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Chapter no 9 – The Rat

Tress of the Emerald Sea

TRESS AWOKE. That was nice.

Tress very much approved of not dying on the first day of her adventure.

However, she had a pounding headache, and all she could see was blackness.

Did one see blackness, or was it the mark of not seeing? Can you hear silence? Taste nothing?

Well, judging by the creaking of the wood, she was in the ship’s hold. She groaned and sat up, then felt around. Her fingers met bars. She was in a

cage.

“You won’t find a way out,” said a quiet voice. It sounded male, but had a pinched quality to it, like someone had taken the speaker’s words and was

squeezing out the juice.

“Who are you?” Tress asked softly.

“A fellow prisoner. I heard them talking about you. You’re an inspector?” “Yes,” Tress lied. “For the king. I can’t believe they’d dare assault me.”

On the inside, Tress was panicking. The captain must have figured out her ruse. The ship would be returning to Diggen’s Point to find the real inspector, and everything would fall apart.

No. It had already fallen apart.

She sat down, her back to some bars.

“Lunatic choice you made, Inspector,” the voice said. “You boarded the ship alone? How did you think this would play out? Were you planning to take them all on your own?”

“Take them?” Tress asked. “Where?” “You…don’t know?”

In case you’re new to this, nothing good ever follows a question like that. “This is a smugglers’ vessel,” the voice explained. “They forged

mercantile writs from the king. It lets them buy and sell goods without paying tariffs.”

Tress groaned, thumping her head against the bars. “And they thought I was suspicious of them. They thought that’s why I got on their ship.”

“It wasn’t?” the voice said, then started laughing. Or rather, Tress thought it was laughter. It came out as a high-pitched series of squeaks—like the

sound of a hyperventilating donkey. “It was completely coincidental? Oh, you poor woman.”

Tress folded her arms tight in the darkness, suffering the mockery. At least she wasn’t going to be taken back to Diggen’s Point to be turned in to the duke. Instead the smugglers would undoubtedly murder her and dispose of the body.

She decided not to cry. Crying would be utterly impractical. So it was settled. Absolutely no crying.

Her eyes vetoed the resolution.

“Hey,” the voice said. “Hey, it’s all right. At least you got off the Rock, right?”

“You know about the Rock?” Tress asked, wiping her eyes. Stupid things.

Probably just wanted something to do, with the not seeing and all.

“I was on my way there for a visit,” the voice said, “before the sailors found me out. Locked me in here.”

“Why would you visit Diggen’s Point?” Tress demanded.

“I have my reasons,” the voice said. “My kind are mysterious like that.” “Your kind?” Tress asked.

“Here, let me show you. Might want to shade your eyes.”

A moment later light poured into the chamber, spilling from a small hole in the hull. Tress blinked, pushing her frazzled hair out of her eyes as she made out her surroundings. She was in a cell built into part of the ship’s hold, maybe four feet on each side and not much taller.

Across from her, lashed on top of some boxes, was a much smaller cage. In it sat a common black rat. He’d pulled a cork from the hole with his little paws.

“I keep this thing plugged,” he said, “so they don’t know about it. Don’t want them to move the cage, you know? I…”

The rat trailed off as he turned and saw her for the first time, then cocked his head.

“What?” Tress asked.

The rat was silent. The only sounds came from the ship rocking in the spores and the boots thumping on the deck above. Tress pulled back. She didn’t like the way the rat stared at her with those beady little eyes.

What?” she demanded.

“Didn’t get a good look at you when they brought you down. I didn’t realize…didn’t expect you to be so young. You’re no royal inspector.”

“I have a young face.”

“I’m sure,” the rat said. He moved to the edge of his cage and sat on his haunches, leaning forward, tiny paws together. It was a very ratlike pose, which Tress supposed made sense.

“You’re sneaking off the island,” he said. “Why under the moons would you do that?”

“I told you,” Tress snapped. “Nobody wants to be on Diggen’s Point.

Anyway, the sailors bought my act, so you don’t need to keep staring at me like that. My escape plan worked.”

“Save for the whole ‘accidentally frightening a bunch of smugglers’ part, I assume.”

Tress wiped her eyes once more. “Can we maybe backtrack on this

conversation? It looks like we missed the main roadway. I don’t mean to be rude, but you are a rat.”

“Seems self-evident.” “But you’re talking.” “Again, self-evident.” “Yes, but…but how?”

“With my mouth,” he said. “Also, reference my previous answer.”

She bit her lip. It was a testament to her state of mind that she’d pushed him that far already. Was asking a talking rat why he could talk impolite? She probably would have been offended if someone had asked her why she could talk.

The rat moved to pick up the cork. “There’s a story behind how I can talk, I suppose. It’s not one I’m interested in telling.”

“Huh,” Tress said. “What?”

“It’s just…I’m not used to people saying things like that.”

The rat nibbled a bit on the cork, then moved it toward the hole. “Could you leave the hole open?” Tress asked. “A little longer?”

The rat sighed, as he nearly had the cork positioned. But he lowered it to the cage floor again. The boots up above were stomping around quickly.

Perhaps they were changing course? “So…smugglers,” Tress said.

“Smugglers,” the rat agreed, sniffing the air. “Got caught chewing on their rations, and had to either give up my secret and talk, or get tossed overboard as a pest. Turns out they think a talking rat might be worth something. I

considered warning them I didn’t have anything interesting to say, then thought it unwise to give them reason to doubt my value.” The rat gnawed more on the cork. “Because of the impending war, every second captain is a smuggler these days. So you shouldn’t feel too bad for falling in with some.”

“The war?” Tress asked.

“With the Sorceress,” the rat said. “She’s been sending more ships in to raid, and the king has been building up his forces—commandeering merchant vessels like a child reaching for treats. Seeing how easily you can find yourself conscripted these days, it’s no wonder so many sailors are having a bout of prolapsed morals, so to speak.”

“Do you think I could deal with them?” Tress said. “Explain that I’m not actually an inspector?”

“Oh, suddenly you aren’t?”

“I’m whatever gets me out of this cage. A friend of mine is in trouble, and I need to rescue him.”

“Him?” the rat said. “You left your home for a man?” Tress remained silent.

“Hon, no man is worth getting killed over,” the rat said. “If you manage to escape, you should head on home to your rock.”

“He’s not just any man,” Tress said. “And—”

She cut off as a loud pop sounded somewhere outside. Tress cocked her head. What an odd noise to hear out on the ocean. Whatever could it be?

Fate answered her by sending a cannonball, priority delivery, right through the ship’s hull.

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