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 Forty Two
“I don't think the sun has ever shone this bright before!” Toke exclaimed, coming out onto the Swordfish's deck. His heart was racing, his blood steaming, the complete opposite of the gloom that had threatened to swallow him the night before.
Zashiel rolled her eyes. “Sure. Why don't you write a poem about it?”
Toke looked back at her and raised an eyebrow. “What's that supposed to mean?”
“It means that you're way too happy,” she shot back. “And... happy people write poetry.” She paused. “Or something.”
Toke rolled his eyes right back at her. “You want a poem? How's this sound? There once was a grouch named Zashiel, who, uh... The end.”
“A true masterpiece.” She brushed past him, heading for the ring. Toke followed behind her.
“If you want a real poem, ask Boam.” He blinked. “Hey, that rhymed! Does that make it a poem?”
“It makes me want to stuff your jacket in your mouth before you embarrass yourself any more.”
Toke grinned, looking up and letting the wind tousle his hair. Zashiel might have sounded grumpy, but he knew she was as happy for him as... well, as he was happy for himself. Against all logic, common sense, and the laws that the entire smiting universe abided by, Inaska had actually agreed to marry him! His heart felt like it was going to burst out of his chest and go flying off, unless he...
Grinning, he glanced at Zashiel and then threw his hood up and went charging past her.
“What are you—”
That was all he heard, because then he weakened gravity and jumped with all his might. He soared up and over the ring of seats, above the tightrope, and over the edge of the ship. Just when he began to descend, he reached behind him and snapped his wings open.
“I'm getting married!” he shouted at the top of his lungs as he arched out of the fall. His stomach came within an inch of skimming the lake water below him, and he quickly angled himself back upwards to gain altitude. A couple of quick flaps later, he swung around and headed back toward the Seventh Swordfish. He wanted to fly, needed to fly, but he had learned his lesson about straying too far from the ship.
No. He wouldn't think about that. Today was a happy day, and he was determined not to let anything ruin it—especially not himself. He curved to the left, and then back to the right so that he could fly across the entire length of the ship. Down below, he could see the crew pointing up at him in awe. They had seen him leap buildings, they had seen him walk on ceilings, but they had never seen him fly before. Whooping, he flapped, arched upwards, and did a loop. Then he left the ship behind, with only vast, endless waters beneath him.
“You're putting too much power into your flaps,” a voice said from beside him.
Toke yelped, nearly falling out of the sky, and twisted to see Zashiel flying beside him. He flapped furiously, and only just managed to right himself.
“See? That's what I'm talking about.” She pointed at the white cloth wings. “You're making big movements for what should be small adjustments.”
Toke frowned, but didn't argue. Instead, he watched her for a few seconds. Indeed, now that he looked, he could see the subtle way her wings twitched every few seconds, adjusting themselves entirely by instinct to keep her in the air, going the direction she wanted, and at the right altitude all at the same time.
“I guess,” he said hesitantly, “but my wings aren't actually part of me. I can't feel them the way you can.”
Zashiel nodded as if that was the most obvious thing in the world. “That might not be the case much longer.”
Toke gave her a sharp look. “What's that supposed to—ow!”
Just like before, his injured wrist suddenly decided that it had had enough, and his entire arm seized up on him. Frozen mid-flap, his wing caught the wind at a bad angle, and Toke's flight was suddenly turned into an uncontrollable corkscrew. He screamed as he began to fall—and then came to an abrupt stop. He opened his eyes, and found himself dangling upside down, fifty feet above the surface of the lake. Turning his head as best he could, he looked up and saw Zashiel's hand wrapped around his ankle.
“Well, this certainly brings back memories,” he said.
“Then so should this.” She flicked her wrist, and with a yelp Toke was flipped right-side up again. He closed his eyes, waiting for the dizziness to go away, but when he opened them again he found Zashiel giving him one of her trademark scowls. “It's getting worse, isn't it?”
Toke sighed. “Only when I overwork it. Like when I try to fly, or... why are you looking at me like that?”
Zashiel's eyes had narrowed even further, making her look downright terrifying. “You knew that flying would do this, and you decided to do it anyway?”
“Well, I mean...” He cringed. “Yeah.”
“Is that why you crashed a few days ago?”
For a second, Toke was brought back to his terrifying plummet into the lake, only to wake up on that smiting island. He nodded.
Zashiel uttered a long, exasperated sigh, and then brought him in so she was holding him against her chest. “You're an idiot,” she grumbled, and then set off back toward the ship.
