Chapter no 30 – The King’s Mask

Tress of the Emerald Sea

SALAY WANTED TO KNOW who she really was.

Unfortunately, that was a topic of some confusion to Tress herself. In her youth, she’d thought she understood who she was. Now she was sailing with pirates and learning to use spores. She found herself demanding answers of Ulaam, and not caring if it was polite.

She wasn’t even certain she was Tress anymore, or if she’d become

someone else. You could say, in other words, that her state at the moment was distress.

“Well?” Salay asked.

Tress didn’t have a lot of experience with lying, but paradoxically, the ones who are most successful at it are those who don’t do it very often. So when Tress remained quiet but stepped back and gestured for Salay to come in, it was exactly the right thing to do.

Salay hesitated. Despite her no-nonsense attitude, she was nervous about

entering a sprouter’s room. You got used to the idea of silver being around. It let you ignore, to some extent, the spores—like how you can usually ignore your nose always being in view. Or like how people ignore the existential horror that comes from knowing their body is slowly deteriorating every day,

time itself marching them toward oblivion to the cadence of their beating hearts.

However, although Salay might have been short of both stature and temper, she wasn’t short on grit. She stepped into the room and shut the door, heroically enduring the chill that ran up her spine and the goosebumps that rose on her arms.

“Would you like some tea?” Tress said, getting out two cups. A charming matched pair of a light pale porcelain with silver on the rims. “It’s delightfully lukewarm.”

“Er, no,” Salay said. “Look, I know you aren’t who you’re pretending to be.”

“I’m just a girl trying not to get tossed overboard.”

“Yeah, no,” Salay said, folding her arms. “I’m not buying the act any longer, Tress.”

This made Tress a little annoyed. “What do you want me to say?” Tress asked, in a rare bout of pique. “I’ve already admitted that I stole this coat.

Other than that I’m an insignificant girl from an insignificant island. There’s nothing remarkable about me.”

“Oh? An ‘unremarkable’ girl who just happens to be unafraid of spores? Who just happens to be made our sprouter after only a couple of days on the crew?”

“I’m terrified of spores!” Tress said, for once not caring if she was being discourteous. “I needed a job on the ship, and this was the only one


Salay leaned forward, studying Tress. “Moon of veils, you’re so good at this. I don’t see a hint of a tell that you’re lying.”

“Because I’m not lying! Look, if you don’t believe me, then what do you think I am?”

“A royal inspector,” Salay said, “in disguise.”

“This,” Tress said, gesturing to her inspector’s coat, “is a disguise?” “It’s a clever plan, I’ll admit,” Salay said. “You knew we’d instantly

suspect a newcomer. But of course, an inspector would be the last person to wear one of those! Except when they’re being an inspector. So you knew by wearing it, we’d naturally assume you weren’t one.”

“That is,” Tress said, “an interesting thought process…”

“Yes,” Salay said. “I’ll admit, I wouldn’t have pieced it together if I hadn’t discovered that Crow gave you a chance to flee the ship, and you didn’t take


Oh. “About that,” Tress said, “I simply didn’t want to abandon you all.

Look, I’m not lying. I’m not an inspector.”

Salay narrowed her eyes. “Yeah? And what about what you did to the cannonballs?”

Tress froze.

“Aha!” Salay said. “You didn’t expect me to know about that, did you? I watched Laggart’s reaction when that ship didn’t sink today. He wanted to kill those people, though I haven’t figured out why. I do know you’re the only one who had access to his munitions to sabotage his attempt.”

Moon of mercy, Tress thought. If she figured it out…maybe Laggart and Captain Crow have as well. She should have known she couldn’t fool such an experienced crew.

Tress sat down on her bed, disturbed. Salay was wrong about her, but the helmswoman…she’d stood up to Captain Crow. She’d prevented a massacre. If Tress was going to trust anyone on this ship, she decided, it should be Salay.

“I found out the captain wanted to sink ships,” Tress said, “to make you all into deadrunners. She wants you to obey her unfailingly. Even with her powers, she must fear a mutiny.”

Salay leaned down, small tight curls of black hair falling around the sides of her face. “A common girl—as you’re pretending to be—figured out

Captain Crow’s plot?”

“By accident,” Tress said. “Really, Salay. I have no idea what I’m doing.” “Let’s assume I believe you,” Salay said. “And accept that you’re not an

inspector. Can you prove what you said about the captain?”

“There are false bottoms in the gunnery barrels,” Tress said. “Laggart keeps sabotaged cannonballs in there. I swapped them for ordinary ones so he couldn’t sink any more ships. I have the ones I took out, but I don’t know if that will prove anything. It’s my word against his.”

“I don’t need you to confront him about it,” Salay said, beginning to pace. “We merely need to get others in the crew to agree to take action. I’ve organized a meeting with Ann and Fort later tonight. If you brought one of those cannonballs, that might be proof enough for them. They’re already

suspicious of the captain’s motives, and…”

Salay stopped, then walked back to Tress. “And you just manipulated me into telling you about our secret meeting! Damn you’re good.”

