Tress | Chapter Five
Tress sat upon her porch, leaning against her mother, and watched the horizon. She held the last cup 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 a reed. 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 have said,” Tress whispered, “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 leg, stayed behind–which was good. She feared he’d make a scene, the way 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 has 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 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 her portrait.
Charlie had at last been able to become 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 the 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 duke 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 remained 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 feast hall. They remarked on 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 told her she would get answers, and followed the crowd. However, when Tress came out of her shock, she found Flik–one of the duke’s servants–waving to her from near the bottom of the gangplank. He was a kindly man, with wide ears that looked as if they were waiting for the right moment to bolt and fly away.
“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 away that any scowls would lose their 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 were 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?”
“Straight in ’er lap, Miss Tress.” Flik looked both ways, then waved for her to follow as he carried some luggage off the docks, leading 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. And the king has long wanted to try to make her less of a threat. So . . .”
“The king sent Charlie to try to marry the Sorceress?”
Flik didn’t respond.
“No,” Tress said, realizing it. “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 hidden somewhere 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 captured by her was like finding out he’d gone 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 the servants talked in hushed tones to inquisitive dock workers, eager to get the ship unloaded so they could join the party. They all gave similar answers. Yes, Charlie had been sent to the Midnight Sea. The duke and the king had decided it together, so it must have been a good idea. After all, someone had to try to stop the Sorceress from raiding. And Charlie, of all people, was . . . erm . . . 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 receiving 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 everyone got to blame another death on the Sorceress, building public opinion toward another war.
After three days, Tress at last dared impose on Brunswick–the duke’s steward–with a 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 judged it to be a trick to lure more ships into the Midnight Sea. 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, but imposing upon people . . . well, it simply 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 “hazelnut-haired strumpet” and forbade her from washing windows anywhere in town. She was forced to begin knitting 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.