Chapter no 34 – The Tosher

Tress of the Emerald Sea

THERE’S A STORY from Tress’s land that I’m quite fond of telling. You see, in the palace of the king, the lowliest servant is the tosher—the man

who goes through the castle’s sewage to make certain nothing useful has been lost or discarded.

No one wanted to be the tosher, for obvious odoriferous reasons. Worse, no one listened to the tosher, because wherever he went, people were either too busy moving upwind from him, or they were preoccupied by trying to remember how to get vomit out of carpet. (Soap, vinegar, and warm water.)

The tosher in our story had a great many items to complain about, some related to the lack of fiber in the royal diet. One thing he didn’t complain about was his dinner. Each day he got the same thing. A baked potato with lard.

The tosher loved baked potatoes. So much so that he decided to begin

asking for a second one at dinner. He was given it, mostly to get him to go away, and then it became a habit. Two potatoes. Each day.

This continued until the lesser servants were instead served something different for dinner: cornbread with lard. And the tosher hated cornbread. He waited for the potatoes to return, but they never did.

One day, while doing his daily work—after remarking that someone must have dyed the punch green again at the latest ball—a thought occurred to him. His life in the palace was miserable, but surely he could do something to better his station. He determined to speak to the cook and get potatoes for dinner again.

So the tosher set out on a quest. He found the cook, apologized for making the milk curdle, and made his plea. Potatoes, please. Less cornbread.

The cook was sympathetic, judging by the tears in her eyes. But unfortunately, she couldn’t change the menu. She explained that the palace butler set the meal plan; the cook simply made the food.

The tosher went to talk to the butler. He found the man in the middle of a

strange activity: trying to see how much handkerchief his nostrils could hold. The tosher presented his problem. The butler seemed sympathetic, judging by the way he was biting his lip. Sadly, he couldn’t change the meal plan— because he was allocated supplies by the minister of trade, who no longer provided potatoes.

Well, the minister of trade—it turns out—had dropped her ring into the tosher’s domain. The tosher recovered it after some diligent searching, though he did wonder why someone as fancy as the minister of trade ate so much corn. He went to return the ring, and the minister honored the tosher by seeing him in person. Outside. In high winds. While it was raining.

During allergy season.

The tosher explained his predicament. The minister of trade was

sympathetic, judging by the way she almost fainted as he approached, and she listened to his complaint. However, she could not help him; the king himself had mandated that only corn be fed to the servants.

Well, the king wasn’t the sort of person you could meet every day.

Because he wasn’t regular, and it was an every-second-day thing for him. On the proper day, the tosher—umbrella in hand—called up. He knew the king would be able to hear, as the tosher had firsthand, empirical evidence of how good the acoustics were in that particular location.

He asked the king if he would please give them potatoes for dinner again.

He loved them so much, he always ate two. The king was sympathetic, judging by how he stopped giving the tosher new work for a short time in order to answer.

“I can’t,” the king said. “The entire potato crop succumbed to pests. Also, look out.”

The tosher learned two important lessons that day. First, you don’t need to lower your umbrella to talk to someone. Second, no one—not even the king

—had the power to provide potatoes at the moment.

“You’re the one,” the king said after doing his business, “who started the two potatoes thing, eh?”

“Um…yes?” the tosher called up, then regretted opening his mouth. “Funny,” the king explained, his voice echoing, “I had to stop buying

potatoes even before the crop died. Once you took two, everyone wanted two. Because of the increased demand, potatoes became too expensive. We stopped being able to afford them for servants.”

So in truth, there was a third lesson.

Even small actions have consequences. And while we can often choose our actions, we rarely get to choose our consequences.

As Tress walked belowdecks, she felt a certain…discomfort. That was a common occurrence. Conversations with Captain Crow tended to leave a person with residual filth. Emotional soap scum.

As Tress saw Ulaam walking away—disappointed that the laughter hadn’t been due to any impaled crotches—she hastened after him.

“Doctor,” she said, “there’s something I wanted to ask you. About…the spores I most certainly did not try.”

“Hush,” he said, looking down the corridor. He ushered her toward her room. Once inside, he inspected her closely. “Yes…I believe you’re still alive.”

“I mean, I’m talking to you. And walking around.”

