Chapter no 6 – The Inspector

Tress of the Emerald Sea

ONCE TRESS MADE THE DECISION, a knot came undone within her—like she’d finally worked a tangle out of a stubborn lock of hair.

She would do it. She had no idea how, but she would find a way to get off the island, cross the terrible Crimson Sea, enter the Midnight Sea, and rescue Charlie. Yes, each of those problems seemed equally impossible. But

somehow less impossible than imagining the rest of her life without him.

First though, Tress went to talk to her parents. (Something more people in stories such as this should do.) She sat them both down, then explained her love for Charlie, her realization that no one would help him, and her determination to go find him—though she expressed worry that her absence might cause them hardship.

Both listened quietly as she spoke. This was, in part, because she’d baked them quail-egg pies. It’s more difficult to object to your daughter’s temporary insanity when your mouth is full.

Once she’d finished, Lem asked for seconds. It was a two-pie type of predicament. Ulba only finished half of her meal, sitting back and leaving the rest untouched. It was also a half-pie type of predicament.

Tress’s father ate his second pie with deliberate care, digging down from the top, then eating outward, saving the crust for the end. Finally, he

crunched through that. Then he stared at the plate for a long, uncomfortable moment.

Was it…perhaps…a three-pie predicament?

“I think,” he said at last, turning to Ulba, “we are going to have to let her do this.”

“It’s lunacy!” Tress’s mother said. “Leave the island? Travel to the Midnight Sea? Steal a prisoner from the Sorceress?”

Lem felt at his mustache bristles with his napkin, cleaning out remnants of the meal. “Ulba, would you say our daughter is more practical than we are?”

“Yes, I would normally say that,” Ulba said.

“And would you also say she is more thoughtful than we are?” “She is always thinking,” Tress’s mother agreed.

“How often does she impose upon people or ask for what she wants?” “Almost never.”

“With all that in mind,” Tress’s father said, “it must be the right decision for her to leave. She will have considered all other options. Leaving the island to rescue the man she loves might sound like lunacy, but if every other option has been discarded as impossible, then insanity might—in this case— be practical.”

Tress felt a small thrill inside. He agreed?

“Tress,” her father said, leaning forward, resting his once-powerful arms on the tabletop, “we can care for your brother and ourselves if you go. Please do not worry about us; you are too accommodating in this regard. But neither of us can go with you. You understand this?”

“Yes, Father,” she said.

“I had always wondered if this island would prove too small for one such as you.”

This made Tress frown.

“Why do you act like that?” he asked her. “I don’t want to be rude.”

“Then I demand you tell me, so that not speaking would be even more rude.”

Her grimace worsened. “Well, why would you say the island is too small for me, Father? There’s nothing extraordinary about me. If anything, I am too small for it.”

“Everything is extraordinary about you, Tress,” her mother said. “That’s why nothing in particular stands out.”

Well, parents have to say things like that. They’re required to see the best in their children, otherwise living with the little sociopaths would drive a person mad.

“I have your blessing then?” Tress asked them. “I still think this is a terrible idea,” Ulba noted.

Lem nodded. “It is. But a terrible idea executed brilliantly has to be better than a brilliant idea executed terribly. I mean, look at pelicans.”

“True,” Tress’s mother said. “But are we capable of either kind of brilliance?”

“No,” Tress said. “But maybe we can take a whole lot of little steps that, when looked at together, might seem brilliant to somebody who doesn’t know us.”

And so, they set to work. Tress was keenly aware that Charlie might be

suffering, but she resolved to take her time. If she was going to do something as stupid as leave the island, she figured she should be meticulous about it.

Perhaps that would dilute the stupidity with time, like how good flour could dilute the stale and improve the bake.

She took to knitting socks at the cliffside so she could watch the ships that came and left. Her mother began to make stockings at a table near the dock so she could take notes. They compared their findings each night, with Tress’s father listening and offering his thoughts.

Though Tress had always possessed a curiosity about the mechanics of

shipping, she now had a motive to learn the details. There were two types of people who regularly left the island. The first was, of course, the crews of the various ships. When they landed, they’d come ashore to shop or visit the local taverns. The Rock didn’t have much to recommend it, but Brick’s ale was known as some of the best in the region. Plus, with enough of it in you, the rest of the amenities looked a whole lot better.

The second type of people who left the Rock were government officials. Not only the duke and his family, but other royal administrators, such as tax collectors, royal messengers, and cargo inspectors. They were allowed to leave when they saw fit. Members of the nobility who visited could also leave—and they usually did so quickly, after realizing their awful mistake.

Tress’s biggest challenge would be the current cargo inspector. The severe woman authenticated the writs of visiting merchants, then examined cargo

for stowaways. For a place where no one wanted to live, the Rock certainly had lots of things people wanted. Salt from the mines, Brick’s ale, even down and feathers from the gulls.

The townspeople couldn’t sell these things except to ships that had a writ of commission from the king. The cargo inspector oversaw it all. When the current one had arrived earlier in the year, she’d refused to give her name, insisting they simply call her “Inspector.” She claimed she wouldn’t be remaining on the Rock long enough for names to matter.

Tress couldn’t remember an inspector who had been more strict. This woman was always watching, swinging the rod she carried, searching for

any excuse to deliver a punishment. She seemed too stern to be fully human. As if instead of being born, she’d been spawned—and instead of growing up, she’d metastasized.

Tress and her mother spent hours covertly studying how the inspector

searched outgoing shipments. Bags of feathers were weighed, while barrels of salt were stabbed, to search for possible stowaways. But some things being shipped—like large kegs of the local brew—couldn’t be opened

without spoiling them. What if a person were to hide in a keg? Could they fill it with something like salt to make it weigh and balance correctly?

Unfortunately, the inspector had an answer to such potential escape plans. When examining kegs, she employed a special listening device, like the ones physicians used for hearts. The inspector would linger on each keg, listening for someone moving or breathing inside. Reportedly, the inspector had

extremely good hearing and could detect the very heartbeats of stowaways.

Was there a way around this? A way to exploit the situation?

One night, two weeks after she’d first decided to leave, Tress sat up with a notebook full of ideas. The Emerald Moon shone bright as always, stoic and immobile in the sky. Spores poured downward in the distance, like

crystalline moonlight.

Her father limped over, settled down, then waved for her to show him her plans. He read them carefully, then nodded. “This could work.”

“It could,” Tress said, yawning. “But I don’t think it will. I might be able to fool a bunch of sailors, but I’d never fool Brick, Gremmy, or Sor. They

will know that something is wrong.” She rubbed her eyes. She’d been going without sleep, fraught as she was. (Worry, it might be said, is the carrion feeder of emotions. Drawn to other, better emotions like crows to a battlefield.)

“Perhaps you don’t have to fool them,” her father said. “Perhaps they would be willing to help.”

“I couldn’t ask that of them,” Tress said. “What if the inspector catches me? The others would get into too much trouble.”

Her father nodded again. That was, of course, the sort of thing Tress

would say. So he suggested she go to bed. Tress looked as if she were about to fall asleep in the middle of the conversation—which was saying

something, considering how many of Charlie’s stories she’d survived without so much as a yawn.

After she went upstairs, Lem retrieved his cane, put on his coat, and went out to do some advanced fathering.

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