Chapter no 64 – The Hero

Tress of the Emerald Sea

BACK IN THE TOWER, Tress was still a captive.

It was humiliating, yes, but somehow…also gratifying? In that this was what she had expected to happen.

From the moment she’d launched from the Rock, she’d anticipated grand failure. She had gone not because she’d assumed she would succeed, but because something had to be done. And though many things had gone wrong on her quest, she’d somehow always managed to make them go right too.

She had found her repeated success almost uncomfortably consistent. In the same way that if you keep rolling sixes, you start to worry that

something is wrong with the dice. Failing here, getting captured, being immobilized and unable to help…

Well, she wasn’t happy about it. But a part of her was relieved. It had finally happened. As it should have. She wasn’t a King’s Mask or a pirate. She was a window washer. With hair that really needed to be pulled back into its tail, because she could barely see through it at the moment.

Unfortunately, the Sorceress’s bonds had locked her hands in those glowing bands of light, pressed to the wall.

Through her hair, she was able to watch the Sorceress’s annoyance as the cannons completely immobilized her troops. This wasn’t supposed to happen. She had designed the men to withstand cannon fire. She’d designed them to be unstoppable. They could march right out into the ocean, and even had grappling hooks that let them climb aboard ships—often spearing them from underneath first, puncturing the hulls.

They were impervious to basically every weapon available to a preindustrial culture. Fearsome, destructive, deadly.

They didn’t know what to do about vines though.

Even a semi-self-aware construct like an Awakened soldier relies on its instructions. They’re far more versatile than something running on a traditional computer program, but they’re also not fully alive. And these, confronted by vines holding them down, were baffled.

Their instructions told them not to be afraid of weapons brandished by interlopers. So they kept trying to march forward. The cannonballs continued to explode around them, causing more vines to spring out. When immobilized, the metal men had instructions to call for support. Normally that was a valid line of programming.

In this case though, it sent the entire group into chaos. They’d alternate from trying to march on the ship to trying to free one another, to locking up as they tried to decide what to do when neither was possible.

In short, the cannonballs worked. Blessed moons, they worked.

Despite her situation, Tress couldn’t help grinning as she saw her designs incapacitating an entire legion of supposedly unstoppable foes.

Charlie climbed up her leg, clinging to her trousers as the cat prowled below. He was puffing from exertion. “I…am having a little trouble with the beast.”

“It’s all right, Charlie,” Tress said, still watching the cannon fire.

“Hey,” he said, “don’t you cry. There’s a maritime law against that.”

“Sorry,” she said as another cannonball exploded, vines reaching out like some unholy hybrid of an octopus and a bag of lawn clippings. “It’s just… they’re beautiful.”

A short time later the crew was on shore, running past the immobilized troops—Fort leading the charge, and carrying me overhead. I’ll pretend it was in a dignified fashion.

But if Charlie didn’t open the door, they’d be trapped outside the tower.

And the story would end there.

Tress looked to Charlie. “I’m sorry. That in the end, we got captured. It’s like we said would happen, isn’t it?”

He nodded. “But Tress,” he said, “I remember another part of that conversation. Something about shining armor.”

“I don’t think they make armor in rat sizes, Charlie.”

Charlie saw something on the floor. His eyes narrowed. “Distract her,” he said. Then he drew upon every ounce of courage he had remaining—it

wasn’t much, but when you’re in such a small body, courage (like booze) goes further than you expect.

Charlie leaped. The cat gave chase immediately, bearing down on him as he dashed for something lying on the floor near the stairs.

A large pewter tankard.

The Sorceress was turning her attention to the tower’s defenses. She might well have figured out what was happening if Tress hadn’t done as Charlie


“Sorceress,” she said, “have you heard those stories? About the fare maiden who gets captured?”

“Thinking about your fate?” the Sorceress said, never one to pass on inflicting a little misery. “Thinking about how you traveled all this way only to end up in chains?”

“Yes,” Tress said. “And thinking that…well, it’s not that bad, actually.”

“Not that bad!” the Sorceress said, stalking forward, ignoring the clinking sound from behind—like something metal going down the steps. “Dear, you’re powerless! You wanted to save your love, but can’t even save your own self! You thought yourself a powerful pirate, yet here you are. At the

end of your quest. You’ve ended up like every girl from any story. Needing to be rescued.”

Freeze that moment.

Imagine it: Charlie the rat, spinning in the air within a pewter cup, bouncing down the stairs. Observed by a bemused cat from above, who had given the swat that sent the cup tumbling.

Fort, Ann, and Salay reaching the tower with me hoisted high overhead. Tress. Bound by glowing bonds. Held to the wall.


“Those stories always leave something out,” Tress said. “It’s really not a problem that someone needs to be saved. Everyone needs help. It’s hard to be the person who makes trouble, but the thing is, everyone makes trouble. How would we help anyone if nobody ever needed help?”

“And you?” the Sorceress asked, starting to draw runes in the air. “You’re going to have quite the curse, I’ll tell you. I’ve been saving this one for a

special occasion. You will spend the next several decades in misery, child.” Down below, a tiny voice echoed up from the hallway. “Magic door,

please open!”