“That’s not as concrete a set of evidences as you might assume,” he said. “But what was it you wanted to ask me?”

“Do midnight spores…leave any kind of trace after the bond is broken?” she asked. “Like, say you were using them to sneak into someplace you

shouldn’t be.”

“That is, generally, where people sneak. Hmmmm?”

“Right. But let’s say that, um, you were interrupted and someone broke the spell for you so you didn’t die.”

“It’s not a spell, but a complex symbiotic relationship between two

entities. Either way, I’d buy the person who saved you a very nice present. Perhaps a spare shoulder.”


“People can always use more shoulders. You know, despite people promising me cold ones as gifts on three separate occasions, they’ve never come through? Humans can be so inscrutable.”

“Right. Uh, back on topic? Please?”

Ulaam smiled, fingers laced before him. Strange, how his grey skin and red eyes could seem so…quaint once you got to know him. Less demonic.

More eccentric. “You won’t be discovered,” he said, “unless someone

actively saw the Midnight Essence moving about while you were controlling it. Once the bond breaks, it evaporates into black smoke, which disperses quickly. No residue is left behind.”

Tress nodded, relieved.

“Why are you so anxious about this?” Ulaam asked.

“Well, I just had a conversation with the captain,” Tress said. “I feel like I got the better of her. And so…”

“And so you wisely assume that maybe instead she was secretly manipulating you. Perhaps because she had a clue as to what you were doing, hmmmm? Curious. What, tell me, did you get her to do?”

“Sail us to the Crimson Sea,” Tress said. “I know what you’re going to say. But I also talked to Fort, Salay, and Ann. They’re willing to sail the Crimson too, and think they can make the Dougs agree.”

“I don’t doubt they can,” Ulaam said. “The three of them can be very persuasive. But why are we sailing the Crimson? What in the world could make you want that to happen?”

“Oh!” Tress said. “Right. Well, that’s what I found out when I was spying on the captain. She plans to visit a dragon and make him heal her.”

“Xisis,” Ulaam said. “She plans to bargain with Xisis?” “Yes, and so I persuaded her to sail the Crimson.”

“Something she already wanted to do?”

“Well, yes, technically. It’s more that I persuaded her without her knowing I was persuading her.”

“To, again, do something she wanted to do.”

“It’s complicated. But I worry maybe I’m not as clever as I might have thought I was.”

“That seems self-evident, child,” Ulaam said.

“Well,” she said, sitting down on her bed, “wasn’t it at least a little clever? The captain was going to sink at least one more ship. So getting everyone to go now instead… Everyone wins, right? Assuming we can find the dragon,

the captain will get healed. No more ships need be sunk. Maybe once she’s no longer dying, Crow will let everyone go. And I…”

Well, she would be on the Crimson Sea—remarkably, halfway to the Midnight Sea. That would put her closer to rescuing Charlie than she had realistically thought she would get.

“Child,” Ulaam said, going to one knee beside the bed, “Xisis is a dragon.

He doesn’t offer boons. He offers trades.”

“For what? Treasure? You mean we have to rob some more ships first?”

“Xisis has no need for lucre, Tress. He wants for only one thing in order to continue his experiments: servants to do his chores. But seeing as he lives underneath the spores, he requires a very particular kind of servant.”

“Particular…in what way?” Tress asked.

“They can’t be afraid of spores,” Ulaam said. “That is always the trade. One reasonable boon—a healing would count, I suppose—in exchange for one slave to work for him all their days. The trick is finding him an offering who doesn’t panic at being led through a tunnel of spores.”

In that awful moment, Tress remembered the captain’s eyes when Tress had decided to remain on the ship. When she’d volunteered to become ship’s sprouter.

You really aren’t afraid of spores, girl? Crow had asked.

Oh, moons… Tress thought.

Outside, the seethe started again. The ship lurched into motion a short time later, and she heard the captain calling new orders. They would head to a port and take on extra stores, since they would very soon be going on a long journey…without ports…

Crow was planning to trade Tress to the dragon. And Tress, in her ignorance, had greatly accelerated the ship toward the event. She might have tricked Crow, but she’d managed to trick herself as well.

She would have no proverbial potatoes. But she certainly was standing in a big pile of the tosher’s soil.

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