In the middle of the ocean, there was a girl who lived upon a rock.
This was not an ocean like the one you have imagined.
Nor was the rock like the one you have imagined.
The girl, however, might be as you imagined–assuming you imagined her as thoughtful, soft-spoken, and overly fond of collecting cups.
Men often described the girl as having hair the color of wheat. Others would call it the color of flax, or occasionally the color of honey. The girl wondered why men so often used food to describe women’s features. There seemed to be a hunger to such men that was best avoided.
In her estimation, “light brown” was sufficiently descriptive–though the hue of her hair was not its most interesting trait. That would instead be her hair’s unruliness. Each morning, she heroically tamed it with brush and comb, then muzzled it with a ribbon and a tight braid. Yet still some strands always found way to escape–and would wave free in the wind, eagerly greeting everyone she passed.
The girl had been given the unfortunate name of Glorf upon her birth (don’t judge; it was a family name), but her wild hair earned her the name everyone knew her by: Tress. That moniker was, in Tress’s estimation, the most interesting thing about her.
Tress had been raised to possess a certain inalienable pragmatism. Such is a common failing among those who live on dour, lifeless islands from which they can never leave. When you are greeted each day by a black stone landscape, it influences your perspective on life.
The island was shaped vaguely like an old man’s crooked finger, emerging from the ocean to point toward the horizon. It was made entirely of barren black saltstone, and was large enough for a fair-sized town and a duke’s mansion. Though locals called the island the rock, its name on the maps was Diggen’s Point. Nobody remembered who Diggen was anymore, but he had obviously been a clever fellow, for he’d left the rock soon after naming it and had never returned.
In the evenings, Tress would often sit on her porch and sip salty tea from one of her favorite cups while looking out over the deep green ocean. As the sun set, she’d wonder about the people who visited the rock in their ships.
And yes, I did say the ocean was green. Also, it was not wet. We’re getting there.
As I said, none of the rock’s residents were allowed to leave. A king somewhere claimed the island, and he considered it vital for reasons that involved important military phrases like “strategic resupply” and “friendly anchorage” and “potential vacation home.”
Not that anybody in their right mind would consider the rock a tourist destination. The black saltstone rubbed off and got into everything. It also made most kinds of agriculture impossible, eventually tainting any soil moved to the town from off island. The only food the island grew came from compost vats.
While the rock did have important wells that brought water from a deep aquifer–something that visiting ships required–the equipment that worked the salt mines belched a constant stream of black smoke into the air.
In summary, the atmosphere was dismal, the ground wretched, and the views depressing. Oh, and have I mentioned the deadly spores?
Diggen’s Point lay near the Verdant Lunagree. Lunagrees, you should know, refer to the places where one of the twelve moons hang in the sky around Tress’s planet in oppressively low geosynchronous orbits. In other words, they never move. Big enough to fill a full third of the sky, one of the twelve is always visible, no matter where you travel. Dominating your view, like if you had a wart on your eyeball.
The locals worshipped those twelve moons as gods, which we can all agree is far more ridiculous than whatever it is you worship. However, it’s easy to see where the superstition began, considering the spores that the moons dropped upon the land.
They’d filter down from the lunagree, visible from the island some fifty or sixty miles away. That’s as close as you ever wanted to get to the lunagree–a great shimmering fountain of colorful motes, vibrant and exceedingly dangerous. The spores filled the world’s oceans, creating vast seas not of water, but of alien dust. Ships sailed that dust like ships sail water here, and you should not find that so unusual. How many other planets have you visited? Perhaps they all sail in oceans of pollen, and your home is the freakish one.
The spores were only dangerous if you got them wet. Which is rather a problem, considering the number of wet things that leak from human bodies, even when they’re healthy. The least bit of water would cause the spores to sprout explosively, and the results could range from uncomfortable to deadly. Breathe in a burst of verdant spores, for example, and your saliva would send vines growing up out your mouth–or, in more interesting cases, into your sinuses and out around your eyes.
The spores could be rendered inert by two things: salt or silver. Hence the reason why the locals didn’t terribly mind the savory taste of their water or their food. It meant they were safe, and they’d teach their children this ever so important rule: salt and silver halt the killer. An acceptable little poem, if you’re the sort of barbarian who enjoys slant rhymes.
Regardless, with the spores, the smoke, and the salt, one can perhaps see why the king needed a law requiring the population to remain on the rock. The place was so inhospitable, even the smog found it depressing. Ships visited periodically to do repairs, drop off waste for the compost vats, and take on new water. But each strictly obeyed the king’s rules: no locals were to be taken off of Diggen’s Point. Ever.
And so, Tress would sit on her steps in the evenings, watching ships sail toward the horizon. A column of spores would drop from the lunagree, and the sun would move out from behind the moon and creep toward the horizon. She’d sip salty tea from a cup with horses painted on it, and she’d think to herself, There’s a beauty to this, actually. I like it here. And I think I shall be fine to remain here all my life.CHAPTER TWO: THE GROUNDSKEEPER
Perhaps you were surprised to read those last words. Tress wanted to stay on the rock? She liked it there?
