, the sailor man's rejected bride,
Did race the swimmer to the shore upon her angry tides.”
Inaska rose up from the water and held her hand out wardingly toward him, nose upturned.
“Stop!” she declared. “I have claimed you as my own. What right have you to deny me what is mine?”
Toke balled his fists, trying to look intimidated and defiant at the same time. “Lady Valdo, your beauty is indeed beyond compare, matched only by the beauty of your kingdom. But alas I cannot be yours, for I have a wife and daughter already!”
Inaska narrowed his eyes at him. “I am not in the habit of letting peasants defy my wishes. Return to the depths!”
She raised her hand, and the streamers began to wave in perfect unison, starting small but growing larger by the second as they spread out from her and toward Toke. Toke stumbled backwards as if he'd been struck by a tidal wave, but planted his feet resolutely beneath him and glared at Inaska.
Just a couple more minutes, he thought, fighting to keep from smiling. She's going to be so happy!
He took a slow, struggling step toward her, and then another. With every step, Inaska's face grew less confident, and more worried. Ten feet. Five feet. Finally, when he was nearly toe to toe with her, she broke down in tears, lowering her hand in defeat. The waves ceased.
“Lady Valdo,” Toke said in a stage whisper, stepping close to her and taking her in his arms, “you deserve better than I could ever give you.”
“I want only you, One Who Shares My Name,” she whispered back. “I will allow nothing else to enter my heart!”
Toke looked Inaska in the eye as tears rolled down her cheeks, smearing her makeup. In that moment, he saw something in those eyes. A real desperation that she and Lady Valdo shared. Just as the mythical Queen of Lake Dexyn had fought to keep Saldo Gunn from leaving, so Inaska was struggling with the fear that Toke would leave her. Slowly, the two of them pressed their lips together, and the audience sighed in contentment.
Oh, right, he thought. I was supposed to do that.
His heart began to beat faster. This part... Even though he had rehearsed this scene over and over again, suddenly the idea of acting it out was enough to make him sick. Even so, he couldn't just leave the play unfinished.
It's only pretend. It's only pretend, he told himself, reaching behind his back for his knife. It was a flimsy thing made of tinfoil, like his and Zashiel's weapons were during their Gaur Stukan act, but as he quietly unsheathed it, he swore it must have weighed as much as the entire Seventh Swordfish.
“Lady Valdo,” he said, breaking the kiss. “You say your heart is closed...”
And then he rammed the knife into Inaska's chest.
Inaska gasped, eyes wide, as she stumbled away from him, clutching the knife to her chest. Toke's throat constricted, and it was a battle to keep his expression neutral. Inaska uttered another bonechilling shriek, and then fell onto her back. The waves stopped, the stagehands setting the streamers down on the floor.
Gut wrenching pain. He had betrayed Inaska once by running away. Now, whether it was real or not, he was betraying her again in front of hundreds of people. Toke forced himself to move. The play was almost over, and then he could cast off this charade and be the man who loved her again. He went to where she lay, and picked her up. Without a word, he carried her further out into the lake, where the stagehands began to gently wave the streamers again. Just like the script said, he leaned his head down to whisper in her ear. Unlike the script, though, he knew exactly what promise he needed to make.
“I will never, ever leave you.”
Inaska's eyes flicked toward his, not enough to make her move her head, and he could just barely make out the movement of her lips. Thank you.
Then he set her down, and the waves became even stronger as she sank toward her kingdom in the depths of Lake Dexyn. The choir was chanting the final verse, but Toke wasn't listening as he trudged his way back the way he'd came, his path taking him offstage to where Saldo Gunn's family waited for him. A heavy feeling had settled in his stomach. Stabbing Inaska like that had been one of the hardest things he had ever done. The image of her suffering, whether for real or pretend, was one that would stick in his mind forever.
Never again, he thought as he left Lake Dexyn behind to the roar of the crowd. I never want to see her look at me like that again.
He wasn't referring to the play. Now that he'd played the part, Treyn would almost certainly tell him to do it again at some point. No, he was thinking about Inaska herself. He would never betray her, never hurt her, never leave her again for as long as he lived.
He stopped just outside the ring of seats as Treyn dashed up the stairs to Lady Valdo's throne, where he turned to speak to the crowd. “The Legend of Saldo Gunn, everybody! Let's give our actors a big hand!”
The crowd cheered, and Treyn beamed at them. Down below, Inaska finally stood up, no worse for wear despite the disturbingly convincing performance she'd given. Treyn caught Toke's eye, and he discreetly motioned for him to come back out on stage. The audience wanted a curtain call.
They cheered again when Toke rejoined Inaska, even rising out of the seats to clap. The stagehands stood around the perimeter of the set, grinning, technically part of the play but not part of the cast. Toke smiled as well and, as one, he and Inaska bowed to the audience. When he stood back up, his heart was pounding in his chest.
It was time.
Toke raised his hands. “May I please have everyone's attention?”
To his surprise, the crowd obeyed, falling as silent as they had been while watching the play. Sweat began to bead Toke's brow, and he fought to keep his hands from shaking. He felt more than he saw Inaska turn to look at him, confused. This was stupid. So very stupid. But he was committed now. No going back.
“I- I have a very important announcement to make,” he said. The crowd shifted in their seats, muttering, just as confused as Inaska was. “Or, rather, a question I need to ask.”
He heard Treyn's footsteps coming down from Lady Valdo's throne. He put his hand on Toke's shoulder.
“Boy,” he whispered harshly, “what the shaltoon are you doing?”
Toke didn't reply, shrugging the captain's hand off. Then he turned to face Inaska and got down on one knee, taking her hand in his. Instantly, the crowds muttering grew louder. Inaska's eyes widened with surprise.
“Inaska,” he said, loudly enough for the crowd to hear, “I'm asking you in full view of everyone here... will you marry me?”
There was a stunned silence. Not just from Inaska, but from the crowd as well. The white-haired girl was as still as a statue. Toke held his breath, waiting for her answer.
“Toke?” she asked in a hoarse whisper.
“Yes?” He smiled, his heart racing. This was it.
She fixed her eyes on him—her wide, shocked, horrified eyes.
“What have you done?”
Toke blinked. “What do you mean what have—”
Then the first sack of tallynuts hit him in the face.
NEXT TIME: Ohhh, Toke. Toke, Toke, Toke. What did you do this time? Find out next week, and bring a tomato or two to throw at him.