Chapter no 23 – The Assistant Cannonmaster

Tress of the Emerald Sea

“THERE ARE TWELVE SEAS,” Ann explained as she sat on the railing of the ship, knocking her heels rhythmically on the wood. “And therefore, twelve kinds of spores. How could you not know that?”

“I lived all my life in a little mining town,” Tress explained. “Yes, we always talked about there being twelve seas and twelve moons. But I’ve

learned so much in the last few days, I figured I should confirm things like that.”

She’s right to ask, Ann, Fort said, holding up his sign. There are, after all, thirteen kinds of spores.

“No there ain’t,” Ann said. “Don’t you be spreading that lie.”

It’s not a lie, he wrote. It’s a legend. Different thing entirely.

“Nonsense is the proper term,” Ann said. “People can’t even make up their minds on what color ‘bone spores’ are supposed to be. White or black? Or both? Listen, Tress. There are twelve kinds of spores.”

Tress nodded. They were at the prow of the ship, on the upper deck, near the forward cannon. Tress hadn’t been surprised to find Ann here—the lanky carpenter often hung around the cannon, shooting it glances like a teenager with a crush. However, Tress had been surprised to see Fort sitting on deck

this morning, darning socks. A part of her had believed him a permanent fixture of his office.

For her part, Tress was carefully counting the pouches of zephyr spores in the gunnery barrel. She’d asked Laggart, and he’d said they should maintain forty on hand. She figured that counting them gave her a good excuse to move them out of the barrel into an aluminum box, where they’d be safe from the ship’s silver.

“Twelve seas,” Tress said. “How many have you seen, Ann?”

“Three,” she said proudly. “The Emerald Sea, the Sapphire Sea, and the Rose Sea.”

Impressive, Fort wrote. “I know, isn’t it?”

I’ve been to ten.

“What?” Ann sat up straight. “Liar.”

Why would I lie?

“You’re literally a pirate,” Ann said. “Everyone knows you can’t trust those types.”

Fort rolled his eyes expressively, then turned back to his work on his socks. Tress hesitated, looking at her box of pouches. Had that been the twenty-second or twenty-third she’d just counted? With a soft groan, she piled them all back into the barrel and started again.

“Which two?” Ann asked, tapping Fort to make him look up. “Which ones haven’t you been to?”

Not hard to guess, Fort wrote. “Midnight and Crimson Seas?” He nodded.

“The Midnight Sea,” Tress said as she counted. “That’s where the Sorceress lives.”

“Yeah,” Ann said. “And the Crimson Sea is the domain of the dragon. But that’s not why people don’t sail them. It’s the spores, Tress. You need to know this stuff, if you’re gonna sprout. Most types of spores are deadly, but two are downright catastrophic. Stay away from crimson spores and midnight spores, all right?”

“All right,” Tress said. “You have to go through the Crimson though to get to the Midnight, right? So I’m unlikely to ever do that.” She frowned. “Why do you have to go through one to get to the other? Can’t you just sail around the Crimson to get to the Midnight?”

“Not unless you can sail through several mountain ranges,” Ann said. “I suppose you could sail all around the world, then come upon the Midnight from behind.”

It’s one of the reasons the Sorceress set up there, Fort

explained. She controls trade through the region—the passage that connects the planet. Only her ships can sail the Midnight.

“Been years,” Ann noted, “since there was any trade though. The king doesn’t want to pay tariffs, and so it’s war instead.”

As if he thinks he can beat her, Fort said, shaking his head. He can’t even get a proper fleet through the Crimson. Too dangerous.

Tress nodded. These seemed like things she probably should have known already. She was playing catch-up, but for a second time she was glad she hadn’t left these people. She realized that only one member of the crew likely had experience with the Sorceress personally—but all of them had information that could help her.

“There are twenty-five pouches here,” she said, finishing. “So I need to make fifteen more.”

“Without blowing off your face this time,” Ann said. “I didn’t blow it off.”