Where was her sense of adventure? Her yearning for new lands, her wanderlust?
Well, this isn’t the part of the story where you ask questions. So kindly keep them inside. That said, you must understand that this a tale about people who are both what they seem and not what they seem. Simultaneously. A story of contradictions. Or in other words, it is a story about human beings.
In this case, Tress wasn’t your ordinary heroine–in that she was actually quite ordinary. In fact, Tress considered herself to be categorically boring. She liked her tea lukewarm. She went to bed on time. She loved her parents, occasionally squabbled with her little brother, and didn’t litter. She was fair at needlepoint and had a talent for baking, but had no other noteworthy skills.
She didn’t train at fencing in secret. She couldn’t talk to animals. She had no hidden royalty or deities in her lineage, though her great-grandmother Glorf had reportedly once waved at the king. That had been from atop the rock while he was sailing past many miles away, so Tress didn’t think it counted.
In short, Tress was just a normal girl. She knew this because the other girls would talk about how they weren’t like “everyone else,” and after a while Tress figured the group “everyone else” must include only her. The other girls were obviously right, as they all knew how to be unique–they were so good at it, in fact, that they’d do it together.
Instead of being fashionable or unique, Tress was pragmatic. She was generally more thoughtful than most people, but didn’t like to impose by asking for what she wanted. She’d remain quiet when the other girls were laughing or telling jokes about her. After all, they seemed to be having so much fun. It would be impolite to spoil that, and presumptive of her to request that they stop.
So she just listened. And sometimes the more boisterous youths talked of adventures in far-off oceans. Tress found those ideas frightening. How could she leave her parents and brother? Besides, she had her cup collection to bring the adventures to her.
Tress cherished her cups. As she grew into her teenage years, she began to collect ones from all across the twelve oceans: far-off lands where the spores were reportedly crimson, azure, or even golden. She had fine porcelain cups with painted glaze, some clay cups that felt rough beneath her fingers, and even wooden cups that looked rugged and well-used. She loved them all because of the way the brought the world to her. Whenever she sipped from one of the cups, she imagined she could taste far-off foods and drinks. In this, she thought she could understand the people who had crafted them.
Several of the sailors who frequently docked at Diggen’s Point knew of her fondness, and they sometimes brought cups for her. These were often battered and worn, but Tress didn’t mind. A cup with a chip or ding in it had a story, and she did love imagining those stories. She’d give the sailors pies in exchange for their gifts, the ingredients purchased with the pittance she earned scrubbing windows.
Each time Tress acquired a new cup, she brought it to Charlie to show it off.
Charlie claimed to be the groundskeeper at the duke’s mansion at the top of the rock, but Tress knew he was actually the duke’s son. You didn’t have to be pragmatic or thoughtful to realize that. Charlie’s hands were soft like a child’s, rather than callused, and he was better fed than anyone else in town. His hair was always cut neatly, and though he took his signet ring off when he saw her, it left a slightly lighter patch of skin, making it clear he often wore one–on the finger that marked a member of the nobility.
Besides, Tress wasn’t certain what “grounds” Charlie thought needed keeping. The mansion was, after all, on the rock. There had been a tree on the property once, but it had done the sensible thing and died a few years back. There were some potted plants though, which let him pretend.
Grey motes swirled in the wind by her feet as she climbed the path up to the mansion. Grey ones were dead–even the air around the rock was salty enough to kill spores–but she still held her breath as she hurried past. She turned left at the fork–the right path went to the mines–then wove up the switchbacks to the overhang.
Here the mansion squatted like a corpulent frog atop its lily. Tress wasn’t certain why the dukes liked it up here. They were closer to the smog, so maybe they liked the similarly tempered company. Climbing all this way was difficult–but considering how the duke’s family fit their clothing, perhaps they figured they could use the exercise.
Five solders watched the grounds–though only Snagu and Lead were on duty now–and they did their job well. After all, it had been a horribly long time since anyone in the duke’s family had died from the myriad of dangers a nobleman faced while living on the rock. (Those included boredom, stubbed toes, and choking on cobbler.)
She’d brought the soldiers pies, of course. As they ate, she considered showing the two men her new cup. It was made completely of tin, stamped with letters in a language that ran from up to down, instead of left to right. But no, she didn’t want to bother them.
They let her pass, even though it wasn’t her day to wash the mansion’s windows. She found Charlie around back, practicing with his fencing sword. When he saw her, he put it down and hurriedly took off his signet ring.
“Tress!” he said. “I thought you wouldn’t be by today!”
