Chapter no 63 – The Pilot

Tress of the Emerald Sea

THE SORCERESS WAS not angry. Not yet.

Not even frightened. Not yet.

She was mostly annoyed. And admittedly a little worried.

She had thought I was handled. When I’d started across the Crimson,

she’d watched not because she was afraid I’d actually reach her tower, but because she enjoyed seeing me inconvenienced. She thought maybe I’d get sent to the bottom of the ocean, and she figured that would be a delight to watch.

Now, somehow here I was. Surely I couldn’t get past her defenses, not on a common boat. Yet she hadn’t thought I’d pass the Crimson, or sail the

Midnight. She now assumed I had somehow, despite my enormous hindrances, been behind the ship’s survival of those dangers. She didn’t realize that my true advantage has never been my uncommon intellect.

It’s been my ability to find the right people and stick close to them.

Right then, I clung to the side of the Crow’s Song—up on the quarterdeck, near the helmswoman’s station. I had stolen Huck’s tiny pirate hat, thinking he didn’t deserve it. Which, strictly speaking, was wrong. Can you really be mad at a pirate for stabbing you in the back?

It looked much worse on me. So of course I wore it clipped in place. I was grinning wildly, wind in my hair, eyes wide—because I figured they might dry out that way, and then I could stop blinking.

Salay spun the ship’s wheel. She shouted orders to the Dougs, who

worked their magic on the sails. The Sorceress was extremely confident in her defenses. Certain that no one could sail the passage between the rocks to her island.

She hadn’t counted on a woman like Salay. Sailing with her father’s final letter in her pocket, knowing that if she died on this sea, he would remain imprisoned by his debts forever. A woman who had just discovered a renewed purpose in life. A woman who had taken a bet on Tress, and had

earned the lives of the crew in return.

A woman who would not back down when the lives of her friends were at stake. Pray you meet such a woman at least once in your life. Then pray you get out of her way quickly enough.

She held to the wheel as wood groaned, her will against that of the spores, and steered the ship past stones. Unblinking. I was impressed by that part.

“Why?” Ann said, holding the banister and walking up the steps toward me. “Hoid, why does Tress have this strange idea that you can be savin’ her?”

“Probably,” I shouted over the rush of wind and spore, “because I just realized I should take up painting! And the Sorceress will be scared of my talent!”

“You are so aggravating!” Ann said.

“Nonsense,” I replied. “Your cabin, Ann! Feels like it could use

something to spruce it up. Or, if trees won’t fit, maybe some paintings of dogs wearing hats. Oh!” I looked at her, my eyes wild as a spray of black spores crashed up beside me while the ship navigated a near-impossible

curve. “Oh, I’ve just had the best idea. I could paint the pictures on velvet.” “Why in the name of the Verdant Moon’s own backside would you do

somethin’ like that?”

“To give them texture when you lick them, obviously,” I said. “Really, you should think about things more before you ask stupid questions, Ann.”

And she should have known better. She might not have been asking a stupid question, but asking a question of stupid is nearly as futile.

Salay was so far into her zone of focus, she didn’t hear the conversation. Back in the tower, the Sorceress paused to watch as the ship slipped among

the rocks, drawing ever closer. A sailing ship is a strange thing to control— I’m sure some of you know. You often don’t steer so much as ride the waves, winds, and currents. You need speed to maneuver, but motion is always both your enemy and your ally all at once. Too little, and you can’t complete your turns. Too much, and you end up kissing the rocks.

That day though, the ship appeared to obey neither wave nor wind, spore nor shoal. The ship obeyed Salay, and for a short transcendent moment, we seemed not on a ship at all. We rode upon her willpower made manifest, dodging rocks by inches, leaning so far to the sides at times I thought for

sure we’d capsize. She had an instinct for where those rocks were, based on how the spores churned. And she did it all with eyes straight forward, focused on her goal.

To the Sorceress’s astonishment, we broke through the rocks into the island’s small bay. She shook her head, moving from annoyance to genuine concern. Behind her, Lacy—the cat—screeched and pounced, causing the worried Charlie to retreat into the room. He tried to race down the stairs

again, but was chased back.

The Sorceress gave another order, and her group of metal men marched forward, ready for battle. They, surely, would put an end to this farce.

