I IMPLIED THAT I DIDN’T remember the names of the Dougs. That was a lie—I wanted to keep your focus on the main players of this particular story.
But every person has a story, Dougs included. The one who died was named Pakson; both he and his sister were Dougs on the Crow’s Song. Pakson was tall and awkward on land—the type of man who seemed to have been born with legs a size too large for his torso. He was bald, despite his relative youth, and his neck kind of merged with his chin—to the point that after meeting him, you’d inexplicably get a hankering for a baguette.
He was also unaccountably kind. He was the man who had kept checking on Tress as she clung to the side of the ship. He’d held the rope with several others as Fort pulled her up.
He’d always laughed at meals and thanked Fort for the food, no matter how bad it had tasted. He loved music, but couldn’t play, and had always secretly regretted never learning. I wish I’d been in a state of mind to give him lessons.
Now he had fallen. We gave his corpse to the spores and sailed onward.
Tress felt responsible. Maybe if the ship had waited a few more months out in the Verdant, they wouldn’t have encountered the rains that day. She was terrified that Pakson wouldn’t be the only casualty of her recklessness. So she sought her room—and the distracting comfort of her spores.
As always, Huck was there. Talking to her about life as a rat. His voice distracted her from her problems. The ratty tales were relaxing; even when he spoke of fears and challenges among the rat community, she found herself soothed. Because those events had happened far away. They were personal, yet somehow abstract at the same time..
“It’s really interesting,” he was telling her, “how much we can smell of the world that you don’t seem to be able to. Everyone’s shoes smell different.
Did you know that?”
“I’d have thought they all smelled the same.”
“Not to a rat!” Huck said, sitting on the table next to where she was working. He launched into a story about how he’d been able to follow a human through a crowd by sniffing for the distinctive scent of his boots.
Tress half listened, half worked. She was tinkering with the other flares for her augmented flare gun. In each, she adjusted the amounts of the various types of spores, then recorded them in a notebook so she could see which
experiment worked the best.
Up above, gulls called in the air. The Dougs, perhaps needing something to take their own minds off what had happened to Pakson, were fishing the air to catch meat for upcoming meals. Plus, birds were very rare on the
Crimson, so you moved when you had the chance.
Tress soon had four different flares alongside four different charges. Each flare would theoretically release verdant aether upon hitting, but how much each released was different, which would help her iterate the design. And the charges each had differing amounts of zephyr spores.
She told herself this work would help the other crewmembers. The sooner she found a way to disable Crow, the sooner they could all point the prow out of the Crimson. Regrettably, this argument found a hostile audience,
even though she made it only to herself. She was planning, after all, on trying to get the crew to sail the Midnight next—and it was said to be even more dangerous.
How many lives was she willing to risk to save one man? At what point did the good of her crew outweigh that of Charlie?
You might think this an unfair moral problem to force upon a simple
window washer, but there’s a certain arrogance in that kind of reasoning. A window washer can think, same as anyone else, and their lives are no less
complex. And as I’ve warned you, “simple” labor often leaves plenty of time for thought.
Yes, intellectuals and scholars are paid to think deep thoughts—but those thoughts are often owned by others. It is a great irony that society tends to look down on those who sell their bodies, but not on those who lease out their minds.
As Tress set the final flare in the row, Huck trailed off.
“So…I guess now we have to test them,” he said. “Any thoughts on how to do that?”
“Well,” she said, “the Dougs have mostly been staying on the upper deck lately. And the hold is empty of goods.”
Huck nodded; it was the most obvious choice. She set him on her
shoulder, then packed her flares, gun, and notebook in her bag. She went and explained to Laggart that she wanted to inspect the handiwork Ann had done patching the hull down below. It might, Tress explained, help her understand how to make better roseite patches in the future.
It was an unremarkable lie, but if Laggart saw through it, he likely thought she was trying to make work to stay busy. The cannonmaster gave his permission and said he’d keep anyone from bothering her. The exchange was so relatively pleasant, Tress briefly wondered if something was wrong with him.
On her way down, a Doug called from the rigging, pointing into the distance. Another rainline had been spotted. Tress’s breath caught, but the rain—this time—swerved away from the ship and vanished soon after.
Tress tore her eyes away and hastened down to the ship’s cavernous hold. She latched the trap door at the top of the steps for a little extra security, then set out her three oil lamps—something denied to common sailors. It was unwise to leave too many things burning when you lived in what was
essentially a giant dry, hollow piece of firewood.
The hold was half empty, having disgorged its goods at the last stop before the Crimson. Foodstuffs and water supplies made up her audience as she loaded a charge, then a flare, into her weapon. She then turned and raised the gun toward the empty aft portion of the hold.
Huck, to his credit, didn’t run, though he did cower a bit in her hair, which she left unbraided more often these days—in a tail or just unrestrained,
waving free. She paid for that with the brush at nights, but it felt…liberating. At home, she’d always been embarrassed for how her hair behaved. But out here, there were so many more pressing things to worry about.
Tress pulled the trigger—which caused the gun’s hammer to hit the flare with enough force to break the tiny glass vial in the charge. Zephyr spores exploded, releasing air, faintly blue. The flare popped out the front of the gun…
…then flew approximately a foot before nose-diving into the floor. She probably should have used a tad more zephyr.
Unfortunately for Tress, the rest of her work had been meticulous. She’d fundamentally grasped the nature of the mechanisms from the schematics. And so, her design functioned perfectly. When the flare hit the deck nose-first, the shock pushed the silver point inside into the sphere of roseite, releasing the water.
Verdant vines exploded outward, seizing Tress and enwrapping her with dizzying speed. She felt an initial spike of fear and some discomfort as the vines constricted, lifting her up a good two feet. But there was no actual pain, and once it was over she felt more humiliated than frightened.
“Tress!” Huck said. “Oh, Tress! Are you all right?” He scampered off her shoulder and onto the vines.
She wiggled her fingers, then started laughing.
Tress’s laugh was a silly thing, involving snorts and hiccups. It was an honest laugh, validated by its ridiculous nature.
In that moment, the last vestiges of Tress’s spore fear died away. She’d made a mistake, and she would be careful in future experiments. But today, her mistake had merely cost her a little dignity—traded away for the pleasure of knowing what it felt like to be a grape trellis.
“In my bag,” Tress said, still chuckling. “Fetch me the silver knife.”
As Huck scrambled to obey, Tress noticed the ends of the vines were still growing. As before, when she thought about them, they turned toward her. In this particular case, she didn’t want them to constrict her further, and so she thought of them pulling away. Remarkably, they did.
It wasn’t perfect control. Plus, she couldn’t do anything about the already grown vines and had to use the knife to cut herself free. But it left her
wondering how far her control could go.
She carefully added more zephyr spores to each of her charges. The next experiments were less amusing. All three flew as she wanted, though one of the flares bounced free without releasing vines.
The other two exploded with vines just as she’d hoped. During the last
experiment, she tried thinking about the vines as they grew, willing them to not grab onto anything. This time, instead of taking hold of the wall and the ribs of the ship, the vines stretched toward her—then the entire mass fell to the floor.
She spent the rest of the afternoon cutting the vines down and taking them up to dump out her window. She hid everything incriminating in her room
with Huck—chastising herself for forgetting to lock the door on her way out earlier—and rushed to help Fort with the day’s dinner. He found her a distracted helper, as her mind was elsewhere. Why had one of her flares failed to release vines? What if she fired a dud when she was facing Crow?
She’d need to do more testing before initiating a confrontation. But she finally had a weapon. A surprise.
Crow was looking for someone who didn’t fear the spores. And that was just what she was going to get.