THE CAPTAIN AUTHORIZED opening a keg of something intoxicating after dinner, which Tress considered a nice gesture. It proved the captain wasn’t completely heartless. (Granted, that meant Crow did have a
conscience, but ignored it most of the time. Which is verifiably worse.) Tress did not partake of the brew. She’d only been drunk once in her life,
two years before at a holiday gathering when she hadn’t realized how much punch was in the punch. That day, she’d blathered endlessly about her favorite recipes. While Charlie had found it endearing, she worried a little alcoholic grease today might make her plans slip out as freely.
Instead she gathered up a plate of the night’s meal: biscuits and a strong meaty gravy with vegetables. It was basically stew you ate with your fingers, but it at least gave the illusion of variety. There was only so much she could do with the ingredients at her disposal.
The crew loved it anyway. After months of meals that bore an uncomfortable kinship with tile grout, one did not complain at a little repetition on a delicious theme. And—though one might not believe it after experiencing the variegated ways the Dougs could assault a language—the crew was not stupid. They saw that Tress was helping Fort. And suddenly
their meals contained food rather than something merely—by the strictest definition of the word—edible. So when they cheered her as she left, it
wasn’t only because they were mildly inebriated.
She felt undeserving of this attention, particularly considering how her
actions had put them all in such danger. So she hurried to Salay’s cabin with a plate of food. Salay hadn’t made an appearance at dinner, and Tress
worried about her.
Tress knew the right door only because of the number on it; she’d never visited Salay. Tress knocked hesitantly, and thought she heard someone blow their nose on the other side. A moment later, Salay opened the door, and though her darker skin tone masked things like a red nose and cheeks, her
eyes made it clear she’d been crying.
“Oh, Tress,” Salay said, her voice as clipped and stern as always. “Is something wrong?”
“I brought you dinner,” Tress said, uncomfortable. She’d never seen Salay in anything other than her naval outfit, with stiff trousers and coat. It felt
wrong somehow to be barging in on her when she was wearing a robe over a nightgown.
Still, the woman gestured for Tress to enter and put the plate on the desk. Tress slipped in, shocked to discover how small the room was. It was barely half the size of her own quarters. As helmswoman, Salay was the ship’s third in command. Surely she deserved more space than this closet.
“I appreciate the meal,” Salay said. “It was inefficient of me to make you bring it. I need to maintain my strength, of course. Today only proved that more…”
She pushed past Tress and settled down at the desk, taking the plate. Tress wondered if she should go, but Salay kept speaking, so she lingered.
“I keep thinking there has to be a way to avoid the rains,” Salay explained.
She absently pushed the plate of food aside, then pointed at the unrolled chart on her desk. “There’s no pattern to them though. People have sailed
the seas for centuries, and still there is no known safe passage through the Crimson. If it hasn’t been found by now…”
Salay stopped, then looked back at Tress. “You know of one, don’t you? A way to protect the crew? You wouldn’t have brought us here if you hadn’t known of a method, right?”
“I…” Tress said, then swallowed. “I’m sorry, Salay. For what happened to Pakson.”
“It’s my job to do what the captain and first officer cannot,” Salay said. “Or…or will not. Someone has to look out for the crew.” She pounded the table, then put her hand to her head, staring at the chart.
Tress settled down on the narrow bed beside the wall, sitting with her hands in her lap, feeling as if she were intruding. The room was remarkably bare of personalization. Some maps in tubes in a bin by the wall. Neat and organized chests for items under the bed. And a picture hanging above the porthole, lit by a flickering desk lamp.
It was a drawing; these people hadn’t discovered photography yet. But it was a good one, drawn expertly but quickly by a street artist in the zephyr capital. It depicted a tall, smiling man and a young girl who bore a striking resemblance to Salay.
“Your father?” Tress asked, pointing.
Salay looked up, then nodded. “I promised him I’d pay his creditors. But when I returned, he was gone. Pressed into labor by the king’s collectors. By the time I caught up to the ship, they’d left him at a debtor’s prison at some port, but couldn’t remember which one.”
