Chapter no 12 – The Crow

Tress of the Emerald Sea

THE SPORES SCRUNCHED under her feet.

Tress tried to breathe slowly and shallowly. Even with her shirt once more pulled up over her mouth, she felt exposed. All it would take was a single


Another cannonball whooshed overhead, crunching through the ship.

However, she walked carefully, slowly, to keep from kicking spores up into the air. Steady and deliberate, that was the way. Despite her entire body being taut with anxiety, knowing that at any moment the seethe could start again—and she’d sink to her death.

“Now that’s a sight,” Huck said softly from her shoulder.

Tress risked a glance back. For some reason, a flock of seagulls was beginning to gather around the Oot’s Dream. Several sailors had been

wounded in the most recent shot, and one man had fallen off the side of the ship.

He was bleeding.

The poor man thrashed and screamed, spraying blood across the spores— which grew in bursts, undulating and latching onto the ship like enormous tentacles from some unseen leviathan. The sailor disappeared in the

contorted explosion of vines, but she could hear him screaming in there

somewhere as he was crushed, more and more blood leaking out to feed the hungry ocean. Gulls dived at the vines and attacked them with apparent gusto. What was that about?

Tress turned forward and continued, step after step, toward the enemy

ship. Though it had seemed close from the hold, out here it felt miles away. “I’ve never done this before,” Huck said from her shoulder. “You know.

Walked out on it.”

“Me either,” Tress said, trying to prevent herself from hyperventilating. Keep. Moving. Forward.

“I don’t mean to alarm you,” Huck said, “but the seethe will probably start up again any minute now…”

Tress nodded. She knew the basics. There were long stillings now and then, maybe every day or two, when the seethe stopped for several hours. There were times when it would stop for a day or more, though those were rare.

Most stillings were only a few minutes long. As if the seethe were some singer deep under the ocean, pausing briefly to draw in another breath.

She tried to pick up her pace, but the spores were deceptively difficult to walk on. Her feet slid, and moons above, she hadn’t laced her boots tight

enough. She could feel spores getting into her shoes, slipping between the fibers of her socks and rubbing against her skin.

How much sweat would it take to set one off?

Just keep moving.

Step. After. Step.

She heard scrunching noises approaching and glanced behind her. One of the smugglers had seen what she was doing, and was running toward the

enemy ship. He was kicking up so many spores. She tensed, bracing herself, worried that—

Snap. A mess of vines burst from his eyes, and he dropped, writhing, making more grow up around him. Tress kept going, but another sailor passed her, walking with a confident steady stride. Faster than she dared.

They were over halfway to the other ship.

Please, Emerald Moon, she prayed. Please. Just a little more time.

She could see sailors gathering on the foredeck of the other ship. They’d stopped firing. They didn’t need weapons any longer. The smuggler ship

cracked and popped in the distance as an overwhelming number of vines grew up on the side where the bleeding sailor had fallen.

Tress felt the eyes of the enemy sailors on her. One figure in particular— standing right at the prow of the ship, wearing a hat with a tall black feather

—looked ominous. The shadowed figure raised a long musket and aimed straight at Tress.

Then the figure turned slightly. The musket shook, and the crack sounded a fraction of a second later. The sailor who had been striding toward the ship in front of Tress dropped, his blood starting another eldritch spire of twisting vines.

Tress stopped, then braced herself for a second shot. When it didn’t come, she started forward again. It was too late to turn back, and certain death lay that direction anyway.

So she pressed forward, feeling an awful tension, like a bowstring being drawn farther, and farther, and even farther. She kept waiting for that crack, or for the ground to start trembling beneath her feet. Or for a spore to slip into her nose or to touch one of her eyes.

When she at last reached the shadow of the grounded enemy ship, it felt like she’d been walking for an eternity with a knife right at her throat.

Sailors gathered at the ship’s rail and stared down at her. She spotted no uniforms, except maybe on that figure in the center. With the black-plumed hat, their face was lost in shadow as the sun shone from near the horizon,

silhouetting them.

No one said anything. The sailors didn’t offer Tress a place on their ship, but they didn’t shoot her either. So, lacking any other options, Tress tied her sack of cups to her belt and tried to find a way to climb up. Unfortunately,

the keel and hull of the ship were of smooth brown wood, and after a few attempts Tress knew that scaling it would be impossible.

“I’m sorry,” Huck said. “I think I must have been wrong. Those don’t look like the king’s people up above, Tress. I wish…I wish that I…”

Tress gave their situation a moment of thought. Then she wiped her finger to remove any spores before putting it to her mouth. She got some spittle on her fingernail, took a deep breath, and flicked it toward the spores a few feet away.

A midsized vine “tree” grew from the spores, curling around itself and reaching into the sky. Tress grabbed it, feeling the rough coils beneath her fingers, like rope.

Then she climbed.

“That’s it!” Huck said, scrambling off her shoulder and up higher along the vine. “Come on, Tress. Hurry!”

