PEOPLE WANT TO IMAGINE that time is consistent, steady, stable. They define the day, create tools to measure it, chop it up into hours, minutes, seconds. They pretend each one is equal to the others—when in fact some are clearly prime cuts, and others are full of gristle.
Tress understood this now, as she’d known a hearty day thick with meat and fat. But the next few were lean and limber, passing quickly. While not the diaphane days of a vacation, they were ephemeral nonetheless—for all their increasing tension. The ship drew steadily closer to the Midnight Sea, interrupted only once when Tress had to lift them during a stilling.
The rain missed them on that occasion, but none of the crew had
complained about the hassle of chopping vines off the ship. If anything, this near miss was a reminder that they—by all reasonable accounts—should not be alive.
Tress felt a momentum to her travel, a phantom tailwind. Encouraging, but also relentless. After so much wandering, so many detours, it was happening. She was sailing to confront the Sorceress. This was perhaps what made the days pass with such elasticity—if the first part of her voyage had been the bow being drawn, now the arrow had been released.
She also decided to cast off a little emotional ballast. She was tired of lies and deception. With a frankness that was honestly somewhat inconvenient when trying to create a story, she gathered Salay, Ann, and Fort—then introduced them to Huck.
He’d agreed to it reluctantly, and perhaps only because he’d been so
elated when Tress had stumbled into the captain’s cabin that first night after confronting the dragon—and discovered him in a little cage, the cat pawing at the bars. Despite everything, Tress found room within her to feel guilty for not thinking of him. In her defense, she’d assumed him safe in her cabin— though the knowledge that Crow had ransacked the place should have raised if not a red flag, at least a fuchsia streamer.
Still, his excitement to hear of her exploits had washed that guilt away like grime off a window. And now he sat on her palm, introducing himself to the ship’s officers, explaining how he and Tress had met. That done, he and Tress both waited for their reactions.
You did so much to help, Huck! Fort wrote. Moons! We need to tell the Dougs. We can’t have anyone stepping on you! You’re a hero!
The rat perked up.
“Yeah,” Ann said. “And we’ve got to do something about that cat—can’t let it roam free! I’ll build a cage or something for it, keep it in my room until the next port.”
All turned to Salay, who did her best to look calm and commanding despite her crutch. She rubbed her chin. “A rat on the crew,” she said. “Tell me…what is your opinion on tiny pirate hats?”
Spoiler: he turned out to be quite fond of them. It was honestly a little distracting.
The second thing Tress did in the name of abject honesty was explain the challenges that would face them in the Midnight Sea. This, in turn, led her to explain who she was, why she’d left her home, and what she was trying to do.
Afterward, Ann did ask what was so great about this guy she loved. Tress did her best to explain, though she was certain world-traveled people like them would find her love plain and unremarkable.
She underestimated the power of simple words spoken with passion. No one questioned her after that.
So, the days faded behind her like the setting Crimson Moon. And ahead, a jet-black moon broke the horizon. It reflected no light, and seemed more a void than an object. A tunnel to nothing. As it emerged from the horizon Tress feared, irrationally, that it would keep growing—that the Midnight
Moon wouldn’t be the size of the others, but would turn out to be a vast darkness that consumed the entirety of the sky.
To escape it, she spent time in her new quarters. The captain had far more space than Tress had been assigned, though she still used her old room for
spore experiments. She filled page after page of the captain’s notebook with discarded ideas for how to protect the ship as it crossed the Midnight Sea.
Trouble was, her mind didn’t seem to work right anymore. Where it had once seized upon ideas with a predatory vigor, now it seemed trapped in a room, scratching uselessly at the walls with nothing to show for the effort. What had happened to her ingenuity? Her self-defining thoughtfulness?
She grew more and more frustrated as each day slipped away from her, leaving no further progress than frazzled hair and another scribbled-out page in the notebook. What was wrong with her?
Nothing was wrong with Tress. Her mind was functioning properly. She hadn’t lost her creativity. She hadn’t run out of ideas. She was simply tired.
