Tress | Chapter Two
Perhaps you were surprised to hear 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 to yourself. That said, you must understand that this is a tale about people who are both what they seem and not what they seem. Simultaneously. A story of contradictions. In other words, it is a story about human beings.
In this case, Tress wasn’t your ordinary heroine–in that she was in fact decidedly ordinary. Indeed, Tress considered herself 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 a normal teenage girl. She knew this because the other girls often mentioned how they weren’t like “everyone else,” and after a while Tress figured that 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 did it together.
Tress was generally more thoughtful than most people, and she 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 were having so much fun. It would be impolite to spoil that, and presumptuous of her to request that they stop.
Sometimes the more boisterous youths talked of seeking adventure in foreign oceans. Tress found that notion frightening. How could she leave her parents and brother? Besides, she had her cup collection.
Tress cherished her cups. She had fine porcelain cups with painted glaze, clay cups that felt rough beneath her fingers, and wooden cups that were rugged and well-used.
Several of the sailors who frequently docked at Diggen’s Point knew of her fondness, and they sometimes brought her cups from all across the twelve oceans: distant lands where the spores were reportedly crimson, azure, or even golden. She’d give the sailors pies in exchange for their gifts, the ingredients purchased with the pittance she earned scrubbing windows.
The cups they brought her were often battered and worn, but Tress didn’t mind. A cup with a chip or ding in it had a story. She loved them all because they brought the world to her. Whenever she sipped from one of the cups, she imagined she could taste far-off foods and drinks, and perhaps understand a little of the people who had crafted them.
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. 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 that made it clear he usually wore it–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 earlier. 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 spores were dead–the very 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 duke liked it up here. It was closer to the smog, so maybe he liked the similarly tempered company. Climbing all this way was difficult–but judging by how the duke’s family fit their clothing, perhaps they figured they could use the exercise.
Five soldiers 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, naturally. 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 top to bottom instead of left to right. But no, she didn’t want to bother them.
They let her pass, although 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 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 groundskeeper’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 king’s island,” Charlie said. He swiped again. “There is always war there, you know. So if you consider it, it’s natural the groundskeepers would learn to trim plants with a sword. Don’t want to get ambushed when you’re unarmed.”
He wasn’t a good liar, but that was part of what Tress liked about him. Charlie was genuine. He even lied in an authentic way. And seeing how bad he was at telling them, the lies couldn’t be held against him. They were so obvious, they were better than many a person’s truths.
He swiped his sword in the vague direction of the plant once more, 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 the 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 with names that have 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, contemplating what she could make with the ingredients that had been on sale in the port market, hoping to earn that particular smile.
“So, what else did you bring?” he asked.
“Charlie the groundskeeper,” she said, “you have just received a very free pie, and now you presume to ask for more?”
“Presume?” 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 wouldn’t dare impose, but Charlie was different. She revealed the tin cup.
“Aaah,” Charlie said, then put aside the pie and took the cup reverently in both 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. There one day, gone the next, their island left uninhabited. Now, that was three hundred years ago, so no one 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. 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 smiled as he spoke. While washing the mansion’s windows, she’d occasionally hear Charlie’s parents berate him for talking so much; they thought it silly and unbecoming of his station. They rarely let him finish. She found that a shame. For while yes, he did ramble sometimes, she’d come to understand it was because Charlie liked stories the way 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, with others.”
“What do you want, Charlie?” she asked.
“I don’t know,” he admitted. “Other than one thing, that is. One thing I shouldn’t want, but I do. Instead, I’m supposed to want adventure. Like in the stories. You know those stories?”
“The ones with fair maidens,” Tress said, “who always get captured and don’t get to do much besides sit there? Maybe call for help now and then?”
“I suppose that does happen,” he said.
“Why are they always fair maidens?” she said. “Are there maidens that are unfair? Perhaps they mean ‘fare,’ as in food. I could be that kind of maiden. I’m good with food.” She grimaced. “I’m glad I’m not in a story, Charlie. I’d end up captured for certain.”
“And I would probably die quickly,” he said. “I’m a coward, Tress. It’s the truth.”
“Nonsense. You’re merely an ordinary person.”
“Have you . . . seen how I respond around the duke?”
She grew silent. Because she had.
“If I weren’t a coward,” he said, “I’d be able to tell you things I cannot. But Tress, if you did get captured, I’d help anyway. I’d put on armor, Tress. Shining armor. Or maybe dull armor. I think if someone I knew were captured, I wouldn’t take the time to shine the armor. Do you think those heroes pause to shine it, when people are in danger? That doesn’t sound very helpful.”
“Charlie,” Tress said, “do you have armor?”
“I’d find some,” he promised. “I would figure something out, surely. Even a coward would be brave in the proper armor, right? There are lots of dead people in those types of stories. Surely I could get some from one of–”
A shout sounded from within the mansion, interrupting the conversation. It was Charlie’s father grousing. So far as Tress had 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 toward the sounds and grew tense, his smile 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’m sorry,” he said softly, “for bringing up silly things like fare maidens and robbing armor from dead people. But I like that you listen to me anyway. Thank you, Tress.”
“I am fond of your stories,” she said, taking the cup and turning it over. “Do you think any of what you said about this cup is true?”
“It could be,” Charlie said. “That’s the great thing about stories. But look at 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 glanced 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 to learn of the people of his realm? Why, that was expected. It happened in so many stories, it was practically an institution.
“That,” she said, “makes perfect sense.”
“Now then,” he said, retrieving his pie. “Tell me about your day. I must hear.”
“I went browsing through the market for ingredients,” she said, tucking a stray lock of hair behind her ear. “I purchased a pound of fish–salmon, imported from Erik Island, where they have many lakes. Poloni marked it down because he thought it was going bad, but that was actually the fish in the next barrel. So I got my fish for a steal.”
“Fascinating,” he said. “No one 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 her 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 closer to the sun, so it was warmer up here. Obviously.
Except it was moonshadow at the moment, when the sun hid behind the moon and everything became 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 current 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 visit only because she wanted to hear his stories.
In fact, on the deepest level it wasn’t about cups or stories at all. It was, instead, about gloves.