“Cut me some slack,” he snapped. “Could you stop flying just because your wings hurt?”
She didn't answer. “What would you have done if I hadn't been there?”
“Fall, hit the water, make a big splat, feed the fishes.”
Her grip tightened. “I'm serious, Toke! Is that how you want to die? Falling to your death because you were stupid enough to go flying with a crippling injury?”
“I am not crippled!”
“How do you think Inaska would feel?”
Toke grunted, those words acting like an arrow straight to his heart. For a second he just hung there in Zashiel's arms, but then he nodded.
“You're right. I'm sorry.”
“Just promise me you won't do it again.” She paused, and Toke could feel the rigidness in her body. She wasn't telling him something.
“What?” he pressed her.
“You...” She hesitated again. “You may not have to use those fake wings for long, anyway.”
Toke looked up at her as best he could. “Why wouldn't I... oh...”
Realization struck him like a fifty foot wave, leaving him feeling dizzy again.
“How long do you think I have?” he asked. “Before I... you know...”
“Aren't human anymore? You already aren't one.”
“You know what I mean, Zash!” he snapped.
She sighed. “I don't know. The changes are happening really slowly, but I think they're coming more often, aren't they?”
“They only seem to happen when I need them,” he said, nodding. “Like when I was fighting Finch...” Zashiel flinched when she heard her sister's name. “... or when I was trying to fly away from you. But yeah, they're happening more often now. I practically just have to think about it, and...”
He paused for a second, and then closed his eyes.
“Toke, what are you doing?” Zashiel asked.
“Catch me,” he said. Then, without giving her a chance to react, he thrust his arms out—and forced Zashiel to let go of him.
“Toke!” he heard her scream as he rapidly dropped away from her.
For a second, the lake rapidly rose up to meet him, but then Zashiel's arms wrapped around him again from behind, stopping him.
“What the smite are you thinking?” she yelled into his ear.
“Just testing something,” he said quietly, lost in thought. “I just did it. I summoned one of those power surges just by thinking about it!”
Zashiel didn't say anything else, and they flew the rest of the way back to the ship in silence. The crew was apparently more used to seeing Zashiel flying around than they were Toke, because she only garnered a few curious glances before she swooped down and landed in the middle of the deck. The minute his feet touched the floor, his back began to itch.
“Smite,” he grumbled. “Not again.”
Zashiel shot him a look. “Feathers?”
He looked around, noting how many of the crew were out on deck today, and motioned for Zashiel to follow him to a more secluded corner of the ship. He had to fight to keep his back from twitching with every step, the feathers beneath his shirt practically begging to be scratched. He couldn't, though. Not yet, not here where everyone could see him.
Once they were out of earshot, he asked, “How do you live with these things tickling your back all the time?”
“They don't tickle me.” She stretched one of her wings out for him to see. “For one thing, I don't keep them tucked into my shirt all the time. Secondly... well, I guess it's because I was born with them. It'd feel weirder not to have them.”
Toke looked at the brightly glowing wing, and found his hand rising, wanting to touch it. He forced it back down to his side. Zashiel had made it clear before that she didn't like people touching her wings. Even so, he had a hard time tearing his eyes away from it.
If what Zashiel says is true, he grimaced as the feathers sprouting from his back itched again, and it obviously is, then I won't need to use my fake wings for much longer, will I?
“So,” he said hesitantly, “how long until... you know...”
“Until you have wings like mine?” Zashiel frowned. “I told you, I don't know. The way things are going, I wouldn't be surprised if they started off too small for you to use. Like the size of chicken wings.”
“Hey!” Toke's face turned a shade redder.
She rolled her eyes. “I didn't mean that as an insult, and you know it. But that's probably how it's going to go. Even when they fully grow in, don't expect to be able to fly with them right off the bat. They'll be brand new, never used before.”
“So what? Isn't that what they're for?”
“Yes, but...” Zashiel hesitated. “Is a baby able to walk right when it's born just because legs are made for walking?”
“That's different,” Toke snapped. “In case you haven't noticed, I'm not a baby!”
“I'm not saying you are!” she snapped back. “But when your wings come in, you'll never have used them before, so they very well might be baby wings!”
Toke scowled, and then looked away so that Zashiel wouldn't think he was directing it at her. Baby wings... that bothered him. Zashiel had all but forbidden him to fly with his fake wings—again—and now she was telling him that even when he grew his real wings, he'd still have to wait?
His next thought made him freeze.
I still haven't told Inaska.
Before he could start dwelling on that, he shook his head and made for the door that led belowdeck. “Come on. I want to get these feathers off me.”