We want to imagine that people are consistent, steady, stable. We define who they are, create descriptions to lock them on a page, divide them up by
their likes, talents, beliefs. Then we pretend some—perhaps most—are better than we are, because they stick to their definitions, while we never quite fit ours.
Truth is, people are as fluid as time is. We adapt to our situation like water in a strangely shaped jug, though it might take us a little while to ooze into
all the little nooks. Because we adapt, we sometimes don’t recognize how twisted, uncomfortable, or downright wrong the container is that we’ve been told to inhabit.
We can keep going that way for a while. We can pretend we fit that jug, awkward nooks and all. But the longer we do, the worse it gets. The more it
wears on us. The more exhausted we become. Even if we’re doing nothing at all, because simply holding the shape can take all the effort in the world.
More, if we want to make it look natural.
There was a lot about being a pirate that did suit Tress. She’d learned and grown a great deal—but it had still been a relatively short time since she’d
left the Rock. She was tired in a way that a good night’s sleep—or ten of them—couldn’t cure. Her mind didn’t have any more to give. She needed to allow herself a chance to catch up to the person she’d become.
She was now only three days away from the Midnight Sea, and she was no closer to thinking of a way through it. And pounding her head against the page wasn’t accomplishing anything more than getting ink on her forehead.
Tress was dreading what would happen next. And indeed, it arrived with a polite knock on her door. She nodded to Huck, who had—for some strange reason—decided she needed a valet. Did captains have valets? She thought those were for gentlemen with so many pairs of shoes they needed someone to organize them all.
Huck scampered over to the table beside the entry and called, “The captain bids you come in!”
Tress figured she could have done that herself. She was not yet
accustomed to the finer points of being in charge, which often involve being too important to do things the sensible way.
Salay, Ann, and Fort entered. Tress steeled herself for their recrimination. Here, today, they would see the truth. That she had no plan. That she was an unfit captain.
In actuality, all they saw was that she had very nice penmanship. Even written backward on her forehead.
“All right, Captain,” Salay said. “We’ve been giving this voyage some thought. And the protections around the Sorceress seem almost impossible to overcome.”
“I know,” Tress said, bracing herself. “Salay, I…I don’t…”
“Therefore,” Salay continued, getting out some papers, “we’ve been working hard on ways to overcome them. We’ve got some pretty good suggestions here, if you want to see them.”
Well, she often blinked, as people do. In this case, it was a meaningful blink. It was the kind that said, Wait. What did I just hear?
“You have…suggestions?” Tress asked.
“Here, let’s get to it,” Salay said, each of them grabbing a chair and settling down next to Tress’s meeting table.
Tress drifted over, then looked with amazement as Salay laid out the first set of plans. “This was Fort’s idea,” she said. “He should explain.”
Huck says, he wrote on his board, that the island is protected by machine men, an entire legion of them, who can’t be harmed in any way. I started working on a way to distract them, until I realized you already solved this problem, Tress.
The new sign was an improvement over the other. Lines of text disappeared at the top, replaced with new ones at the bottom, so he didn’t have to stop—he could keep tapping words on the back for them, speaking more in real time.
Also, it could do different fonts.
“I…solved the problem?” Tress asked, taking the chair that Huck was trying to push over for her. Once she sat, he dusted his paws off as if he’d done an excellent job, then went to count her pairs of shoes.
You did, Fort said. With your ftare gun modifications! You were already prepared to face someone we can’t kill. We just need to expand what you came up with! I figure, a legion of mechanical men can’t hurt us if they’re wrapped in vines.
See, here’s a schematic for a cannonball using the ideas you came up with. We could lure out the metal men, bombard the beach with verdant, and tie them all up. Then you slip right past!
She took the diagram. It had several parts that said “sprouter mumbo-jumbo” on it, so he obviously didn’t grasp the finer details of what she’d done. Yet, the idea was sound. Excellent, even. They already had
cannonballs made to explode on a timer—she could build ones that burst with vines instead of spraying water.
“This is brilliant, Fort!” she said.
Fair trade! he said, tapping the board. Once you have your friend back, then we’ll be even. Not before.
