THE SHIP’S BELL RANG a series of unceasing sharp notes.
“All hands on deck,” Ann said. “How…how could she know, Tress?” “Spores,” Tress said. “It’s hard to explain.”
The bell continued to ring, and each peal seemed a threat: Die. Die. Die. “What do we do?” Ann asked. “She’ll execute us, same as she did with
“We fight,” Salay said. “We were going to do it tomorrow. We’ll have to start early. Tress, you said you have a weapon we can use?”
Though she wanted nothing more than to sleep, Tress nodded. They were committed now. She stood and threw open the door, intending to run down the hallway to her room to get the flare gun. However, as soon as she opened the door, she found a pistol leveled at her forehead.
“Well now,” Laggart said, “captain wants to see you four most of all.
How…convenient to find you all together.”
Tress’s trembling returned, then redoubled, trying to make up for lost time. She stared down the barrel of that gun and found her mouth had gone dry again, for a different reason. She forced out some words anyway.
“You can’t hurt me,” she said. “Captain needs me.”
“True, I’m afraid,” Laggart said. Then he turned the gun and shot Salay in the thigh.
Ann screamed and Fort lunged forward to try to grab Laggart—but he stopped short when he saw a second pistol pointed right at him.
“Captain didn’t say anything about bringing the other three of you up
alive,” Laggart said. “So now, Fort. Can you read what I’m saying, or does the gun speak loudly enough for you?”
The large man froze, but Ann ignored the gun, kneeling and using her handkerchief to bind Salay’s wound.
Tress felt helpless. Ann finished the binding, but then looked up, uncertain. They needed Ulaam. It was bleeding so much…
“Up on deck,” Laggart said to them, backing away and gesturing toward the steps. A few gawking Dougs hurried past, feet thumping on the wood.
“She’s bleeding!” Tress said.
“Not as much as she would be with another hole in her,” Laggart said. “Up.”
Fort gently pushed Ann to the side, then lifted Salay, who put her arms around his neck. She nodded to Tress, grimacing at the pain. Ann glared at Laggart, her hands bloody. He just smiled and wagged the pistol’s tip.
Reluctantly, Tress led the way, and the five of them emerged on deck. The Crimson Moon hung ominous in the night sky, pouring spores down in a vast haze—like the misty sheet of rain you might get beneath clouds on another planet. Here, the bright moonlight made them shimmer like tiny drops of glistening blood.
Crow stood framed beneath the moon, her shadow breaking the red light.
Dougs gathered on either side of the deck, leaving an open space in the
center for the captain—and the four mutineers. Fort settled Salay down, and she held a firm hand on her bound wound. The other three huddled around her. Laggart came up behind them, then climbed up onto the quarterdeck
where he had a good view of—and line of sight on—all of them.
“So,” Crow said, “you lot want to take my ship away from me, do you?
Mutiny against your own?”
None of the four responded.
“Honestly,” Crow said, “I didn’t think you had it in you—considering how I had to force you lot into this life.” She waved, and a Doug hurried forward, setting a small table onto the deck between them.
“I’m impressed,” Crow said, slipping a pistol out of her belt and setting it on the table. A second followed. Then a third. “Consider me a…proud parent. But it makes me wonder. How many on this ship truly respect their captain?”
Fort was watching his board. He tapped a few words on the back. No one respects you, Crow. They do what you say because they fear the spores in your blood.
“Now, I thought you were the smart one, Fort,” Crow said. “It’s not the spores they fear. It’s me. Isn’t that right, crew?” She scanned the Dougs, most of whom backed away beneath her glare. “I do have to hand it to you, Tress. I—”
“Hand?” Dr. Ulaam said, perking up at the back of the crowd. “I have—” “Shut up, Ulaam,” Crow growled, not turning toward him. She kept
Tress’s eyes. “I knew I’d eventually have to deal with Salay, maybe Fort.
But you gave me all of them in a neat package, with proof of their treachery.” She gestured toward the table. “Well, let’s get on with it. An old-fashioned duel. Three pistols. The four of you—well, three, as I see Salay is grappling with the result of her arrogance—against me.”
“Hardly fair,” Ann said. “Your spores will stop any bullets we fire at you.” “Don’t fire them at me then,” Crow said, gesturing toward the
quarterdeck. “Kill Laggart before I deal with the three of you, and I’ll step down as captain.”
“Captain?” Laggart said, stepping to the edge of the rail.
“Put your pistol away, Laggart,” Crow shouted. “And stand there like a good target.”
“But…” He trailed off as he realized that yes, she was that callous. He slowly put away his pistol.
“Well?” Crow said. “This wasn’t a negotiation. I’m not making an offer.
It’s an ultimatum.”
Fort moved first, leaping for the guns. Crow kicked the leg out from the table—scattering the weapons to the deck—then surged forward and
slammed her elbow into Fort’s face. Tress had never heard anything quite like the crunch that made. The sharp crack of breaking cinnamon sticks mixed with the dull thud of tenderizing a gull’s breast.
The sound shocked her, made her acknowledge what was happening.
She’d been in a daze, but now she leaped for the deck, trying to snatch one of the guns. In the chaos, she lost track of what was happening—though I
had an excellent view. Crow vaulted over Fort as he held his face, then slapped Salay’s hand—she’d tried crawling to one of the guns.
Crow snatched up that pistol, then nonchalantly tossed it overboard. She spun around and rammed her fist into Tress’s stomach, throwing her full
weight and momentum into the swing. Tress’s breath, drive, and hope were rammed forcibly out her mouth as she crumpled around the fist.
