Chapter no 18 – The Corpse

Tress of the Emerald Sea

TRESS FOUND HERSELF lying on the deck, the goggles blown free of her face. What was that sound? Screams of pain?

No. Laughter.

Ann was laughing uproariously. Tress immediately put her hand up to her cheek. It was sore, but fortuitously still attached to her face. She’d gotten a mote or two of zephyr spores under the rim of her goggles, where they had touched a bead of sweat. Mercifully, that tiny amount of spores didn’t pack enough of a punch to kill her.

“It isn’t funny,” Tress said, sitting up. (She was right. It was hilarious.)

“Come on, spore girl,” Ann said, helping Tress up by the arm. “Let’s have the surgeon look you over.” She shouted toward the Doug who had made Tress do this work, and told him to clean up. Then Ann helped the disoriented Tress down to the middle deck.

“You really work with that stuff?” Tress asked Ann. “As assistant cannonmaster?”

“Well, when they let me,” Ann said. “Why don’t the cannons explode?”

“They do. That’s what makes the cannonballs shoot out.”

Tress determined to give that some thought later, as it didn’t make sense yet. Washing windows, it should be noted, is not an occupation that offers a thorough education in ballistics.

Over from the mess, near the prow, was a door that had been closed when Tress had investigated earlier. Now Ann pushed it open and steered Tress inside. There she found a man dressed in a sharp suit of a cut she’d never before seen. It was somehow less ostentatious but more elegant than the uniforms the duke and Charlie had worn. Pure black, with pressed lines and no buttons on the front.

He had jet-black hair, and features that looked too sharp to be real. Like he was a painting, or a drawing. His skin was an ashen grey, his eyes bloodred. If the underworld had legal counsel, it would have been this man.

Tress should have been frightened of him, but instead she was awed. What was a creature like this doing on a pirate ship? Surely this was a divine being from beyond space, time, and reality.

In a way, Tress was correct.

And no, he still hasn’t given me my suit back.

“My!” Dr. Ulaam said with a refined but excitable voice. “What have you brought me, Ann? Fresh meat?”

“She was loading the zephyr pouches,” Ann explained, leading Tress to a seat at the side of the small chamber, “and some got underneath her goggles.”

“Poor child,” Ulaam said. “New to the ship, hmmmm? You have very nice eyes.”

“If he asks to buy them,” Ann whispered, “haggle. You can usually get double his first offer.”

“My eyes?” Tress said, her voice rising. “He wants to take my eyes?” “After you are dead, naturally,” Ulaam said. This room was filled with

cabinets and drawers. He unlatched one and took out a small jar of salve, then turned toward her. “Unless you’d rather do it now? I have several fine replacements I could offer. No? What about just one?”

“What…what are you?” Tress asked. “He’s our zombie,” Ann said.

“Such a crude term,” Ulaam replied. “And not terribly accurate, as I’ve told you.”

“You ain’t got a heartbeat,” Ann said. “And your skin is cold as a wet fish.”

“Both adaptations reduce my required caloric intake,” Ulaam said. “My method is efficient. I think everyone will be going around without a heart, once I solve the problem of how lacking one kills humans.” He offered Tress the salve. “Put this on your skin, child, and it will help with the pain.”

Tress accepted it, and timidly put a dab on her finger.

“She took it easily,” Ulaam said. “Is she brave or stupid?” “We haven’t figured out yet,” Ann said.

“I…gather this must be some kind of hazing,” Tress said, “from the way Ann keeps grinning. So I might as well get it over with. If any of you wanted me dead, I’m as good as tossed overboard anyway.”

“Ooo,” Ulaam said. “I like her. I’m going to have to keep an eye on you, girl. Here, hold this.”

He dropped something into her other hand. It was a human eye.

She squealed and dropped it, though Ulaam caught it with a quick snatch. “Be careful! It’s one of my favorites. Observe the deep blue coloring. It

would look wonderful exchanged for your left eye—you’d be heterochromatic blue and green. Quite striking.”

“I… No thank you?”

“Ah well,” Ulaam said, putting the eye away. “Perhaps another time. Use the salve; there is no prank involved. I’m probably the least dangerous thing on this ship.”

“You literally eat people, Ulaam,” Ann said.

“Dead ones. My! How dangerous! Like the mighty worm of the earth or the bacteria of decomposition. They are my colleagues.”

Hesitant, Tress touched the salve to her cheek. The pain vanished immediately. Startled by the efficacy, she rubbed it around her cheek. When Ulaam held up a hand mirror, her skin wasn’t even red, and there was no

sign of a wound.

“There’s a reason we keep ’im around,” Ann said. “Even if he’s weird as a two-headed snake.”

“As the only true source of modern medicine in this backwater land,” he said, “I find your vivid simile inaccurate; incomplete axial bifurcation is far

more likely in reptiles than other animals, so if you wish to call me odd, pick a two-headed bird or a mammal for full effect.”

Both women stared at him, trying to parse that sentence.

“I’ve eaten several two-headed snakes,” Ulaam noted. “And mimicked their forms. So rather than being as odd as one, I’ve literally been one. Alas, I couldn’t divide my consciousness and think twice as quickly. Wouldn’t that have been fun?” He took the salve back from Tress. “Anyway, try to avoid blowing yourself up in the future, hmmmm? It mangles the corpse and gives it a metallic taste.”

If you’re wondering, I have it on good authority that Ulaam was enjoying himself during my regrettable period of indisposition. He made no move to break my curse, and instead wrote some extremely embarrassing accounts of my actions and sent them to several good friends of ours.

Granted, the rules of the curse prevented me from giving any direct

explanations of how to break it. But I really expected more from him. As it stands, after coming to find me and then discovering my…ailment, he’d just taken up residence on the ship. He’d always fancied becoming an explorer. “For the sense of adventure, hmmmm?” he’d said.

The crew hadn’t known what to make of him at first. Captain Crow shot him a few times, an experience he reports as being “invigorating.” Members of his species are virtually impossible to kill. Other than the eating corpses part, they can be handy to have around—as the crew soon discovered.

From then on, they simply dealt with him. Rather like a rash that occasionally rescues one from life-threatening wounds. He didn’t ask for payment aside from the occasional otherwise-useless corpse. It’s gruesome, yes, but you’ll find you’re able to put up with quite a bit of eccentricity in a person who can literally work miracles on your behalf.

Tress—understandably left numb by her first interaction with the ship’s surgeon—was deposited on the deck near her bucket and brush. Ann went off to do some other work, so Tress—prodding at her completely healed

cheek—decided to go back to scrubbing.

She hadn’t made much progress before Huck came scampering up. “Something’s happening.”

“What?” Tress asked. “An attack?”

“No, no. See, you sent me away, so I figured I’d go sneak some food. I’d already eaten, but you never can have too much, right? I was down in the hold where—I’ll have you know—there’s nothing really accessible without nibbling through sacks. And people hate when we nibble through sacks. If

they hate it so much, why not leave them untied for us? Then no sacks are harmed, you see, and—”

“What did you want to tell me, Huck?” Tress asked. “What’s happening?” “Right, I was getting to that. Laggart was down there looking through the

storage. And Tress, he fetched a couple of cannonballs. I saw him sneak them into his pack.”

Interesting. It was time to test her theory.

She positioned herself to scrub near the forward cannon station. Not too close, but close enough to watch. Then she became a waitress again for a short while, watching for Laggart.

It didn’t take long.

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