Chapter no 27 – The Spore Eater

Tress of the Emerald Sea

TRESS MADE A BRIEF STOP in her room to stow the box of spores and her remaining tool—reassuring Huck, who was hiding under the bed

again—then hurried up the steps. By the time she arrived, the Crow’s Song

was getting dangerously close to their target.

Three bodies lay bleeding on the deck of the merchant ship. The rest of the crew held up their arms, no visible weapons drawn. It looked like Laggart had tried another cannon shot—because another burst of vines

covered the ship’s aft section, many of them overgrowing the enemy cannon.

Another of Tress’s swapped cannonballs had exploded instead of sinking the ship, but it might not be enough. The merchant vessel had given Crow plenty of excuses to be angry; Tress worried she would order the crew to

slaughter everyone aboard that poor vessel. The pirates would have their treasure, and Crow would have her reputation as a deadrunner.

As the Crow’s Song slowed, several Dougs threw hooks with ropes over to the merchant vessel. Another dropped the anchor. Nervous, Tress looked to the captain, who stood with her musket at the ready.

“All crew,” Crow said, “swords out. Prepare to board.”

Tress felt a sudden spike of panic. No! After all she had done to protect those—

“Captain!” a voice called. Sharp, commanding.

Everyone turned toward the quarterdeck, where Salay stood, one hand on the ship’s wheel. She locked it in place, now that the ship was anchored, then walked to the steps.

“By tradition,” Salay called, “the duty to engage the captain of a captured ship falls to me, does it not?”

The Dougs kept their weapons trained on the merchant vessel, but none spoke. They knew someone was very likely to be shot in the next few minutes, and didn’t want to seem like they were volunteering.

Crow turned to face Salay straight on, musket held in a loose grip. The helmswoman did not back down, and Tress found herself praying to the moons.

“We have subdued them,” Salay said loudly. “They have surrendered. We became pirates for the freedom. Nothing more.” She stood firm, and her posture made her intent clear. She would not stand by and let the merchant crew be slaughtered.

If Crow wanted a massacre today, she’d have to start by killing Salay.

Crow could do it; she’d done it to Weev. But how many crewmembers could Crow lose and still have a functioning ship?

“As you say,” Crow finally announced. “Let them know I do not… appreciate the bilging my ship received after they sent up the flare of surrender. That sort of…indiscretion costs lives.”

“They’ll pay more than the normal bounty,” Salay said. “I’ll make sure of it, Captain.”

Tress let out a held breath. Sailors started moving again, throwing more boarding hooks to keep the ships from drifting apart. Salay was the first to hop over to the merchant ship.

Tress sat down on the steps to the quarterdeck, worn out, now feeling like the washrag you find at the very bottom of the bin—the one that had been wadded up, then pressed flat for weeks by the pile.

A shadow fell over her. “We didn’t sink,” Crow said. “That means you did your job.”

Tress nodded.

“She was great, Captain,” Ann said from behind. “A natural, I’d say.

Sealed that hole on her second try. Barely seemed terrified by the spores.”

“Indeed,” Crow said, her expression unreadable as she continued looking at Tress. “Ann, don’t you think you should be fitting planks? In case this… expert work by our new sprouter isn’t as durable as it might seem?”

“I suppose.” She moved off.

“Ann,” the captain said, holding her hand out.

Ann sighed and handed over a pistol she’d found somewhere, then vanished belowdecks.

Crow moved over to watch the merchant ship as Dougs began appearing from its hold bearing rolled rugs—the ship’s cargo. The group of merchant sailors huddled on deck, where their captain spoke softly with Salay. He had a squeezed face, with too much forehead and chin, like you were seeing it reflected in a spoon.

Everyone had calmed down save one man: a sailor who knelt on the deck apart from the others. Something about his posture bothered Tress, so she

climbed the steps to get a better look through the overgrown vines. Yes, the man was cradling the corpse of one of the people Crow had shot. A friend? Family member?

The weeping man looked up. Reckless, dangerous. Tress opened her mouth to call out a warning, but the man lurched to his feet and pulled a pistol from his belt. With a quivering hand, he pointed it across the gap between ships toward Crow.

Again, everyone froze. Everyone but Captain Crow herself. She stared down that barrel with indifference.

“Smocke!” the merchant captain yelled. “Don’t be a lunatic, man! You’ll get us all killed!”

The man, Smocke, stood up—stained with his friend’s blood—but didn’t lower the gun. He also didn’t pull the trigger. Captain Crow raised the pistol she’d taken off Ann and pointed it at the man.

Then Crow turned the pistol around and shot herself in the head.

Immediately, vines erupted from Crow’s skin. They split her cheek and wormed out around her eyes, writhing and twisting. One caught the bullet. The skin of her face and hand rippled, as if she had serpents for muscles.

The vines wriggled, then withdrew, slithering back into her body.

A drop of blood leaked from the corner of Crow’s eye, and a bit more

seeped from a rip in her cheek, but otherwise her face appeared untouched. She lowered the pistol, then took a long pull on her canteen. Finally she

waved Smocke forward—as if demanding he try shooting her too. Several of his crew members tackled him, and the shot went off into the air.

“I expect my ship to sail in under an hour,” Crow said loudly, “laden with more riches than she should rightly carry.” Her eyes lingered on the other

ship’s captain, who still stood near Salay. “If it is not done, I shall visit your fine vessel and teach each and every one of you what it means to cross

Captain Crow. If you doubt my sincerity, ask the crew of the Oot’s Dream

how much they’re enjoying life at the bottom of the Verdant Sea.”

The captain disappeared into her cabin. Tress slumped on the steps again, trembling, burdened by the terrible sight of those vines bursting from Crow’s body.

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