Chapter no 28 – The Extra Good Listener

Tress of the Emerald Sea

“THE CAPTAIN IS A GESTATOR for the verdant aether,” Dr. Ulaam said, holding up a narrow bottle containing something uncomfortably reminiscent of a kidney floating in solution.

“She just ate what?” Tress asked, sitting in his exam room.

“Not just ate. Gestate. It means to incubate. Crow is host to an aggressive strain of the verdant parasite. Your lore calls people like her spore eaters, though I find that an imprecise term. Tell me. Where do spores come from?”

“The moons,” Tress said.

“Ah, yes,” Ulaam said. “The moons. As food comes from the kitchen, or pottery comes from the Zephyr Islands. There couldn’t possibly be another step involved, hmmm? These things just magically appear?”

“So…you mean how do the spores get to the moons?”

“Rather,” Ulaam said, “what on the moons produces them? Hmmmmm?” “I…have no idea,” Tress said. It was a realization she probably should

have made before.

Ulaam knelt beside her, holding the kidney up to her side. He shook it, then raised his eyebrow. “Trade?” he asked. “This one will make your urine smell of lilacs.”

“Um…no thank you.”

“Would you sell one?” Ulaam said. “Again, no.”

“Selfish,” Ulaam said. “You don’t need two.” “And how many do you have?”

Ulaam grinned. “Touché.” “To say what?”

“No, it means you have successfully rebutted me.” He stood up, shaking his head. “Regardless, your moons are home to a group of voracious entities known as aethers. Though the true aethers on other worlds have a symbiosis with people, the ones on your moons have become insatiable, aggressive,

and fecund.”

“I’m not allowed to say that word,” Tress said.

“No, it means…actually, that word means something very close to what you think it means, but it’s a more polite way of saying it. Anyway, the

aethers up above are rampantly self-propagating, and each is connected to a primal element. Vegetation, atmosphere, silicate…

“This alone is dangerous, but your varieties are also highly unstable. The tiniest hint of a catalyst—water, in this case—and they pull Investiture directly from the Spiritual Realm to explosively germinate. It’s a remarkable process.”

Tress considered this, and found herself with a dozen more questions. Once, she might have been too polite to ask them, as he didn’t owe her explanations. But there was something about Ulaam that invited such

conversation. Surely that was it, and not that she was changing.

“So…” Tress said, “how did the captain get that thing inside of her?”

“I’ve been unable to find a satisfying answer,” Ulaam said, pulling out a rack full of bottled kidneys, then putting away the one he’d been holding.

“Some say it randomly happens to people who fall into the sea, while others claim you have to ingest a very special kind of spore.”

“So she did eat it,” Tress said. “Maybe.”

“Maybe,” Ulaam said, pulling back the sleeve of his suit to reveal a grey-skinned forearm.

With an ear growing out of it.

“You have an ear on your arm!” Tress said. “Hmmmm? Oh, yes.”


“Because when I put it on my inner thigh,” Ulaam said, “I kept hearing my clothing brush across it in a most distracting way.”

“Isn’t your head a better location?”

“I already have two there,” Ulaam said. “Did you not notice them?

Earregardless, your captain’s affliction is a dire one. She is connected

directly to the prime verdant aether growing on the moon. It needs water to survive, and the moon has none. So it somehow infects people on the planet.

“The vines inside Captain Crow are exceptionally thirsty, and they

constantly drain her of liquid. Somehow, they use that liquid—along with that from other spore eater hosts around the world—to feed the enormous overgrown aether on the moon. I’ve been unable to discover the mechanism.”

“The vines keep her alive though,” Tress said. “They saved her from that bullet.”

“Yes,” Ulaam said. “The aether protects itself by protecting her, but it’s rabid. Insatiable. Incapable of rational thought, it is sucking her dry. The affliction is progressive, taking more and more from its host. I’m told it is exceptionally painful, and it is always fatal.”

“Merciful moons,” Tress whispered. “That almost makes me feel sorry for her.”

“Yes, well, most terrible mass murderers like Crow do tend to be well

acquainted with tragedy. It makes you wonder who the true monster is: the killer, or the society that created them?”

Tress nodded.

“That was a trick question,” Ulaam said. “The true monster is the one in that drawer next to you. I gave it seven different faces.”

Tress glanced at the drawer in the small end table beside her seat. It rattled. She pretended not to notice.

“At least now I know why the crew is afraid of her,” Tress said. “They don’t dare mutiny because that thing inside her would protect her from them.”

“Indeed,” Ulaam said. “I have little doubt the captain could kill each and every person on this ship without suffering any ill effects. Other than, you know, no longer having a crew. Temporary immortality does not make one able to trim the sails all by one’s self, as the old adage goes.”

“That’s an old adage?”

“Odd,” Ulaam said. “I meant odd. I think the tongue I’ve been using is

wearing out. It used to be able to roll marvelously. Did you know that ability is genetic? One in four tongues can’t manage it.” He looked closely at her mouth.

Tress pointedly did not attempt to roll her tongue. Instead she tried to figure out Captain Crow’s goals. The woman wanted to push the crew, make them desperate. To sail dangerous waters, because she was dying? And

wanted to get in as much living as she could before she went? “How long,” Tress said, “do you suppose Crow has left?”