There’s no hands-off way to prepare to take a punch. No conceptual training, no schoolhouse theory. When you get hit, yes, a part of you panics. But a bigger part of you is dumbfounded. The mind cannot accept that such a thing could happen, for nothing in life has prepared it for such brutality.
It’s hard to internalize the truth that someone was actually willing to hurt you—even murder you.
That is an edge a person like Crow will always have over others. Her mind accepts these facts easily. She will hurt, and she will kill. She enjoys both.
She was grinning madly as she grabbed the table and slammed it into Fort’s face. It didn’t break, like they sometimes do in stories of bar fights. It was good solid wood, and it thumped against his arms—which were
sheltering his broken nose—and sent him sprawling.
Crow tossed the second gun overboard, then looked for the third. It was in Ann’s hands, pointed at Laggart.
Crow’s grin widened, then she gestured as if to say, “Be my guest.” Laggart started to back away.
“Leave your post, Cannonmaster,” Crow said, “and I’ll shoot you myself.
Think very carefully about which bullet you’d rather risk.”
He remained in place. Ann’s arm started to shake. She looked at Crow and saw a woman with nothing to lose. In that moment Ann was the smart one, because she realized that no matter what she did—whether she hit or not— Crow wasn’t going to let herself lose this fight. She’d go back on her word if she had to. What were the Dougs going to do? Tell the king’s marshals?
But at least if she shot Laggart, they would have one fewer enemy to worry about. Ann steadied her arm. She aimed. She fired.
And she missed by at least half a boat length.
Crow laughed, then shoved Ann aside. The scrappy woman came back up with a knife and death in her eyes.
Crow chuckled and slipped something from her pocket. A stubby gun with a very wide barrel.
Tress’s flare gun.
Through the tears in her eyes—still stunned from the punch—Tress saw the captain fire it and hit Ann in the chest. The flare connected with a thump, and her body cushioned the trigger enough to prevent it from going off. So it fell to the deck, and there—hitting tip-down—it released its explosion of vines to wrap around Ann.
“For cheating,” the captain said, tucking the flare gun away. She absently slammed her heel into Salay’s wounded leg, making the woman scream in pain. Crow checked on Fort last—his face was a mess of blood, and he still seemed dazed.
After making sure he wasn’t going to come up swinging, Crow walked over to where he’d dropped his strange magical writing board. Her heel took this next, snapping it in half with a crunch.
Fort cried out. It was the only time I’ve heard him speak, other than to laugh. It was a mournful cry full of primal human grief. He slumped forward, putting bloody hands to bloody face, heaving as he sobbed.
Tress finally understood Crow’s purpose. Killing the four of them might have inspired rebellion among the Dougs; she’d learned from her execution of Weev. Death made martyrs. Humiliation made servants.
The Dougs lowered their eyes when she scanned the deck. Fort’s sorrow turned silent and personal. The ship fell quiet—but it wasn’t the quiet of a night of falling snow. It was the quiet of a hospital room after a loved one died.
Crow had defeated the four best officers on the ship, and hadn’t even needed her strange spore blood. Ulaam was surprised it hadn’t manifested, he told me later. Crow had better control of her ailment than any of us had realized. She’d purposefully kept the vines in, so no one would wonder later whether she was less dangerous without them.
There would be no crossing the captain again after today. “Cannonmaster,” Crow barked. “Lower anchor.”
“Captain?” Laggart said. “But you said we needed to keep sailing to reach the lair…”
“We’ve arrived.” “But—”
“A quick piece of advice, Laggart,” Crow said. “If you suspect mutiny, always tell people the trip will end a few days after it actually will. Human
nature compels cowards to wait until the last possible moment before they try anything.”
The anchor went down with a rattle of its chain. Crow wasn’t bluffing— we’d gotten close enough, though there wasn’t a precise location one needed to reach to get the dragon’s attention. You simply needed to be within the region he watched. Crow proved this by tossing a letter overboard, held in the traditional glass case, as her books instructed.
Then she hauled Tress to her feet, restraining the girl by means of a death grip on her shoulder. “You,” Crow said, “are going to go with me quietly and willingly, or I’ll have Laggart start executing your friends. This is another ultimatum.”
Tress nodded, because she still hadn’t gotten her breath back. Her first real fight, and she’d lasted exactly one punch. Her eyes were still watering, her
stomach aching. She felt useless—at least until she saw Salay looking at her.
Then Tress felt worthless instead.
Salay was holding her thigh, where blood was seeping through the makeshift bandage. Through her pain, she was looking to Tress, pleadingly.
Tress turned away.
At that moment, Salay finally understood. She finally believed. “You were never one, were you?”
“No,” Tress whispered. “I…tried to tell you…” Salay slumped to the deck, defeated.
Beyond the ship, the spores began to undulate, then spin in a whirlpool as if draining from below. The Dougs and I rushed to the side, watching as a large tunnel appeared in the spores, the sides of it solid despite the seethe. It led down into darkness. Xisis had received the message.
“Prepare the launch,” Crow shouted. Once the small rowboat was ready, hanging beside the deck, she forced Tress in.
Crow climbed in next and nodded to Laggart, who held a pistol on Ann. “If we don’t come back in an hour,” Crow shouted, “kill one of them.”
Tress slumped down into her seat. Then she felt a hand on her shoulder.
She looked to see me reaching across the railing to her. “You still have,” I whispered, “everything you need.”
I backed away at a bark from the captain, and the Dougs lowered the boat like a makeshift elevator to get them down to sea level.
Crow pushed Tress in front as they stepped out onto the strangely firm spores, then started down into the tunnel.