They’d always been her most secure form of defense.

“Cannonmaster!” Salay said on the ship. “Prepare arms!”

That meant Ann. She hurried to the front of the ship to her cannon. It was her chance at last. To prove herself, one way or another, a bespectacled


She’d been practicing these last few days, enough to be worried. She didn’t seem to be supernaturally bad at aiming any longer, but that didn’t mean she was good. She was really, really worried about that. And about how, despite years of dreaming of this day, everything suddenly came down to her.

On the shore, the metal men marched in ranks, responding immediately to the Sorceress’s orders. The color of burnished brass, each one seven feet tall and carrying a spear with a glistening tip, they were an intimidating sight.

Their instructions (carefully conveyed by the Sorceress when Breathing life into them) were complex, careful, and meticulous.

They were far better servants than the scouts made from Midnight Essence. While they were on duty, they would form a barrier to prevent any kind of landing. Even from the deck, wet firing rod in hand, Ann could see

why the king’s forces had never had any luck against them. Musket balls would bounce off them, and cannonballs…well, those might knock one of the creatures down and leave a dent. But they’d be up again soon after.

Tress’s designs though—they would work. Ann’s hand trembled anyway as she rammed the firing stick into the cannon and launched a cannonball. The metal men didn’t flinch. In part because the cannonball went wide,

smashing through a tree, bouncing along the stones, then vanishing into the spores in the near distance.

Sweating profusely from the stress, Ann loaded another cannonball. She didn’t turn around and look at the crew. She knew what they were thinking. It wasn’t only eyesight that had been Ann’s problem. Something else was wrong with her.

And she was right.

But it wasn’t bad luck, or some mystical curse. It was something far more mundane, but equally pernicious. Ann didn’t miss just because she had poor eyesight. She missed because of momentum.

There’s an opposite force in life to the avalanche Tress was feeling.

There’s always an opposition, you see. A Push for every Pull, an old

adversary of mine always says. Sometimes the moments in our life pile up and become an unstoppable force that makes us change. But at other times they become a mountain impossible to surmount.

Everyone misses shots now and then. But if you become known as the person who misses—if you internalize it—well, suddenly every miss becomes another rock in that pile. While every hit gets ignored. Eventually you become Ann: arm shaking, sweat pouring down your face, clutched by the invisible but very real claws of self-fulfilling determination. Then you start missing not because your aim is bad, or your eyesight is poor, but because your arm is shaking and sweat is pouring down your face.

And because missing is what you do.

Dreading what she’d once loved, Ann raised the stick to the side of the cannon. A calm voice interrupted her.

“Hold your fire, shipmate Ann,” Laggart said, one hand on the forestay rope to keep his balance as he squinted at the shore.

Ann hesitated.

“Three degrees to aft and one up, shipmate Ann,” Laggart said, his voice calm and firm.

She hesitated only a moment, then began cranking the cannon as he indicated. The ship continued to rock in the shallow waves of the bay, moving alongside the shore.

“Hold,” Laggart said as she put the firing rod in place. “Hold. FIRE!

An explosion of spores and force blasted the cannonball on its way. As

she’d imagined, it hit one of the metal men in the chest and knocked it down, but didn’t destroy it. However, the vines that burst out grabbed and

enveloped all the metal men nearby.

They, in turn, were completely flummoxed. On the ship, Ann took one step toward her mountain and found it quite a bit smaller than she’d imagined.

“Reload and reset,” Laggart said.

“Reloading and resetting, sir!” Ann said, moving with an efficiency that would have impressed any naval officer.

“Two degrees up,” Laggart said.

“Two degrees up!” she said. “And one to port!”

“Aye,” Laggart said, surprised. “And one to port. Now hold. Hold…” “Fire!” Ann said at the exact same moment he did.

This shot flew true as well, catching another group of metal men.

“Reloading and resetting, sir!” Ann cried before he could give the order. She had the next blast off in quick succession. She looked to him, breathing quickly.

“Damn fine shooting,” Laggart said, with a nod. “Damn fine. Assistant Cannonmaster.”

And standing there on the summit of her mountain, Ann wondered at how tiny it suddenly seemed.

You'll Also Like