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Chapter Forty Three
Toke stood with his hand touching the door leading to the Seventh Swordfish's deck. His heartbeats were heavy, his breaths slow and deep, a strange melancholic feeling weighing down his feet.
Zashiel stood just behind him, arms crossed and foot tapping impatiently on the floor. “Well? What are you waiting for?”
Toke sighed. He felt bad for making her wait like this, after practically having bullied her into staying with him in their cabin. If he hadn't, and he'd let her go up on deck like she'd wanted, that would have left him alone. He had been out of the hospital for two days now, but the inexplicable fear still refused to go away. The mere thought of being alone anywhere, for any length of time, was enough to make his skin crawl. He had tried explaining that to Zashiel, but for some reason the Sorakine girl refused to even speak to him about it, and would either change the subject or clam up entirely.
Clam up? Is that a... Nah!
Even so, he was glad to have her company, even if he'd had to force her to provide it. That, in turn, made him feel even worse for dallying here in the hallway, strangely reluctant to go on deck and face what was waiting for him.
“It's weird,” he said. “I agreed to this so easily, but now that I'm here it feels... I don't know, more meaningful than I expected it to.”
“It's just your hair,” Zashiel snorted, smirking. “Do you get emotional when you trim your fingernails too?”
“No, because when I trim my nails I'm not...” He stopped and looked away from her, too embarrassed to finish.
Behind him, Zashiel sighed. A moment later, her hand rested on your shoulder. “Because you're not giving up on ever going home.”
Toke faced the door, fighting to keep his expression neutral, but a single tear still escaped his eye and rolled down his cheek. Absently, he reached up and squeezed her hand.
“I'm not giving up on going home, though,” he whispered. “I can't be, because I'm already there.”
“That's the spirit!”
“But Yasmik is... I was born there. I spent my whole life, up until this last year, there. I've moved on, made a new life for myself, but... when most people move, they know they can visit their old home whenever they want. See the sights, visit their friends. I can't.”
He sniffed, more loudly than he meant to, and Zashiel leaned in closer.
“Are you okay?” she asked.
He nodded. “I try to hide it, Zashiel. Not just from you, or my parents, but from myself too. And usually, it works. I've been so busy that I don't give myself time to think about it. I'm happy here in Vlangur, Zashiel. I really am. But I miss Yasmik too.”
“I miss Jerulkan, and going to school every day. I miss trying to invent things. I miss the streets—real streets. I miss Kassfar, where I was born. I even miss that smiting store my dad ran! I miss feeling like I belonged somewhere, without having to run and constantly look over my shoulder, and...”
He had to stop, the emotions welling up too much inside of him. He squeezed his eyes shut, willing the tears to go away. He wouldn't cry here. Not in front of Zashiel. He wouldn't!
“Oh, Toke,” the Sorakine girl said, wrapping him in a hug from behind. “I miss it too. A day doesn't go by that I don't think about Hashira, and the family I left behind.”
Toke gritted his teeth and shook his head. “No. I'm sorry. I shouldn't be laying this all on you. Th- Things are worse for you than they are for me. Your own sister—”
“It's fine,” she interrupted him. “You've been holding this in for too long. Just let it out. It's okay to hurt, Toke.”
He smiled. “This coming from you?”
“What? There's nothing wrong with hurting. You just can't let the hurt define who you are.”
“When I walk out there,” Toke said solemnly, looking at the door again, “it'll be like closing the door on Yasmik once and for all. I always knew I could never go back, but this... this makes it real, you know?”
“But Inaska is here. Doesn't that make it worth it?”
Toke stood up a little taller, and some of his gloom faded away. “Yes. It does.”
Letting that thought strengthen him, he finally pushed the door open and stepped outside. The sun was shining bright overhead, and the sound of water lapping gently against the hull of the ship was comforting—and different enough from the sound of water on sand that it didn't put him on edge. He paused to look, but there was nothing to see except water, water, and more water, and Zashiel impatiently pushed him onward. Together, they made their way to the ring of seats, where...
“Wait a minute,” Toke said. He would have stopped again if Zashiel hadn't been pushing him from behind. He looked around at the seats, where what seemed like half the crew was sitting. “What's going on here?”
“They're here to see you get your hair dyed,” a voice said from in front of them. “Obviously.”
Toke faced forward again, and saw that Treyn and Ludsong were waiting for them in the center of the ring. In between them, there was a cot from one of the cabins and a large black cauldron full of a thick white paste.
“What do they care?” he demanded. “It's just my hair! It's not like I'm putting on a show or something.”
Ludsong frowned, but Treyn spoke up before the first mate could say anything. “To them, you may as well be. Toke, do you know why Vlangurtians dye their hair?”
Toke shrugged. “I never really thought about it. I always thought it was just the local fashion or something.”
