TRESS AWOKE THE NEXT DAY with a face full of hair. She felt stiff, like a washrag that was long overdue for a turn in the laundry. She unfolded herself from the deck, trying to tie back her hair, and vaguely
remembered being kicked during the night and told to move so she wouldn’t be underfoot. She’d done it, but had been kicked awake again for the same reason on two separate occasions. There didn’t appear to be any place on the deck where she wouldn’t be underfoot.
Her next thought wasn’t for food. It wasn’t for something to drink, or other biological needs.
It was for Charlie.
Never had Tress felt so naive. She’d thought she could simply leave her home and rescue someone? Even though she’d never set foot on a ship before? She felt a fool. Worse, she felt pain for Charlie, who must be
somewhere frightened, trapped and alone. His agony was her agony.
It might seem that the person who can feel for others is doomed in life. Isn’t one person’s pain enough? Why must a person like Tress feel for two, or more? Yet I’ve found that the people who are the happiest are the ones who learn best how to feel. It takes practice, you know. Effort. And those
who (late in life) have been feeling for two, three, or a thousand different people…well, turns out they’ve had a leg up on everyone else all along.
Empathy is an emotional loss leader. It pays for itself eventually.
That wasn’t of much comfort at the time for Tress, miserable on the deck, realizing that—before she could even think of helping Charlie—she was going to have to find a way to save herself. She huddled against the gunwale, and heard someone belowdecks yelling that “first watch” could come to mess.
Huck whispered something to her and scrambled off to investigate. Tress’s grumbling stomach reminded her that the last thing she’d had to eat or drink had been the water that made her see pigeons. So, aching, she climbed to her feet. “Mess” meant food on a ship, right? Maybe they wouldn’t notice if
A lanky figure in an unbuttoned military coat stepped in front of her. Bald, with scruff on his chin, the fellow wore a sword at his side and had two pistols tucked into his belt. Laggart, the cannonmaster, was the ship’s first officer. He had wiry muscles, and that long neck and bald head hinted he might have a buzzard somewhere in his family tree.
He looked Tress up and down. “First watch can eat,” Laggart said. “Those are the men and women getting ready to take over sailing for the day. Are you going to be working the sails or the rigging today, honey-hair?”
“…No,” Tress whispered.
“Second shift will eat next,” Laggart said. “They worked all night, and can eat as soon as their replacements arrive.”
“And…what watch am I?” Tress asked softly.
“Captain says you’re third watch,” Laggart said, then smiled as he left. Eventually second watch was called, and the sailors exchanged places.
Tress waited, groggy and stiff. And she waited. And waited. One might say she was quite the waitress that morning.
Third watch was never called. Tress suspected she was the only one
“assigned” to it. So she did her best to ignore her stomach, instead observing the pirates at work. Maybe if she learned their tasks, she’d be able to
anticipate how to keep out of their way.
She spent the morning so occupied, and fortunately most of them didn’t
seem bothered by her. They weren’t a jovial crew, but they were apparently a dedicated one. A few times, Tress caught Captain Crow watching her from
the side while drinking from her canteen. Her glare made Tress feel like a stubborn spot on a window.
Best to put herself to work. She rummaged in her sack, checking on her
cups, then took out her hairbrush. After beating her hair into submission and locking it away in a braid, she picked up her bucket and floor brush—then realized she didn’t have any more water or soap.
She stood there looking foolish before someone approached with a fresh bucket for her. She thanked him, then—with a start—realized she recognized him. It was Hoid, cabin boy of the Whistlebow. There was no mistaking his gangly figure and his pure white head of hair. Though everyone called him
“boy,” he appeared to be in his thirties and evidently of sound mind—until he opened his mouth.
“My gums sure do like a lickin’!” he said to her, then walked away with a bowlegged gait that made him wobble like a drunk penguin.
Yes, that’s me.
No, I don’t want to talk about it.
As I wandered off to go stuff shoelaces up my nose, Tress moved up to the quarterdeck, as it had less traffic. Here she set to work again. Turned out, Tress was quite good at scrubbing decks. It was like scrubbing windows,
except you didn’t need to be able to see through them at the end. In fact it was too easy, perhaps demeaning of her washing talents. Like hiring a
world-class surgeon to cut the crust off your sandwich.
During her breaks, she watched the crew. She was able to pick out other faces that—like Hoid—she knew, if only vaguely. Often ships passing the Rock would unload a few crewmembers. These would get a pass from the inspector and would be hired on by another visiting vessel.
This didn’t seem to be a notably rough lot—it was a mixed crew, with a variety of ethnicities and nearly as many women as men. That wasn’t uncommon in the spore seas. You took whoever was willing. Sexism interfered with profits.
How had such a normal crew ended up as pirates? And not merely ordinary pirates, bloodthirsty ones who would sink a ship without asking for plunder?
They didn’t even cover up the name of their vessel, Tress thought. And they left one sailor alive. Something was strange about this ship.
“I’ve been wanting to gargle my shirts!” I said, walking past. I pointed at her with both hands and winked. “But I ate them last week.”
Tress cocked her head, watching me wander away. As she did, Huck scampered across the deck and up onto her shoulder.
“What is wrong with that guy?” the rat asked softly.
“I’m not entirely certain,” Tress whispered. “I’ve met him before though.
He’s nice. If…weird.”
“People who collect stamps are weird, Tress. That man is a few eggs short of a dozen—and he doesn’t realize the other ten he collected are actually rocks.”
All right, so here’s the thing. I’d had an encounter—well, more a collision
—with the Sorceress a few years before. Let’s just say she had something I needed, but liberating it from her proved more difficult than I’d assumed. The end result? The Sorceress gave me one of her famous curses. Look,
even the most graceful dancer trips once in a while.
My curse took away my sense of taste and, well, my other four senses as well.
“What did you find out?” Tress asked the rat.
“I snatched some food,” Huck said, “but could only get rat-sized portions.
Sorry. Also, they really are sewing a pirate flag. I’d guess they’re new to this. Maybe that’s why they accidentally sank the other ship.”
“No,” Tress whispered, returning to her scrubbing. “They left one sailor alive on purpose, and didn’t cover their ship’s name. They didn’t sink that ship because of inexperience…”
“…they did it to declare themselves,” Huck agreed. “The pirate version of sending out a crier to announce a sale at the cobbler’s shop. Moonshadows. They killed almost thirty people.”
Tress looked up across the crew working at their posts. Earlier, she’d read intent and focus in their movements. Now she saw something else. A kind of acute desire to lose themselves in work. Perhaps to avoid having to think
about what had happened the day before.
Something is very wrong on this ship, she thought again.
Unfortunately, before she could think more on that, other matters—of a more scatological nature—demanded her attention.