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Chapter no 22 – The Idiot

Tress of the Emerald Sea

THE NEXT DAY, CAPTAIN CROW woke Tress with a shout. That should have been Tress’s first clue that something was odd, as it didn’t involve kicking. Crow passed up opportunities to cause physical pain about as often as banks provide free samples. Instead Crow led Tress through the middle deck to a room with a very large padlock on the door. The type you use to make a statement.

“You really aren’t afraid of spores, girl?” Crow said as she counted over the keys on her keyring.

“I said that I am afraid, Captain. It’s just that lately, everything and

everyone seems inclined to try to kill me. So I guess spores are simply one more, no more notable than the others.”

“No more notable?” Crow said, selecting the correct key. “Well, that’s an encouraging attitude. Encouraging indeed, my red-coated sprouter.”

The click of the key in the lock had an ominous tone. The sound of a trap being sprung. Crow removed the key from her ring and handed it to Tress. “This will be yours now, girl.”

Tress took it, but had not missed that the ring held a second key identical to this one. Crow pushed through the door, and Tress glanced down the hall

to where several Dougs were watching and whispering to one another. When the door opened, they stepped backward.

Bracing herself, Tress followed Crow into the room. It did not seem so fearsome as to warrant such a reaction from the Dougs. The small chamber, longer than it was wide, had a single porthole at the end looking out at the

sea. Spores churned up from the ship’s passing, occasionally rising to cover the window, briefly plunging the room into darkness.

It had a bunk on one end that was pure luxury to Tress, with a blanket, a

mattress, and a pillow. Sure, the mattress looked lumpy, the pillow was small, and the blanket likely hadn’t been washed since the invention of

vowels. But when you’ve been sleeping on the deck, you learn to grade on a curve.

Along the wall opposite the bunk was a small worktable. Above it, a set of drawers was built into the wall. The only other item of note was the large mirror hanging above the table, giving the room an open feeling—and revealing to Tress exactly how much of a mess her hair was. It evoked the impression of an eldritch horror escaping from its long slumber to stretch tentacles in all directions, disintegrating reality, seeking the lives of virgins, and demanding a sacrifice of a hundred bottles of expensive conditioner.

Crow stepped over to a door nestled in the corner, near the head of the bunk. She pulled that open and gestured inside, revealing a stall—barely tall enough to stand up in, with a floor that lowered two feet down into a basin. With a drain? And a spigot high on the wall?

bath? If the bunk was luxury, the idea of a bath was paradise.

“We keep that spigot hooked to a barrel filled with water,” Crow said.

“Let us know when you want it refilled. Weev always needed a lot of it for his experiments.”

“…Experiments?”

“With spores,” Crow said, sighing. “You’ll have to keep up, girl, if you’re going to train as our sprouter. Any time you work with spores, do it in this

chamber unless you get specific permission from me. I’d even prefer you fill the zephyr spore charges for the cannons in here.”

“I understand,” Tress said.

“Be sure you do,” Crow said. “Your entire chamber is reinforced with aluminum, but there’s a silver lining beyond in case something breaks

through. Despite all those protections, you could rip my ship apart if you’re careless.”

Tress nodded.

“You have no idea, do you?” Crow said. “What you’re doing? What will be expected of you? You have no clue how dangerous your job will be. Do you really want to go through with this?”

“Do I get to sleep in that bed?” “Yes.”

“Then I’m in.”

Crow smiled. It would have been less unnatural to see those shining teeth and curling lips on an actual crow. “I’ll send Ulaam to brief you. But before you grow too fond of your new accommodations, be sure to have a look at the floor.”

The captain sauntered off, taking a swig from her canteen. Tress sat on the mattress, trying to discern what the captain had meant by that last comment. The floor looked normal. Wooden planks, though a little dusty, since it didn’t appear that anyone had cleaned the room since Weev’s death.

As she considered it, that troubled her. Why hadn’t anyone claimed this room? A bed, a mirror, and running water? The moment Weev died, the

sailors should have been fighting for a chance to… Then it struck her. There was no silver in the floor.

She would have seen it sooner, if she’d been more experienced with ship life. Except for one little section near the cannon, all decks—save the hold— of the Crow’s Song were inset with silver. This was a fine, expensive merchant vessel (they could even afford some aluminum, which wasn’t as

costly at this point as it had once been, but still pricey), and it was built to keep its occupants comfortable and—most importantly—safe.

Except in here. Where the sprouter needed to work with spores. Tress glanced at the porthole, and the verdant spores rolling past. Each time the

ship surged in the sea and the room plunged into darkness, her heart sped up a little.

Moons. No wonder no one else had wanted the room. You’d have to be insane to sleep in here.

Huck found her snoring softly a short time later. One shouldn’t blame her.

Sleeping on the deck hadn’t really involved much sleeping.

“Tress?” Huck whispered. “What’s this? Your own room?”

She sat up groggily. “Yup. It’s a deathtrap, but a comfortable one. Where have you been?”

“They got a cat, Tress,” Huck grumbled, eyeing the door. “An actual cat. This is an insult of the gravest kind. As in the kind that leads to my grave…”

“Stick close to me,” Tress said. “I’ll try to keep you away from it.”

