TRESS TOOK A MOMENT to reorient herself, taking a deep breath, rubbing her arms—and trying to brush free the touch of the strange midnight creature. She thought of grabbing Huck, but he was quickly vanishing up a
set of steps—using the running board alongside them as a ramp.
Tress stayed still for the moment. She’d entered an all-metal corridor, decorated only by a red carpet down the middle like a tongue. It was inlaid with symbols that a well-traveled person would recognize as Aonic, but that Tress saw as some kind of arcane rune. Which wasn’t too far off.
The walls—instead of being lined with pictures or tapestries—bore several panels that reminded Tress of Fort’s writing board. Now, many
storytellers would describe such a hallway with words like cold and sterile.
That’s mostly due to past association. The calm, pure white lights in the ceiling—diffused through a plastic filter—might remind you of an office
building, while the unadorned metallic finish might remind you of a hospital operating room.
To Tress, the room wasn’t cold. It wasn’t stoic, or bleak, or stern—or any words that might describe a politician at his trial after he escapes the dumpster.
“It’s beautiful,” she whispered. “So clean and so radiant. Like I imagine the afterlife.”
Her words echoed in the corridor. Finally, she took a long breath. She was here. She wasn’t dead. Perhaps…perhaps she could find a way to rescue
Charlie. Despite everything. This was where she’d been pointed her entire voyage, after all.
So, scraping together what was left of her determination, she strode forward and up the steps. At the top, a door opened on its own, sliding to the side. Because the Sorceress had very particular ideas about what the interior of this kind of vessel should be like.
Beyond the door, Tress entered a large, circular room with doors at the sides. The chamber had a lived-in look, decorated with the kinds of things that would make a mess if the Sorceress had to leave in haste. Furniture,
bookshelves. The floor was still metal—inscribed with a map of the planet— and the lights were still industrial, but she made it look cozy.
The woman herself sat at her desk near the bookshelves, holding a fluffy white cat and idly doing something on her laptop. Or, I mean, her “magical seeing board” that let her watch events outside, as well as occasionally play a mystical card game to pass the time.
Her skin glowed, and she had a silvery effervescence to her. She was maybe in her fifties—rather, that was how old she’d been when she’d
stopped aging—and she’d come a long way from the withered husk she’d once been. Short, a little plump, she liked keeping her hair in a bun for
convenience and abhorred makeup. I mean, I would too, if I literally glowed. Her kind tended to prefer clothing and other accents that didn’t distract from their luminous nature.
Though she was a long, long way from home, she was extremely powerful. She rotated in her chair, setting her mystical board on the table, then shooing her cat off her lap. It hopped onto the floor, then eyed Huck— who cowered on the desk. The Sorceress pointed, and the cat slunk toward the door, slipping past Tress and out.
Tress was paying little heed, as she was mesmerized by the various seeing boards on the desk. One showed a view of the hallway where Tress had
entered. Several other panels on her desk showed things like shots of the island—but one of them depicted the deck of the Crow’s Song.
“Ah!” the Sorceress said, standing up. She glanced at Huck, who shied down before her gaze. “So this is her. Your offering. I have to say, I’m not
impressed. She seems scrawny. And that hair! Girl, I know your planet is rather unimportant, but surely your people have invented hairbrushes.”
Tress swallowed. To her, the woman looked deific. It was the glowing
skin. Really helps you land a good first impression. I’ve been envious of that look for centuries now, and have been aiming to adopt it.
In fact, that is what this has all been about. But I get ahead of myself. Tress shoved down her awe and cobbled together her ramshackle plan.
She drew herself up, clutching her cups for strength, and spoke. “Sorceress! You have taken captive someone I love. I have come to demand his return.” “Demand?” she asked. “What makes you think you can demand anything
“Because I,” Tress proclaimed, “have defeated you.”
“Defeated me?” the woman asked, amused, glancing at Huck.
“I’ve crossed your ocean,” Tress said, “approached your island, passed your metal army, and gained entrance to your lair. I have overcome the four trials you’ve put before me, and have obtained your presence.”
“Ha!” the Sorceress said. “My four trials? I love it. You’ve been listening to Hoid. Tell me, how is Ulaam?”
“Er…” Tress looked at Huck, who was wringing his paws. “He’s…fine, my lady. He seems happy on the Song, at least.”
“All this time,” she said, “and he’s never come to see me. Wise, I suppose.
He knows I keep a vat of acid just for him. It’s one of the only ways to be sure about them, you know. That or a good fire.”
The Sorceress strolled through the center of the circular room, walking across the map of the world inscribed on the floor. Offworlders called the
place Lumar, which is a pretty good translation of the name used by several native languages. Tress had never seen a map of it so detailed, but there was a lot to take in, so she didn’t spare much thought for it.
The Sorceress stepped right up to Tress. Obviously unafraid of physical altercation.
“So,” Tress said. “I’ve defeated you…”
The Sorceress grinned. “Did you really think that would work, dear?
Pretending you got captured on purpose to get past my defenses?”
Tress swallowed, then went for her backup idea. “I…um…I want to make a trade with you. I have a flare gun. It shoots bullets that create explosions of spores.”
“Yes, I’ve seen,” the Sorceress said, gesturing to her viewing boards. One of which still depicted the Crow’s Song—and the image was wobbling, moving…and there were some fingers at the side of the image, gripping it…
Fort’s board, Tress realized. That’s a view from his board, facing outward.
The Sorceress has been using it to spy on us.
Indeed she had. If I’d been in my right mind, I’d have realized ages ago that the security protocols were off by default, letting the things be hacked quite easily. The Sorceress had been watching this entire time, save for the short period where Fort had been between boards. She’d stopped paying quite so much attention to the Crow’s Song once Tress left.
