TRESS SPENT THE NEXT THREE days trying to devise a way to escape. Surely she’d done all that could be expected of her. She’d protected the crew of an entire merchant ship. She’d managed to set the Crow’s Song on a course toward a safe reconciliation for everyone except herself. Surely her conscience would let her flee now.
The ship would stop at port to take on water before sailing the Crimson, and she had to find a way off the ship there. Then she could get on with her real quest, and let the Song go without her.
She sat in her room, leaning on her worktable and looking at the cups Charlie had sent her while traveling. He’d stayed true to her all that time, going so far as to sail to the Midnight Sea because he refused to take the
easy path and marry one of the women his father wanted him to. He’d gone to his doom because of…because of love. For her.
Could she really run? Hoid was her best lead in figuring out how to reach the Sorceress. Plus, here on this ship she had a crew that would sail the
Crimson. And could she really abandon her friends? Particularly when they were showing so much faith in her? If she left, who would the captain give
to the dragon? Would Crow be left with no recourse but to return to the Verdant Sea and continue her pillaging, murderous ways?
Questions like these burdened her. Worry has weight, and is an infinitely renewable resource. One might say worries are the only things you can make heavier simply by thinking about them.
The day the Crow’s Song finally pulled into port, Tress was on the deck, wind making a mess of her mane of hair. Again thinking about Charlie. She
missed him a frightening amount. She hadn’t realized, in their years together, how much she’d come to rely on his presence.
Not that he’d done anything specific. Charlie wasn’t really a “do things” kind of person. He was a “be things” kind of person. Making decisions was easier around him—as if he were an emotional lubricant easing the machinery of the heart as it labored through difficult tasks.
Lately, she’d been having trouble picturing him. She could perfectly remember a picture of him, hanging above the mansion’s hearth. But him? That wasn’t so easy, though she loved him. That is not so odd an occurrence. A picture is an object, easy to define and contain, while a person is a soul— and is therefore neither of those things.
The island appeared up ahead, breaking out of the Verdant. Dougs called out, excited to go ashore. Even Hoid seemed to have a spring in his step as he wandered past wearing…well…
All right, I was wearing black slacks with bright white athletic socks.
There. You know my shame. My relationship to fashion was in those days akin to that of a fifteen-pound spiked mace to an unarmored forehead.
Before Tress could decide if she wanted to execute her half-formed plan of escape, Laggart sauntered over and tapped her on the shoulder. He pointed toward the captain’s quarters. “Crow wants to see you, girl.”
With a sigh, Tress obeyed. Inside, she found Crow at her desk, holding an exquisite porcelain cup with a floral motif painted across the side. The
captain sipped at it and waved toward the seat across the small desk.
Tress sat, noticing—but trying not to stare at—the book she’d read earlier.
Crow idly tapped it with an index finger as she stared out her porthole.
On deck, Laggart called orders for the Dougs to prepare the ship for docking. The vessel slowed and turned, wooden timbers giving soft groans of exertion.
“That’s…a nice cup, Captain,” Tress finally said, daring to speak first.
“Got it from those merchants,” Crow said. “My first official piece of plunder.”
“We’re pulling into port,” Tress noted, as if it needed to be stated. “I am, um, planning to go ashore…”
“No you aren’t,” Crow said. “I’m not?”
Crow shook her head and took another sip. “You’ll join me in
conversation here while the crew unloads cargo and reloads supplies. I should…enjoy the company.”
A tremor went through Tress, an aftershock to Crow’s words. Was this proof she had discovered Tress’s spying?
Or…no, this might simply be Crow being careful with her chosen offering for the dragon. With a sinking feeling, Tress realized that she wouldn’t get to decide whether or not to flee. Even if Crow didn’t know what Tress was planning, she wasn’t taking any chances.
“Do you like tea, girl?” Crow asked. “I’m fond of it, yes.”
“You’d probably love this,” Crow said. “Zapriel tea, from the Dromatory Isles. Expensive stuff. Worth more than gold, by weight.”
Notably, she did not offer Tress a cup.
“This is how a deadrunner lives,” Crow continued. “Frenzied bursts of opulence. Best enjoyed quickly, as our lives are bound to be short. It pleases me that the rest of you get to experience this.”
“Being hunted? Being outlaws?”
“Being one step from death,” Crow said. “Most people never live, Tress, because they’re afraid of losing the years they have left…years that also will be spent not living. The irony of a cautious existence.” She took another sip and eyed Tress. “Do you feel more alive now? Now that you have joined us in killing, facing the chance to be killed?”
Tress wanted to answer. Because…she had noticed this. She wasn’t so timid about right and wrong, or about propriety, as she once had been.
Was…something breaking inside her because of this life?
Could she ever fix it?
“You’re wrong,” Tress said. “Plenty of ordinary people live meaningful, interesting lives without needing someone like you pushing them. You
shouldn’t be so callous about killing good people.”