Zashiel followed him without a word, but as he reached for the door A massive hand grabbed him by the shoulder.
“Where do you think you're goin’?”
Toke stopped, and tried not to wince at the none-too-gentle grip. “What is it, Ludsong?”
“'What is it,' he asks?” The first mate grunted, spinning Toke around to face him. Zashiel was standing a few feet away, watching, ready to jump in if Toke needed her. “As if he didn't just ask my daughter to marry him in front of the whole sinkin’ crew without even consultin’ me first!”
His voice was growing louder with every word, until at the end he was shouting right into Toke's face. Then he paused, folded his arms, and looked at Toke like he was waiting for something.
“I'm... sorry?” he ventured.
“By Selek's turds, you ought to be sorry, boy!” the first mate thundered. Several of the crew members were staring at them now. “Who do you think you are, goin’ behind my back about something like this?”
Toke began to go red in the face, and he clenched his injured fist, ignoring the pain. Ludsong had never exactly been friendly with him or his family, but this... this was just going too far! Toke found that he didn't just want to clench his fist, he wanted to drive it straight into Ludsong's ugly face, break his nose, and teach him that he and Inaska couldn't be controlled like dolls in Ludsong's little dollhouse... dollboat... whatever. Toke was an adult, Inaska was an adult, and who was Ludsong to say what she could and couldn't do?
Besides the fact that he was Inaska's father.
And they'd only known Toke for a couple of weeks.
And he had actively gone behind Ludsong's back to court his only daughter, and...
Toke's heart sank into his stomach. “Smite,” he whispered, “I really am the bad guy here, aren't I?”
“You got that right, aftdragger!” Ludsong grabbed him by the shoulder again and, with hardly any effort, dragged him inside. “Now come on!”
“W- Whoa, wait!” Toke protested, digging in his heels to no effect. “Where are we going?”
The first mate didn't answer. Toke looked back at Zashiel, who was following behind them, and gave her his most pleading look. She ignored it, her face as expressionless as stone again. The look she gave him was crystal clear, though: you got yourself into this. I'll help if things turn violent, but you need to deal with your father-in-law-to-be by yourself. Toke moaned quietly, but let Ludsong drag him into the galley.
“Everybody out!” he roared.
The few crewmembers who were eating froze, and then all at once leaped to their feet and scuttled away. Toke caught sight of Pruyal, hobbling along on a pair of crutches, who gave him a sympathetic look.
“You too, Grascow,” Ludsong ordered. “Out!”
The chef's indignant face appeared in the window to his kitchen. “I can't leave! I'll have you know I've been slaving over this dish all day and night, and I won't have it burning because you—”
“It won't burn any more than everything else you serve us on this sinkin’ dinghy. Go!”
Grascow looked like he wanted to argue more, but there was a positively demonic light in the first mate's eyes, and he eventually decided he would be better served squeezing his large frame through his small door and getting as far from his kitchen as his tiny legs could carry him.
Once they were alone, Ludsong picked Toke up—he hadn't even weakened his gravity!—and set him down in one of the table's long benches. Toke sat with his back rigid and eyes wide, not daring to move even an inch. Ludsong sat down directly opposite from him, and then turned to Zashiel.
“Go get his parents, and then go get Inaska. Send 'em all in here.”
To Toke's surprise, Zashiel obeyed without question, and the number of people in the dining hall went from three to two. Toke swallowed hard, having nothing to look at but the musclebound man right in front of him. Ludsong didn't say anything, but Toke swore he could see visions of everything the first mate wanted to do to him flashing behind his eyes. He fought the urge to squirm in his seat, the feathers still itching like a rash. Minutes passed, and the tension was thick enough to suffocate Toke by the time Zashiel finally came back with his parents and Inaska trailing behind her—and, he was surprised to see, Captain Treyn as well.
“With all due respect, Cap'n,” Ludsong growled, “you're not needed here.”
While the others sat down at Toke and Ludsong's table, Brin and Evanya beside Toke and Inaska beside her father, Treyn plopped his backside down on the adjacent table.
“Deal with it,” he quipped. “It's my ship, and I think I should be here for something like this.”
“Something like what?” Evanya asked, looking from Ludsong to Treyn as if expecting one of them to knife her at any moment.
Instead of answering, Ludsong turned to Zashiel next. “You neither. Scat!”
Zashiel folded her arms and leaned against the wall. “I'm not going anywhere.”
“You don't have anythin’ to do with this!”
