Wrest found a barrel of tar in the hold, and the siblings spent the afternoon belowdecks, Alta and Wrest hammering and sealing while Wier snuck glances through the hole punched by Kragn’s bowsprit. Staever labored toward the head of the fleet. The boats with engines switched to sails and used their yellow clay to patch up injuries, but sailing didn’t prove easy. The vessels the seaweed farmers used should have been steadiest, but they couldn’t stop hitting other even after the rapids flattened out. It took an hour to evacuate one collision, and another half-hour to ferry the passengers to their cousins’ boats.
“Seen any other trouble?” Staever asked a middle-aged couple he and Emaria were helping off a hulk he wouldn’t have ridden down the street.
“Luxury cruiser ran aground.” The woman patted Emaria’s claw in thanks. “A bit upstream.”
Staever rubbed his eyes. How had he missed that? “Arcite, give me back the helm. Tell Ev we’re tacking.”
“Upstream? Through whitewater?” Arcite’s daze had long worn off. “Haven’t you almost died enough times today?”
“No need,” the weed-farmer woman said. “Some big ship–”
“Miners, it was,” said the husband.
“–hooked up ropes and pulled them out. The rich folk patched the leak right up.”
Staever would have been happy, were it not for the voice that badgered him whenever he remembered he ruled a moving city. “We should still check…”
“Let them go.” Emaria knit her brow. “You don’t need to baby the whole Eye.”
Her words stung. Staever took too long to retort. He settled for nudging the farmers into the cabin and kicking Arcite off the helm.
“I’m getting the hang of it!” Arcite made an adjustment. As they rolled to port, something heavy slid into a bulkhead, followed by a storm of muffled cursing from Wrest.
Staever sighed. “I’m here to relieve you.”
“What am I supposed to do?”
“Ev, need any help?” Staever pried Arcite’s claws from the wooden wheel. Emaria had worn grooves into it.
“I do.” Eventhe dropped a coil of rope onto Arcite’s head. “Hold that until I need it.”
Arcite somehow managed to get his legs tangled. “When will you need it?”
“I will tell you.”
She sprang farther aloft. Arcite plopped onto the deck, muttering that ships should stay on land.
They spoke only what they needed to work the boat. Eventhe went hours without touching the deck, while Emaria reread their maps as though there an epic were written between the crude glyphs of mountains and monsoons. Arcite took to lying in the prow and spotting every ship ahead–“three little ones together,” “whole bunch under sail.” Whenever Staever, who saw everything at the same time he did, told him to stop, Arcite argued with so much passion he dropped the issue.
They sniped at each other to avoid asking how many had been left behind when the Wall exploded, or how many of Kragn’s soldiers survived, or how few loyal fighters they had left. Staever had seen so many narrow escapes he wasn’t sure he deserved to be alive. They’d set out to save the Eye, and people from the Eye had died. Nor was he innocent.
They dropped the weeders off at the ninth hour. By the tenth, Wrest pronounced King Crab riverworthy, and dug a sack of gnat strips from the dry part of the hold. Staever took his meal at the helm. Steering with one claw, watching sunset spill across the water, he began to coax into his mind the possibility he was safe. Around him, lobsters changed watches and settled in for lookout duty. Their floating voices, the wind in sails–even the lapping of the river that had chewed up Magnam and Kragn soothed him, allowed in a peace he’d never granted himself, even before he went to war.
The Clearing is not home, and it is not safe.
He jumped. Wrest was standing behind him. “Sorry. I thought you saw me.”
“No offense, but the sunlight’s prettier than you.” Couldn’t the memory have waited ten minutes? “How’s the fleet doing?”
“They’ve learned to stop hitting the sides. Plus, the river’s wide and looks like a mirror in every direction. We can maybe relax.”
“Until it gets so damn placid the wind dies.” Letting go, he tethered the helm and exhaled. “What’s everyone else doing?”
“Emaria is below with Wier and Alta. Apparently there are some scrolls aboard. Arcite and Eventhe are…”
Eventhe was coiled on the upper yardarm, while Arcite huddled behind the cabin. “…doing…” Wrest gestured, “…that.”
A star winked to life in the Lesser Mirror as its twin appeared deep in the river. King Crab held its course to point of light. “They’ll handle it, right?” he asked. “If anything bad happens?”