“I am no more callous than the moons,” Crow said. “Why, they take young and old, lovers of virtue or vice. Fallen to disease here, famine there. A casual accident inside the safety of one’s home. Why should I avoid killing good people? I follow the path of the gods themselves by delivering death indiscriminately. To do otherwise would presume I am greater than they.”
“You could have gotten what you wanted without killing.”
“Yes, but why?” Crow said. “I’m a pirate. So are you, though you make a terrible one. Too merciful. Looking to protect random merchant ships when you should be worried about yourself.”
Tress fell silent, her breath catching.
Crow took another sip of her tea. “Yes, I know about the cannonballs,” she said. Why beat around the bush when there were so many people who
weren’t currently being beaten? “Laggart hasn’t figured it out yet, but he has the intelligence of a walnut. There’s only one person who could have
swapped those balls.”
Tress wished she were more coolheaded, so the sweat on her brow wouldn’t give her away.
“Don’t look so frightened,” Crow said, leaning back in her seat. “That was an enterprising move, if misguided. You’d be an excellent servant—rather,
sailor—if you could be properly controlled. Anyway, it’s over now. We’re sailing the Crimson as you wanted. You really think you can save your friend from the Sorceress?”
“I didn’t do it solely for him,” Tress said, annoyed at how deeply she
allowed Crow’s words to sting. “I wanted to protect the crew; I didn’t want you truly making them into deadrunners.”
The captain laughed. “Protect the crew? By persuading them to sail the Crimson? Child, I worried that killing Weev would deprive me of my favorite source of amusement, but you have well and truly taken his place!”
Tress blushed and looked down. She tried to remember how she’d felt so proud of herself a few days ago—but that emotion seemed remarkably naive now.
“Do you even know?” the captain said. “Do you realize what the Crimson Sea is like?”
“I…I know it’s bad…”
Crow let out a roar of laughter, loud enough that the moons themselves
assuredly heard. She slapped the table, rattling her tea saucer. “You set us on
this course, and you don’t even know what we’re sailing toward!”
It occurred to Tress that she absolutely should have asked this question before. “I understand,” Tress said, “that there are more dangerous spores than the verdant ones. But I don’t see how a sea can be much more dangerous—we already are careful not to spill water, and we have silver all throughout our ship. So as long as we’re careful, we should be fine, right?”
“Oh, girl,” Crow said with a chuckle, “it’s not the spores that are the problem. It’s the rain.”
I haven’t explained rain.
The more meteorologically inclined among you might be wondering about the planet’s weather patterns and water cycle. If you’re one of those to whom these things are extremely important, you have my sympathies. It’s never too late to develop a personality. Maybe go to a party. But try to avoid topics like weather patterns and water cycles. Unless of course you can do it like me.
Rain falls in small localized ribbons on Tress’s planet. These vibrant lines of water weave like serpents in the sky. Rain brings death and life, hand in hand—fitting company for the gods.
More isolated squalls than true storms, these resplendent displays are best at night. They shatter the moonlight into a thousand colors. You haven’t
witnessed the full grandeur of a rainbow until you’ve watched one explode in rings on the Verdant Sea, haloing a moon big enough to swallow the sky.
Naturally, aethers grow with the rain, springing up behind those ribbons of water. It’s as if some celestial being is drawing lines on a map, and fortifications appear spontaneously at their will. Those walls hang there, gasp for life, then collapse into the sea, devoured by the jealous spores.
It’s beautiful in a way only something so terrifying can inspire, and terrifying in a way that only something so beautiful can demand.
Fortunately, these rainfalls are perfectly predictable. They follow the same routes every time, so constant that rainfall maps from a hundred years before are still accurate.
Except in the Crimson Sea.
“Rain falls unpredictably in the Crimson, girl,” Crow said. “Yes, the
spores are dangerous—they create red spines, sharp as a needle. But the real
danger is the rain. Squalls can come upon you at any time, unexpectedly,
weaving through the sky in any direction they please. Sailing the Crimson is
all about random luck. No preparation can protect you, because the rain kills the clever same as the fool. Just like I do.”
Outside the room, Tress heard thumps as the Dougs began to return with barrels of water. “I…see,” Tress said, her mouth dry. “And the Midnight Sea? Is it the same? Random rains?”
“Oh, no,” Crow said, standing up and stretching. “But it doesn’t matter,
seeing as how midnight spores birth monsters that serve the Sorceress. Rain can fall twenty leagues from you, but you’ll still get swarmed by the monsters. There’s no escaping them—at least on the Crimson you can get lucky. No one sails the Midnight without being attacked.” Crow smiled. “No one.” She nodded then, dismissing Tress.
The Dougs had returned, and the ship was stocked. There was no opportunity for Tress to flee now.