“Technically, I’m sure some pieces of it were removed,” Ann said. “Too bad you got that salve. You’d look badass with a scar or two on your face.”

Tress gave a noncommittal shrug to that. Then, as Ann returned to pestering Fort, Tress quietly undid the latch that opened the false bottom of the barrel and counted. Five hidden cannonballs, each a little larger than her fist.

With Huck acting as lookout, she’d retrieved some ordinary ones from the ship’s hold. No one guarded them. Who would steal them? But now, trying to keep herself from sweating at the subterfuge, she began slipping them from her sack and swapping them for the ones in the barrel’s false bottom.

She was certain she’d be noticed at any moment. But people rarely watch you as much as you think; they’re too busy worrying whether you are

watching them. So Tress was able to, one at a time, replace Laggart’s secret cannonballs with ordinary ones. Then she latched the hidden bottom and replaced the twenty-five zephyr spore pouches.

The swap performed, she pointedly dried her hands and did not poke at her mask. Anyone can blow their face off by accident—I mean, who hasn’t

—but if you do it twice in a row, you look really silly.

Tress cinched closed her sack. She still didn’t know what she’d do with those sabotaged cannonballs. Hide them in her cabin? Drop them off the boat in secret?

“Hey Tress,” Ann said. “When you’re making charges, you think you could maybe whip me up a few extra? So I can practice?”

“Don’t see why not,” Tress said. “Assuming the captain says it’s all right.” “Yeah,” Ann said. “Of course.” Though there was something in her tone,

reminiscent of how you might talk about that project you’ve been planning to finish “tomorrow.” She wandered off, but only after trailing her fingers along the length of the cannon.

Fort had been focused on his work, and had therefore missed the

conversation. While his condition leads to plenty of difficulties, I will say I’ve always envied his ability to—by looking away—completely excise from his life most of the stupid things people say.

Tress settled down on the deck in front of him, catching his attention.

“What’s up with Ann and the cannons?” Tress asked. “I thought she was the ship’s assistant cannonmaster.”

Suppose she still is, Fort wrote. Didn’t ever officially get

removed from the post. She won’t be firing guns anytime soon though.

Tress’s breath caught. “What did she do?” she whispered, leaning in.

Are you whispering? Fort wrote back. “Um…yes.”

That’s cute.

“Ann. Are you going to tell me about her or not?”

What will you trade me for the information?

“Do we have to negotiate every time, Fort?” Tress asked. “Can’t we just chat like friends?”

But the negotiation is the fun part! he wrote. It’s what tells me about you. What you’re willing to give up, what you value. Come on. Doesn’t it excite you to try to find the best deal?

“I…don’t really know.”

What will you tell me to get me to talk about Ann? Information for information. You’re distracting me from repairing these socks, you know. I can’t sew and watch the board at the same time. So you owe me.

“But I don’t know anything interesting to trade.”

Oh? And why are you here? What possessed a nice girl from a small town to steal an inspector’s coat and go out pretending to be a pirate?

She leaned in, speaking softly despite what he’d said before. “My ignorance is that obvious?”

Girl, if you’d been sailing the spore sea for longer than a week before we found you, I’ll eat my own cooking. So why are you out here?

“I’m looking for someone,” she said. “Someone dear to me.”

Ah, Fort wrote. So you’re searching the seas, like Salay. Hoping that at each new port, you’ll at last find the sock that… He deleted that part. Sorry. Board isn’t always good at predicting. You’re hoping to find that PERSON you’ve lost.

Tress glanced across the ship toward the helmswoman, who stood as sturdy as the masts, fixed in her place on the quarterdeck, both hands gripping the ship’s wheel. As usual, her dark eyes were fixated on the horizon with the kind of intense expression people reserved for only the

most important of tasks, like finding the last piece of unopened candy in a bag full of wrappers.

She hunted relentlessly for her father. In the face of Salay’s confident determination, Tress’s own quest seemed laughable.