“That’s the spirit,” Wrest said, and guided his friend into the cabin.
Emaria was burning a bit of yellow clay in a bone box with an open top, trying to chase the damp from the part of the room that had spent time underwater. It was only half-failing. The dim glow illuminated curved walls lined with the ship’s ribs, crates full of weed-scrolls, sacks of food, bolts of canvas. Bilgewater sloshed under the soles.
Alta and Wier stretched out together on a bundled-up spare sail, sleeping like stones. Emaria sat over them, sifting through scrolls with a frustrated look.
Her expression softened as Staever and Wrest descended. “I’m sorry I snapped at you earlier,” she said to Staever, as he shifted a barrel to make room. “It was…I was…”
“Still not sure you survived this morning?” The only gap he could find in the cargo wedged him right next to her. She made as much space as she could. “Me neither. If Kragn had caught onto the fleet trick a little sooner, or if someone had started tossing red clay around…and the winch was too easy.”
“Yeah, there are lots of ways we could have died,” Wrest interrupted, “but remember, there are plenty of great ways we could have survived. A freak flood washes away the loyalists. Kragn’s boys all get food poisoning.”
“Air demons coming back and eating all their side,” Emaria put in, then giggled. Staever grinned for two seconds before he realized they expected him to contribute.
“I killed Xander,” he said.
Wrest faded so fast that Staever regretted his words at once. “It was war. Nobody would have done differently.”
“Em didn’t kill.”
She twitched beside him. “I didn’t have to. I was lucky.”
Wrest had killed Gattick, and done far worse, done things Staever would never understand. One day, when his friend could speak of the Ocean Patrol without shaking, Staever would tell him he couldn’t stop imagining Xander crawling, severed, half-alive. But not tonight.
Tonight there was another problem. Whenever he let his guard down, Cyprus’s prophecy muscled in.
“Wrest’s right,” Emaria said. “We’re alive. We won. It’s time to start acting like it.”
His smile must have looked as false as it felt. In the weak yellow light of the torch, his friends watched him with grave concern.
He decided to tell them about Cyprus.
They didn’t move until he finished. Afterward, Wrest was first to speak. “This isn’t like you, Staever. Prophetic dreams. Destiny and fate. You always said the ocean isn’t interested in the future.”
“And that those things don’t apply to thieves,” Emaria added.
“It wasn’t the ocean. It was me.” Staever sat back. “I created what I saw in that pit. I have no idea what Cyprus looked like. Everything he said was reflecting from me, which means–” The phrase caught in his throat. “I’m scared of the Clearing.”
“What could he have meant, though?” Emaria asked. Staever was grateful to her for not questioning the vision. Perhaps he was giving voice to her fears along with his own. “The water’s still poisoned? Or the key doesn’t work?”
“It already has.” Wrest nudged his way into a berth beside Wier, who muttered in his sleep. “It got us here.”
“Forget it. I’m sorry I brought it up,” Staever said, too flippantly. “We can’t go back. Either the Clearing is home, or we knock it down and build a whole new sandcastle.”
Emaria had more questions, but Wrest took Staever’s hint and jumped on a chance to change the subject. “Staever, there’s something I’ve wanted to know. When went into the camps telling everybody what to do when we hit the Wall…why didn’t the army know?”
“I didn’t tell them.”
“Why not, though? They weren’t all behind Kragn.”
“Loyal or not, they might have told him. You didn’t trust Kragn. So I cut him out of the loop.”
There was nothing else to say, but that wasn’t important.
Staever and Emaria could not stretch out without laying out beside each other in the small alcove. She ended up on top of one of his claws, while he had to drape the other over her to fit. He expected her to object, but she didn’t.
The clay lamp burned down. He thought she was asleep, until she whispered, “I wasn’t ready.”
“When I was in front of the wall, and Kragn was about to shoot me, I kept thinking I wasn’t ready. I wanted more time.”
Not being able to see her face was odd. “Too much left to know? Too many books unread?”
“I needed to stay alive so I could see it was worth something. I can’t explain it. I couldn’t stand to die before I saw the Clearing.”
He found her claw and squeezed it, then shifted his weight away, worried he’d crossed a line. She didn’t appear to notice.
The Clearing is not home, and it is not safe.
“It’ll be all right, with you there,” he told her. But she’d fallen asleep.
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