Having just turned seventeen, Charlie was just two months older than she was. He had an abundance of smiles, and she had identified each one. For instance, the wide-toothed one he gave her now said he was genuinely happy to have an excuse to be done with fencing practice. He wasn’t as fond of it as his father thought he should be.
“Swordplay, Charlie?” she asked. “Is that a gardener’s task?”
He picked up the thin dueling sword. “This? Oh, but it is for gardening.” He took a half-hearted swipe at one of the potted plants on the patio. The plant wasn’t quite dead yet, but the leaf Charlie split certainly wasn’t going to improve its chances.
“Gardening,” Tress said. “With a sword.”
“It’s how they do things on the royal island,” Charlie said. He swiped again. “There is always war there, you know. Even their gardeners have to go about armed, for protection. So if you consider, it’s natural they’d learn to trim plants with a sword. Don’t want to get ambushed when you’re unarmed.”
He wasn’t a particularly good liar, but that was part of what Tress liked about him. Charlie was genuine. He even lied in an authentic way. And considering how bad he was at making them, the lies couldn’t really be held against him. They were so obvious, they were better than many a person’s truths.
He swiped again in the vague direction of the plant, then looked at her and cocked an eyebrow. She shook her head. So he gave her his “you’ve caught me but I can’t admit it” grin and rammed his sword into the dirt of the pot, then plopped down on the low garden wall.
The sons of dukes were not supposed to plop. One might therefore consider Charlie to have been a young man of extraordinary talents.
Tress settled in next to him, basket in her lap.
“What did you bring me?” he said.
She took out a small meat pie. “Pigeon,” she said, “and carrots. With a thyme-seasoned gravy.”
“A noble combination,” he said.
“I think the duke’s son, if he were here, would disagree.”
“The duke’s son is only allowed to eat dishes that have some weird foreign accents over their letters,” Charlie said. “And he’s never allowed to stop sword practice to eat. So it is fortunate that I am not him.”
Charlie took a bite. She watched for the smile. And there it was–the smile of delight. She had spent an entire day in thought, considering what she could make with the ingredients that had been on sale in the port market.
“So, what else did you bring?” he asked.
“Charlie the gardener,” she said, “you have just received a very free pie, and now you assume to ask for more?”
“Assume?” he said around a mouthful of pie. He poked her basket with his free hand. “I know there’s more. Out with it.”
She grinned. To most she didn’t impose, but Charlie was different. She revealed the tin cup.
“Ahhh,” Charlie said, then put aside the pie and took the cup reverently in two hands. “Now this is special.”
“Do you know anything about that writing?” she asked, eager.
“It’s old Iriali,” he said. “They vanished, you know. The entire people: poof. Away they went, gone one day, their island left uninhabited. Now, that was three hundred years ago, so nobody alive has ever met one of them, but they supposedly had golden hair. Like yours, the color of sunlight.”
“My hair is not the color of sunlight, Charlie.”
“Your hair is the color of sunlight, if sunlight were light brown,” Charlie said. It might be said he had a way with words. In that his words often got away.
“I’d wager this cup has quite the history,” he said. “Forged for an Iriali nobleman the day before he–and his people–were taken by the gods. The cup was left on the table, to be collected by the poor fisherwoman who first arrived on the island and discovered the horror of an entire people gone. She passed the cup down to her grandson–who became a pirate, a deadrunner even. He eventually buried his ill-gotten treasure deep beneath the spores. Only to be recovered now, after eons in darkness, to find its way to your hands.” He held the cup up to catch the light.
Tress washed the mansion windows, and had heard Charlie’s parents speaking to him. They berated him for talking so much; they thought it silly and unbecoming of his station. They rarely let him finish.
While yes, he did ramble sometimes, she’d come to understand there was a reason why. It was because Charlie liked stories like Tress liked cups.
“Thank you, Charlie,” she whispered.
“For giving me what I want.”
He knew what she meant. It wasn’t cups or stories.
“Always,” he said, placing his hand on hers. “Always what you want, Tress. And you can always tell me what it is. I know you don’t usually do that, to others.”
A shout sounded from deep within the mansion. It was Charlie’s father, grousing. So far as she’d been able to tell, yelling at things was the duke’s one and only job on the island, and he took it very seriously.
Charlie glanced at the sounds and grew tense, his smile–unfortunately–fading. But when the shouts didn’t draw near, he looked back at the cup. The moment was gone, but another took its place, as they tend to do. Not as intimate, but still valuable because it was time with him.
“I like,” he said softly, “that you listen. Thank you, Tress.”
“I am fond of your stories,” she said, taking the cup and turning it over. “Do you think any of it is true?”
“It could be,” Charlie said. “That’s the great thing about stories. But look here, this writing? It says it did once belong to a king. His name is right here.”
“And you learned that language in…”
“…gardening school,” he said. “In case we had to read the warnings on the packaging of certain dangerous plants.”