“It’s…not really the same,” Tress told Fort. “Salay has no idea where she’ll find her father. I know exactly where Charlie is.”

Fort nudged her a moment later. Oh? he’d written. Just need to save up some money to get to him, then?

“It’s worse than that, I’m afraid,” she said. “The Sorceress has him.

Attacked his ship. Took him captive.”

Fort’s shoulders slumped. Oh, he wrote. I’m sorry.

“Yeah. I barely have any idea what I’m doing, Fort. But I have to reach him.” She grimaced. “I said I’ll likely never reach the Midnight. That was kind of a lie. I’m determined to get there. Somehow.”

If the Sorceress attacked his ship, he’s dead. I’m sorry. You should probably move on.

“He’s alive,” Tress said. “She asked for a ransom from the king to free

Charlie. I thought…maybe I could make enough money to convince the king to pay it.”

Tress, Fort wrote, the Sorceress doesn’t ask for money as

ransom. She asks for souls, usually from the royal bloodline. Mere money would never satisfy her.

Tress blushed, feeling like an utter lunatic. She’d already realized that she wouldn’t be able to pay his way free, but still, the depth of her ignorance

was disturbing. Like a fish trying very hard to jump out of its tank in order to escape, she’d been trying to solve a problem before stopping to wonder if

she even understood her situation.

Look, if this Charlie was kept for ransom, he’s likely a nobleman. Right?

“Yes,” Tress whispered.

That lot don’t care about people like us, Fort wrote. I’m sorry, but it’s the truth. You’d best move on.

“Maybe,” Tress said.

Well, you gave me information. Only fair that I give you what you wanted. I can tell you about Ann.

“I didn’t tell you anything important, Fort,” Tress said. “You don’t have to take that in trade.”

Ah, he wrote. But the information about Ann is barely worth anything. Everyone knows it. You’d have found out soon anyway.

“You acted like it was some big secret!” Tress said.

No. I just asked what you wanted to trade. He grinned, poking her in the arm with a knuckle, then continued writing. Don’t look indignant. Revealing your emotions makes it easier for people to get a good deal out of you. That one is free.

Ann was given the job of assistant cannonmaster because she asked for it after the last one died. But no one thought to have her fire one of the blasted things first.

“And…?” Tress asked.

That woman has worse aim than a drunk man riding a three-legged llama, Fort wrote. She once fired a pistol at a target, but managed to nearly hit ME—and I was standing next to her. The first time she manned the cannon, her aim was so far off, the only thing NOT in danger was her target.

“Moons,” Tress said. “Maybe…she just needs more practice.”

I’ll let you teach her, then. I’ll be safely boarded up in my room, maybe with some armor on. Fort eyed her. Some things aren’t

meant to be, girl. Sometimes you simply have to accept that.

“You’re talking about me. And Charlie.”

Maybe. Listen, Tress. Even if he’s still alive, the Sorceress will have cursed him like poor old Hoid. She uses a lot of different types, but she always puts one on her captives, to keep them pliable.

“How do you know so much about it?” Tress asked.

Captain told me, Fort explained. When she had me trade to get Hoid on our ship.

“The captain specifically wanted Hoid on the ship?” Tress asked. “Why?”

Don’t know. She heard about his curse and his trip to the Sorceress. Getting him was a poor deal, since his former

shipmates were happy to be rid of him. Captain insisted though.

Fort shook his head, considering the damage to his reputation once people found out how much he’d traded to get a lunatic to be their cabin boy.

Tress’s interest deepened, however. Captain Crow had manipulated the crew into becoming pirates, then forced them to become deadrunners—

because she wanted them to sail dangerous seas. And she’d specifically been watching for someone cursed by the Sorceress?

Could the captain be looking to visit the Sorceress herself?

Tress looked toward Crow. And then, Tress took the singular step that separated her from people in most stories. The act, it might be said, that

defined her as a hero. She did something so incredible, I can barely express its majesty.

I should consider this more, Tress thought to herself, and not jump to conclusions.

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