THE BLUE SPORES FASCINATED Tress. They were the first spores from another moon, another sea, that she’d seen up close. They were beautiful, almost crystalline. The fact that they could likely kill her with ease only made them more captivating. Like an expertly forged sword crafted
with love, dedication, and sweat by a smith so that someday you could do the most ugly things possible in the most beautiful of ways.
She sent Huck away with a quiet word, to not put him in danger. Then she whispered a prayer to the moons and thought of Charlie. Getting the crew to trust her was the best way to further her goal of reaching him. Doing the
work they didn’t want to do themselves was bound to lead her toward opportunities. Even washing windows had led her to opportunities. The most important one being when she met Charlie in the first place.
All that in mind—and with the mask over her mouth and the goggles over her eyes—she felt only slightly terrified as she lowered the small keg into the larger barrel. There were hooks on the side where she could affix it, and the spigot at the bottom of the keg—like for pouring beer—let the spores drain out at a careful rate. Her hand still shook as she held the funnel and filled up the first pouch with the radiant blue spores.
She tied it and set it carefully on the bottom of the barrel near the other pouches. She fell into a rhythm, filling them, taking care not to spill a single spore. It was tense work, far worse for thinking than cleaning the deck. But Tress—being Tress—couldn’t avoid thoughts entirely.
She wondered exactly what the spores did that made the cannon fire. She wondered if there were other types of spores being carried in the ship’s
armory—and who managed them, if the crew’s sprouter was dead.
Also, she wondered why the large barrel had a false bottom.
She recognized it easily. After all, she’d spent several weeks becoming an expert on barrel contraptions and how to hide things in them. On one of the devices she’d prepared for leaving the Rock, they’d installed a secret latch hidden right about…there.
She found it near the barrel’s banding. A little piece of metal she could wiggle. When she moved it, a hole—little larger than a fist—opened in the bottom of the barrel. A few pouches of spores dropped in, and her breath
caught. When she reached in to pull them out, her fingers brushed something else.
A cannonball. Hidden in the cavity beneath the barrel’s false bottom.
There was room for three or four of them inside.
She quickly pulled the pouches out and reset the device. As she returned to her work, her hands trembled even more. Her mind raced so fast, it would soon need a new set of tires.
She could see it. She knew what had happened.
The cannonmaster was in charge of loading, aiming, and firing the
weapon. He’d be given a rack of cannonballs, but who would be watching to see if he grabbed one from this secret compartment instead? Probably no one.
She bet those hidden cannonballs wouldn’t pass Fort’s inspection—they wouldn’t be rigged to incapacitate the target with vines. Laggart, the
cannonmaster, had deliberately sunk that other ship.
But why? The entire situation didn’t make sense for a multitude of reasons. It wasn’t just the lack of plunder. Why bother hiding the fact that they were going to sink the ship? Why the subterfuge?
It only made sense if…
“So, zephyr spore duty,” a voice said behind Tress. “I wondered who the Dougs would force to do it, now that Weev is dead.”
Tress turned to see the lanky, sharp-nosed woman with the short hair who had been talking to Fort earlier. Ann, the ship’s carpenter.
Every ship needs a good carpenter. Oh, a sprouter can patch up a hull with a quick burst of spores—but silver erodes even fully hardened roseite over time. Doesn’t take a man long at sea to start contemplating how thin the barrier is between him and certain death. Just a plank. If you ever want to have a good face-to-face with your mortality, you’ll find the opportunity on the deck of a ship at night, staring at the endless darkness beyond you—
when you realize the darkness beneath is somehow even more heavy, more vast, and more terrifying.
That’s when you realize that having a good carpenter on board is worth paying them a double share of wages. In fact, it’s quite the steal.
“I don’t mind the duty,” Tress said, making another pouch. “I’d do it again if they asked.” Inwardly, she was uneasy with how Ann walked next to the
cannon, trailing her fingers on the metal. She’d been talking to Fort about the cannonballs. What side was she on? How many sides were there? What had Tress gotten herself into?
Sadly, she didn’t know the half of it yet.
“Don’t say things like that, Tress,” Ann said. “Sailors don’t volunteer for duty. It’s downright untraditional.”
“You know my name?” Tress said.
“Things get around on a ship,” Ann replied. “I’m Ann. Ship’s carpenter.
Assistant to Laggart? Tress licked her lips, nervous—then stopped. Licking anything was not a good idea when handling spores. She made another pouch.
