Chapter no 24 – The Cursed Man

Tress of the Emerald Sea

PERHAPS YOU ARE CONFUSED at why I, your humble storyteller, would make such a fuss about this. Tress stopped, wondered if she’d jumped to a conclusion, and decided to reconsider? Nothing special, right?

Wrong. So very, soul-crushingly wrong.

Worldbringers like myself spend decades combing through folk tales, legends, myths, histories, and drunken bar songs looking for the most unique stories. We hunt for bravery, cleverness, heroism. And we find no shortage of such virtues. Legends are silly with them.

But the person who is willing to reconsider their assumptions? The hero who can sit down and reevaluate their life? Well, now that is a gemstone that truly glitters, friend.

Perhaps you would prefer a story about someone facing a dragon. Well, this isn’t that kind of story. (Which makes it even more remarkable that Tress still does that eventually. But kindly stop getting ahead of me.) I can understand why you would want tales of people like Linji, who tried to sail around the world with no Aviar.

I, however, would trade a dozen Linjis for one person who is willing to sit down for a single blasted minute and think about what they’re doing. Do you

know how many wars could have been prevented if just one person in charge had stopped to think, “You know, maybe we should double-check; perhaps blinking twice isn’t an insult in their culture”?

Do you know how many grand romances would have avoided tragedy if the hero had thought, “You know, maybe I should ask her if she likes me first”?

Do you know how many protracted adventures might have been shortened if the heroine had stopped to wonder, “You know, maybe I should look extra carefully to see if the thing I’m searching for has been with me the entire time”?

I’m drowning in bravery, cleverness, and heroism. Instead, kindly give me a little common sense. At that moment, Tress was downright majestic.

I need more information, Tress thought. Before I decide that I know what the captain’s plan is. I need to find a way to spy on her. Maybe I can use

Huck again.

She nodded—and in that moment, Tress saved herself a huge amount of trouble. The captain’s plan had nothing to do with the Sorceress, after all, but everything to do with why the crew were so frightened of her.

Tress picked up her sack—pretending it wasn’t full of cannonballs, which was as hard as it sounded—and carried it to the aft cannon, which was set up on the quarterdeck. She performed a similar swap there (placing the

cannonballs she took in a separate bag within her larger one) while counting zephyr spore charges.

Then she hauled her bag belowdecks, where she stowed it in her room. From there she went looking for me. Now, normally this would also have been a shining example of common sense on her part. Everyone can use a little more Wit in their lives. Except me. I could stand to lose a pound or two.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t exactly in the best state of mind during this voyage. She found me playing cards with a group of the Dougs. I was wearing a shoe around my neck, tied by the laces, as I’d decided it was

certain to be the absolute soul of fashion the following season. I’d forgotten to wear pants, as one does, and my underclothing needed a good washing.

Actually, all of me did.

I was trying to play a game I’d invented called “Kings” where everyone held their cards backward, so you didn’t know what you had but everyone

else did. I can imagine several interesting applications of this now—but back

then the only interesting part was how easily the Dougs won my wages off me, followed by my shoe.

I still have no idea what I did with the other one.

Once the Dougs were finished taking me for what little I was worth, they scrambled off to find some other victim. I sat there, wondering if perhaps I should start wearing a sock around my neck, until Tress settled down beside me.

“Would you like to play Kings?” I asked with a grin. “I still have some undershorts I can bet!”

“Um, no thanks,” Tress said. “Hoid, I know you visited the Sorceress. Do you…remember anything about it?”

“Yup!” I said.

“Great! What can you tell me?”

“C…c…c…can’t!” I said, tapping my head. “Words don’t work that way, kiddo. She makes them into something else!”

“I don’t understand,” Tress said.

“Neither do I!” I replied. “That’s the problem! Can’t say anything at all

about what you might think! It’s p…p…p…” I shrugged, unable to form the word.