“I'm Toke's protector,” she said, firmly. “And you've tried to strangle him too many times for me to leave you two alone.”
“Strangle him?” Evanya echoed, aghast.
Ludsong leveled his finger at her. “This ain't—”
“If you want me to leave, feel free to try and make me.”
Ludsong blinked in surprise. Then, after thinking for a few seconds, he shook his head, muttering, and turned back to the others at their table.
“This here's the negotiation table,” he said, jabbing his finger into the wood. “I'm gonna tell you what I want in exchange for my daughter, and you tell me what you want in exchange for your son.”
“In exchange?” Evanya snapped. “What on Fissura is this nonsense?”
Ludsong's expression grew dark, and Treyn used that as an opportunity to jump in.
“Actually, it's a time honored Vlangurtian tradition,” he drawled. “Very important. Sacred. Like not proposing in front of a crowd.”
Toke blushed, but Inaska reached out and put her hand over his and smiled at him.
“All it is,” the first mate growled, “is a way for both parents to know they're givin' their kid away to someone who deserves 'em.”
Toke spoke up, “So, does that mean that you're actually letting us get married?”
Ludsong turned his eyes on him, and Toke resisted the urge to shrink into his seat. “I don't like it,” he said bluntly. “But, stupid as it is, Inaska loves you. Telling her no would cause more harm than good. So, if you can satisfy my end of the exchange, then...” He paused and growled dangerously in his throat. “Then I'll let you marry my daughter.”
“And,” Brin interjected, his eyebrows raising with sudden interest, “this exchange... it can be for anything?”
A shiver ran down Toke's spine when he saw the greed in his father's eyes. He knew that look. Brin Gnasher, who had always thought himself a brilliant businessman despite all evidence to the contrary, was trying to figure out how best to use Inaska for his personal gain.
“Dad,” he said warningly.
“I'll go first, if you don't mind,” Ludsong decided. He eyed Toke again. “First, you gotta dye your hair like a proper Vlangurtian.”
“Now, see here!” Brin declared, rising to his feet, “my son is a proud Yasmikan, and he—”
“I'll do it,” Toke said.
Brin looked at his son in astonishment. “Son, do you have any idea what you're saying?”
Toke met his gaze. “It means everyone in Yasmik thinks I'm a terrorist, and if I go back I'll be arrested and executed. I have a home and a job here in Vlangur.” And a wife, he thought, though he didn't say it out loud. “I don't see why I shouldn't dye my hair if that's what it takes to marry Inaska.”
Brin spluttered, but Ludsong was nodding his head as if impressed.
“Any more?” Toke asked.
“Just one.” Ludsong took a deep breath, leaned across the table, and fixed Toke with a glare that could rival Zashiel's. “Boy, if you want to marry my daughter, I need to know you can protect her.”
“I was trained by a Sorakine. You've seen me fight. You know I can do that.”
To his surprise, Ludsong burst out laughing. “Oh, I know that, do I? Seems to me, less than a week ago she was the one protectin’ you when you couldn't fight all those pirates!”
“Daddy,” Inaska piped up for the first time, “you know that's not—
He waved, silencing her without taking his eyes off Toke. “My little girl can fight, but I ain’t handin’ her off to someone who can't do their fair share of it. You wanna marry her? Fine. Prove to me that you can do what's needed!”
Toke nodded. “How?”
Ludsong paused, surprised by how readily he had agreed, and then chuckled. “All right, then. You,” he pointed at Toke, “and me,” he pointed at himself, “are gonna take a little trip. We're gonna find Blackbane Kuerlo... and you're gonna kill him.”
“Kill him?” Toke exclaimed, sitting up straight.
Ludsong slapped the table. “That's my offer! You want to marry my daughter? You kill that sinkin’ aftdragger, and you do it where I can see you!”
Toke's mouth worked, but no sound came out. “But- But why do I have to kill him?” he forced himself to say.
“Because I wanna know my little girl's safe.” Ludsong narrowed his eyes. “You got a soft heart, boy. Ain't nothin' wrong with that, I s'pose. But you ain't right in the head if you think the two of you're gonna have easy lives. If you keep leavin' your enemies alive, one of 'em's gonna come back and kill you in your sleep.” He put a hand on his daughter's shoulder. “And Inaska too. So show me you got what it takes to keep her safe, and she’s all yours.”
Toke's heart was pounding, his palms slick with sweat. Kill Blackbane Kuerlo? The man was a pirate—a thief and a murderer. Toke didn't kid himself for a second: he deserved death perhaps more than anyone else he had ever met. Killing him would be helping hundreds, maybe thousands of people who lived in fear of running afoul of his ship. And yet, the very idea of killing him made Toke's skin crawl and his stomach twist.