She did her best, pulling herself up some ten feet until she could barely reach a porthole on the side of the ship. Huck leaped onto her shoulder again as she grabbed ahold and clung to the hull. She could see the ship’s name there, painted in golden letters. The Crow’s Song.

Up above, some of the sailors were laughing, chatting with a jovial nonchalance about her struggle. Spores streamed from her boots as she hung there, scrabbling for a foothold on a small ledge running along the outside of the ship below the portholes.

“There it is,” Huck said. “Listen.”

It started as a low humming that vibrated the ship. Moments later the

spores began churning, air rising up through them. The ship lurched—nearly shaking Tress free. Orders above led to unfurled sails.

Tress’s vine ladder slipped away, sinking into the suddenly fluid ocean.

She glanced at the Oot’s Dream as it listed to one side, dragged down by the many vines that wrapped it. The entire thing bobbed, then capsized, before finally sinking entirely.

Vines mushroomed up around the vanishing wreck as men screamed, giving their water to the ocean, and the flock of gulls scattered. Tress’s

current ship sailed past the wreck, but the Oot’s Dream was gone before they arrived. Just three lonely crewmembers remained. Two on pieces of

wreckage, one in a small lifeboat. All three wore scarves over their mouths, their eyes squeezed shut.

Two shots sounded from the deck, killing the two on the wreckage. For some reason, the Crow’s Song left the man in the lifeboat alive. The sole remnant of the smuggler crew. An…ignoble end to Tress’s first voyage.

She clung to the hull of the Crow’s Song. Her fingers began to burn, her

arms to ache. But there were no handholds above—plus, the side of the deck and gunwale extended out there. She doubted she had the strength or skill to get up over that, if she could even reach it.

So she hung on. Tight as she could, as the ship rocked and swayed. Faces periodically appeared above, glancing down to see if she was still there.

Then they’d call out to their fellows to relay her status.

Still there.

Still there.

“Go,” she whispered to Huck. “You’re a rat. You can climb that.” “Doubt it,” he said.

“You could try.”

“That’s a fact. I could.”

Together they clung there. For what seemed like an eternity. Finally she started to slip. Her aching muscles screamed, and—

A rope slapped the wood next to her. She stared at it, numb, wondering if she had the strength to climb it. Instead she snatched it, hung on, and tucked her head against her arm.

Blessedly, the rope began to move, pulled up by several of the sailors

above. When she was high enough, an enormous man with his black hair in dreadlocks reached down and grabbed her under her arms, then dumped her onto the deck. The last spores on her clothing died as the silver in this ship’s deck killed them.

“Captain Crow said we could pull you up if you lasted fifteen minutes,”

another sailor said, a shorter woman. “Can’t believe you did. You’re a strong one.”

Tress coughed, lying on the deck, her exhausted arms pulled against her. Fifteen minutes? That had been only fifteen minutes? It had felt like hours.

“Not strong,” Tress said, hoarse. “Just stubborn.” “That’s even better,” the sailor said.

Huck wisely kept quiet, though he snapped his teeth at a sailor who tried to grab him.

“What are you?” Tress said to the sailors. “King’s men? Privateers?”

“Neither,” said another of the sailors. “We’ll put up the king’s colors soon, but that’s a lie. It’s our pretty face. Doug’s sewing us a proper flag so it will be ready for next time. Black on red.”

Black on red? It was pirates after all. Was that an upgrade or a downgrade from being among smugglers? And why had they sunk that other ship, never asking for loot?

A stout figure pushed through the sailors. Captain Crow—judging by the plume in her hat—had harsh lines for a face, with tan skin and a scowl deep as the ocean. Crow was…well, I’ve known a few people like her. She

seemed too harsh. Too full of anger. She was like the first draft of a human being, before softening effects like humor and mercy had been added.

“Throw her overboard,” the captain said.

“But you said we could haul her up!” said the short woman. “That I did, and that you did. Now toss her.”

No one moved to obey.

“Look at how scrawny she is,” the captain snapped. “An inspector? I’ve known a few of those—they pick the job for its ease. She’ll have never

worked a day in her life, and there’s no place for anyone without a use on the


The pirates still appeared reluctant. Why would they care about her? But their hesitance was an opportunity. So Tress—dizzy with exhaustion—pulled herself across the deck and struggled to her knees. She’d spotted a bucket

and brush here, and she methodically—as fast as she could make her aching arms work—took out the brush and started scrubbing the deck.

Captain Crow eyed her. The only sounds were the seething spores and the brush scraping back and forth.

At last, the captain pulled a canteen from her belt and took a long drink. It did look like a nice canteen. With leather up the outsides that had feather patterns imprinted on it. Even when exhausted, Tress appreciated a good drinking vessel.

Crow stalked off—and gave no further orders to deal with Tress. The pirates retreated to their posts, and no one tossed her.

She kept working anyway. Scrubbing as Huck whispered encouragement in her ear. She worked well into the night, until—numb with fatigue—she finally curled up in one corner of the deck and fell asleep.

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