“The part the stories leave out,” Tress said as the Sorceress’s runes formed into a vibrant wall, “is everything that comes before. You see, I’ve discovered that it’s all right to need help. So long as you’ve lived your life as the kind of person who deserves to be rescued.”

The Sorceress released her curse, a blast of light and energy meant to

enwrap Tress and transform her. Instead, the runes exploded in a blinding

shower of light. Filling the room with white energy that momentarily blotted out all possible sensation.

When it faded, I stood between Tress and the Sorceress—with the key officers of the Crow’s Song behind me and a little rat on my shoulder—my hands pressed forward, having created an Invested shield of light to shelter Tress. It was constructed of Aons. Which I could now draw. The mechanics might bore you. The results, though, were spectacular.

I was wearing a floral buttoned shirt, shorts that were way too short, and sandals.

With socks.

“Hello, Riina,” I said. “I hope your last few years have been exactly as lovely as you are.”

She lowered her hands, her jaw dropping.

“Why, yes,” I said, gesturing to my current clothing, “I do know this outfit is awful. I realize one should never bring up politics at dinner with one’s in-laws. And I know that you, my dear, are living proof that someone doesn’t need to be the least bit funny to be an utter clown.”

A deep glow pulsed beneath my skin. Finally.

Turns out that to get this particular set of powers to work, you couldn’t

simply fake Connection. You needed an invitation and adoption into a very select group. My only chance had been to find one smart enough to be a

member of that group, stupid enough for me to toy with, and sadistic enough to trade membership for the opportunity to see me cursed.

“Damn you,” she muttered.

My curse was broken. My senses restored. She could see it as easily as I could.

I’d won.

“Excellent work, cabin boy,” Tress said, still attached to the wall. “We’re going to have to promote you after this.”

“Wait…we won?” Salay asked. “Hoid, you’re…um… What are you?” “The term ‘sorcerer’ will do,” I told her. “I have won our bet.”

“Wait,” Charlie said from his shoulder. “It was really a bet? You let her curse you for a simple bet?”

“Please,” I said. “Was anything about what we just did simple?”

The Sorceress waved her hand, dropping Tress from the wall. “Go,” she said. “Before I change my mind.”

Fort helped Tress as she stumbled, and she nodded in thanks. Then she turned to the Sorceress. “First,” she said, “end Charlie’s curse.”

“I can’t,” the Sorceress said. “I can’t break a curse unless the terms are met. It’s impossible.”

Tress looked to me. There were ways, but the Sorceress probably wasn’t capable of them. So I nodded. It was true enough.

Tress took a deep breath, then looked back at the Sorceress, her face becoming like steel. “We’re not leaving,” Tress said. “You are.

“Excuse me?” the Sorceress snapped.

“You’ve cursed people who only wanted to talk to you,” Tress said.

“You’ve taken prisoners, robbed merchants, and destroyed fleets. You are a scourge upon this sea. This planet.” She drew herself up, partially to

intimidate the side of her that was shocked by her own audacity. “I demand that you leave this world. Go away, and never return.”

“Oh please,” the Sorceress said. “Who are you to make demands of me?”

In response, Salay and Fort pulled pistols on her. Ann somehow got out three at once. Charlie growled. It wasn’t very intimidating, but it made him feel good to contribute.

Tress didn’t bother with a gun. She nudged me. “Cabin boy,” she said, “zap her or something.”

“You’re giving me orders?” I said softly.

“You’re on my crew, aren’t you?” she said. At least she had the good graces to blush about it.

I sighed and, as ordered, stepped forward and raised my hands. I met the Sorceress’s eyes, and knew what she was thinking. She, like most of her kind, was very good at something we call risk/reward projections. She’d

come to this planet because nothing here could threaten her. Then she’d found a dragon living here. Then I’d arrived.

She might have been able to beat me. Curse me again. But she might not have been able to. Even if the odds were only one in five that she’d lose, you didn’t live long by frequently taking one-in-five chances that you’ll die. And Riina had lived a very, very long time.

A short time later, we all stood on the deck of the Crow’s Song, looking up at a twinkling speck of light as it vanished in the sky. The tower was gone, taking the Sorceress with it.

I have that effect on people. Stay around too long, and you’ll inevitably envy those who have never met me.

Behind us, the Dougs started to whoop and cheer. Fort rolled out

something wonderful to drink, which he’d been saving for such an occasion. Ann decided their cannons needed names, much to Laggart’s lamentation.

Salay put her hand to her pocket—and the letter from her father—and suffered it all for now. She even let herself enjoy the celebration.

Tress stepped up to me, holding Charlie. Who was still a rat. “Is there… nothing you can do?” she asked. “No way to break the curse?” Both of them looked to me with hope in their eyes.

“I can’t undo the curse,” I said. “Not at my current skill with the arts. No one can.”

“Oh,” Charlie said.

“But perhaps,” I said, inspecting the runes I could make out surrounding him, “I can change the parameters a little…”


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