Chapter no 4 – The Son

Tress of the Emerald Sea


Leave the island?

People didn’t leave the island.

Tress knew, logically, that wasn’t explicitly true. Royal officials could leave. The duke left on occasion to report to the king. Plus he’d earned all those fancy medals by killing people from a distant place where they looked slightly different. He’d apparently been quite heroic during those wars; you could tell because a great number of his troops had died, while he lived.

But in the past, the duke had never taken his family. “The ducal heir has

come of age,” the proclamation announced, “and so we shall present him for betrothal to the various princesses of the civilized seas.”

Now, Tress was a pragmatic young woman. And so she only thought

about ripping her shopping basket to shreds in frustration. She merely

deliberated whether it would be appropriate to swear at the top of her lungs.

She barely considered marching up to the duke’s mansion to demand he change his mind.

Instead she went about her shopping in a numb haze, using the familiar action to give her suddenly crumbling life a semblance of normality. She

found some garlic she was certain she could salvage, several potatoes that hadn’t withered too badly, and even some grain where the weevils were large enough to pick out.

Yesterday, she’d have been pleased with this haul. Today she couldn’t think of anything but Charlie.

It seemed so incredibly unfair. She’d only just acknowledged what she felt for him, and already everything was turning upside down? Yes, she’d been told to expect this pain. Love involved pain. But that was the salt in your tea

—wasn’t there also supposed to be a dab of honey? Wasn’t there supposed to be—dared she wish—passion?

She was to receive all of the detriments of a romantic affair with none of the advantages.

Unfortunately, her practicality began to assert itself. So long as the two of them had been able to pretend, the real world hadn’t been able to claim them. But the days of pretending were over. What had she thought was going to happen? That the duke would let her marry his son? What did she think

she could offer someone like Charlie? She was nothing compared to a princess. Think of how many cups they could afford!

In the pretend world, marriage was about love. In the real world, it was

about politics. A word laden with a large number of meanings, though most of them boiled down to: This is a matter for nobles—and (begrudgingly) the very rich—to discuss. Not peasants.

She finished her shopping and started up the path toward her home, where at least she could commiserate with her parents. But it appeared that the duke was wasting no time, for she saw a procession snaking down toward the docks.

She turned around and walked back via a different path, arriving right after the procession—which began to load the family’s things onto a

merchant ship. Nobody was allowed to leave the island. Unless they were, instead, somebody. Tress worried she wouldn’t get a chance to speak with Charlie. Then she worried that she would, but he wouldn’t want to see her.

Mercifully, she caught him standing at the side of the crowd, searching among the gathering people. The moment he spotted her, he rushed over. “Tress! Oh, moons. I worried I wouldn’t find you in time.”

“I…” What did she say?

“Fare maiden,” he said, bowing, “I must take my leave.”

“Charlie,” she said softly, “don’t try to be someone you aren’t. I know


He grimaced. He was wearing a traveling coat and even a hat. The duke considered hats improper wear except during travel. “Tress,” he said, softer, “I’m afraid I’ve lied to you. You see…I’m not the groundskeeper. I’m… um…the duke’s son.”

“Amazing. Who would have thought that Charlie the groundskeeper and Charles the duke’s heir would be the same person, considering they’re the same age, look the same, and wear the same clothing?”

“Er, yes. Are you angry at me?”

“Anger is in line right now,” Tress said. “It’s seventh down, sandwiched between confusion and fatigue.”

Behind them, Charlie’s father and mother marched up onto the ship. Their servants followed with the last of the luggage.

Charlie gazed at his feet. “It seems I am to be married. To a princess of some nation or another. What do you think of that?”

“I…” What should she say? “I wish you well?”

He looked up and met her eyes. “Always, Tress. Remember?”

It was hard for her, but after groping around for a moment, she found the words hiding in a corner, trying to avoid her. “I wish,” she said, seizing hold of them, “that you wouldn’t do that. Get married. To someone else.”

“Oh?” He blinked. “Do you really?”

“I mean, I’m sure they are very nice. The princesses.”

“I believe it’s part of the job description,” Charlie said. “Like…have you heard of the things they do in stories? Resuscitate amphibians? Notice for parents that their children have wet the bed? One would have to be relatively kind to do these services.”

“Yes,” Tress said. “I…” She took a deep breath. “I would still…rather you didn’t marry one of them.”

“Well then, I shan’t,” Charlie said.

“I don’t believe you have a choice, Charlie. Your father wants you married. It’s politics.”

“Ah, but you see, I have a secret weapon.” He took her hands and leaned in.

Behind, his father moved up to the prow of the ship and looked down,

scowling. Charlie, however, smiled a lopsided smile. His “look how sneaky I am” smile. He used it when he wasn’t being particularly sneaky.

“What…kind of secret weapon, Charlie?” she asked. “I can be incredibly boring.”

“That’s not a weapon.”