Tress sighed.

Salay held her eyes again. “Cold as ice. With a heart of unyielding steel.” “Really?” Tress asked. “That’s what you get from my expression?”

“Indeed,” Salay said. “Behind the fake fear and confusion you’re trying to use to distract me. But I believe you on one thing: you’re no royal inspector.”


“You’re far too clever for one of them,” Salay said. “You must be a King’s Mask!

Oh. That explained everything. Or, Tress assumed it would, if she knew what on the twelve seas a “King’s Mask” was.

“Everyone knows the King’s Masks must lie when asked what they are,” Salay said, putting her hands on her hips. “To protect their secret missions.

So I won’t try to get you to confirm it. Will you bring one of those cannonballs tonight?”

“If you think it will persuade the others,” Tress said, “then I will.” She

wasn’t certain what any of them could do against someone like Crow, but it would be good to talk about the things she’d discovered.

“Great,” Salay said. “Meeting is in the quartermaster’s room after second evening mess, when night watch is called.” She started toward the door, then hesitated. “Please don’t assassinate anyone before then.”

With that, she was out the door. Tress sat back on her bed, stunned, as Huck emerged.

“So, King’s Mask, eh?” he said. “You sure had me fooled.” “I—”

“That was a joke,” he said, nibbling on his stale bread crust again. “I’m guessing you don’t even know what they are.”

“Not a clue.”

“Secret assassin group,” Huck said. “Maintained by the king to carry out important missions. Supposedly, there are never more than five at a time.

They are the elite of the elite.”

“And she thinks an eighteen-year-old girl happens to be one.”

“The Masks supposedly take youth potions to disguise their ages,” Huck said. “But…it’s possible they don’t really exist, and the king encourages the rumors to make people fear him.

“Don’t blame Salay. People on ships like this one hover at the edges of the law, even when they’re not pirates. Someone like Salay lives her entire life

full of suspicion. She’s not dumb; she’s just not accustomed to dealing with someone so genuine. It’s like you speak an entirely different language.”

“I’ll need to convince her of the truth,” Tress said. “Somehow.” She found it physically painful to know someone thought she was an assassin.

“I don’t know if I’d go to that meeting, if I were you,” Huck said.

“Captain Crow is suspicious of Salay and the others. I think she’s planning to kill them.”

“What? How do you know?”

“When I spied on them for you the other day? I caught a little bit about ‘secret meetings’ and ‘being rid of them finally.’ That was before they got to the juicy stuff I told you.”

That sounded bad to Tress, but also too vague. She stood up again, pacing through her small quarters, listening to the scrape of spores on the hull outside. “We don’t know enough, Huck. We don’t know why the captain

wants to make the others into deadrunners. I mean, she wants to order them to do something dangerous, but why?”

“Yeah,” Huck said. “I’m baffled too. Reminds me of a friend of mine. He was a character, I tell you. Once, he was offered cheese—by the way, we don’t like cheese as much as people think. Wonder how the rumor started.


“I think,” Tress said gently, “we should stay focused, Huck. We need more information about the captain.”

Huck dropped his crust. “Okay, I suppose,” he said. “I mean, if you really want me to…”

Tress immediately felt guilty, remembering his earlier objections. She had no right to ask him to put his life in danger.

“Never mind,” she said, tucking an unruly strand of hair behind her ear. “I think there’s another way.” She looked in the secret compartment under the bed, then brought out the little box full of midnight spores.

“Tress…” Huck said. “What are you doing?”

“I’m completely out of my element, Huck,” she said. “I’m just a girl with a fondness for cups. I have no special training, no special experience. I can’t outmaneuver Crow unless I use the resources I have.” She held up the box. “My only real advantage seems to be the fact that I’m slightly less terrified of spores than everyone else.”

“Yeah, but midnight spores? Shouldn’t we…you know…work our way up to something like that? You don’t start by running a full regalthon. You jog a

little first.”

“A what?”

“Regalthon,” he said. “Forty-mile race, held every year on the king’s birthday.”

“Forty miles?” Tress said, fishing in the various drawers in Weev’s

cabinet. Hadn’t she seen a silver knife in here? “They’d run out of land and fall off the island if they raced that far. Do they go in circles?”

“Oh, Tress,” he said, “most islands aren’t the size of the Rock, you know.” “Really?” she said. She pulled the knife out of the drawer. “You mean

there are some that are forty miles wide?”

“And bigger,” he said. “I think one over in the Zephyr Sea is sixty miles across.”

“Moons!” she said, trying to imagine that much land in one place. Why, in the center, you might not be able to see the sea at all! She shook her head at the crazy thought and pulled out a few waterskins.

After that she knelt by the bed, picked out three black spores, and set them on the mattress. Huck backed away, towing his crust of bread.

She took a deep breath and thought of Charlie. She could do this. For him, and for the people of the Crow’s Song. Solve the mysteries on this ship, protect the people here, and they would point her in Charlie’s direction.

She raised an eyedropper and released a drop onto the spores.

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