Ludsong clenched his fist, muttering under his breath, and Treyn sighed dramatically and shook his head.
“Well, whatever,” Toke said. “Let's just get this over with.”
He took a step toward the cot, but immediately stopped when he ran into Ludsong's hand. Smite, he thought, it was like walking into a wall!
“There ain't no 'just get it over with' here, boy!” he growled. “This is important, and I ain't touchin' your hair till you know full well what you're doin'!”
Toke sighed, and looked at Treyn for support. The captain merely shrugged.
“He's your future father-in-law, not me. But he's right about one thing: dying your hair here in Vlangur means a lot more than you think.”
“Fashion,” Ludsong spat. “Ha! Sit down, boy.”
The first mate gestured toward the cot, and Toke reluctantly sat down on it. Zashiel stayed standing up, as did Ludsong and Treyn, making Toke feel uncomfortably like a child being lectured by a trio of adults.
Ludsong seemed to be thinking the same thing—and liking it.
“Dyin' our hair,” he began, folding his arms, “is a proud and sacred tradition here in Vlangur!”
“Like the negotiating table, and keeping marriages private?” Toke butted in.
Ludsong's eyes narrowed dangerously, and Toke immediately regretted saying that. Like it or not, Ludsong was going to be his father-in-law, which meant every wisecrack was just going to make the coming years harder on both of them.
“It started hundreds of years ago,” Ludsong went on. “Back when the country was uncivilized and stupid. Kinda like Yasmik, now that I think about it.”
Treyn snorted, trying to hide his grin. Toke opened his mouth, his tongue armed with a sharp retort, but he changed his mind and swallowed it instead.
“Vlangur wasn't united back then the way it is today, under the rule of the Empty Room,” Ludsong went on. “Every island had its own ruler, its own laws, and...” He paused dramatically. “Its own hair color.”
He stopped, watching Toke, obviously expecting some kind of reaction from him. Eventually, Toke raised his hands and wiggled his fingers.
“Whooo!” he said.
Ludsong stomped his foot hard enough to shake the floor. “Don't you get it? The color of their hair was like their race! And they weren't friendly with other colors, neither. The islands were exclusive, see? The blackheads ruled this one, the blondes that one,” he gestured vaguely with his hands, “and nobody never went anywhere they weren't supposed to be. It was so bad, even, that if a kid ended up with some kind of recessive gene and got born with different hair, the parents would kill it. If your hair changed color when you grew older, you got executed for it. It was bad, boy!”
Toke nodded dutifully. “Sounds that way.”
“So when First King Thrieda came and conquered everythin', he saw what was bein' done and made his first law: his people would never be separated by their hair color again, because from then on they would all be the same!”
“And they all dyed their hair.”
Ludsong pointed at Toke. “Exactly! It ain't the law anymore, but everyone still does it because it's a mark of being a true Vlangurtian.”
“Where did Thrieda come from?”
Ludsong blinked. “Wh- What?”
“You said that he didn't know what was going on here until he'd already conquered it. That means he must have come from somewhere else.” Toke shrugged. “I'm just curious.”
Ludsong glanced at Treyn, who shrugged, smirking, and then glared at Toke.
“It ain't no matter where he's from. Maelstroms, you're as bad as that friend of yours. Now do you sinkin' understand what I'm sayin’ here?”
Slowly, Toke nodded. “Yeah, I get it. You all dye your hair to show that, no matter who you are, you're all Vlangurtians, so you're all equal.”
Ludsong crossed his arms again and nodded. “Good. Then you're sure you still want to do this?”
In answer, Toke laid down on his back on top of the cot, with his head hanging over the edge directly above the pot of white stuff. He looked up just in time to see a flash of disappointment in Ludsong's eyes, and fought to keep from smiling.
I'm not letting go of Inaska that easily, you dropper! he thought.
Finally, Ludsong came and knelt down beside Toke's head. “Fine. Then by my first and last waters, I do hereby wash your hair of color, of rank, of status, and of class. May you rise as lowly as the worm, and as highly as the king. Close your eyes, boy.”
A pair of thick leather gloves adorned the first mate's hands, and with them he pushed Toke's head downward so that his hair was completely submerged in the milky white liquid. At first, Toke didn't feel anything, but then an unpleasant tingle ran through his skull.
“Nyerrgh,” he moaned, shivering. “What is that stuff?”
“Bleach,” Ludsong grunted, pressing down harder to keep Toke from moving. “Give it an hour, and this stuff'll turn your hair so white it'll hurt to look at.”
Toke opened his eyes. “I have to stay like this for an hour?”
“If you want to marry my daughter, you do!”
Toke shut his mouth and closed his eyes again. He briefly wondered if he could sleep the hour away, but the tingling in his head was too irritating, like an itch he wasn't allowed to scratch, to let sleep be a possibility. It made him want to squirm, but he forced himself to stay still. His face was mere inches away from that cauldron. What happened if he splashed some into his mouth? Or in his eye?