“It might not be one in a war, Tress,” he said. “But in courtship? It is as fine a weapon as the sharpest rapier. You know how I go on. And on. And on.”

“I like how you go on, Charlie. I don’t mind the on, in fact. I sometimes quite enjoy the on.”

“You are a special case,” Charlie said. “You are…well, this is kind of silly…but you’re like a pair of gloves, Tress.”

“I am?” she said, choking up.

“Yes. Don’t be offended. I mean, when I have to practice the sword, I wear these gloves and—”

“I understand,” she whispered.

From atop the ship, Charlie’s father shouted for him to be quick. Tress realized then that—like Charlie had different kinds of smiles—his father had different kinds of scowls. She didn’t much like what the current one implied about her.

Charlie squeezed her hands. “Listen, Tress. I promise you. I’m not going to get married. I’m going to go to those kingdoms, and I’m going to be so insufferably boring that none of the girls will have me.

“I’m not good at much. I’ve never scored a single point against my father in sparring. I spill my soup at formal dinners. I talk so much, even my footman—who is paid to listen—comes up with creative reasons to interrupt me. The other day I was telling him the story of the fish and the gull, and he pretended to stub his toe, and…”

The duke shouted again.

“I can do this, Tress,” Charlie insisted. “I will do this. At each stop, I’ll pick out a cup for you, all right? Once I’ve bored the current princess to death—and my father has decided we need to move on—I’ll send you the cup. As proof, you see.” He squeezed her hands once more. “I’ll do it, not only because you listen. But because you know me, Tress. You’ve always been able to see me when others don’t.”

He began turning to finally respond to his father’s shouts. Tress held on, clinging to his hands. Unwilling to let it end.

Charlie gave her one last smile. And though he was plainly trying to act confident, she knew his smiles. This was his uncertain one, hopeful but


“You are my gloves too, Charlie,” Tress said to him.

After that, she had to let go so he could jog up the plank. She’d imposed enough already.

The duke forced his son belowdecks as the ship slipped off the dead grey spores nearest the Rock and into the true verdant ocean. Wind caught the

ship’s sails and it struck out toward the horizon, leaving a wake of disturbed emerald dust behind it. Tress climbed up to her house, then watched from the cliff until the ship was the size of a cup. Then the size of a speck. Then it vanished.

After that, the waiting began.

They say that to wait is the most excruciating of life’s torments. “They” in this case refers to writers, who have nothing useful to do, so fill their time thinking of things to say. Any working person can tell you that having time to wait is a luxury.

Tress had windows to wash. Meals to cook. A little brother to watch. Her father, Lem, had never recovered from his accident in the mines, and though he tried to assist, he could barely walk. He helped Tress’s mother, Ulba, knit socks all day, which they sold to sailors, but with the expense of yarn they turned only a meager profit.

So Tress didn’t wait. She worked.

Still, it was an enormous relief when the first cup arrived. It was delivered by Hoid the cabin boy. (Yes, that’s me. What tipped you off? Was it perhaps the name?) A beautiful porcelain cup, without even a single chip in it.

The world brightened that day. Tress could almost imagine Charlie

speaking as she read the accompanying letter, which detailed the affections of the first princess. With heroic monotony, he had listed the sounds his

stomach made when he lay in various positions at night. As that hadn’t been quite enough, he’d then explained how he kept his toenail clippings and gave them names. That had done it.

Fight on, my loquacious love, Tress thought as she scrubbed the mansion’s windows the next day. Be brave, my mildly gross warrior.

The second cup was of pure red glass, tall and thin, and looked like it could contain more liquid than it actually did. Perhaps it came from a

particularly stingy tavern. He’d put off this princess by explaining what he’d had for breakfast in intricate detail, as he’d counted the pieces of the

scrambled egg and categorized them by size.

The third cup was an enormous solid pewter tankard with heft to it.

Perhaps it was from one of those places Charlie had made up, where people always needed to carry weapons. Tress was reasonably certain she could knock out an attacker by swinging the tankard. The latest princess hadn’t been able to withstand an extended conversation about the benefits of various punctuation marks, including a few Charlie had invented.

The fourth package’s card included no letter, only a small drawing: two gloved hands holding to one another. The cup had a painted butterfly on it with a red ocean underneath; she found it odd that the butterfly wasn’t terrified of the spores. Maybe it was a prisoner, forced to fly out over the ocean to its doom.

The fifth cup never arrived.

Tress tried to play it off, telling herself that it must have been interrupted in transit. After all, any number of dangerous things could happen to a ship sailing the spores. Pirates or…you know…spores.

But the months stretched long, each more tedious than the one before. Every time a ship arrived at the docks, Tress was there asking for mail.


She did this for months on end, until an entire year had passed since Charlie had left.

Then, finally, a note. Not from Charlie, but from his father, sent to the entire town. The duke was returning to Diggen’s Point at long last, and he was bringing his wife, his heir…and his new daughter-in-law.

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