Chapter no 57 – The Maligned Fashion Expert

Tress of the Emerald Sea


Tress knew that there was a hole in her plans. In fact, there were

exceedingly more holes in her plan than there were wholes. For example, she couldn’t be certain she’d correctly guessed the island’s location. Even if she had, there was no guarantee their plans would work. She might not be able to get past the Sorceress’s defenses.

All of those issues, however, were secondary to the biggest one. Lurking like a shadow beneath the ocean. Her focus so far had revolved around getting to the island, then into the tower.

But what then?

How under the moons was she going to find, then rescue Charlie? How would Tress deal with the Sorceress? Their plan involved firing cannons at the metal servants on the beach. That would make a ruckus and certainly draw attention.

How would Tress, after making so much noise, secretly get to the tower so that…

So that Huck could let them in.

Her confidence wavered. Well, it had been wavering for days—not unexpectedly, considering its flimsy foundation. Now it threatened to topple right over. Their plans had relied on Huck letting them into the tower. Now that obviously wasn’t an option.

Tress felt sick about this, but no solutions revealed themselves over the next few days. The ship sailed inexorably toward the terrible Midnight

Moon, until it reached the border. That place where spores mingled, like a scar that was festering and black on one side. A limb that had suffered full necrosis.

Black spores, stretching to infinity. Tress watched from the quarterdeck, feeling an unnatural quiet as the Dougs stilled and even the sails seemed to hold their breaths. It was here, the Midnight Sea.

Salay looked to Tress.

“Drop anchor, Helmswoman,” Tress said. “It’s nearly night. I shouldn’t like to sail that sea in darkness.”

“Agreed,” Salay said.

“Keep a double watch tonight,” Tress suggested. “I don’t fancy being taken by surprise—either by rain, or by something else coming up through that darkness.”

Salay nodded, visibly uncomfortable.

Tress moved to go down to her cabin, then paused. “Salay. Have you ever heard of anyone sailing it successfully?”

“The Verdant King keeps sending fleets to try to capture the Sorceress,” Salay said. “Some ships do survive the Crimson. That’s random luck, after all. I’ve never heard of one coming back from the Midnight though. They sail out into that, and are almost instantly overrun by dark creations of foul spores.”

Tress shivered. Did she really think she could do what those capable

sailors had failed to do? What was she thinking? Why was she even here? She was a sham of a captain, playing dress-up.

Granted, Tress wasn’t giving herself enough credit—please act surprised

—as she’d come quite far, all things considered. And it’s true that numerous members of the king’s court hadn’t managed to survive their first encounter upon the Midnight Sea. But then, you’ve met at least one member of the king’s court: he was the handsome fellow in the early part of the story with both the jaw and the intellect of a marble bust. So, you know, maybe they didn’t set the highest standard.

Regardless, Tress was suddenly very uncertain of herself. She fled below, to the familiar hallway of the middle deck. She passed her old room, and found herself nostalgic for a couple weeks earlier. Days when she’d sat reading about spores while listening to the comforting footsteps above.

Those footfalls had sounded so confident. Random, but somehow still rhythmic. Beats indicating a song the crew all knew and played together.

Now she was in charge. The one everybody was confident in was her.

She approached Dr. Ulaam’s office and was let in after a quick knock. She found him inspecting his hand, which had grown a sixth finger. Tress sighed in relief. Finally a normal and familiar sight.

“Tress!” he said, trying out a ring on the finger. “I’m pleased by the visit!

Have you reconsidered my offer?”

“Thank you, but no,” she said. “I’m rather attached to all of my toes.”

“Everyone is, dear. That’s why the Father invented scalpels. But now, you look distraught. Here, sit. Let me boil some water.” She sat down as he used some odd device that worked like a hot plate, but without fire or spores to

warm it up. He set a kettle on top, then turned and regarded her, grey-skinned fingers laced in front of him as he leaned against the counter. “Speak, please.”

“Ulaam,” she said, “I can’t defeat the Sorceress.” “No, of course you can’t,” he said.