“I've... never killed anyone before,” he whispered.
“That's hard to believe,” Ludsong growled, “after all the stories I've heard about you. But I do believe it. You're too sinkin' soft to be a killer.”
Toke shook his head. “And I'd rather keep it that way. I'll fight, I'll protect Inaska, but I don't want to kill if I don't have to.”
“Toke...” Inaska whispered.
He winced. “Is there any other way I can prove myself to you?”
Ludsong shrugged. “Those are my terms. You kill Kuerlo, you get my daughter. You don't... and you don't.”
“I just...” He sighed. “Let me think for a minute. Zashiel?”
“It's your decision,” the Sorakine girl said without hesitation. “Whatever you choose, I'll back you up.”
Toke sighed and lowered his head, but before he could start to think, she spoke up again.
“But I can think of another reason you would want to go.”
He perked up. “What's that?”
Her eyes turned cold. “The old man.”
Toke froze. He hadn't been the one to say that. That had been...
“Dad?” he asked in bewilderment, spinning around in his seat to look at his father. Behind him, Zashiel's mouth actually fell open a little bit in surprise.
Brin's eyes shifted left and right. “What?”
Toke began to rise. “You know who that old man was?”
“Of course I do!” his father snapped, sounding offended. “That was Shen Garrowfleck, one of the best businessmen in Yasmik!”
Toke stared at his father, then looked back at Zashiel. She looked just as stunned as he felt, and could only shrug.
“A businessman, you said?” Toke asked, turning back to Brin. “What kind of business?”
“He's a used autocarriage salesman,” Brin answered. “A brilliant one, too. He gets to know his customers, practically becomes their best friend. He doesn't just show people his autocarriages, he takes them out to dinner to explain all the benefits of buying from him.” A wistful look came into his eyes. “They say once he's spoken to you, he can sell you anything!”
“You sound like you practically worship him,” Zashiel scoffed.
Brin blinked and cleared his throat. “I'm a businessman myself, so yes, I suppose I look up to him. He's a source of inspiration to men like me!”
“That's all well and good,” Toke interrupted, shaking his head, “but that doesn't tell us what he's doing chasing me around Vlangur, or how he managed to get a piece of Navras' armor.”
“Or—” Zashiel began.
“Or what he knows about what's... happening,” Toke cut her off before she could say more than he wanted Inaska to hear. His feathers itched again, getting harder to ignore by the minute. After a moment's hesitation, Zashiel nodded.
“He's a fine, upstanding citizen,” Brin argued. “I can't imagine he's here doing anything... unscrupulous.”
“Yeah,” Toke shot back, “I'm sure he was sailing with the most famous pirate in Vlangur for perfectly honest reasons!”
Ludsong's fist came down on the table, making everyone jump. “Would you mind gettin' back to the topic at hand?”
Toke blinked. The topic... Inaska. Wedding. Killing Kuerlo. Right.
Folding his arms, Toke bowed his head and willed everything around him to fade away. Once he was in the comforting, quiet stillness of the void, he was able to think more clearly. Kill Kuerlo, and marry Inaska? Or don't do either, but keep that last little bit of his innocence that Zashiel always said was so important? Ludsong was right about one thing: it was a smiting miracle that he had gone this long without having to kill anyone. In a way, he had some of the most considerate enemies imaginable, always killing themselves so that Toke could have his victory without having to bloody his hands. But if he wanted to marry Inaska... and he did, desperately... then he would have to hand that innocence over in exchange. Because, whether or not Ludsong realized it, that was what he was really asking for. Not Kuerlo's blood. Toke's innocence.
And the chance to find out what Shen knew.
Finally, he opened his eyes and looked at Treyn. “Do you think you can manage without me for a few days?”
Treyn gave a long, exaggerated shrug. “Because of certain recent events, the Seventh Swordfish Circus has lost the right to perform in Thannaduk. We are to cast off by sundown tonight.”
“So we'll have a few days of sailing before we reach our next stop.” He sighed dramatically. “I suppose I can do without my first mate and Gaur stukan for a little while.”
Toke looked at Ludsong, and Ludsong looked at Toke. Together, they both nodded.
“All right,” Toke agreed. “I'll do it.”
NEXT TIME: Shen Garrowfleck…used car salesman, and apparently a supervillain. He’s the one behind Toke’s transformation, but why? And, more importantly, how is Toke going to deal with him?