“Hard to say,” Ulaam said. “I hear the malady usually plays out in under a year, but I gather she’s had it longer than that. She is lasting remarkably long, but at this point I doubt she has months left. Weeks, maybe days. I’ve noticed she needs to drink nearly constantly to prevent herself from dehydrating and withering away.”

It was another piece of the puzzle. Unfortunately, Tress had no idea how many pieces she needed—or what that puzzle would look like when


“Was there anything else you wanted?” Ulaam asked. “I have acquired an eighth face, you see, and I think there might be space to graft it on the underside of the thorax.”

“What do midnight spores do?” Tress asked.

Ulaam frowned. He quietly rolled down his sleeve, then stepped closer to Tress, leaning over and studying her with one eye. “Hoid!” he called.

The cabin boy wandered in. Tress hadn’t realized I’d been outside. “Did you give Tress midnight spores?” Ulaam asked.

“Nope!” I said.

“Good,” Ulaam replied. “I was worried that—”

“I gave them to Weev!” I said, excited. (In my defense, I’d thought them a kind of licorice.)

Ulaam sighed, folding his arms. Tress couldn’t help wondering if that squished the ear on his forearm, and what it felt like.

“Tress,” the surgeon said, “midnight spores are a very different kind of dangerous from the others. They need a persistent living source of water—in the form of the one who germinates them.”

“Like what has happened to the captain?”

“Yes,” Ulaam said. “But temporary, in this case.” “But what do they do?”

“They create midnight aether,” Ulaam said. “Also called Midnight Essence: a blob of goo that will imitate a nearby object or entity. The aether stays under your control for as long as you sustain it. It is more practical than many of the other spore creations—but also more nefarious. If you practice with it…”

He paused, eyeing her. “When you practice with it, have a great deal of

water nearby to drink, along with a silver knife. Most sprouters use midnight aether for spying, but be careful of creating a blob larger than about the size of your fist. So, four or five grains maximum. If your creation is too large, it is more likely to escape your control.”

“I…barely understood half of what you said, Ulaam,” she said. “Half? Why, I knew you were smart. Your brain—”

“—is not for sale,” Tress said.

“Oh!” I said. “You can have mine! It keeps trying to tell me that dirty

socks aren’t an acceptable strainer for pasta, and if that’s true, I do not want to think about it.”

Ulaam grinned, then plucked a little notebook from the inside pocket of his suit coat and began writing. “I’m recording the most embarrassing ones,” he said at Tress’s confused glance, “to share with him once he’s better. I

suspect I can milk this for decades.” He did.

“Hoid,” Tress said, “I need to find out how to get to the Sorceress. You

were there, with her. Can you guide me, or tell me how to cross the Midnight Sea?”

“He’s not going to be of any help as long as he’s under that curse, Tress,” Ulaam said. “You’ll need to break it.”

“But how?” she asked. “You don’t know. Who would?”

My face grew thoughtful. During that time period, normally that would mean I was contemplating whether occasionally biting my cheek technically made me a cannibal. But today I was actually thinking about what Tress was saying.

For once it managed to sink in.

“I can talk,” I told her softly, “but I can’t say anything. I can tell you that you should always wear white to someone else’s wedding.”

“Which is talking but saying nothing. Nothing relevant, at least, about the curse.”

“Right! Now, this is important. You need to find someone who can talk

and say things.”

“That describes a lot of people,” Tress said.

It was a struggle. The curse tied my tongue and brain in knots. I literally couldn’t say too much.

“Find…a person…who isn’t a…a person,” I said. “And can talk…when they…should not.”

Tress cocked her head. Ulaam stepped closer. “That was more coherent than anything he’s managed in months, Tress. I believe he’s saying

something important.”

“It sounds like gibberish. I think he’s toying with me.”

“Hmmm. If that’s so, then it’s remarkably like he used to be. A person who isn’t a person? And who can talk when they should not…”

Tress frowned at me, pondering with that blessedly thoughtful mind of hers. Then it clicked. “A talking animal?” she guessed.

I flopped to the ground, letting out a relieved sigh. I was soon lost in thought, trying to decide if cobblers were also good at making desserts, or if that was merely a coincidence.

“Ah!” Ulaam said, clapping his hands—then cringing at the sound so close to one of his ears. “That must be it. He’s telling you to locate a familiar.”

“A what?”

“Powerful users of Investiture—magic, if you prefer—are often associated with talking animals. I’ve noticed you have similar lore in your world. Is it not so?”

“I suppose,” Tress said, thinking back to nursery stories.

“I’ll admit,” Ulaam said, rolling up his sleeve again and getting out a

scalpel, “that on some worlds, my own species is the cause of these rumors. I don’t think that is the case here, however, nor do I think they are the result of an Awakener’s arts. Likely, the Sorceress and others like her have found

ways to Invest common animals to enhance their cognitive abilities.” “Are you even speaking Klisian?” Tress asked.

“Technically yes, though I’m using Connection to translate my thoughts, which are in a language you’ve never heard of. Regardless, Hoid seems to think you’ll be able to find a familiar—a talking animal, if you will. Such an animal would very likely be connected to the Sorceress in some way.

Familiars are usually small creatures, used in spying. Birds. The occasional feline…”

“Or a rat,” Tress said softly.

“Indeed.” Ulaam proceeded to cut the ear off his forearm. Tress was out the door before he could offer it to her.

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