Chapter no 37 – The Scholar

Tress of the Emerald Sea

Tress had given her room a cursory inspection when she’d moved in. She’d sorted through the things Weev had left, mostly to make certain nothing truly dangerous was hiding among them. Those earlier explorations had been the actions of a girl playing a role.

Now she looked again. As a girl trying to save her life.

Where she had read, now she studied. Where she had arranged, now she organized. And where she had accepted, now she experimented. Nothing motivates quite like a deadline. Particularly one that emphasizes the dead part.

Tress didn’t just pour her whole heart into the activity, she gave it her

entire body, for a heart can’t accomplish much without a nice set of fingers. Weev had not been an orderly person. Tress had hoped he’d left behind manuals of instructions. Instead she found scraps and scrawled notes,

cluttered with collected tidbits and half-finished ideas. The sort of mental detritus that those unacquainted with genius often attribute to unfettered brilliance.

In truth, there was no pattern to such a mess other than the subtle chaos of frustration. Signs of a mind stretching beyond its limit toward ideas just beyond its reach. This can happen to a dunce as easily as a genius; it’s no

proof of capacity, any more than a person being too full for dessert is an indication of their weight. In Weev’s case, the scraps were indicative of a mental hoarder: a person who collected ideas like a grandmother collects ceramic pigs.

It was in the middle of realizing this—and coming to understand that she would find no miracle solution—that Tress ran across the first promising

scrap. It was a detailed schematic for a cannonball, with a scrawled message at the bottom indicating the captain had wanted Weev to figure out how to make them himself, so the ship wouldn’t have to keep buying them at high prices from the zephyr-masters.

This intrigued Tress. She had a casual interest in the mechanics of

cannonballs, like the way you might find yourself interested in the cuisine of a culture whose language you’d been learning. What held her attention, however, was the intricate use of spores inside them.

Weev had been stymied. That much she could tell from his scrawled notes, which only served to distort and obfuscate the otherwise orderly diagram. Still, it depicted a sprouting technique she hadn’t been aware of.

By now you’ve seen that a cannonball on Tress’s world wasn’t merely a lump of metal, but a piece of artillery—one I promised to explain in more detail. You see, each had a timer inside that, after its launch, would lead to a secondary explosion and a burst of water. Yes, you know that part already.

But do you know how the timers were made?

It turned out to be quite simple: the timer fuse was a vine. From the notes, Tress learned she wasn’t the first to discover that applying water to an aether would cause it to continue to grow after its initial burst. The explosive

emergence was erratic, but everything afterward was far more predictable. Even precise. An exactly measured verdant vine would grow at an extremely reliable rate when given an exactly measured amount of water.

(Yes, for those of you who care about things like weather patterns, this growth eventually stopped—and a given vine would eventually exhaust all of its growth potential. Otherwise, people couldn’t very well eat them.

Getting the vines to the end of their growth potential was essential for turning them into emergency food.)

Anyway, the initial explosion that sent the cannonball soaring also broke a small glass container of water inside, soaking a clipping of verdant aether.

That vine grew—pushing a plug with a bit of silver on the tip—through a short tube toward the central mechanism of the cannonball. This was a

charge of zephyr spores surrounding a hollow sphere made of roseite. That roseite, in turn, had wax on the inside—which allowed it to contain, but not touch, a charge of water.

The silver tip pushed through the zephyr spores, killing a small number of them but leaving most unharmed, and then touched the roseite sphere—

which cracked from the pressure of the silver. Water flooded out, touched the zephyr spores, and released their explosion—which detonated the entire mechanism violently, shooting out shrapnel and water.

I have seen the modern designs, a note at the bottom said—she didn’t think it was from Weev, but the original creator of the diagram—and agree. Impact detonation charges are the future of artillery.

She didn’t know what that last part meant, but nonetheless she found the diagram ingenious. Here were three different aethers working together.

Verdant for the fuse. Roseite for the water container. Zephyr for the

explosion. The central sphere didn’t break from the initial firing of the

cannonball because it was far, far stronger than glass—but it had a built-in weakness, in that silver could damage it. In this design, she also discovered that wax could insulate an aether from water.

She was in awe, and possible experiments ran through her mind. Now, it should be noted that experimenting with zephyr spores was usually an

excellent way to be certain you went home in many small coffins, instead of one large one. But, as we’ve demonstrated previously, Tress possessed a

common sense rare to many in her position.