“Your…curse forbids you from talking about your curse?” Tress guessed. I winked. Mostly because I had something in my eye. But in this case,

Tress had guessed correctly. The Sorceress was quite specific with each geas: if you tried to talk about it, you’d stutter or the words would die halfway out of your lips. You couldn’t even tell people you were cursed unless they already knew.

“So,” Tress said, “if I want you to lead me to the Sorceress, I have to find a way to break your curse—without knowing anything about it. Plus, I have to do that without any help from you whatsoever.”

I took her hands in mine. I looked her in the eyes. I took a deep breath, trembling.

“I once ate an entire watermelon in one sitting,” I told her. “And it gave me diarrhea.”

Tress sighed, pulling her hands free. “Right, right. I guess finding a way to break your curse is slightly less impossible than finding my way to the Sorceress on my own. That’s something, at least.”

There was still a part of me—deep down—that knew what was going on. The Sorceress was cruel like that. Sure, turning a man into a simpleton is fun

—but true torture lies in letting him remain just aware enough to be horrified.

That sensate part of me scrambled to find some way to help. Ulaam had been useless, of course. That’s the problem with immortals—they get used to sitting around waiting for problems to work themselves out.

But here was someone willing to help. What could I say? What could I do? Only a sliver of me was still awake, and it had almost no control. Plus, every time I tried to say anything about my specific predicament, the curse would activate, driving me back and prompting me to do something monstrous, like wear socks with sandals.

That glimmer of awareness started to fade. And I seized upon that. My own stupidity. The curse, like many magics of its ilk, depended on how the subject thought—on their Intent. I could use that, I knew.

The spark flared up, like a midnight fire as the coals shifted. I reached toward Tress and blanked my mind as I forced out a string of words.

“Listen, this is important,” I said to her. “I promise. You must bring me to your planet, Tress. Repeat that.”

“Bring you…to my planet?”

“Yes, yes! I can save you if you do that.” “But you’re already here!”

“Here what?” I said, having deliberately forgotten what I’d said. “Planets don’t matter. For now, look for the group of six stars, Tress!”

Tress hesitated. Six stars? Unfortunately, in that exclamation, my strength was spent. I sat back, adopted a goofy grin, and decided to do some

empirical research regarding the flavors of different toes.

With a sigh, Tress returned to her quarters. She’d left the door open for Huck, and so wasn’t surprised when she arrived and found…


She burst into the room to find the ship’s cat—Knocks—crouched and

staring under the bed, tail waggling. Tress threw the thing out the door and

slammed it, and in the silence that followed she could distinctly make out the sounds of a hyperventilating rat.

“Huck?” she asked, getting down on her hands and knees, peering beneath the bed. She made him out in the corner, squeezed into the space between the wood of the bed’s leg and the wall. As he saw her, he came timidly toward her, and she scooped him up, feeling him tremble in her hands.

“It’s gone,” she said. “I’m sorry, Huck.”

He didn’t speak—a rare occasion where he seemed completely without breath or words. He just cringed there in her hands, looking more…well, like a rat than he ever had before.

Finally he spoke, his voice trembling. “Perhaps you can leave the door locked from now on. There’s a crack in the floor, and I can squeeze in that way, after climbing the post in the hallway below.”

“All right,” Tress said. “Are you…going to be okay?”

Huck glanced at the door. “Yeah, sure,” he whispered. “Give me a little time. I…still can’t believe they got a cat.”

“You’re intelligent, Huck,” Tress said. “You can handle a common cat.” “Sure. Yeah. No problem. But Tress…I don’t know. It’s always watching.

Prowling. Cats are supposed to sleep twenty-six hours a day. How can I use my intelligence, how can I plan, knowing it’s watching?”

After a few minutes, he seemed to relax. He nodded to her, so she set him on the footboard, then lay back on the bed, staring at the ceiling—which was the upper deck of the ship. She could hear sailors crossing it, feet thumping.