“All of the others are expecting me to. And…I’m increasingly terrified I’ll let them down.”

“Ah, well then,” he said, “can I help you with this anxiety, hmmm? I don’t even have to give you a sedative. You needn’t worry.”

“I needn’t?” she said. “Really?”

“Yes. You see, no one expects you to defeat the Sorceress. I believe they’re all expecting to die. And so, you won’t disappoint them, child, when the Sorceress inevitably murders the entire crew!”

She groaned.

“That was a joke,” he noted. “I doubt she’s capable of killing me—though she thinks she can. Even if she is right, she certainly can’t kill Hoid, even in his current state. So it will only be most of the crew she murders.”

Tress felt dizzy.

Ulaam, it should be noted, is not known for his bedside manner—as I’ve pointed out, his people lost something when they stopped being forced to

imitate actual humans. I can genuinely say that without that burden, they’ve all become increasingly themselves over the decades.

That said, Ulaam is legitimately the best doctor I’ve ever met. If you are easily stressed, but need his help, I suggest you ask him to sew his mouth

shut before he visits. He’ll probably find the idea novel enough that he’ll try it.

That day, however, he realized he’d said too much. Even Ulaam, a

creature with the empathic talents of an angry emu, could occasionally realize when someone was in emotional distress.

“Child,” he said, “I—”

“How could you?” Tress snapped at him. “How can you sit there and not care? What is wrong with you?”

“Oh!” he said. “Hm. Ha ha. Well, no need to bite my head off. I have several saws for the purpose right over—”

“Jokes don’t help, Ulaam!” she said, standing up.

It hadn’t been a joke, mind you. He actually had three. He let her pace for a little bit, and when the teakettle began to whistle, he didn’t move to get it.

As she paced, one point stuck in her brain. He’d mentioned Hoid again.

The drooling cabin boy. Ulaam was a creature of strange powers, but he saw

me as someone even greater.

It wasn’t the first time Ulaam had said something like that. But this time it actually struck her.

Finally she took a deep breath. “I shouldn’t have snapped at you,” she

said. “You’ve been helpful in the past, Ulaam, telling me things you didn’t have to. I shouldn’t get angry at you for not doing more. I…I don’t know what’s wrong with me. I never would have acted that way in the past.”

“I think,” Ulaam said, “that perhaps nothing is wrong. Maybe you should

snap at me more often. I forget sometimes what I’ve been told about the stresses mortals live under.”

“You’re right though,” she said, pacing the other direction in the small room. “We are going to die. This quest is foolishness! When it was only me who was risking my life for Charlie, that was bad enough. I can’t force the rest to join me.”

“You aren’t forcing them, Tress,” Ulaam said. He finally rose and began to make the tea. “Have you seen how they walk these days? How they hold their heads? They know they’re partially to blame for the people Crow killed.

“You’re not bullying them. You’re offering them a chance at reclaiming their humanity. They want to try to rescue your friend. They want to prove to themselves that even though they might not be first-rate men and women of valor, they at least possess a secondhand variety.”

He turned, handing her a cup and gesturing toward the seat. It was a nice cup. Tin, but dinged up with the respectable scars of favorite use, and shined along the handle from the caress of fingers. She sighed, taking the seat and the tea, though she put the latter aside to let it cool.

“Look,” she said, “Huck was willing to move against me. Perhaps I should see his point. Even if I don’t, I can’t use him to get into the tower now. So the mission is a bust.”

“You still have Midnight Essence,” Ulaam said. “Maybe you can make a creature that can sneak in and unlock the door.”

“The tower is coated with silver,” Tress said. “So I wouldn’t be able to touch it as a midnight creature. At least that’s what Huck said. I don’t know if that’s true, or what to trust from him, but either way we have a bigger problem. Ulaam, I can’t beat the Sorceress. She’s going to know I’m


“She knows already, I suspect,” Ulaam said. “From what I know of her, she is probably looking forward to seeing how you deal with her defenses.”