“My gun,” Tress continued. “It’s a design I made, known nowhere in the rest of the seas. I want to trade you the designs. In exchange for the return of Charlie, the man I love.”
“You think,” the Sorceress asked, “that with all the advanced technology at my disposal, I’d be interested in your spore gun? A type of weapon that is
already being manufactured in several seas on this very planet, which simply hasn’t made its way to your ocean yet?”
Tress’s resolve had already been crumbling. Now it all-out collapsed. She looked to Huck, who—strangely—raised a paw toward her in a little fist.
Something else was going on here, Tress realized. Something she hadn’t grasped yet. She began thinking back through the events that had led her to this point. Huck had been able to demand the midnight monster bring her to the island. The Sorceress seemed intrigued by her and her crew. They were worth noticing and watching. Why?
Hoid, Tress thought. Hoid can defeat her. She’s been watching him.
So how did Huck fit into this? And why was the Sorceress chatting with Tress instead of locking her away?
Tress hadn’t known what to anticipate in a confrontation with this woman.
But a civil conversation certainly hadn’t been it. It made Tress feel terribly
The Sorceress turned and walked toward her desk. “Well, child, I don’t need your technology, but I find you intriguing. Seslo, please open the bridge’s holding chamber.”
“As you wish,” a monotone voice said. It was the spirit that inhabited this place, you see, obeying the will of its owner. Yes, like the speaking minds inhabiting the ships you’ve seen landing on your planet.
One of the doors at the side of the room clicked audibly, then swung open.
Behind it was Charlie.
He looked a little worse for wear. He had on one of his formal outfits, one Tress had seen him in when making appearances with his father, but it was rumpled and torn in a few places. Otherwise, he looked exactly as she remembered him, with hair that didn’t comb straight and a wide grin.
“I knew you’d come,” he said, rushing over to Tress. “I knew you would!
Oh, Tress. You’ve saved me!”
At this moment, Tress’s emotions were complicated. Like that rope you always swear you put away neatly, but which comes out of storage looking like someone used it to invent new theoretical types of knots that bend
It was Charlie. Seeing him was incredible. That made her happy, and also relieved. Celebratory, overwhelmed, excited, grateful—yes, all of that. All the emotions you would expect were present and accounted for.
But she also felt a sadness she couldn’t explain. (We’ll get to it.) And in addition, confusion. Suspicion. That was it? Was she truly just going to get what she wanted?
“I will trade him,” the Sorceress said, “for those two cups.” “What, really?” Tress asked.
“Really,” the Sorceress said. “Simply leave them on the shelf by the door.”
“Is he…ensorcelled in any way?” Tress asked.
“Oh, that. I should play the part, shouldn’t I? Ahem.
“Under shining bulb, With mighty gulp,
I make it felt
That I break this spell.”
Barbarian. She does that to annoy me.
It was exactly the sort of thing that Tress expected to hear though. Arcane nonsense—comfortingly mystical. Charlie put his hand to his head, then leaned down and gave her a brief kiss.
That made Tress’s emotions twist even further.
“See, rat?” the Sorceress said. “I told you, didn’t I?” Huck, on the desk, bowed his head.
“Say it,” the Sorceress continued. “Say it, rat.”
“You were right,” he whispered, almost inaudibly. He slunk away from the desk, dropping to the floor. Vanishing.
Tress took hold of her emotions, slapped them sensible, and sent them to stand in an orderly line. There would be time to deal with them later. For the moment, she made a decision.
It was time to leave. She grabbed Charlie by the hand, put her two cups on the shelf by the door, then hurried out and onto the stairs.
Charlie took it all in stride, starting a rather boring story about his days in captivity that I won’t tediously repeat here. Particularly since he soon moved on to other comments. “Oh, Tress,” he said, “won’t it be so nice to get back to our normal lives on the Rock again? Won’t it be so nice to go back to pies, and window washing, and gardening?”
It was here—right at the bottom of the steps, listening to those questions from Charlie—-that Tress’s sadness assaulted her. It fought dirty, you see, as sadness usually does. Going for the kidneys. Or the heart.
Charlie didn’t seem like he’d changed at all. That was good. She’d
worried his captivity would have left him mentally scarred. But here he was, perky and excitable as always. He could have given lessons to puppies on how to be properly enthusiastic. Good old Charlie. Same as ever.
Tress was not the same.
She’d changed so much in the course of her time away from the Rock. She found she didn’t care about pies, or window washing, or even cups in the same way. She cared about spores, and what she could do with them. About sailing, and her crew.
All of this…all of this meant she couldn’t go back to being the same person. She, you see, had been scarred.
There it is! Irony. The very journey she’d taken to find what she wanted had transformed her into a person who could no longer enjoy that victory. She looked into Charlie’s eyes, and her emotions parted asunder, bowing before her building sense of melancholy. Crowning it queen.
In that moment, looking into Charlie’s eyes, she thought of someone else.
Someone Tress shouldn’t have cared for, on paper. That’s one thing we get
wrong far too often in stories. We pretend that love is rational, if we can only see the pieces, the motivations.
Charlie grinned. It was such a familiar grin. Perfectly like him.
She didn’t believe it. That smile was one step too far. Because she knew
Tress turned, ran up the steps, and burst into the main room, startling the Sorceress—who was settling down into her seat. Full of electric defiance, Tress shouted, “That is not Charlie.”
The Sorceress hesitated.
“You like to torment people,” Tress said, pointing at the Sorceress and stalking forward. “You curse them with the worst curses you can imagine, tailored to the individual and their pains. You didn’t keep Charlie here.”
“And what,” the Sorceress said, “do you think I did with him?” “You turned him into a rat,” Tress said.