Wood creaking as the ship rocked. Spores made a constant low, hushed

sound as they scraped past. Like a whisper. Someone had carved parts of the ceiling with a knife. Crude little patterns of crossing lines.

“I hope your day has been better than mine,” Huck said, perched on the footboard of the bed. The entire thing had a nice railing to keep her from rolling out as the ship swayed.

“It’s been somewhat frustrating,” Tress said. “But not life-threatening.” What she wanted wasn’t nearly so important as what he needed, and she felt guilty for focusing on herself. “Your problem with the cat is more pressing. Maybe we could keep it extra well fed, so it doesn’t want to hunt you?”

“Cats don’t stop hunting because they’re full, Tress. They’re like people in that regard.”

“Sorry,” she said. “We don’t have cats on the Rock.” “Sounds like a wonderful place.”

“It was sweet and tranquil,” she said. “And though the smog above town is pretty terrible, people tend to treat one another well. It’s a good place. An honest place.”

“I’d like to go there someday. I know you’re thirsty for adventure, but I’ve had plenty.”

“You could go,” Tress said. “You don’t need to stay with me, Huck.” “Tired of me already?”

“What!” she said, sitting up. “That’s not what I meant!”

“You’re too polite, girl,” he said, twitching his nose. “I’ll assume that you know less about rats than you do about cats. Try to imagine what it’s like to be roughly the size of a sandwich, and to have most of the world consider you as tasty as one. Trust me, you’d do what I have.”

“Which is?”

“Find a sympathetic human and stick close to them,” Huck said. “Besides, I have a good feeling about you, remember?”

“But you’ve got to have family somewhere.”

“Yeah, but they don’t much care for me,” he said. “Are they…like you?”

“You mean, can they talk?” Huck said. “Yes.” He paused, his head

cocked, as if searching for the right way to explain. “I come from a place a lot like the one you came from. My kind has lived there for generations. But my kin, they thought it was time to go. See the world. They dragged me off for my own good. That didn’t go well.

“They wouldn’t much like me hanging around with you. I’m not supposed to talk to your kind, you see. Still, like I said, I’ve got a good feeling about you. And so, I’m staying close. But I certainly wouldn’t mind if you decided

—of your own free will—to head someplace less exciting…”

Tress tried to imagine it. A land full of talking rats? It sounded exotic and interesting. The twelve seas were a strange and incredible place, full of

wonders. Huck kept talking, telling her about life as a rat. And there was a

calming sense to his voice. It soothed her, and she found herself relaxing, her eyes tracking the carvings on the ceiling. Someone—perhaps her predecessor—had taken a lot of time to carve them. In fact…did those bursts of crossing lines look like…stars?

Tress sat up, cutting off Huck. He scampered along the bed railing over beside her. “What?”

Stars. Carved in little bursts. A single star there, then two stars close together next to it. Then three…all across the wood of the ceiling, as if someone had stood on the bed with a knife and used the point to scrape them.

No groupings of six stars, she thought.

“What?” Huck said. “What are you staring at?”

“Nothing,” Tress said, flopping back down. “I thought, for a moment, that Hoid had said something important.”

“You’ve been listening to him? Tress, I thought you were smart, for a human. Hoid is…you know.”

“He said something about six stars,” Tress said. “But there are no bunches of six.”

“I can see that,” Huck said. “I told you he’s a lunatic, Tress. No use in trying to figure out what he means.”

“I suppose,” she said.

“Besides,” Huck noted, “those look more like explosions. The stars are under the bed.”

Tress froze, then leaped off the bed and pulled herself underneath. The bottom of the bed frame was carved as well—and with patterns that were indeed more starlike. There was one patch of six stars. Feeling like she might be submitting to lunacy herself, Tress pushed it.

Something clicked, and a small latch opened on the side of the frame. Inside, Tress found a small aluminum container the size of a matchbox. Huck climbed onto her shoulder as she pushed it open.

In it she found midnight-black spores.

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