“Is it…possible to impress her so much with what we do that she lets Charlie go?”

“Unlikely,” he said. “Best you can hope for is that she finds you amusing and sends you away with a particularly creative curse.”

“So there’s no hope.” “Well…”

Tress looked up.

“I am supposed to remain neutral, you see,” he said, “in the actions of certain individuals such as the Sorceress. But there is someone who never follows those rules. He’s on this ship. And he has a pair of bright red

sequined briefs.”

“Hoid,” she said. “You’ve mentioned that he’s…not what I think he is. Is he truly something greater than the Sorceress?”

“Well, these things are famously difficult to judge,” Ulaam said. “But I should say yes. I wish you could know the real Hoid. As amusing as it has

been to watch his current incarnation in all its splendor, he is normally quite different from the person you know.”

“And that person is…less embarrassing?”

“Well, usually more embarrassing. But also quite adept at certain things. If there is a single person on the entire planet who can defeat the Sorceress and get you and yours out alive, it is that man. I tell no joke or exaggeration in this, Tress. When he wants to, there are few people in the entire cosmere

who can influence events like our dear friend with the inappropriate undergarments.”

I’ll have you know I owned those briefs before the curse, and I stand by the purchase.

Tress considered that. Then she finally tried her tea, which alone proved her bravery. I never drink anything Ulaam gives me without first seeing what it does to the houseplants.

“If he’s so powerful,” Tress said, “how did the Sorceress end up cursing him?”

“I have no idea,” Ulaam said. “But it’s not that surprising. For how

capable he is, Tress, he often overreaches in some way. It doesn’t matter how powerful a person is, if they believe they are slightly more powerful than they truly are, there’s room between those margins for big errors.


Yeah, that one was fair.

“Regardless,” Ulaam said, “I think in this case, what happened to him wasn’t an accident. If I were to lay down money—or, more valuable, my

favorite set of fingernails—I’d guess he got cursed on purpose. And is now having more trouble than expected getting out of it.”

“Why?” Tress said. “Why would he get cursed on purpose?” “I haven’t been able to decide,” Ulaam replied.

Tress was skeptical. But in this case, Ulaam was (unfortunately) right. I had honestly thought I would have sorted through this by now. It was… proving more difficult than I’d anticipated.

Fortunately, I was close. Closer than ever. Because Tress hit on the most important idea right then.

“So…” Tress said, “maybe I don’t have to defeat the Sorceress. Maybe I just have to find a way to get Hoid to do it.”

“Perhaps. Yes, perhaps indeed.”

Tress excused herself, then wandered to her quarters. There she dug under the bed and brought out her collection of cups. It had been so long since

she’d admired them. The part of her that enjoyed them hadn’t changed, but

she just…didn’t have the time she’d once had. Really, these days she’d only been using the big metal one. It was the one that wouldn’t break if it dropped off the table when the ship swayed.

Still, she took them out one at a time and placed them on the counter. Last of all she got out the ones Charlie had sent her. She stared in particular at the one with the butterfly soaring across the ocean. She’d originally assumed the butterfly had to be forced into such a terrible situation. Why else would it fly out over the spores?

She saw it differently now. Perhaps it was simply a butterfly who knew what it wanted—and was willing to try to get it, no matter how impossible.

It wasn’t a suicidal butterfly. It was a determined one.

She put away the other cups, but kept this one out, along with the pewter tankard. These were her two favorites. One a symbol of determination. The other a solid and heavy practical device—almost a weapon.

I, she thought, am these two cups. One side utilitarian, one side dreaming.

Opposites. Yet both served the same function. Remarkable.

That butterfly, though, had gone out on the ocean alone. It hadn’t brought an entire crew with it to die. She took a deep breath and tied her hair back, then took the two cups and stalked out onto the deck.

“Salay,” she said to the helmswoman, “I’ve changed my mind. I want you to set down the launch. I’m going to take it into the Midnight Sea. Alone.”

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