“Like how you wear a lord’s doublet and hose…”
“…because it makes me an excellent decoy, should assassins arrive and try to kill the duke’s son.”
“As you’ve said. But why then do you take off your ring?”
“Uh…” He looked at his hand, then met her eyes. “Well, I guess I’d rather you not mistake me for someone else. Someone I don’t want to have to be.”
He smiled then, his timid smile. His “please go with me on this, Tress” smile. Because the son of a duke could not openly fraternize with the girl who washed the windows. A nobleman pretending to be a commoner though? Feigning low station so that he could visit with the people of his realm and learn about them? Why, that was expected. It happened in so many stories, it was practically an institution.
“That makes,” she said, “perfect sense.”
“Now then,” he said, going back to his pie. “Tell me about your day. I must hear about it.”
“I went browsing through the market for ingredients,” she said, tucking a lock of hair behind her ear. “I purchased a pound of fish that Poloni thought was going bad, but it was actually the fish in the next barrel. So I got my fish for a steal.”
“Fascinating,” he said. “They just let you walk around? Nobody throws a fit when you visit? They don’t call their children out and make you shake their hands? Tell me more. Please, I want to know how you realized the fish wasn’t bad.”
With his prodding, she continued elucidating the mundane details of a boring life. He forced her to do it each time she visited. He, in turn, paid attention. That was the proof that his fondness for talking wasn’t a failing. He was equally good at listening. At least to her. Indeed, Charlie found her life interesting for some unfathomable reason.
As she talked, Tress felt warm. She often did when she visited–because she climbed up high and was close to the sun, so it was warmer up here. Obviously.
Except at the moment it was moonshadow, when the sun hid behind the moon and everything grew a few degrees cooler. And today she was growing tired of certain lies she told herself. Perhaps there was another reason she felt warm. It was there in Charlie’s smile, and she knew it would be in her own as well.
He didn’t listen to her only because he was fascinated by the lives of peasants.
She didn’t come visit only because she wanted to hear him tell stories.
In fact, on the deepest level it wasn’t about cups or stories at all. It was, instead, about gloves.CHAPTER THREE: THE DUKE
Tress had noticed that a nice pair of gloves made her daily work go so much better. Now, she meant the good kind of gloves, made of a soft leather that molded to your hands as you used them. The kind that–if you oiled them well and didn’t leave them out in the sun–didn’t ever grow stiff. The kind that were so comfortable, you went to wash your hands and were surprised to find you were still wearing them.
The perfect set of gloves was invaluable. And Charlie was like a good set of gloves. The longer she spent with him, the more right their time together felt. The brighter even the moonshadows seemed, and the easier her burdens felt. She did love interesting cups, but a part of that was because each one gave her an excuse to come and visit him.
The thing growing between them felt so good, so wonderful, that Tress was frightened to call it love. From the way the other youths talked, “love” was dangerous. Their love seemed to be about jealousy and insecurity. It was about passionate shouting matches and even more passionate reconciliations. It seemed less like a good pair of gloves, and more like a hot coal that would burn your hands.
Love had always frightened Tress. But when Charlie again put his hand on hers, she felt that heat. The fire she’d always feared. The coal was in there, after all, just contained–like in a good stove.
She wanted to leap into his heat, all logic discarded.
Charlie froze, his hand on hers. They’d touched many times before, of course, but this was different. This moment. This dream. He blushed, but let his hand linger. Then he finally took it back and ran it through his hair, grinning sheepishly. Of course, because he was himself, that didn’t spoil the moment–but instead made it more sweet.
Tress searched for the perfect thing to say. There were any number of lines that would have capitalized on the moment. She could have said, “Charlie, could you hold this for me while I walk around the grounds?” then offered her hand back to him.
She could have said, “Help, I can’t breathe. Staring at you has taken my breath away.”
She could even have said something completely insane, such as “I like you.”
Instead she said, “Huuhhh. Hands are warm.” She followed it with a half laugh that she choked on halfway through, exactly mimicking–by pure chance–the call of an elephant seal.
It might be said that Tress had a way with words. In that her words tended to get in her way.
In response, Charlie gave her a smile. A wonderful smile, more and more confident the longer it lasted. It was one she’d never seen before. And it said, “I think I love you, Tress, elephant seal notwithstanding.”
She smiled back at him. Then, over his shoulder she saw the duke standing in the window just behind. Tall and straight, the man wore military-style clothing that looked like it had been pinned to him by the various medals on the breast.
He was not smiling.
Indeed, she’d only seen him smile once, during the punishment of old Lotari–who had supposedly tried to sneak off the island by stowing away on a merchant ship. It seemed that it was the duke’s only smile–perhaps Charlie had used the entire family’s quota. Nevertheless, if the duke did have only one smile, he made up for it by somehow displaying far too many teeth.