The sprouter profession attracts a self-selecting crowd. Normally this includes uncommon individuals who have somehow survived their natural inclination to jump from idiotic heights into shallow water, or to ride bicycles down mountainsides, or to eat unidentified brightly colored berries.

The human species does need a certain amount of foolhardiness. Without that, people would have been too reasonable to do frightening things—like venture close to that very hot orange stuff that turns wood black and makes Tharg’s beard smoke. But evolution is not a precise mechanism, and it has resulted in a certain number of people in the population with more nerve than neurons. Spore sprouting was only the latest in an increasingly shiny set of activities destined to neatly—and violently—cull such individuals from the gene pool.

But Tress hadn’t sought out the occupation. She’d fallen into it. She was intelligent enough to understand the charts and thoughtful enough to expand

upon the ideas. And what she lacked in formal training, she more than made up for by being the type of person who used oven mitts even when a pot had been given time to cool down.

It was, at that moment, the exact mix that innovation required. In fact, while some might call what happened next dumb luck, I would term it inevitable.

There’s no reason, Tress thought, holding up the schematic, why you couldn’t make something like this that was portable.

Not just a gun. Guns were common, and while useful, not particularly flexible. Could she improve upon that? What would a modular spore gun look like?

A note at the bottom of the schematic—again added by the original creator—gave her the last piece she needed.

Reference my schematic for flares, which iterates on this design.

Moon of meanings… Flare guns. The first few steps had already been taken. All Tress had to do was—

A knock came at the door.

Such a little interruption. A polite one, of the type Tress associated with her old life. Nonetheless it shattered Tress’s concentration like the thunder of a thousand cannons firing at once. She leaped to her feet and threw open the door, uncharacteristically prepared to unleash a stream of verbal abuse upon the one who had so callously interrupted her.

She found Fort standing outside, plugging the hallway, holding a plate covered with a pot lid to keep it warm. He held up his sign.

You didn’t pick up evening mess, it said. Are you all right?

Tress blinked, then glanced out her room’s porthole. It had gotten so dark, she’d been squinting to read without realizing it. Soon, she’d need to light her lamp—a luxury afforded the sprouter that was denied common sailors.

She put a hand to her head, pushing back her hair, trying to track the hours. Had she really been that enthralled?

Moon of mercy…she’d been ready to snap at Fort when he’d been so kind as to bring her some dinner. What had happened to her? Had some kind of

spell on those papers made the time vanish? Or had she really been that

interested? Remarkable. There weren’t any cups involved, nor any windows. “Thank you, Fort,” she said, taking the plate. She peeked underneath the

cover and found the normal crusted slop leftovers. Today’s offering might

have once been some mashed potatoes and seagull, though it was difficult to

tell through the char. She figured the meals probably weren’t made of sawdust and rocks, despite the flavor, since she hadn’t died from malnutrition yet.

You still owe me for all this, he noted. Captain never did order me to let you eat, despite your new station.

“When we figure out the right payment,” Tress mumbled, “can we maybe start letting me have some that isn’t scraped off the bottom of the pot?”

Fort frowned. What? Tress, I save some for you and Hoid first thing, before I let the Dougs at it.


It hit her like a hammer to the skull. This wasn’t the leftovers.

This was what everyone ate. “Oh…oh dear,” she said.

Fort had the decency to look down and shrug apologetically. We took turns after Weev died, he wrote. I’m the best we have. Ann’s concoction left half the crew sick for three days.

“Is that so,” Tress said. “Well, I think I have discovered a way I can repay you—and the rest of the crew—for the kindness you’ve shown me.”

Cooking here isn’t easy, he warned, holding up his palm beside the board after he wrote the words. We only have sea rations—most of it stale, canned, or dried. It’s hard to make palatable.

“I think you’ll be surprised,” Tress said. “Come get me tomorrow before you start cooking for evening mess…” She trailed off as she heard the bell on deck ring out a warning.

That wasn’t the three heavy strikes indicating another ship had been

spotted. But neither was it the call to mess, which was a constant ringing. It was two strikes, then quiet, then two strikes.

“What’s that?” she asked.

Border ahead, Fort wrote, hand moving quickly as he practically bounced with excitement. Crimson Sea has been spotted. Want to witness the crossing?

“Absolutely!” she said, joining him in the hall, though she was strangely reluctant to leave her research. That was silly. She had no formal training in academics; her schooling had ended at basic reading and arithmetic. Surely

she wasn’t secretly a scholar. A window-washing girl? If she’d been inclined toward research, she’d have realized it before.

The truth was, she’d simply never encountered a topic interesting enough

—or dangerous enough—to engage her.

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