He sighed. “Fine. Let's talk about what's happening next, then.”
“What's there to talk about?” Ludsong demanded. “We're gonna to track down Kuerlo, and you're gonna kill him!”
“Well, for one thing,” Zashiel spoke up, coming to stand next to Toke's cot, “I'll be coming with you.”
“Like flotsam you are, girl! This is between me'n him!”
Though Toke had his eyes closed, he could almost feel Zashiel narrowing her eyes. “Again, if you want me to stay behind, try and make me.”
“Maelstroms,” Ludsong complained, “you bein' there defeats the whole purpose! I'm trying to get him to man up and fight. What good'll it be if you're there to kill everyone who looks at him wrong?”
“I won't interfere unless it's clear that Toke's going to lose,” she insisted. “If I do, you can count that as him failing your test.”
Toke's eyes snapped open. “Zashiel, don't—”
“Fine,” Ludsong agreed. Toke groaned. Of smiting course he would be onboard if it presented another way for Toke to fail. “But I'll be watchin' you both. The minute you get in the way... Poof!” He wiggled his free hand in front of Zashiel's face. “Ain't no weddin' happenin'.”
“Agreed,” Zashiel said with a nod of her head.
“Smite it, Zashiel!” Toke yelled, trying to raise his head, but was stopped by Ludsong's hand. “Stay out of this!”
She shook her head, folding her arms. “No. You getting married doesn't change the fact that I'm still your protector. I promise I won't ruin this for you, but I'm still not letting you go on an extended trip alone with him.”
“Oh, don't your worry,” Ludsong crooned. “I ain't gonna kill him. Kuerlo's gonna do that for me.”
“You sound pretty sure of that,” Toke retorted.
Ludsong leaned in close to his ear. “Boy, I chose this test for a reason. Yeah, you may know how to fight, but your heart's softer'n a jellyfish. We're gonna get there, you ain't gonna be able to do what needs doin', and my daughter ain't gonna be marryin' you.”
Toke froze, and then his face reddened. Right then, there was nothing in the world he wanted more than to punch Ludsong in his ugly, arrogant face. But that was what the first mate wanted. An open display of violence on his bride-to-be's father would destroy any hope for the wedding before they even left the ship. Instead, he took a deep breath and forced his temper down.
“How long have you been working with this circus?” he asked.
Ludsong's eyebrows rose. “Me? Somewhere about thirty years, or so.”
“Then get ready, because once we set foot on Kuerlo's ship, I'm going to give you a show that makes everything you've seen here look like a smiting street juggler!”
Ludsong paused, then grinned. “I'll take you up on that bet, boy. Better not disappoint me!”
“Does anyone care that I'm terribly offended by that?” Treyn asked, sounding remarkably unoffended.
“No,” Toke answered.
They spent the last half hour in silence, while Toke struggled not to squirm under the ceaseless tingling in his hair. He hoped that Inaska would make an appearance, if for no other reason than to take his mind off of his discomfort, but she never did. Finally, though, Ludsong motioned for Treyn to come up to him with a towel. The captain obeyed without a word, holding it just above Toke's head.
“Eyes closed,” said Ludsong, and then tightened his grip on Toke's chin and raised him up out of the pot of bleach. His head remained upside down, letting the bleach cascade back down into the pot, while Treyn dabbed his forehead to keep it from drizzling into his eyes or ears. Then, once the stream had weakened to a slow drip, Treyn began to run the towel vigorously through Toke's hair, wiping the rest of it clean.
“Water!” Ludsong called, and a pair of crewmembers hastened to carry in a wooden bucket, pushing the bleached-filled pot out of the way and positioning it under the cot. “Eyes closed.”
Toke barely had time to obey before his head was dunked into the cold, clean water—his entire head this time, not just his hair. He could feel Treyn rubbing his head with the towel, but didn't dare open his eyes to look. Just when his throat was beginning to burn, Ludsong yanked him back up again, raising him into a sitting position. Toke gasped, but his breath was immediately smothered when Treyn pressed a new towel into his face, and began to dry him off.
“Any burning?” the captain asked. “Itching? Irritation?”
“No,” Toke answered once his mouth was uncovered.
“Good. I've seen that stuff eat straight through people's skulls.”
Toke jumped. “Wha- Really?”
Treyn and Ludsong burst into laughter, and Toke pointedly turned away from them and sought out Zashiel, who was standing at the foot of his cot.
“Well, how do I look?” he asked.
“You look... different,” she said with a shrug.
“Someone get him a mirror!” Treyn yelled, and a crewmember hopped from his seat to obey.
While they waited, Treyn continued to attack Toke with the towel, and Ludsong explained how to properly maintain his new hair.