That day, the duke faded back into the shadows of the house, but he seemed to be looming over Tress as she bade farewell to Charlie. On her way down the steps, she expected to hear shouting between them. Instead the mansion was silent, though it was an ominous kind of silence. The tense silence that came after you saw the lightning flash.
It chased her down the path and down the steps and around to her home, where she murmured something to her parents about being tired. She went to her room, and there waited for the silence to end. For the soldiers to knock, then demand to know why the girl who washed the windows had dared to touch the duke’s son.
When nothing like that came, she dared hope that she was reading too much into the duke’s expression. Then she remembered the duke’s singular smile. After that, worries nipped at her all night.
She finally rose early in the morning, wrestled her hair into a tail, then trudged to the market. Here, she’d sort through the day-old goods and near-spoiled ingredients for something she could afford. Despite the early hour, however, the market was abuzz with activity. Men swept dead spores off the path while people gathered in chattering knots.
Tress knew instantly that there was news. She braced herself, deciding nothing could be worse than the awful anticipation she’d suffered all night.
She was wrong.
The duke had sent a declaration: he and his family were going to leave the island that very day.CHAPTER FOUR: THE SON
Leave the island?
People didn’t leave the island.
Tress knew, logically, that wasn’t explicitly true. The duke left on occasion to report to the king. Plus, he’d earned all those fancy medals by killing people from a distant place where they looked slightly different. He’d apparently been very heroic during those wars; you could tell because a great number of his troops had died, while he lived.
In the past, the duke had never taken his family. This time though, they were going. “The ducal heir has come of age,” the proclamation announced, “and so we shall be presenting him for betrothal to the various princesses of the civilized seas.”
Now, Tress was a pragmatic young woman. And so she only thought about ripping her shopping basket to shreds in frustration. She merely deliberated whether it would be appropriate to swear at the top of her lungs. She barely considered marching up to the duke’s mansion to demand he change his mind.
Instead of these very impractical responses, she went about her shopping in a numb haze, using the familiar action to give her suddenly crumbling life a semblance of normalcy. She found some garlic she was certain she could salvage, several potatoes that hadn’t withered too badly, and even some grain where the weevils were large enough to pick out.
Once, she’d have been pleased with this haul. Today she couldn’t think of anything but Charlie.
It seemed so incredibly unfair. She’d only just acknowledged what she felt for him, and already everything was turning upside down? Yes, she’d been told to expect this pain. Love involved pain. But that was the salt in your tea–wasn’t there also supposed to be a dab of honey? Wasn’t there supposed to be–dared she wish–passion?
She was to receive all of the detriments of a romantic affair with none of the advantages.
Unfortunately, her practicality began to assert itself. So long as the two of them had been able to pretend, then the real world hadn’t been able to claim them. But the days of pretend were over.
What had she thought was going to happen? That the duke would let her marry his son? What did she think she could offer someone like Charlie? She was nothing when compared to a princess. I mean, think of how many cups they could afford!
In the pretend world, marriage was about love. In the real world, it was about politics. A word laden with a very large number of meanings, though most of them boiled down to: This is a matter for nobles–and begrudgingly the very rich–to discuss. Not peasants.
She finished her shopping and started up the path toward her home, where at least she could commiserate with her parents. Unfortunately, it seemed that the duke was wasting no time, for she saw a procession snaking down toward the docks.
She turned around and walked back, arriving just after the procession–which began to load the family’s things onto a merchant ship. Nobody was allowed to leave the island. Unless they were, instead, somebody. Tress worried she wouldn’t get a chance to speak with Charlie. Then she worried that she would, but he wouldn’t want to see her.
Mercifully, she caught him standing at the side of the crowd, searching out through the gathering people. The moment he spotted her, he immediately rushed over. “Tress! Oh, moons. I worried I wouldn’t find you in time.”
“I…” What did she say?
“Fair maiden,” he said, bowing. “I must take my leave.”
“Charlie,” she said softly. “Don’t try to be someone you aren’t. I know you.”
He grimaced. He was wearing a traveling coat and even a hat. He hated hats. “Tress,” he said, softer, “I’m afraid I’ve lied to you. You see…I’m not the groundskeeper. I’m…um…the duke’s son.”
“Amazing. Who would have thought that Charlie the gardener and Charles the duke’s heir would be the same person, considering they’re the same age, look the same, and wear the same clothing.”
“Er, yes. Are you angry at me?”
“Anger is in line right now,” Tress said. “It’s seventh down, sandwiched between confusion and fatigue.”
Behind, Charlie’s father and mother marched up onto the ship. Their servants followed with the last of the luggage.
Charlie looked down at his feet. “It seems I am to be married. To a princess of some nation or another. What do you think of that?”
“I…” What should she say? “I wish you well?”
He looked up and met her eyes. “Always, Tress. Remember?”
It was hard for her, but she found the words, hiding in the corner and trying to avoid her. “I wish,” she said, seizing hold of them, “that you wouldn’t do that. Get married. To someone else.”