Had Ann seen her find the hidden chamber?
“What do you think?” Ann said, settling on a box nearby, a hand on one of her pistols as if taking comfort in it. “You’re a pirate now, Tress. An unexpected sideways turn in life.”
“Better than an unexpected turn downward,” Tress said. “Aye,” Ann said. “That it is.”
Tress wanted to ask more questions, but it felt like too much of an imposition. These people had spared her. Who was she to be making demands of them? So instead she said, “You all seem to be adjusting well to being pirates.”
“Adjusting well? What kinda talk is that?” Ann leaned forward. “You want to know why, don’t you? How we ended up this way?”
“I…yes, Miss Ann. I do.” “Why not ask?”
“I didn’t want to be impolite.” “Impolite? To pirates?”
“I don’t mind talkin’ about it,” Ann said, staring out over the sea. Before them the ship’s prow cut a path through the spores. “The cap’n spun it well. We could either end up fighting in the king’s coming war, or we could strike out on our own, throwing away all the laws about writs and tariffs. Plus, the cap’n said we’d be doing a noble and important duty.”
“…Important?” Tress asked. “A vital part of the economy.” “…Um, I see.”
“Actually, no,” Tress admitted.
“Then why not say so, girl?” Ann said, shaking her head. “Anyway, our job is important. You know how rich folk are—they make all this money off people sailing around, selling and buying for them. Then what’re they gonna do with the money? Lock it away. What good is locked away money? Ain’t nobody going to enjoy it if it’s trapped in a vault with Granna’s wedding ring.
“So we’ve gotta take some. Inject it back into the economy, as a stimulus. To help local merchants, the small folk who are just tryin’ to live. We do an important service.”
“Damn right.” Ann sat back, shifting her hand on her pistol. “Least, that’s what it was supposed to be like. We weren’t supposed to be deadrunners. I guess we all knew the risk. Didn’t expect to fail so hard on our first act of piracy though.”
Tress cocked her head, barely resisting the urge to scratch at the place
where the goggles met her face. Despite the silver on the deck, spores on her fingers could live long enough to do damage.
“I’m…confused,” Tress said. “Deadrunner?”
“You don’t know?” Ann said. “What kind of sailor are you?”
“The kind that…doesn’t know what a deadrunner is?” She felt profoundly annoyed at being berated for withholding questions, then being mocked
when she didn’t.
“There are two varieties of pirates, Tress,” Ann explained. “There’s the ordinary kind, then there’s the deadrunners. Regular pirates rob, but don’t kill unless they’re fired upon. You sail well enough to catch the ship you’re chasing, and they surrender their ransom price. Then they sail away with their lives, while you sail away richer.
“That’s how it’s supposed to work. It becomes a contest, see? A race, with a little extortion to keep it interestin’. The king’s marshals, they keep records. So long as you let folks go, so long as you don’t murder crews…
well, if you get caught, they lock you up. But they don’t hang you.” “That sounds remarkably civilized,” Tress said.
Ann shrugged. “Civilization exists because everyone wants to keep their innards in’r innards. You don’t punch a fellow when you first meet him, ’cuz you don’t wanna get punched each time you meet someone. The king knows this. So long as he gives pirates a reason not to go all the way, they’ll hedge. “Besides, who wouldn’t rather have a chase than a battle? The poor sods
on merchant ships don’t want to lose their lives over their master’s money. The masters don’t want their ships being scuttled or stolen. And you don’t last long as a pirate if’n you’ve gotta wipe the deck with your blood every haul. Except, you know, if you kill someone by accident.”
“Or an entire ship’s worth of people,” Tress said.
Ann nodded. “Then you become a deadrunner. No mercy for you if caught. Even other pirates will hate you. Nobody will take crew from a
deadrunner ship. You’re left to make your way, lonely as the single bean in a poor man’s soup.”
By the moons, it made sense. Tress revised her opinion of Ann. That forlorn expression, that regret…it meant whatever conspiracy there had been to sink the smuggler ship, Ann hadn’t been part of it.
Laggart had been though. And likely the captain. They’d wanted to become deadrunners. Hence the hidden cannonballs, the sinking of the Oot’s Dream. Why else would the captain leave one of the sailors alive to spread the word?
Tress was so absorbed by these thoughts that she forgot herself and
absently scratched at the itch by her goggles. She froze as she was doing it.
Well, at least—
That was when Tress’s face exploded.