“Trouble is, when royal ships need an extra hand, they can always press men from the debtor’s prisons onto their crews. So tracking him proved impossible. He must have bounced around the islands, being pressed and dropped off a dozen times.
“I keep telling myself, and promising Mother via letter, that our only hope is for me to keep sailing. Keep visiting new ports and asking. He’s out there somewhere, Tress. Either that…or he died in one of the conflicts, forced onto the crew of a warship. If that’s the case, I guess I’m too late. I’ve
already failed him, like I failed Pakson.”
“Salay,” Tress said, “you mustn’t give up hope.”
“Why not?” Salay asked, turning toward her. “Is it true? Do you have a way to get us out of this? Do you have a secret from the king that will let us survive the Crimson? Please. Please tell me you have a plan.”
“I…” What could she say? Did she try again to protest she wasn’t what Salay thought? Now, when she’d just told the woman to keep hope?
Hope in a lie—hope in me—is not true hope, Tress thought.
Unless she could do something. Unless there was a way to help. Tress remembered with stark clarity watching the rains approach, knowing there
was nothing she could do to stop them. Knowing her life was now subject to random chance.
She’d almost begun feeling like she was in control. Like she could shape her own destiny. Then the rain had come, a hammer sent by the moons to deliver humility to her via a firm blow to the forehead.
Salay turned away. “It’s not fair of me to ask you to protect them, is it? I don’t know your mission here, your true mission. It’s possible your duty was simply to get us out of the kingdom. We had become deadrunners, dangerous to all we encountered. I can’t blame you for steering us toward our deaths, to protect the innocent. I let it happen. I failed there too.” She smoothed the
edges of her map of the Crimson Sea. “If only we knew where the captain was taking us. Then at least I could plan for how long we’d be in here.”
“Oh,” Tress said. “Salay, I know that.” “You do?”
“Yes. Er, I should probably have told you earlier. The captain is taking us to see the dragon.”
“Xisis?” Salay said, spinning again in her seat. “Is he real?”
“Ulaam says he is. And the captain has books that claim the legends are real.”
“Well, Ulaam would probably know,” Salay said, rubbing her chin. “But why visit the dragon… Oh, she’s looking for a way out of her affliction, isn’t she? I had assumed Crow was so stubborn, she’d bullied the spores in her blood to submit. She’s lived longer than anyone should as a spore eater. But what would she trade…?”
They locked eyes.
“Oh,” Salay said. Then she laughed. “She thinks you’re going to let her trade you for her life? Ha!”
“Yes, um, it’s very funny.”
“Well, I suppose that’s one thing to look forward to,” Salay said. “It’s going to be rich watching her discover what you really are. But tell me. I know you can’t confirm or deny your true mission, but is there any hint you can give me for what to expect after Crow is dealt with?”
“Well,” Tress said, “I will need your support. If I do deal with Crow—if— then I wouldn’t want the crew to free her. I would need to…um…take her to face justice, you see.”
“Of course!” Salay said, looking hopeful for the first time today. “Yes, I can arrange that. Once you have her, we leave the Crimson, then?”
“Yes,” Tress said. “Though…well, this is a little awkward…but I have business with the Sorceress in the Midnight Sea next. And I was hoping…”
Salay’s eyes went wide. Then she laughed again. Her laugh was like a bell calling sailors to arms. Sharp, excited, yet somehow controlled. “Of course you do. Why was I worried? If you are going to sail the Midnight…well, dealing with the Crimson is nothing to someone like you.”
Then her expression turned more serious. “But could you help me protect the crew? I know a bunch of pirates are worthless to the king, but nobody
else is going to look out for them. Even their captain doesn’t care about them. Please, please don’t let us lose another friend.”
In that moment, Tress felt like something Fort had cooked. Grimy, crusty, and barely able to fulfill its intended purpose. She shrank down before the weight of Salay’s hope. What could Tress do? She was a fake. A liar. A…
A very strange, very desperate idea occurred to her. Probably nothing.
Probably a useless whim.
Notably, strange desperation is exactly the state that often leads to genius. “Be ready,” Tress told her. “There is something I can try.”