“Oh?” he looked up. “Do you really?”
“I mean, I’m sure they are very nice. The princesses.”
“I believe it part of the job description,” Charlie said. “Like…have you heard of the things they do in stories? Resuscitate amphibians? Notice for people that their children have wet the bed? One would have to be rather kindly to do these services.”
“Yes,” Tress said. “I…” She took a deep breath. “I would still…rather you didn’t marry one of them.”
“Well then, I shan’t,” Charlie said.
“I don’t believe you have a choice, Charlie. Your father wants you married. It’s politics.”
“Ah, but you see, I have a secret weapon.” He took her hands and leaned in. Behind, his father moved up to the prow of the ship and looked down, scowling.
Charlie, however, smiled a lopsided smile. His “look how sneaky I am” smile. He used it when he wasn’t being very sneaky.
“What…kind of secret weapon, Charlie?” she asked.
“I can be incredibly boring.”
“That’s not a weapon.”
“It might not be one in a war, Tress,” he said. “But in courtship? It is as fine a weapon as the sharpest rapier. You know how I go on. And on. And on.”
“I like how you go on, Charlie. I don’t mind the on, either. I sometimes even enjoy the on.”
“You are a special case,” Charlie said. “You are…well, this is kind of silly…but you’re like a pair of gloves, Tress.”
“I am?” she said, choking up.
“Yes. No, don’t be offended. I mean, when I have to practice the sword, I wear these gloves and–”
“I understand,” she whispered.
From atop the ship, Charlie’s father scowled again, then shouted for him to be quick. Tress realized then that–like Charlie had different kinds of smiles–his father had different kinds of scowls. She didn’t much like what this one implied about her.
Charlie glanced up at his father, then squeezed her hands, looking back. “Listen, Tress. I promise you. I’m not going to get married. I’m going to go to those kingdoms, and I’m going to be so insufferably boring that none of the girls will have me.
“I’m not good at much. I’ve never scored even a single point against my father in sparring. I spill my soup at formal dinners. I talk so much, even my footman–who is paid to listen–comes up with creative reasons to interrupt me. The other day I was telling him about the story of the fish and the whale, and he pretended to stub his toe, and…”
The duke shouted again.
“I can do this, Tress,” Charlie insisted. “I will do this. At each stop, I’ll pick out a cup for you, all right? Once I’ve bored the current princess to death–and my father has decided we need to move on–I’ll send you the cup. As proof, you see.” He squeezed her hands. “I’ll do it, not just because you listen. Because you know me, Tress. You’ve always been able to see me when others don’t.”
He squeezed her hands one last time, then moved to finally respond to his father’s shouting. Tress held on, clinging to his hands. Unwilling to let it end.
Charlie looked back at her, giving her one last smile. And though he obviously tried to be confident, she knew his smiles. This was his uncertain one. His hopeful but worried one.
“You are my gloves too, Charlie,” Tress said to him.
After that, she had let go and let him jog up the plank. She’d imposed enough already. The duke forced his son below deck. The ship pushed back, slipping off the dead, grey spores nearest the rock into the true spore ocean. This began to shake and vibrate as the vents deep below on the ocean floor began send up bursts of air.
With this agitation, the spores became as liquid. Wind caught the ship’s sails and it struck out toward the horizon, leaving a wake of disturbed emerald dust behind it. Tress climbed up to her house, then watched from the cliff until the ship was the size of a cup. Then the size of a speck. Then it vanished.
After that, the waiting began.
They say that to wait is the most excruciating of life’s torments. “They” in this case refers to writers, who have nothing useful to do, so fill their time thinking of things to say. Any working person can tell you that having time to wait is a luxury.
Tress had windows to wash. Meals to cook. A little brother to watch. Her father never had recovered from his accident in the mines, and though he tried to help, he could barely walk. He helped Tress’s mother sew socks all day, which they sold to sailors, but with the expense of yarn they turned only a meager profit.
So Tress didn’t wait. She worked.
Still, it was an enormous relief when the first cup arrived. It was delivered by Hoid the cabin boy. (Yes, that’s me. What tipped you off? Was it perhaps the name?) A beautiful porcelain cup, without even a single chip in it. It came with a letter and a card with a little drawing: two gloved hands holding to one another.
The world brightened that day. Tress could almost imagine Charlie speaking as she read the letter, which detailed the affections of the first princess. With heroic monotony, he had listed the sounds his stomach made when he laid in various positions at night. As that hadn’t been quite enough, he’d apparently explained how kept his toenail clippings and gave them names. That had done it.
Fight on, my loquacious love, Tress thought as she scrubbed the mansion windows the next day, thinking of those words. Be brave, my mildly gross warrior.
The second cup was made of pure red glass, tall and thin, like it was meant to appear as if it contained more liquid than it did. Perhaps it was from a particularly stingy tavern. This princess he’d put off by explaining what he’d had for breakfast–using intricate detail, as he’d apparently counted the pieces of the scrambled egg and had categorized them by size.
