Chapter no 32 – The Liberator

Tress of the Emerald Sea

“I’VE FOUND A WAY for us to escape our predicament,” Salay said, then gestured at Tress. “Behold our liberator.”

Tress froze, her hand still on the door to the quartermaster’s office, which she’d just shut. She hadn’t expected to be put on the spot the moment she

stepped in. “Um…” she began.

“She can’t confirm it, of course,” Salay said, lowering her voice to a conspiratorial whisper. “But I’m confident she is a King’s Mask.”

Fort held up his sign. Not to be a contrarian, Salay, but I sincerely doubt that’s the case.

“Yeah,” Ann said. “I’m with him. Tress is great and all, but she’s obviously a girl from a backwater island.”

“The entire point of the King’s Masks is that they seem innocent,” Salay said. “How many girls from backwater islands have you seen walk on the sea? Then cling to the outside of a ship at sail?”

Fort and Ann studied her, and Tress blushed beneath their scrutiny. “I was desperate,” she said. “I just did what I had to in order to survive.”

It IS a little suspicious, Fort wrote, how you almost immediately ended up as ship’s sprouter.

“Right?” Salay said. “She’s not afraid of spores.” “I’m very afraid of spores,” Tress corrected.

“And she could have fled the ship at Shimmerbay,” Salay said, “but chose to remain so she could keep an eye on Crow. She admitted as much to me


Tress sighed. “I…don’t want to impose, Salay. But I think you’re misinterpreting what I said.”

“Wait,” Ann said. “Salay, you’re acting like this is a good thing. If she

were a King’s Mask, then she’d kill us all. We’re outlaws now.”

“Ah,” Salay said, holding up a finger. “But she knows we aren’t complicit in killing anyone.”

Technically, we are, Fort wrote, looking morose. We turned pirate, then people died. Doesn’t matter that we didn’t shoot the cannon. We’re responsible for those poor people’s deaths.

The small room grew quiet. Fort sat on his stool behind the counter,

shoulders wide enough that they nearly touched both walls at once. He wore suspenders, as the last seven belts he’d tried to wear had given up on the spot

—and I have it on good authority he’s been ordered by judicial mandate to stay at least thirty feet from any others as a judgment for past brutality.

Ann sat on the counter by the wall, swinging her legs. She seemed intensely interested in a knot in the floorboards, but in reality she was haunted by Fort’s words. They were all culpable. Everyone except Tress.

Salay stepped toward the others, away from the door. “See, that’s why it’s important that she is a Mask. The only way for us to survive after being named deadrunners is to have an agent of the king vouch for us.” She looked to Tress, pleading in her eyes. “That’s why she could be our liberator. She

could tell the king we meant well. That we tried to stop Crow. It’s a way out. Isn’t it?”

Tress had seen Salay as stern, straightforward. Like a firm handshake in human form. But right now, there was fear in her dark eyes. And pain. Moon of mercy, it was difficult to hear her plea and deny it.

Fort and Ann both looked to Tress, a spark of hope in their eyes as well.

Huck was right. These people weren’t fools. They weren’t idiots for hoping Tress was something more than the girl she appeared to be. They simply wanted there to be a chance.

Tress’s mouth went dry again, though not from abusing aethers this time. There was a way for her to prove she wasn’t a Mask. She merely had to say

she was one. Incongruently, this would prove she wasn’t one, assuming Salay was right and Masks weren’t allowed to admit to their station.

But saying that would stomp out their last light of hope. Doing so felt… cruel. Like kicking a kitten.

No. Like strapping dynamite to a kitten, then seeing how high you could get the head to fly.

Tress couldn’t say it. They wanted it so much. She in turn was desperate for them to get what they wanted. So instead she changed the subject. She reached into her satchel and took out a cannonball.

“I took this,” she said, “from a secret compartment in one of Laggart’s gunnery barrels.”

Salay looked to the other two and pointedly folded her arms, as if to say,


Fort took the cannonball and balanced it in his palm, his curled fingers against it and the other knuckles holding it steady. He rolled it from one palm to the other, then set it on the counter. He got out a chisel and a hammer, holding them each in his unique way, and gingerly tapped the

cannonball in a few specific places. He was then able to hold it down with one palm and twist so the two halves came apart.

Inside, normally one would have found an explosive charge of zephyr

spores and the fuse system to burst the cannonball. (We’ll get to the specifics later.) Each ball had a number printed on the outside, the seconds until the

secondary detonation—which would launch out a spray of water.

In this case, the charge had been replaced by a wadded cloth, the water in the hollow center filled with lead shot.

“Rigged,” Ann said, “to sink a ship, not capture it. Moon of justice, Salay.

You’re right. The cap’n made us deadrunners on purpose!”

