Chapter no 56 – The Traitor

Tress of the Emerald Sea

TRESS EXPECTED A CERTAIN sense of reverberation from the officers as she left her cabin. She felt enthusiasm, relief, excitement. They had an answer to each of the problems they needed to face in order to reach the Sorceress. The other officers, naturally, should have returned similar

emotions to harmonize with her own, making the music of shared success.

So she was confused as she saw Salay running up to her with a concerned expression. Apparently Dr. Ulaam’s treatment had run its course, but Tress hoped Salay had not grown any extra toes.

“What?” Tress asked, her sense of dread returning. “What’s wrong?”

Salay led her to the hold of the ship, where I sat in chains, happily thinking of great conversation starters like politics, religion, and your uncle’s overtly racist views. I experienced my tawdry ruminations among the remnants of the ship’s food stores. An alarmingly small collection now, as I’d happily dumped the rest of the stores overboard.

“We caught him with three jugs of water,” Salay said. “He was preparing to toss them out the rear porthole of the middle deck—where it appears he’s been throwing out our food stores for days now.”

Tress let out a groan. “How much do we have left?”

“Plenty of water,” Salay said. “But less than half of our food. Roughly enough to reach the Verdant Sea, should we leave now. And Captain…we

saw birds on the Crimson only twice, and they don’t live in the Midnight at all. We can’t forage out here.”

They looked at me.

“I had to throw the jugs out,” I explained, “as the food is lonely on the bottom of the sea. Also, Tress, how does your uncle feel about seagulls taking his jobs and/or sandwiches?”

Tress looked at the gathered officers, then all of them turned to Ulaam,

expecting him to have an answer. They foolishly assumed he could grasp the complex network of motivations, loyalties, and historical failures that made up the ever-changing web of my psyche.

“He is currently way too stupid to have done this on his own,” Ulaam said. “See how the ones he was going to toss out are marked with chalk?”

Well, all right then. Points to Ulaam, I suppose.

“The rat said my mission was absolutely vital,” I told them. “It’s also secret. So please don’t tell Tress.”

A short time later, Tress approached Huck in his quarters—her former ones, which she’d assigned to him. His very own room. Yes, it didn’t have silver, but it was more than most rats ever got. He’d been sitting there making a list of all the hats she owned. It only had one item so far, but he was an optimistic type of rat valet. What’s more, he’d been so nervous that he’d needed something to pass the time.

He looked at her. “Did the test with the midnight spores work?” he said, dropping the pencil and scurrying over. “I would have come back to watch. Should have. But…that’s not something a valet has to do, right? Be around midnight spores? They give me chills, Tress.”

“I…” She didn’t know what to say. It is an affliction that I’ve never known, but I hear it can be quite debilitating.

“Tress?” Huck asked. “I feel like you should be excited. Maybe enthusiastic. Certainly relieved. Yet…”

“I’ve discovered,” she said, “that our food stores are frighteningly low. Somehow, we lost count of how much we had. It seems…we have barely enough to make it to the Verdant Sea, should we turn back now.”

“Oh!” Huck said. “Well, that’s dreadful news, but I suppose with

everything that has been happening, it’s not too surprising that something

slipped through the cracks! We must make sail for the Verdant Sea, restock,

then…” He trailed off, meeting her eyes. He wilted. “Hoid talked, didn’t he?”

“You’re remarkably good at reading human emotions,” she said. “For a rat.”

“Well, emotions are emotions,” he said. “Doesn’t matter the species. Fear, concern, anxiousness.”

“Betrayal?” she asked. “Is that emotion the same for both human and rat?” “So far as I can tell,” he said, his voice growing very soft. “I’m sorry,

Tress. I can’t let you face the Sorceress. I can’t. For your own good, you see.”

Ah, those words.

I’ve heard those words. I’ve said those words. The words that proclaim, in bald-faced arrogance, “I don’t trust you to make your own decisions.” The words we pretend will soften the blow, yet instead layer condescension on top of already existent pain. Like dirt on a corpse.

Oh yes. I’ve said those words. I said them with sixteen other people, in fact.

“It hurts that you don’t trust me, Huck,” she said. “But you know, it hurts more that I can’t trust you now.”

“I get that,” he said. “You deserve better.”

She found a cage for him. It felt appropriate that she should put him back in one, and Crow had a couple of the appropriate size for keeping messenger birds.

It broke Tress’s heart to leave Huck inside, huddled against the bars, refusing to face her. But she had a crew to protect, and she couldn’t risk

Huck doing something even more drastic to stop them. As it was, she barely contained her frustration. They were so close. Now they’d have to sail across the entire Crimson and restock.

Moons…could they afford to restock? How was she going to pay the crew? Would they continue as pirates? And if she did find Charlie, what

then? Disband the crew? Give the ship to Salay and go home? Her focus on reaching the Sorceress had let her, so far, procrastinate addressing these questions. Payroll didn’t seem so pressing when you expected to get

captured and turned into a marmoset the next week.

These thoughts weighed on her as she opened the door and found a collection of Dougs waiting outside.

By now, Tress knew them all personally. The one at the front, holding her cap, was a good-natured woman who had once explained that she thought birds were the souls of the dead, watching over sailors as they traveled. It had been awkward, considering Tress had been serving pigeon pie that night; the Doug had just laughed and said that was a way of helping.

They all had quirks like that. Personalities, dreams, lives. Human beings are like the shorelines of continents. The closer you look, the more detail you see, basically into infinity. If I didn’t practice narrative triage, you’d be here all week listening to how a Doug once got so drunk, she ended up as queen.

Today, fortunately for us, they acted in concert—and in service of the story. Because they had something to tell Tress.

“Let’s keep going, Captain,” the lead Doug said. “If you don’t mind. Let’s keep sailing, and go save that man of yours.”

“But, the food…” Tress said.

“Pardon, Captain,” another Doug said, “but we can eat verdant for a little while.”

“Agreed,” said another. “If it helps you, we can eat weeds for a few weeks.”

“Wait. You can eat verdant vines?” Tress asked.

The Dougs were shocked to hear she didn’t know this. You might be too, as it was mentioned earlier in the story as clever foreshadowing. But Tress had been distracted during that conversation, and had missed the point.

Besides, few people who had grown up on islands had to know that the vines were technically edible. Because on islands, there was so much better food you could grow with far less danger, assuming you had access to soil or

compost vats.

Even her family, poor though it had been, had always had normal food to eat. Regardless, people could survive on verdant vines, provided they were fully grown, a process that involved soaking them for a day. They provided some few calories and nutrients. Do it too long without supplemental protein

and you’ll have a rough time, but they could manage to get to the Sorceress’s island and back on vines, plus what they had remaining.

Behind her, Huck looked at his feet. He was realizing that in the end, his betrayal hadn’t even accomplished anything.

“Thank you,” Tress said to the Dougs.

“Captain,” the one at the front said, “we spent a month eating Fort’s food. Then you started cooking dinners that didn’t taste like they were scraped off the bottom of a shoe and…well, we can survive a little verdant.”

“Besides,” another added, “it’s worth continuing. After this, we’re gonna be the only pirates who ever robbed the Sorceress herself!”

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