The third cup was a good, solid pewter mug with heft to it. Perhaps it was from one of those places Charlie had made up, where people always needed to carry weapons. Tress was reasonably certain she could knock out an attacker by swinging this cup. The princess hadn’t been able to withstand an extended conversation about the benefits of various punctuation marks, including those he’d invented.
The fourth package didn’t have a letter with it, just a cup with a painted butterfly on it with a red ocean underneath. She found it odd that the butterfly wasn’t terrified of the spores, but maybe it was a prisoner butterfly, being forced to fly out over the ocean to its doom.
The fifth cup never arrived.
Tress tried to play it off, telling herself that it must have been interrupted in transit. After all, any number of dangerous things could happen to a ship sailing the spores. Pirates or…you know…spores.
But the months stretched long, each more tedious than the one before. Every time a ship arrived at the docks, Tress was there asking for mail.
She did this for months on end. Until an entire year had passed since Charlie had left.
And then, finally, a note. Not from Charlie, but from his father, sent to the entire town and not individually to her. The duke was returning to Diggen’s Point at long last, and he was bringing his wife, his heir…and his new daughter-in-law.CHAPTER FIVE: THE BRIDE
Tress sat upon her porch, leaning against her mother, watching the horizon. She held the last cup that Charlie had sent. The one with the suicidal butterfly.
Her lukewarm tea tasted of tears.
“It wasn’t very practical,” she whispered to her mother.
“Love rarely is,” her mother replied. She was a stout woman, with a cheerful kind of girth. Five years ago, she’d been thin as reeds. Then Tress had learned her mother was giving up a portion of her food to her children–from then on, Tress had taken over shopping and had made their money stretch further.
A ship appeared on the horizon.
“I’ve finally thought of what I should have said.” Tress pushed her hair out of her eyes. “When he left. I called him a glove. It isn’t so bad as it sounds. He’d just called me one, you see. I’ve had a year to think about it, and I realized I could have said something more.”
Her mother squeezed her shoulder as the ship drew inevitably closer.
“I should,” Tress whispered, “have said that I loved him.”
Her mother joined her as she marched, like a soldier on the front lines facing cannon fire, down to the docks to greet the ship. Her father, with his bad legs, stayed behind–which was good. Tress feared he’d make a scene from how he’d been grumbling about the duke and his son these last few months.
But Tress could not find it in herself to blame Charlie. It wasn’t his fault that he was the duke’s son. It could have happened to anyone, really.
A crowd had gathered. The duke’s letter said he wanted a celebration–and he was bringing food and wine. Whatever else the people thought of getting a new future duchess, they were not going to miss a chance at free alcohol. As it’s ever been, gifts are the secret to popularity. That and having the power to behead anyone who dislikes you.
Tress and her mother arrived at the back of the crowd, but Holmes the baker waved them up on his steps so they could see better. He was a kind man, always saving the ends of used loaves, then selling them to her for pennies.
So it was that Tress had a good view of the princess as she appeared on the deck. She was beautiful. Rosy cheeks, shimmering hair, delicate features. She was so perfect, the finest painter in the seas couldn’t have made improvements in doing her portrait.
Charlie had finally gotten to be part of a story. With effort, Tress was happy for him.
The duke appeared next, waving his hand so the people knew to cheer for him. “I present,” he shouted, “my heir!”
A young man stepped up onto the deck beside the princess. And it was most definitely not Charlie.
This young man was around the same age as Charlie, but he was six and a half feet tall and had a jaw so straight it made other men question if they were. He bulged with muscles–to the point that when he lifted his arm to wave, Tress swore she could hear seams on his shirt begging for mercy.
What under the twelve moons?
“After an unfortunate accident,” the duke proclaimed to the hushed crowd, “I was forced to adopt my nephew Dirk and appoint him as my new heir.” He gave a moment for the crowd to take that in. “He’s an excellent fencer,” the king continued, “and responds to questions with single-sentence answers. Sometimes using only one word! Also, he’s a war hero. He lost ten thousand men in the battle of lakeprivy.”
“Ten thousand?” Tress’s mother said. “My, that’s a lot.”
“We shall now celebrate Dirk’s marriage to the Princess of Dormancy!” the duke shouted, raising his hands high.
The crowd was quiet, still confused.
“I brought thirty kegs,” the duke shouted.
They cheered. And so, a party it was. The townspeople led the way up to the meeting hall. They remarked about the princess’s beauty and marveled that Dirk managed to balance so well while walking, considering his center of gravity must have been located somewhere around his upper sternum.
Tress’s mother said she’d get answers, and followed after. However, when Tress came out of her shock, she found Flik–one of the servants–waving for her from near the bottom of the gangplank. He was kindly man, though he had wide ears that looked as if they were waiting for just the right moment to bolt and fly away, taking to the skies to be with their kind.