“It ain't black no more,” he said, grabbing a strand and yanking it free. Toke winced, but didn't complain. “That means when it gets dirty, it'll look dirty. I ain't lettin' my daughter get married to some aftdragger with filthy hair, so you be sure to wash it every chance you get. And then wash it again!”
“Fine,” Toke muttered.
“And this ain't permanent,” the first mate added. “Your hair'll still grow its natural color, so every month or so you'll have to do this again.”
Toke sighed, but then nodded. If that's what it took to be with Inaska, then he would do it.
And speaking of which...
“What's Inaska's natural hair color?” he asked.
Ludsong's expression immediately darkened, and Toke rolled his eyes. “Let me guess: that question violates one of your ancient and honored traditions?”
Treyn waved his hand lethargically. “Eh, it's somewhere between asking a woman how old she is and...” He snorted, “Asking her to marry you onstage.”
“Can it, Cap'n!” Ludsong snapped before Toke could say anything. Treyn grinned at him.
The sailor chose that time to return with the mirror, and he eagerly handed it to Toke. Toke took it, but then hesitated, a weight settling in his stomach.
It's just your hair he reminded himself. You're still you.
Slowly, he raised the mirror and looked into it...
“Huh,” he said. “I... look kinda good, actually.”
“Everyone looks better with proper hair,” Ludsong grunted. “I keep tryin' to tell the Cap'n, but—”
“But I'm a barbarian with no sense of decorum and no place in civilized civilization,” Treyn interrupted, airily, “and so here I float on my barge of lost dreams, entertaining people for meager coin.”
Toke and Ludsong rolled their eyes in perfect unison. Well, at least there was one thing the two of them agreed on.
Then he looked at his reflection again. It was both exactly what he was expecting, and a complete surprise. His hair, though still styled the same, was as white as snow. The complete polar opposite of what it had been an hour ago. His face was unchanged, of course, so he could still have recognized his own reflection, but that hair... it looked like it belonged to someone else. But it was his. Slowly, he reached up and ran his fingers through it. Yes, the same thick, unruly mop he'd had since he was born. The same, yet different.
Just like Toke the Juryokine and Toke the inventor's student.
“Thank you,” he said, handing the mirror back and standing up.
“Do you feel all right?” Zashiel asked, stepping toward him with a concerned look in her eye.
“I'm fine. It was just my hair. Why?”
“Because...” She shot a dirty look at Ludsong. “If you start to feel sick, tell me immediately, got it?”
“Yes, Mother,” he said, rolling his eyes. “Now if you'll excuse me...”
He brushed past her, and she didn't follow as he made his way toward the door that led belowdeck.
“Hey, where you goin' off to so fast?” Ludsong called after him.
“To make preparations for tomorrow,” he called back.
That seemed to satisfy Ludsong, because he didn't say anything else as Toke shut the door behind him. Then he stopped and felt his hair again. White hair. He closed his eyes, but found he couldn't imagine himself like that without a mirror to show him his reflection. Twenty one years of one hair color would be a hard image to replace in his head.
He opened his eyes, and found Inaska standing at the other end of the hallway, hand to her mouth and eyes wide behind her mask.
“Hey,” he said, smiling. “What do you think?”
She took one hesitant step toward him, as if afraid he wasn’t who she thought he was, but then ran to him and threw her arms around his shoulders.
“You look amazing!” she said, pulling him close. “White hair really suits you.”
Toke tried to reply, but found himself lost in her deep, purple eyes. Instead, he kissed her.
“I'm glad you like it,” he said once they separated.
“Well,” she grinned and took both his hands in hers, “you're a proper Vlangurtian now. Do you know what that means?”
He raised an eyebrow. “What?”
Instead of answering, she took his hand and led him down the hallway and into a room he hadn’t been in before. It was exactly the same as his and Zashiel’s cabin, but with only one cot. And…
And paper masks and costumes everywhere he looked.
“This is your cabin!” he exclaimed.
“It sure is,” she purred. Toke turned to look, and jumped when he saw her pulling her shirt over her head. “Let’s put it to good use, okay?”
Grinning, heart pounding, Toke pulled her into an embrace and kissed her with all the passion he could muster. Inaska moaned, and together they fell onto her cot, writhing in each other's arms, their clothes soon piled in the corner.
“Tomorrow, you and my father are going pirate hunting,” she said, lying on top of him, her bare skin warm and soft, “and I don't know how long you'll be gone. So for tonight,” She kissed him vigorously, rubbing her thigh up and down his own, “you're all mine!”
Toke grinned up at her. “Whatever my bride wants.”
NEXT TIME: That’s it, folks! Toke has gone native. But how long will that last? Ludsong seems pretty confident that Kuerlo is going to kill Toke tomorrow. Does he know something about the pirate captain that we don’t?