She didn’t point out that he’d only lost his original board because of her— and so giving one back to him was already a fair trade. She was too amazed.
They’d solved her problem. Instead of being angry at her for not having the solution, they had worked out one themselves. She…didn’t need to do this all on her own. That shouldn’t have been such a revelation for her. But after spending ages walking around with everyone piling bricks in your
arms, it can throw you off balance when someone removes a brick to carry for you.
“Thank you,” Tress whispered, trying to maintain her composure. She wasn’t certain if captains should cry in front of their crew. Seemed like
there’d be a maritime law against it. “Thank you so much! I’ve been trying and trying to think of a way through this.”
We’re here for you, Fort said. We’re your crew, Tress. Your friends. Let us help.
“Yes, of course,” Tress said. “But…thank you.” She looked at them each in turn, beaming.
“I’m trying to figure out why it says ‘Ask nicely’ on your forehead, Tress,” Ann said.
Technically, Fort added, it says “ylecin ksA.”
“Actually it says neither,” Salay said. “Because it’s crossed out. See?”
“Oh yeah,” Ann said. “Anyway, we might have a solution to the other problem on the island: getting into the tower. You gave us the clue to this one too.”
“Growing a tree of verdant vines?” Tress said. “To reach the top, and get in that way? I thought of that, Ann, but surely the Sorceress keeps the door locked.”
But not the window, Fort said. Where she lets out her ravens.
“Far too small.”
For a human, he wrote.
Their eyes turned toward Huck, who stood before the room’s wardrobe.
He’d finished counting the shoes Tress owned. That hadn’t been difficult, as she was wearing both of them presently. So he’d moved on to making a mental list of the different types she’d need to buy.
He felt the stares. It’s a thing rats learn. So he turned, feeling like the only piece of cheese left in the larder. “What?” he said.
“We need someone small,” Salay said, “to sneak into the Sorceress’s tower through her raven window.”
“Tricky,” Huck said, “since I don’t think any human could fit through… Oh. Rat. Right.” He wrung his paws together.
We need to do this for the captain, Fort said. And the debt we owe her.
“Huck owes me no debt,” Tress said. “He wouldn’t be on this ship except for me.”
Which means he’d be on the bottom of the Verdant Sea.
I doubt he’d have made it to the bottom. Rats are rather low in body mass. He’d almost certainly have ended up wrapped in a vine ball, drifting through the middle depths of the ocean until he decomposed. But as no one in the
room was versed in spore depth density and relative fluidized viscosity, they took Fort’s words as fact.
“It’s all right,” Tress said to Huck. “You don’t need to do it if you don’t want to. I’d hate to force you into anything. But…it is a good solution.
You’re good at sneaking, Huck.”
“But how will I reach the window?”
“On verdant vines, which I’ll grow upward for you.”
“No good,” he said. “The tower is coated in silver. Didn’t I tell you that?”
He hadn’t. And that would cause a problem. Tress sat back, her face falling. Something in that expression pained Huck. He couldn’t stand how gloomy she’d been feeling lately. Like smog over an island, he thought. So something slipped out.
“I can get you through the door,” Huck said. “I…have a way we rats know about. If you somehow got me to the tower, I could open it. But Tress, isn’t
all of this irrelevant? We would have to cross the Midnight Sea first. And we shouldn’t do that. We’ve barely survived the Crimson!”
He was, unfortunately, correct. Tress looked to her friends, hoping they knew a quick solution to this problem as they had the first two. No one
spoke up. The other three might not have been marked, both literally and literately, by the fruits of their frustration on this point, but they were equally stymied.
Curiously though, there is a feature of collaboration that is often misunderstood. Two heads are not necessarily better than one (no matter what Dr. Ulaam might say). That rather depends on the heads in question.
However, when someone tries, it makes others more willing to try. And when you taste a little success—even vicariously—it can act as a mental laxative.
Or if you prefer, a little success is the metaphoric bang on the front of the mental vending machine that jostles loose the stuck ideas.
Tress’s eyes went wide.