Huck shivered visibly. “I hate cats,” he whispered. “Plus, how stupid do you have to be to get a cat because of one rat? Like, what is going to eat more of your food? Me, or the thing ten times my weight? Idiot humans. Er. Other humans. Not named Tress.”

“I’m my own brand of idiot, Huck,” she said. “Considering I’m still on this ship.”

With a sigh, she heaved herself off the bed and went above to fetch her

sack of cups. She returned to the room, where she began arranging the cups on her worktable, thinking of the stories Charlie had told her when she’d

shown him each one.

She felt like a traitor. Staying and helping people she barely knew? Instead of hunting for a way to save him? She whispered prayers to the moons as she arranged the cups, and promised herself that she would find a way. If she could help this crew, and they weren’t willing to take her to the Midnight Sea in return, maybe they could still help her in some other way? Like gathering money for the ransom?

That made her feel sick. She didn’t want to rob people to save Charlie. In that moment, holding the cup with the butterfly, she acknowledged

something. She could never pay a ransom—and she wouldn’t resort to piracy to do it. She’d have to find some other way to save Charlie.

But how? What could she do?

As she was contemplating this, fighting to keep her tears in check, a peppy voice spoke from the doorway.

“Need a hand? Hmmmmm?”

“You didn’t literally bring me a hand, did you, Ulaam?” Tress asked. Ulaam furtively tucked one arm behind his back. “Would I be so crass,

Miss Tress?”

“…Yes? It’s why I asked?”

The ashen-skinned man (person? thing?) grinned and stepped into the room. Behind him, I peeked in—but as Tress didn’t have any marmosets, I wasn’t interested at the moment.

“You know about all of this, Doctor?” Tress said, waving to the small room with the basin and the spigot. “The captain said it was for

experiments.”

“Yes, Weev loved the experiment of ‘How can I con everyone else into letting me take warm baths?’ They keep the water barrel out in the sun; while I doubt your washing will be toasty, you also won’t be freezing any bits off.” He glanced at her. “If you do, be sure to save them for me, hmmmm?”

“So it is a bath,” Tress said.

“Well, Weev did need a room where he could manipulate spores—and

sometimes activate them—without posing too much danger to the crew. That required a ceramic basin that would hold water. He merely extrapolated. He was a cunning fellow. Except that part at the end.” Ulaam shook his head.

“What a waste of a corpse.”

“Captain says I’ll need to take on some of Weev’s duties if I’m going to stay on the ship. Was there more than the work with the zephyr spores?”

“You’ll want to practice with roseite, for sealing breaches in

emergencies,” Ulaam said. “And in growing verdant without breaking anything, as the vines can be emergency food. Yes, they are edible. I suppose anything is, if you’re optimistic enough!”

“I’m optimistic!” I said, looking in again. “I once ate an entire rock. Had to fight off its family first though.” I growled and wandered away.

Tress mostly missed what I said, focused as she was on my ailments. “Do you know what his…issue is, Doctor?” she asked.

“Hoid has too many issues to count,” Ulaam said, poking through the drawers above her table. “I wouldn’t trouble yourself with his situation. He’s nearly as deft at untying knots as he is at creating them.”

She nodded and eyed her bunk. When Ulaam left, could she take another nap? Or would she be reprimanded for loafing?

“Yes…” Ulaam said absently, “Hoid should have known better than to tangle with the Sorceress. In fact, he probably did know better. Frightening, how infrequently he lets that influence what he actually decides to do.”

Tress felt a start that drove away thoughts of sleep. “The Sorceress?”

“Hmmmm? Yes, what did you think happened to him? He puts on a brave front, pretending to be just an ordinary idiot, but I assure you that he’s instead the extraordinary kind. Remarkable really. I always say, when trouble troubles you, keep a stiff’s upper lip! Or several.”

“There’s someone on this ship,” Tress said, choosing her words carefully, “who knows the way to the Sorceress? Who has been there before, and

escaped alive?”

“Technically, yes,” Ulaam said. “But I haven’t the faintest idea how Hoid did it—I found him like this after I arrived on the planet in response to his letter.”

“On the…planet?” she asked. “Like, you’re from the stars?” She’d heard stories of visitors from the stars, but had thought them fancies. Even if there did seem to be more and more of them these days, talked of among sailors.

“Hmm?” Ulaam said. “Oh, yes. Not from a star really, but a planet that orbits one. Regardless, I doubt you’ll be able to get anything useful out of Hoid with that curse in place.”

She put thoughts of such distant locations—and the cups they must have

—out of her mind for now. There…there was someone here who could help her find Charlie! Hoid could be her solution! She felt an enormous sense of relief, then a sudden strike of panic. If she had left the ship, she would never have known.

She sat down with a dazed expression, realizing that I was in fact the key she needed. She formed a real plan at last; one she could maybe accomplish. Find out from me how to reach the Sorceress, and perhaps learn how to deal with her.

Still a daunting prospect. But it was better than what she’d had before.

And as she sat there, she considered that perhaps this crew—and the kindly people on it, trapped in their own kind of prison—were exactly what she needed in order to save Charlie.

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