“Flik?” she whispered. “What happened? An accident? Where is Charlie?”
Flik glanced up at the train of people walking to the feast hall. The duke and his family had joined them, and were far enough now that any scowls would lose potency due to wind resistance and gravitational drop.
“He wanted me to give you this,” Flik said, handing her a small sack. It tinkled as she took it. Inside where broken pieces of ceramic.
The fifth cup.
“He tried so hard, Miss Tress,” Flik whispered. “Oh, you should have seen the young master. He did everything he could to put those women off. He memorized eighty-seven different types of plywood and their uses. He told every princess he met, at length, about his childhood pets. He even talked about religion. I thought they had ’im at the fifth kingdom, as that princess was deaf, but the young master went and threw up on her at dinner.”
“He threw up?”
“Right in ’er lap, Miss Tress.” Flik looked both ways, then waved for her to follow as he made to carry some luggage off the docks, getting them to a more secluded location. “But his father got wise, Miss Tress. Figured out what the young master was doing. The duke got right mad. Right mad indeed.”
He gestured to the broken cup she was carrying in her sack.
“Yes, but what happened to Charlie?” Tress asked.
Flik looked away.
“Please,” Tress asked. “Where is he?”
“He sailed the Midnight Sea, Miss Tress,” he said. “Beneath Thanasmia’s own moon. The sorceress took him.”
Those names sent a chill through Tress. The Midnight Sea? The domain of the sorceress? “Why would he ever do such a thing?”
“Well, I right think it’s because his father forced him to,” Flik said. “The sorceress isn’t married, you know. And the king has long wanted to try to make her less of a threat. So…”
“He sent Charlie to try to marry the sorceress?”
Flik didn’t respond.
“No,” Tress said, realizing. “He sent Charlie to die.”
“I didn’t say anything like that,” Flik said, hurrying off. “If anyone asks, I didn’t say anything like that.”
Numb, Tress sat down on one of the dock pillars. She listened to the spores stirring, a sound like pouring sand. Even on an out-of-the-way island like hers they knew of the sorceress. She periodically sent ships in to raid the borders of the Verdant Sea, and it was incredibly difficult to fight her. Her stronghold lay somewhere hidden in the remote Midnight Sea, most dangerous of them all. And to get to it you had to cross the Crimson Sea, an unpopulated sea that was only slightly less deadly.
Finding out Charlie had been taken by her was basically like finding he’d been taken up to one of the moons. Tress couldn’t just take one man’s word. Not on something like this. She didn’t dare bother others with questions, but she listened as they talked in hushed tones to inquisitive dock workers, eager to get the ship unloaded so they could go join the party. They all got similar answers. Yes, Charlie had been sent to the Midnight Sea. Yes, the king knew–the duke and he had been together when the decision had been made. Well, certainly it must make sense, if the king thought of it. Someone had to try to stop the sorceress from raiding. And Charlie, of all people, was…errm…the obvious choice…for…reasons…
The implications horrified Tress. The duke and the king had realized Charlie was being difficult, and their solution had been to simply get rid of him. Dirk had been instated as heir within hours of word that Charlie’s ship had vanished.
In the eyes of the nobles, this was an elegant result. The duke got an heir he could finally be proud of. The king got an advantageous marriage alliance in Dirk’s bride from another kingdom. And the everyone got to blame another death on the sorceress, building public opinion toward another war.
After three days, Tress finally dared impose on Brunswick–the duke’s steward–with a begged plea for more information. As he liked her pies, he admitted that they’d received a ransom letter from the sorceress. But the duke, in his wisdom, had declared it to be a trick to lure more ships into the Sea of Night. The king had declared Charlie officially dead.
Days passed. Tress lived them in a daze, realizing nobody cared. They called it politics and moved on. Though the new heir had the intellect of a soggy piece of bread, he was popular, handsome, and very good at getting other people killed. While Charlie had been…well, Charlie.
Tress spent weeks gathering her courage, then went to ask the duke if he’d please pay the ransom. Such a bold move was difficult for her. She wasn’t a coward by any definition of the word, but imposing upon people…well, it just wasn’t something she did. But with her parents’ encouragement, she made the long trek and quietly made her request.
The duke, in turn, called her a “caramel-haired strumpet” and forbade her from washing windows anywhere in town. She was forced to begin making socks with her parents for greatly reduced pay.
As the weeks passed, Tress fell into a lethargy. She felt less like a mere human being, and more like a human who was merely being.
Life on the rock for everyone else returned to normal, easy as that. Nobody cared. Nobody was going to do anything.
Until it was, two months after the duke’s return, that Tress made her decision. There was somebody who cared. Naturally, it would be up to that person to do something. Tress couldn’t impose on anyone else.
She was going to have to go rescue Charlie herself.