I knew something was off about all this, Fort said, holding up his sign. You knew it too, Ann.

“Yeah, but to see it…” Ann said. “How’d you get this without getting caught, Tress?”

“It wasn’t hard,” she said. “Nobody wants to go near the charges.”

“But how did you even find them?” Ann asked, poking at the dissected cannonball.

“I, um, have experience with barrels and hidden compartments.” Salay gave her a sly glance and a knowing smile.

My question is WHY? Fort wrote. What does the captain gain by this? We were already pirates. Killing people instead of looting them makes no sense.

“Yeah,” Salay said. “That’s the conundrum.”

Tress hesitated, then sighed. She had to tell them. “I overheard the captain speaking to Laggart. She was afraid that unless you were wanted criminals— facing death on any island where you tried to flee—you wouldn’t be loyal


“Well, she’s right about that,” Ann said. “Until that ship sank, I was thinkin’ about findin’ a way off.”

You “overheard” the captain speaking to Laggart? Fort wrote.

How? They never speak their secrets out in the open.

“They weren’t out in the open,” Tress said. “They were in her cabin.” All three looked at her, and she realized her mistake. Moon of mercy. She

shouldn’t have come to this meeting with a splitting headache.

“You were able to spy on the cap’n,” Ann said, “in her cabin while she was speaking conspiratorially to her first officer about her secret plans to betray her crew?”

“Er. Yes.”

The words hung in the air for a moment before Ann plucked them and chowed down. “Awfully good at espionage for a girl from a backwater island, aren’t you?”

“Just lucky,” Tress said, then tried to move on quickly. “Look, I’m

worried the captain will try to sink more ships. Swapping the cannonballs helped prevent more deaths today, but I think she wants to murder at least one more crew to get you all on board. I mean, metaphorically on board. With her plan. Since, you know.” She gestured to the ship.

“I agree with the Mask,” Salay said. “Today was too close. We’ve got enough blood on our hands. We need to find a way to deal with Crow permanently.”

That could take time, Fort wrote. First, I think we should find a way to quench her bloodthirst.

“She’s not exactly the quenchable type,” Ann said, “if you haven’t noticed. I think we just need to get her away from where she can do damage.”

What if, Fort wrote, we were to persuade her to sail a different sea? One without so many people on it. That way we’d run into

fewer innocents she could hurt.

“True,” Salay said, “but we’d have to get to the Crimson Sea or—worse— the Midnight Sea. But there’s no way we’d persuade the captain to do that.

She wants to be where the ships are plentiful.”

“Actually,” Tress said, “I’m pretty sure she’d agree to sail the Crimson Sea.”

“Nah,” Ann said. “The cap’n’s got too healthy a sense of self-preservation. We’d never persuade her…” She trailed off, looking at Tress, and narrowed her eyes. “At least, no normal crewmember could persuade her of such a crazy idea.”

“I think it will be easy,” Tress said, uncomfortable. “Salay, you should suggest it.”

“After what I did earlier?” Salay said. “Captain wants an excuse to hang me right now. If I asked her to sail the Crimson, she’d toss me overboard for sure.”

“Do you really think you can convince her, Tress?” Ann asked.

Now, Tress wanted to tell them about what she’d learned: that Crow planned to sail the Crimson and get herself cured. And…it occurred to her that if the captain got healed, everyone would win. The crew wouldn’t have to be afraid of a spore eater, Crow would live, and maybe they could all stop being pirates somehow.

But if Tress were to explain how she knew what she knew, she was

certain the others would be convinced she was a King’s Mask. Overhearing the captain was one thing. But admitting to having somehow stolen her private writings?

So, instead of explaining, Tress nodded. “I’ll do it. I’m certain I can make her agree to sail the Crimson. The rest of you can focus on the long-term plan: a way to take the ship back from her.”

So long as those spores are in her blood, Fort wrote, she’ll be immune to anything we could do to her.

“Um, pretend she won’t have those anymore,” Tress said. “Assume her powers will be negated in the near future. By…um…something completely unrelated to me.”

All three of them took another opportunity to stare at her.

“Right, right,” Salay said, ushering Tress out the door. “We’ll do that. You get her to sail the Crimson. If she agrees to it, I’m confident I can get the

Dougs to go along with the idea too. Most of them are as upset at the killings

as we are.” Then, in a whispered tone, Salay added, “Just remember our deal. Put in a good word for us with the king. Convince him we didn’t want any of this and tell him we helped you stop her. All right?”

“Salay,” Tress said. “I’m really not—”

“I know,” Salay said. “You can’t admit it. How about this. If you happen to have a chance to speak to the king on our behalf, can you promise me you’ll take it?”

“I suppose,” Tress said.

“Good enough,” Salay said. “And good luck.”

You'll Also Like